Jane Austen: A Teenage Boy’s Perspective
Last week, I went back to Reading School to run a workshop with a group of teenage boys on Jane Austen. Yes, I know. Jane Austen and teenage boys. Not a combination one would normally think of but that was exactly why I thought it was important to do.
Why is it that we generally assume that Jane Austen is ‘for girls’? Why is it that we assume teenage boys won’t be interested? And why is it that teenage boys decide that Jane Austen is boring before they’ve even picked up one of her books?
These were the sort of questions that I had going into the afternoon workshop. I went in with questions rather than answers. I wanted to know what they thought Austen to be and then see how that compared to some of the extracts from her work I had brought with me.
First of all, I wanted to know what their assumptions and preconceptions surrounding Austen were. The class was divided into four groups and asked to brainstorm words, images, objects and verbs that they associated with Jane Austen. These need not be based on any actual knowledge of her or her work, it was simply a variation on word association.
To some extent the answers were as I had expected, with words like: ‘old’, ‘posh’, and ‘boring’ making multiple appearances. But there were also some more surprising thoughts: ‘gossiping a lot’, ‘waistcoats and mutton chops’, ‘female empowerment’, and ‘equality’.
Jane Austen’s position as an influential woman seemed to be prominent to them. That she was viewed as a symbol of progressive female thought and social standing, almost as a pioneer of female rights. This gave Austen much more perceived strength and fight than I had anticipated.
That said, she was also associated with ‘letter writing, ‘gardening’ and ‘dying’…
Next, I asked them to draw up a profile for the ideal Austen audience – who would Austen most appeal to? Here the results weren’t too far from what I expected. Essentially, middle-aged, upper middle-class, well educated, Waitrose-shopping, latte-drinking women seemed to be the perceived target market! Which, in all fairness, probably isn’t too far off the target market for most Austen-centred marketing campaigns.
The thing that most interested me, however, was highlighted immediately after these two tasks. It was only at this stage that I asked the class if any of them had ever read any of Austen’s work. Not a single arm was raised. To double check, I then asked who had never read any of Austen’s work. All arms were raised. So where had all these pages of words, images, and marketing profiles come from? None of them knew anything about Austen! And yet they were so confident that she wasn’t for them.
There seem to be a number of factors at play here:
First, history. You don’t have to know that Jane Austen died almost exactly 200 years ago to the day, to know that she lived roughly a couple of hundred years ago. This then links with vague historical knowledge, thus creating associations with certain clothing, behaviour, social elites and people dying young. All of which seem to hold little relevance (on the surface at least) to us today.
Second, the idea of the ‘classic’. The word classic came up a lot in our word association and this was generally viewed as a negative thing by the boys. Classic equals accepted part of the establishment, something safe and to be revered, something that belongs in an English or History lesson, something your grandparents tell you that you ought to read. In other words, there is nothing new, fun or playful about a ‘classic’. Classics are for and about old people not young people.
Third, TV and film adaptations. I’m afraid to say, much as I’m not impartial to a bit of period drama on occasion, TV and film adaptors, directors and promoters have a lot to answer for when it comes to the perceived image of Austen and other great writers. The ‘pleasant’ (another word that came up a few times), quaint afternoon viewing of traditional English pastoral romance has become the overriding impression of Austen. Despite the fact that the last TV adaptation of an Austen novel was aired in 2009 (when these boys were about 5 years old), many of them had seen bits of adaptations on TV. As such, the image of Mum sat in front of the TV watching a dripping wet Colin Firth with romantic violin music in the background is an immediate barrier to teenage boys engaging with Austen on their own terms.
I did then go on to present the boys with various extracts of Austen’s work, which on the whole did seem to surprise and challenge their preconceptions to a degree – even if it didn’t necessarily leave them racing home to plunder their parents’ bookshelves for Pride and Prejudice. That Lizzie Bennett and Mr Darcy spend a whole scene insulting each other; that a drunken Willoughby bursts in on an unsuspecting Eleanor and confesses to being a complete idiot; that a teenage Catherine Morland is subjected to continual peer-pressuring from her so-called friends; and that the teenage Austen wrote such silly, openly-comic scenarios – all this did come as a surprise to the boys.
And, in all honesty, all this was a surprise to me when I first properly read Jane Austen’s novels. We rarely see the witty, playful and cheeky Austen in popular culture. We rarely see the energy, fight and spark of her characters. We rarely see her acute observation of human behaviour, of men and women, young and old – most of which is still very relevant today.
The workshop at Reading School last week has made me even more confident in our approach to adapting Northanger Abbey. By focussing on energy, playfulness and fun, rather than tradition, quaintness and romance, I believe we are staying truer to Austen’s spirit. In this way, we should be able to bring Austen-lovers a representative version of a story they love, whilst at the same time making her work accessible to those who feel ‘classics’ just aren’t for them.
Marcus Bazley is Artistic Director of Cyphers, and the director of Northanger Abbey.
A massive thank you to Reading School, Robert Baldock and the Year 9 boys who took part in the workshop.