BOOK REVIEWS     Sue Parrill, Editor

Contextualizing Jane Austen for Readers and Viewers

Jane Austen in the Classroom: Viewing the Novel/Reading the Film

By Louise Flavin.
Peter Lang, 2004. ix + 191 pages.
Paperback. $29.95.

Reviewed by Christine M. Mitchell.

Louise Flavin provides a systematized plan for instructors to approach the teaching of Jane Austen’s six novels and eleven recent film adaptations of those novels, including 1995’s Clueless.

Flavin suggests that students can be taught to view the novels closely, to “isolate the central issues that are…relevant to contemporary readers” and to “read” or analyze the films in a similarly perceptive manner. While she believes that reading the novels is a worthwhile enterprise, she is also cognizant that they may not be fully accessible to today’s students with a limited context of the period.

Thus, Flavin sees the movies as providing a medium through which students can come to enjoy, understand, and appreciate Jane Austen’s novels. She argues that the films afford visual clues for students who have little to no concept of life in eighteenth-century England, showing them representative settings, costumes, and landscapes, as well as manners and sensibilities (in both neoclassical and modern meanings).

In the Introduction, Flavin presents the text as a guide to help students interpret both the novels and the film adaptations. Significantly, she adopts Geoffrey Wagner’s instructive terminology for discussing fidelity to the text: transposition, wherein the film retains the novel’s integrity with little interference; commentary, wherein the original is recognizable but changed; and analogy, wherein a change in context makes the original unrecognizable to all but the most observant critics.

The Introduction also includes a useful glossary of terms common in eighteenthcentury vocabulary that have either fallen out of use or changed in meaning (e.g., sensible, nice, and understanding). The succeeding six chapters are arranged in identical formats: overview; approaches to teaching the novel, with questions; approaches to teaching the film, with questions. Such a format gives both instructor and students a consistent plan for the semester.

Each chapter addresses one novel in Austen’s canon. In the chapter’s overview, Flavin gives composition and publication dates and offers a very brief description of what is to come in the following examination.

In the “approaches to teaching” the novel section, Flavin reviews the salient themes and issues of the book in question. For example, for Pride and Prejudice, she emphasizes issues of courtship and marriage, feminism and education, and manners and morals, along with the obvious concepts of pride and prejudice. She explains how characterization provides the reader with clues about Austen’s own perspective on the issues, as well as the eighteenth century sensibilities toward the topics. This portion is followed by a number of questions for discussion and writing that address themes, characterization, setting, and plot development.

In the section on reading the film, Flavin critiques the adaptations and categorizes them according to Wagner’s taxonomy. Here she discusses choices directors have made in casting and characterization, in adding, changing, or deleting scenes, the conceptual integrity of the films, and cinematic techniques that students should watch for. For novels with more than one significant film adaptation (Pride and Prejudice and Emma), Flavin presents arguments for and against the various versions.

Following this section are, again, questions to stimulate class discussion and provide students with journal and/or paper topics. The final chapter on Persuasion suggests an assignment on film adaptation. Students first become screenwriters and create an outline of a screenplay for the novel; they then compare their outline to the existing film.

Although Flavin’s book is not strictly a critical analysis of the novels, it does include a number of brief critical interjections and a bibliography for each chapter, undoubtedly to assist students in their research.

Using movies as a tool for piquing students’ curiosity about Jane Austen andthe late eighteenth century, Flavin creates a useful resource for instructors at the undergraduate level. Enterprising teachers of honors high school students will also find it appropriate and helpful.

Although the book is arranged roughly chronologically by novel and thus presents an ideal syllabus for a Jane Austen class, the chapters could easily be adapted to a class that is thematically based (for example, a class on feminism or marriage). It could also inform a class on film and literature in general, or a class that focuses on films and uses the novels for enhancement.

I suggest two possible additions should Flavin revise the book. First, since she presents her book as a teaching resource, it is conceivable that she might have included some educational goals or objectives. Flavin surely knows why she chose to organize her lessons as she did; sharing that idea with prospective teachers seems a good idea.

Secondly, more assignments asking students to synthesize their knowledge of the two forms of media (such as the screenplay assignment for Persuasion) could also prove useful for those instructors who have taken up her text as a model.

In general, however, Flavin’s model of viewing the novel and reading the film should prove useful for instructors who are looking for ways to acquaint contemporary students with Jane Austen.

Christine M. Mitchell is an Assistant Professor of English at Southeastern Louisiana University, where she teaches literature, composition, and pedagogy.

JASNA News v.22, no. 1, Spring 2006, p. 18

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