Review - At home with Austen
Education was something about which Jane Austen had very definite views, and one target of her quick wit is the 19th-century obsession with "accomplishments". Why learn how to draw or speak Italian, she asks, if you don't actually enjoy it? In Pride and Prejudice the teenage Mary Bennet strives to acquire as many desirable skills as possible, but her piano playing is dismissed as "pedantic". By contrast, her sister Elizabeth's spirited performance, though much less polished, is "listened to with much more pleasure".
Jane Austen's House Museum in Chawton, Hampshire, in the house where the novelist spent the last eight years of her life and wrote at least three of her books, has taken this lesson to heart in its gifted and talented programme for secondary pupils. The aim is to encourage participants to discover new links between literature and life.
"It was an opportunity for the pupils to bring their own world into closer contact with Jane Austen's," says teacher Mark Coates, who took a group of pupils from the Connaught School in Aldershot to the museum.
Normally about 12 pupils take part in each session, but the programme can cater for up to 30 at a time. Louise West, the museum's curator, starts the day with a question and answer session, exploring Austen's double life as the "quiet, good" daughter of a country clergyman and the writer whose shrewd social comedies won the admiration of George IV. This leads into a group discussion, guided by readings from Austen's characteristically perceptive letters. Next pupils are given a synopsis of Persuasion, along with extracts to discuss and analyse in groups.
Practical criticism - once a staple of English syllabuses, now largely overlooked - encourages direct and imaginative engagement with literature. Here it paves the way for the main activity of the day: choosing one of the extracts to adapt into a script, usually about a page long. Alongside this, pupils decide on props, costumes and locations, drawing on what they have learned about the period.
The surroundings are clearly an inspiration. "Seeing the table Jane Austen wrote her novels on practically brought her back to life," says Aimee, a Year 10 pupil at the Connaught School. "Writing a modern script was fun and proved that Austen's characters have timeless appeal, especially Mr Darcy."
In true Regency style, the day concludes with a dance based on The Comical Fellow, a traditional routine that Austen herself may have performed.
Pupils often take their scripts back to school to develop further and even perform. And Coates believes the programme's benefits reach far beyond the day itself. "The pupils are doing this in their own time and know it is not for GCSE or any other academic 'end point'," he says. "They're enjoying reading, discussing and learning for the sake of the experience."
Orlando Bird is an arts writer with a special interest in education.