Get ready for some pure pettiness.
In this article, I will talk about my petty and immature hatred of Jane Austen, and how I eventually came to appreciate her. I hope to raise valuable questions about how we educate young women in the field of literature, and how we interpret historical figures such as Austen.
This story starts in 2011. I’m in Year Eleven at an all girls Catholic private high school in Sydney, Australia. The expectations are high and the enjoyment levels are low. Needless to say, I hated high school for about a thousand of reasons. Yet I managed to find another one!
As I was in year eleven, I had to read assigned texts for English, the one subject that is compulsory for all students in New South Wales. That shouldn’t have been a problem for me, I love reading. Emma was the assigned text. Previously, I hadn’t read Austen, yet I knew she was a favourite of my extended family on my mother’s side.
So I started to read Emma.
Yet as I was reading Emma– I got some news. A nearby all boy’s private school got to read Frankenstein. I was enraged at this injustice. Why did the boys get to read horror and have gorey fun… whilst I was stuck with gossip over tea?
I. Was. Outraged.
Suddenly, years of awful gender stereotyping hit me again. I remembered being mocked for listening to Nine Inch Nails, watching Die Hard and owning a Wallabies Rugby jersey. Yes- those comments were cruel and unfair. As well as being sexist!
Moved by this injustice, I started to ask around why my school was reading Emma, and not Frankenstein. The answer I got was that Emma was more of a ‘girls’ book and Frankenstein was more of a ‘boys’ book. Urgh. Remember: this was 2011. Any attempts to bring up that Mary Shelley was a women, and that many women write horror and science fiction- was ineffective. I was once again daunted with the expectation that I must like Jane Austen.
Really- what mortified and offended me was the expectation that all girls like Jane Austen. In my 16 year old eyes, there was nothing to like about gossiping female characters who wore stuffy dresses. It’s not like any of the books had Tarantino-esqe violence or whatever my teenage self loved.
Needless to say, I did not finish Emma.
Now it’s 2012, and I am in my final year in high school. I’m still taking English, and guess what my next text is? Pride & Prejudice! Yes, I’m mortified. I try to find sympathetic girls in my class- only two agree with me. I’ve sort of matured since 2011, yet my hatred for gender assumptions has only gotten more intense.
And then I find out what the same boys school is studying.
My favourite science fiction movie at that time- Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. Now, I love this movie for several reasons, but what spoke to my teenage self was the philosophy of it all. It had an ambigious ending, was melancholic and just an all-round beautiful film. Yet I was stuck with Pride & Prejudice– because I am a girl.
This experience stewed into a hatred of all things Jane Austen. She represented everything I hated about my high school. Yet here’s the thing. Jane Austen does not represent anything in my personal life. She’s her own person, and did not deserve to have all my personal baggage dropped on her.
Yeah, yeah she’s dead. I get that. Yet I misunderstood her.
Writers in the Regency period weren’t going to write groundbreaking science fiction stories. Austen used whatever agencies she had to craft stories that were meaningful to her and the people she touched. She was nowhere near as wealthy or as lucky as I thought she was. In a way that would’ve been considered groundbreaking today, she challenged class and gender expectations.
Because I was bitter, I created a falsehood around Jane Austen. When in reality, if Austen was alive today, she’d rebel against high schools like mine. Maybe I was justified in my anger- I think gender stereotyping gets you no where- yet I was wrong in how I directed it. If we are going to educate young women in the field of literature- we must encourage them to read both Frankstein and Emma. We must let them develop their own reading tastes outside of gender-based assumptions.
The delicious irony is that Pride & Prejudice focuses alot on the assumptions we make- even if we don’t intend to.
I’m now majoring in Modern History, and let me tell you. How a person is portrayed and remembered matters. We owe it to the people who came before us to be honest in how we depict them. That’s why I’m telling this story. In a way, I did look down on those who liked Jane Austen. And for that, I am ashamed and feel sad at my ignorance.
She’s a terrific author. Not my favourite, but there is no denying her skill or talent. Today, I happily have Northanger Abbey stacked against my Stephen King books. I no longer have to pick between the two.
So Jane Austen… I am sorry.
Anyway, what are your thoughts? Does this experience remind you of anything? If you have any opinions or ideas about introducing young women to the vast jungle of literature, please comment below!