Pride and Prejudice was published in 1813. This year, 2013, is its bicentennial celebration. I think teachers will be dusting off their Austen copies and introducing a new generation to her wonderful, intriguing characters and acute observations of English society. What’s likely to be ignored is Austin’s Christian perspective.

Jane Austin was a PK. If you take a close look at her books, as some people recently have, you will see a Christian world view. I think it is valuable to look and find this. It deepens our understanding of her work and it affirms for us that God can be in the work-a-day world of the arts.

With that in mind, Jeanette has looked into Emma, one of Austin’s books that could particularly interest teen girls. Today we offer part 1 of 2 parts.

Nancy

Confession: While I love movies based on Jane Austen novels, I tend to struggle with the books themselves. Even while enjoying the films, my 21st-century mind gets in the way, wishing the women would do more than attend parties, take turns about the room (code for “Let’s walk the perimeter of the living room and gossip”), and discuss who has a chance of marrying well vs. who should settle for whomever she can get before she becomes an old maid at 22.

Recently, I read Emma, and began to re-examine my attitude toward Austen’s stories and characters, particularly Emma Woodhouse, who in my opinion comes across as about as shallow and full-of-herself as a 19th-century girl could get. At least she did at first. The more I dug into the story, the more I recognized that the characters have more depth than I gave Austen credit for and have some valuable things to offer teen girls.

Readers who pick up a book like Emma for the first time will notice two things: first, the story is extremely sweet, clean, and safe—no one gets sent to the arena to fight to the death, develops an eating disorder, or even considers pre-marital sex. Second: there are a lot of characters; so many that some might find them difficult to keep straight. I recommend watching a movie version—such as the 1996 Douglas McGrath film starring Gwyneth Paltrow—while reading the book so the characters become more real.

When I considered the darkness in many popular YA novels, I found the sweetness of Jane Austen’s stories refreshing. Teen readers will benefit from immersing themselves in a time before cell phones, iPads, and Facebook when all young girls learned to play the piano (excuse me, the piano forte), sing and embroider, and families and friends gathered in the parlor for entertainment that didn’t involve a screen. Girls might enjoy reading about women not much older than themselves, who value their families, take time to look feminine and pretty, care about what happens to their friends rather than only themselves, and are content with traditional female roles. While none of the characters discuss God, accept Christ, or deal with anything overtly spiritual, many biblical themes come through as they grow.

First, let’s look at the main character, Emma, a 20-year-old woman who has been running her house since age 13 when her older sister married. I was halfway through the book before I appreciated her dedication to her sickly father and the fact that, while she talks about some people being “beneath her,” she is kind to the poor and purposely reaches out to Harriet Smith, a girl who grew up in a boarding school because she didn’t have parents.

Emma considers her greatest talent to be matchmaking. While she claims to have no interest in getting married herself, she takes credit for her former governess’s marriage and is certain that she knows who belongs with whom, especially when it comes to Harriet Smith. However, Emma quickly learns the consequences of playing God in other people’s lives and denying signs of love in her own heart.

While her motives for befriending Harriet seem selfish at first, their relationship develops into one where they both learn from each other and genuinely care for one another as friends should. We also see her grow from a girl who rejects George Knightley’s correction after she sabotages a marriage proposal between Harriet and a man who would probably be a good match for her, to one who weeps when she realizes how rude she was to a family friend. Emma’s attitude toward the beautiful, talented Jane Fairfax remind us that even confident, pretty, privileged girls have insecurities and areas of envy to overcome. I went from being annoyed with Emma to appreciating her as a heroine who has a lot to teach us about learning from mistakes and growing in humility, as well as teaching us about friendship, kindness, and finding true love.

In Part 2, I will share what readers can gain from Harriet and Mr. Knightley.

Jeanette Hanscome is the author of three books and over 300 articles and stories. In addition to writing, she offers freelancing editing and critiquing to beginning writers, and teaches workshops on the craft. Jeanette is also the mom of  two sons,  a ten-year-old whom she home-schools and a twenty-two-year old.

www.jeanettehanscome.com

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