George Justice, Editor

Theatre Redux

Jane Austen and the Theatre

By Paula Byrne.
Hambledon and London, 2002. xvi + 238 pages.
47 B/W illustrations. Hardcover. $35.

Reviewed by Nora Nachumi.

2002 was a watershed year for those interested in Jane Austen’s relationship to the theatre. Like Penny Gay’s identically titled study (reviewed in the April 2003 issue of JASNA News), Paula Byrne’s Jane Austen and the Theatre demonstrates that Austen’s interest in the theatre played a formative role in the development of her comic art. Byrne’s study, however, is different from Gay’s. Byrne covers less ground than Gay but she delves more deeply into her subject. The result is a gratifyingly thorough examination of Austen’s involvement with the 18th Century stage.

Byrne’s book is divided into two sections: “The Novelist and the Theatre” and “The Theatre and the Novels.” In Part 1, Byrne, like Gay, not only discusses the private theatricals that took place at Steventon rectory between 1782 and 1789, but also considers the behavior of Austen’s cousin, Eliza de Feuillide, whose participation in the Austen family theatricals may have provided the inspiration for the flirtation between Henry Crawford and Maria Bertram in Mansfield Park. Byrne, however, spends more time on the plays themselves, noting how they illuminate the Austen family’s ease with risqué language, racy topics, and subjects like female independence. Byrne also examines the prologues written by Austen’s brother James, noting that both he and his brother Henry played a pivotal role in the formation of their sister’s literary imagination. Indeed, in Part 2, Byrne links Austen’s reliance of the burlesque mode of comedy in the Juvenilia to her brothers’ literary journal, The Loiterer, which ran for 60 numbers between 1789 and 1790. Just as important, she contends, were Henry Fielding’s burlesque comedy, Tom Thumb, and Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s satirical comedies: The Critic, The Rivals, and The School for Scandal; all three, she demonstrates, are present in “Love and Freindship.”

Byrne also discusses the three short theatrical pieces in the Juvenilia. In part 1 she argues that “The Visit” is an intentional parody of the moral dramas and dialogues contained in Arnaud Berquin’s “L’ami des enfants” and “L’ami de l’adolescence.” Like Gay, she contends that “The Mystery” and “The First Act of a Comedy” were inspired not only by the private theatricals at Steventon, but by what was popular on the London Stage. She supports this claim by establishing Austen’s familiarity with the professional theatre in Chapters 2 and 3. Austen, Byrne contends, “was utterly familiar with contemporary actors and the range and repertoire of the theatres” in Bath, Southampton, and London and a discerning critic of plays and performances. Byrne does her subject justice in this area by providing information on the various styles of acting embodied by stars like John Phillip Kemble, Sarah Siddons, Eliza O’Neill, and Edmund Kean—the last three of whom Austen comments upon in her letters.

In Part 2, Byrne’s consideration of Austen’s fiction differs from Gay’s in several respects. Unlike Gay, she declines to discuss Northanger Abbey or Persuasion: the former because it is primarily concerned with the gothic novel, and the latter because she finds Austen’s late works less obviously theatrical than the earlier novels. Conversely, she includes discussions of Austen’s burlesque play, Sir Charles Grandison; or, The Happy Man and her epistolary novel, Lady Susan. Using these texts Byrne traces Austen’s “experimentation with, and eventual rejection of, dramatic and epistolary forms,” in favor of third-person narration. In Chapter 6, she expands on the similarity between Sense and Sensibility and The Rivals. In Chapter 7, she examines Pride and Prejudice in light of structural developments in sentimental comedy since Shakespeare’s time.

Mansfield Park is inevitably the most obvious example of the influence of the theatre upon Austen’s fiction given her use of Lovers’ Vows. It is also the most fraught, following as it does upon the decades-old debate about Austen’s view of the play and of play going in general. Byrne devotes an entire chapter to the play, contending that, like the novel, it explores “the difficulties of a prohibited relationship, from a woman’s perspective.” Ultimately, she contends that Austen uses the play to reveal what is wrong with Sir Thomas Bertram and the system of marriage that he endorses. The following chapter examines Mansfield Park in light of The Clandestine Marriage and The Heir at Law, and underscores the novel’s will to collapse the distinction between on stage and off.

In the final chapter on Emma, which is much shorter than the others, the distinction is between outward appearance and internal experience. Rather than link the novel to a specific play, the chapter points out that many 18th Century plays were implicitly concerned with this topic. In Emma all the world is a stage, Byrne contends, and the social self is always performed.  Paula Byrne’s study is a persuasive argument for the importance of the theatre in Austen’s work. After reading it, one is left with a far better understanding of the complex interplay between Austen’s novels and the 18th Century stage.

Nora Nachumi is an assistant professor in the Department of English at Stern College for Women/Yeshiva University in New York. She is writing about Austen criticism, popular culture, and the Internet.

JASNA News v.20, no. 2, Summer 2004, p. 19

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