Jane Austen, Alison Bechdel, and me

My fourth YA novel comes out on Tuesday. (But you can get it this weekend at the LA Times Festival of Books!) Like the previous three, it’s loosely based on a Jane Austen novel—in this case, Emma. I strayed pretty far from the original this time, so if you’re someone who likes her Austen modernized but still very familiar, consider yourself warned and please don’t yell at me because there’s a non-Austenian subplot

Still, I did borrow quite a few elements from the original, which meant I found myself facing a by-now-familiar challenge: how do I take a marriage plot novel and transfer it to a high school setting without making the girls in it ridiculously boy crazy? Putting aside the whole marriage issue (which I do, of course), I still don’t think teenage girls should be obsessed with landing boyfriends.

Don’t get me wrong: I love a good romance. I just feel my heroines should stumble upon love in the process of doing other stuff—it shouldn’t be their goal, just a happy bonus.

Plus there’s the whole Bechdel Test thing.

For those of you who haven’t heard of it, the Bechdel Test came from a comic strip written by the incredibly brilliant Alison Bechdel (of Fun Home fame). It was written to be about movies, but it works for novels too. Here’s the strip:

The famous strip

The famous strip

I’m not sure if Austen’s original Emma would itself pass Bechdel’s test, but she gets a break–back in her day, unless a woman was super rich, she pretty much had to marry her way to a decent future. Plus she’s Jane Austen--one of the most brilliant writers ever. She gets to do whatever the hell she wants because she does it so freakin’ well.

But I’m no Austen and times have changed, so I wanted my novel about modern young women to pass the Bechdel Test. My solution? Change the eligible bachelor storyline to an eligible college storyline.

In my version, “Emma” isn’t trying to convince her friend to pursue a guy who may or may not be interested in her—she’s trying to get her to apply to a college that may or may not accept her. Now the girls are talking about something other than boys. Like most of the high school seniors I know IRL, they’re focusing on their next four years of school, where they’ll go, whether they’ll fit in, what it will be like.

Fictional romances can be fun and inspiring and exhilarating. But they should never make a young woman’s value dependent on her ability to successfully land a guy.

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5 Comments

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5 responses to “Jane Austen, Alison Bechdel, and me

  1. Sometimes I find myself just wanting a silly, chasing the boy, story. And they usually are silly because the characters are so shallow. Mostly, I like the ones where love happens accidentally. I’m still trying to figure out how to write that, though, because I always end up wanting to skip all of the accident and get to the part where they fall in love, lol. I need instant gratification in my writing apparently.

    I’m looking forward to the new book, which reminded me that I never picked up the last one. Must find some money somewhere.

  2. Deb Z.

    Very well said. I have three daughters, two who have successfully navigated high school and one in the wings (the one named after Jane Austen’s heroine, “Emma”). There is so much more to the bigger picture of those school walls for four years of adolescence. Looking forward to reading your latest and adding it to my library of your novels.

  3. Claire

    thank you!

  4. Yes, of course, I got the Alison Bechdel comment, being at the College of Charleston (Charleston SC) where we chose her work “Fun House” as the First Year read for incoming freshmen…..our state legislature, however, begged to differ and pulled funding for the read from CofC and created a huge back lash.

  5. Claire

    Oh, I read about that–so upsetting. I love that book.

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