The House of Austen

By Courtenay White

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a 9-year-old in possession of only the basest linguistic skills must be unable to comprehend Georgian English.

If you’ve ever tried to sit your elementary-age child in front of a TV and introduce her to the magic of Jane Austen, then you’re already painfully aware that no number of subtitles or long-winded explanations as to the meaning of the word “entailment” are capable of properly conveying to said child what exactly is going on among the oddly dressed, wonderfully British individuals milling about the screen. Unfortunately, my mother had to learn this lesson the hard way.

I suppose I should be flattered that she believed me capable of sitting through the BBC’s six-hour adaptation of “Pride and Prejudiceat such a tender age, but I’m more inclined to think that her initial confidence stemmed from the faith in her own ability to “guide” me through such an exhausting undertaking. Some mothers make their daughters take ballet; others make them go to cotillion; mine made me revel in the angsty goodness of Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy.

My mom has stressed to me that, by featuring so prominently in this essay, she does not want to appear as “the crazy tiger mom,” who — like some kind of witch from a Hans Christian Andersen story — compels innocent children to appreciate 19th-century British literature against their will. So let it be known that my mother had no nefarious designs in this daunting venture. In fact, the worst that can be said is that my heart will now and forever belong to a man who, tragically, is a piece of fiction.

In all seriousness, though, I reflect often on the hold Austen has maintained on my childhood since those six momentous hours. And now at age 16, having actually read “Prejudice” upwards of seven times, I can’t help but suspect that my mom intended to impart to me far more than the simple joy of a fantastic novel. Beyond her mastery of throwing shade, Austen is shockingly feminist. And it takes no stretch of the imagination to envision how that kind of influence, however subtle it might seem in print, could have fostered some of the more revolutionary ideas I have about women’s rights now.

I mean, when Austen can write Elizabeth Bennet, a woman who is legally barred on account of her gender from inheriting her father’s estate, with more self-agency than the Snow Whites and Sleeping Beauties that most 9-year-olds probably idolize, then you know she’s got to be good at her craft.

Growing up with an older brother who always seemed to have control of the remote, my on-screen female icons back then were limited to “Bond girls” and, if I was lucky, the occasional Princess Leia. Jane Austen — and through Austen, my mom — demonstrated to me that you don’t need a blaster and a metal bikini to respect yourself and demand that same respect from others. Women around the world and throughout history have found their power in different ways and under different circumstances. Today, my mom and I share this love of Jane Austen, sure. Yet it is because of this love that we also — like Elizabeth Bennet herself — refuse to accept anything less than what we deserve.

Maybe my mom is a sort of witch after all, considering that sorcery is the only way I could possibly explain such an inspired stroke of parenting as foisting “Pride and Prejudiceupon your 9-year-old. Should anyone prove otherwise, I’ll eat my bonnet.

Courtenay White is a junior at Porter-Gaud School and will be completing her fall semester of 2018 in Washington, D.C., at the School for Ethics and Global Leadership. When she was 14, Courtenay founded the SheStrong Summit with the Center for Women and has since worked with the SheStrong Youth Committee to create programming for Charleston’s next generation of empowered women. A proud Ravenclaw, yearbook editor, chorister and pianist—Courtenay can be likely found avoiding the beach at all costs or grabbing some tea at her favorite Boba joint.