Book Review: The Genius Of Jane Austen

The Genius Of Jane Austen: Her Love Of Theatre And Why She Is A Hit In Hollywood, by Paula Byrne

If the most famous connection between Jane Austen and the British theater is her complex use of Lover’s Vows within Mansfield Park, there are a great many more connections to be made between Jane Austen’s famous comic plots and characters and the theater tradition that she was intimately familiar with. Austen’s familiarity is such that her surviving letters and the records of her relatives–including her favorite nieces–show that she was a regular attendee of plays and was familiar with and conversant about the discussion of actors and actresses and the world of plays. Her own novels and juvenilia, furthermore, feature references to the plots and characters of plays and demonstrate the complicated way she worked within the existing tradition of English comic literature in ways that are not often appreciated. This author has done a significant amount of research in demonstrating connections between Austen’s novels and a whole host of both famous and forgotten plays from the British stage tradition. Those who think that Austen was hostile to plays because Sir Thomas was quite mistake the large and acknowledged debt that Austen had to the stage, an inheritance that in turn has often made Austen’s work itself a hit with contemporary filmmakers and audiences.

As a whole, this book has between 250 and 300 pages of text, beginning with a list of illustrations, a foreword to the new edition (which renamed the book and added some additional content), acknowledgements, abbreviations, and a short introduction. The main body of the book is divided into two parts. The first part examines what the surviving historical record has to say about Austen’s own familiarity with the theater. This part of the book includes a chapter on the record of Jane Austen’s own involvement in private theatricals going back to her childhood (1), Austen’s own visits to professional theater in London and elsewhere (2), as well as Austen’s own comments on actors and plays (3). The second part of the book then examines the rich seam of evidence involving the connection between Austen’s own writings and the British theater. This part of the book includes chapters on Austen’s juvenilia (4), her manuscript of a play based on a favorite novel of hers in Sir Charles Grandison as well as Lady Susan (5), Sense & Sensibility (6), Pride & Prejudice (7), an entire chapter on Austen’s use of Lover’s Vows (8), the rest of Mansfield Park (9), Emma (10), and a closing chapter about why Austen’s work remains vitally important for Hollywood today (11). After this the book ends with a substantial set of endnotes, a bibliography, and an index.

One of the more revealing aspects of Jane Austen’s work in general is how our approach to Jane Austen’s novels often reveals more about us than it does about Jane Austen herself or her writings. This particular book demonstrates a higher degree of fondness for Hollywood and its attention to “modern audiences” than might have been the case for Austen, but it is a perspective that is informed by a close reading of British plays that demonstrate a high degree of irony and a hostility to sentimentality. It is telling that the author sees in Jane Austen’s complex use of Lovers’ Vows in Mansfield Park a belief that the theatricals condemn Sir Thomas, rather than exhibiting any condemnation of the play itself. If there is one fault of this book with regards to its reading of Jane Austen, it is the way that the book seems to underplay Jane Austen’s own moral standards in making her seem more cynical than she was, even as the accounts of Jane Austen by her relatives often served to make her seem less cynical than she was. Even so, those readers who wish to be informed about the intimate connection between Jane Austen and the theater of the 18th and 19th centuries will find much to enjoy here.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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