A banquet by the book

MARSHALL – It’s a classic “what-if” question: If you could invite anyone from history to dinner, who would it be?

Last week, students in Sandy Carpenter’s eighth-grade enrichment class took that idea a step further. Dressed up in their finest, they took on the roles of literary and historical figures as they sat down to dine with English author Jane Austen, as played by their teacher.

The tables set up on the Marshall Middle School theater stage were candlelit, and there was even musical entertainment.

“I was playing Georgiana Darcy (from ‘Pride and Prejudice’). I played piano because she played piano,” said student Anni Lecy. Lecy said the performance came as a bit of a surprise for her, but it worked out all right. “I played a piece that I was already working on.” Playing music to entertain houseguests was also something that young women were expected to do in Austen’s time.

The banquet, and all the preparation that went into it, was a chance for the students to learn about European history and culture. Carpenter said she’s helped plan medieval banquets for students before, but this time she decided to try something different.

“I think I chose Jane Austen because I really like ‘Downton Abbey,'” Carpenter said. Austen’s novels are set about 100 years before “Downton Abbey,” but Carpenter said they share a lot of the same emphasis on social class and manners. Besides teaching kids history, a Jane Austen-themed banquet was also a chance for them to practice their communication and conversational skills, she said.

Two groups of enrichment students learned about Austen, and watched movie versions of her novels “Pride and Prejudice” and “Emma.” Some students chose to read the books, as well.

Later, students chose characters from the novels, or contemporary historical figures, to portray at the banquet. As a class, they visited the dressing rooms in the school theater to look for costumes to wear.

“I was George Washington,” said student Luke Jones. Jones said he had to get a little creative with his costume, to go with a presidential theme. “I was wearing a red coat. But I had a white shirt and blue pants, so I was red, white and blue.”

Once they had their characters down, student Jefferson Lee said, “We had to act like the person, and talk about where they were from.” Lee played Mr. Darcy, one of the main characters in “Pride and Prejudice.”

Nichole Sample said reading “Pride and Prejudice” ended up being helpful for her as she played Elizabeth Bennet.

“Since I had read the book, I felt like I knew the character a little bit better,” Sample said.

Of course, it wouldn’t be a banquet without plenty of good food. And Carpenter said students were even involved in putting the spread together – they worked together to gather ingredients and help prepare the food.

“I was looking for recipes that were British, but that Americans would eat,” Carpenter said. The menu ended up including dishes like shepherd’s pie, salad and yoghurt.

Some students said they weren’t sure about the idea of the banquet at first.

“I was a little worried about dressing up,” student Morgan Moon said.

“I was more concerned about the food,” said her classmate Juan Salazar. Luckily, he said, everything turned out to be tasty by 21st-century standards.

“I thought we would be talking about our characters one at a time, but there were so many different conversations going on,” he added.

Some students in Carpenter’s class said they liked watching “Pride and Prejudice” better than “Emma.” Part of it was having an easier story to follow, they said.

“And there was all the drama that the younger sister (Lydia Bennet) got into,” Salazar said.