June 18, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Regency Romps to Celebrate the 200th Anniversary of Jane Austen’s “Emma”

It’s a truth universally acknowledged that Jane Austen mania shows no signs of subsiding. From the 1995 film Clueless, which reimagines Emma as a pampered Beverly Hills teenager, to the Seth Grahame-Smith’s Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (Quirk, 2009)—soon to be released as a film—clever and creative adaptations of Austen’s works have long intrigued teen readers. Though these recent takes on the Regency romp rely on different formats and genres—manga, fantasy, realistic fiction, and satire—all use the tropes and conventions that Janeites know and love: strong female heroines, complicated yet satisfying romance, and a keen eye for social convention. In honor of the 200th anniversary of Emma’s publication, check out these recent Austen-inspired titles for teens.

Emma manga classicThough many students are tempted to turn to a Wikipedia summary or to watch a film version of a classic work, they would be better served by reading a manga edition alongside the original. The company that has produced beautiful manga iterations of Les Miserables and The Scarlet Letter now introduces a faithful adaptation of Emma (Udon Entertainment, 2015; Gr 7 Up), adapted by Crystal S. Chan and drawn by Po Tse. Chan reproduces pieces of the source material’s hilarious dialogue in bite-size portions that even reluctant readers will find palatable, while the character designs imbue everyone, from dandyish Mr. Frank Churchill to haughty Mrs. Elton to sweet Harriet Smith, with vivid life. Through the language of manga, which relies on exaggerated facial features and specific iconography, Tse captures the drama of dinner parties, dances, and drawing room conversation; nuances such as a meaningful glance or a subtle insult take on a whole new dimension, even for modern readers less familiar with Regency England conventions.

Above all, Emma herself is self-confident and maddeningly inept: traits that should resonate with adolescent readers. Teens who are equally inexperienced when it comes to life and love will watch eagerly as the well-meaning but misguided young woman convinces trusting Harriet to turn down Mr. Martin in favor of Mr. Elton, flirts with newcomer Mr. Frank Churchill, and spins romantic stories about Miss Jane Fairfax—all the while completely unaware of where her true heart’s passions lie. In the hands of this skilled team, the protagonist once described by her creator as “a heroine whom no-one but myself will much like” remains not only likable but charming and delightful, flaws and all.

A step toward falling_McGovernWith its strict social groups and rigidly enforced rules of conduct, high school is in many ways similar to the settings of Austen’s novels. It’s no surprise that Cammie McGovern’s A Step Toward Falling (HarperCollins, 2015; Gr 9 Up), a modern and darker version of Pride and Prejudice with teen characters, works so well. Emily and Lucas fail to intervene when they witness Belinda, a student with developmental disabilities, being sexually assaulted at a football game; as punishment, they’re required to do community service at a class for the disabled. Assuming that aloof Lucas is a typically insensitive jock, Emily begins to fall for charismatic Chad, another volunteer, while wrestling with her feelings of guilt over what happened that night. Meanwhile, Belinda’s trauma keeps her at home, yet she begins to assert herself in a world that marginalizes the disabled.

Overt references to Pride and Prejudice are woven throughout: Belinda is obsessed with the film adaptation that stars Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy, and later Emily and Lucas decide to stage a theatrical version of the story in order to give Belinda, a passionate actress, a chance to shine in spite of the administration’s refusal to allow the teen to be part of the school play. Austen’s beloved romance plays a more subtle role, too, as both Emily and Belinda (the book is told through their alternating perspectives) have experiences with a handsome Wickham type who reveals himself to be a cad. Each slowly begins to realize that the guy she initially wrote off is, like Lizzie’s Mr. Darcy, a far more worthy suitor.

In the same vein as Lizzie Bennet, Emily and Belinda make erroneous decisions based on their own assumptions and tendencies to jump to conclusions. Belinda is particularly well portrayed: unlike many characters with disabilities, she is a nuanced and flawed figure with biases of her own, looking with disdain at many classmates, such as Anthony, who is utterly devoted to her. Deftly balancing the sweet and light feelings of budding romance with elements of realistic fiction (Belinda’s assault and her uncertainty about the future, Emily’s guilt and her desire to effect change), McGovern presents a fun, fresh, and feisty take on a well-trod classic.

A school for brides_kindl“Clearly, marriage was their duty…. Unfortunately, so little interest had been taken in their fate that no one seemed to notice they had been sent to acquire a husband in a remote corner of England with almost no eligible young men.” With A School for Brides (Viking, 2015; Gr 7 Up), Patrice Kindl’s companion to Keeping the Castle (2012), the author once again displays a sharp and thorough understanding of the Regency romance. This time, she ratchets up the humor and keeps the tropes and references coming at a steady clip. Though the situation for the students of the Winthrop Hopkins Female Academy, whose goals are not academics but rather marriage, seems dire, things look up when, during a walk, they come across Mr. Arbuthnot, a young man with a broken leg who takes shelter at the school. As Arbuthnot’s friends join him, the pool of suitors multiplies.

With many characters to keep track of and intrigue aplenty, this novel may challenge those unfamiliar with the genre; however, Austen fans—diehards and budding ones—will find A School for Brides utterly delectable. Overbearing cofounder of the academy Miss Winthrop rivals Emma’s bossy-boots Mrs. Elton and Pride and Prejudice’s Mrs. Bennet, while Miss Millicent Pffolliott and Miss Jane Crump keep secrets that would make Emma‘s Miss Jane Fairfax blush. The real strength, though, lies in Kindl’s arch prose; just as Austen took aim at restrictive social mores of the day, Kindl gently lampoons and parodies Regency conventions to wonderful effect.

Newt's Emerald_NixA proud and headstrong young woman chafing against societal restrictions, a handsome yet prickly man, and a disagreement based on misunderstanding that blossoms into something more: Garth Nix’s Newt’s Emerald: Magic, Maids and Masquerades (HarperCollins, 2015; Gr 7 Up) is a can’t-miss read for any budding Austen-phile; best of all, it’s got a heavy dose of magic that’s sure to please fantasy lovers. The magical Newington Emerald has been in Lady Truthful’s family for years—until, on her 18th birthday, it disappears, leaving her father devastated. Truthful heads for London to stay with her great-aunt Lady Badgery to make her societal debut and to search for the emerald. With help from some of Lady Badgery’s glamour, Truthful disguises herself as the devoutly religious Chevalier de Vienne. When she meets Major Harnett, the two team up to find the jewel. Harnett’s rude remarks to the “Chevalier” about Truthful don’t endear Harnett to her—but as the pair confront perils and pitfalls, she begins to reconsider her feelings. True to the genre, plenty of other obstacles are quick to pop up before the two lovers can be united—and the emerald returned to its proper place.

Nix skillfully uses magic and fantasy tropes to play with and unpack themes of gender and culture. While Truthful saves the day on more than one occasion, she also has to contend with the limitations she faces because she is a woman. Tone and setting are pitch-perfect here, and readers will adore the sorcery, the emphasis on etiquette, the lavish descriptions of finery, and, of course, the requisite ball (complete with dance cards and waltzes). With this gender-bending mash-up of a novel, Nix has provided an energetic twist on the Regency romp.

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Mahnaz Dar About Mahnaz Dar

Mahnaz Dar (mdar@mediasourceinc.com) is Reference and Professional Reading Editor for Library Journal and School Library Journal and can be found on Twitter @DibblyFresh.