Hazel McHaffie

More Jane Austen … why not!

It’s that time of year again – Festival time. As someone once famously said to all actors/performers/dramatists: ‘If you aren’t in Edinburgh in August you might as well be dead.’ And we are fortunate enough to live here.

Chez nous we have a stack of tickets for a whole range of shows still to come but this week’s star performance goes to a one-woman show featuring the brilliant actor Rebecca Vaughn with Austen’s Women. I loved her faultless eloquence and brilliant stagecraft with Jane Eyre last year, so she was a must-go-to this time.

And she didn’t disappoint. She took on the characters and mannerisms of fourteen different women from nine of Austen’s novels and linked them all with wise statements about life through the all-seeing eyes of the ubiquitous Austen narrator, all without pausing even while she donned her next costume. She segued from twittering Miss Bates, to a petulant Mary Musgrove, to simpering Harriet Smith, to snooty Mrs Elton to vivacious Lizzy Bennet with consummate skill. And the entire 70 minutes was in Jane Austen’s own words, a patchwork of commentary from her whole canon. Put together by Rebecca Vaughn herself. Amazing skill and an enviable memory!

Though I’ve read all the Austen novels and watched several films of these classics, it seemed fitting to prepare for this particular event by reading Jane Austen: A Life by Claire Tomalin to understand better the author’s influences and backstory. Sobering to think Jane herself was so little acknowledged in her lifetime, but critical literature about her now ‘runs to thousands of volumes and tens of thousands of articles’  and that ‘between 1952 and 1972 alone there were 551 books, essays and articles published, not to mention 85 doctoral dissertations‘ written about her … although it has to be said, that many of us who love her work would probably prefer to protect this quietly unassuming young woman from this relentless scrutiny and critical dissection and just enjoy her writing.

In telling Austen’s life story Tomalin has done her best to preserve the intimacy and spirit of her subject. I particularly liked her assessment of those now-famous Austen fictional women and how time influenced their development and sometimes contributed to little inconsistencies in the final published versions – time while Jane waited … and waited … and waited for others to appreciate her writing.

When she first drafted Pride and Prejudice she was 20. By the time it was published in 1813 she was 37. Imagine! Seventeen years between composing it and seeing it in print! Sense and Sensibility took sixteen years to achieve the same goal. Northanger Abbey only found a publisher after twenty years by which time the author was dead. How sad is that? A sobering lesson for the rest of us who’re frustrated by a couple of years delay while agents or publishers do their stuff. And her edits and revisions weren’t simple cut-and-paste jobs either!

Two hundred years on, we accept her ‘exquisite touch’ and ‘vitality of voice‘ but even once she was published, Jane had to endure some pretty vitriolic criticism and quite unjust treatment. Only over time and posthumously did she gain the recognition she so richly deserved.

Then there were the periods of writers’ block. Displacement, bereavement and depression in real life stilled her pen for ten years between the ages of 25 and 35. Without familiar and predictable routines – ‘the same views from the same windows; the same household routines and daily walks in the garden or to the church or the village; the same sounds and silences’ – and bogged down with the relentless care of other people’s children and relatives, she was bereft of the secure and peaceful environment in which her imagination could take flight. Adrift without anchors. She had lost father, home, any prospect of marriage, and all hope of getting anything published. Penniless, she was dependent on her brothers, obliged to accept whatever living arrangements were chosen for her, feeling very much like an awkward parcel.

More than enough vicissitudes to make a writer give up for good, you’d think. How much more should we value the resilience and determination that brought her amazing and enduring work to us.

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