Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Jane Austen and the Theatre with Syrie James

My guest today is author Syrie James. I must confess, Dear Readers, I felt I hit the 'big time' having Syrie James at More Agreeably Engaged! She is stopping by as part of her virtual book tour for her latest release, Jane Austen's First Love. I have started reading this book and am enjoying it immensely. It has made me want to do some digging myself. I am quite fascinated with all the research that you did, Syrie, and the excitement you must have felt on several of your discoveries. Thank you so much for visiting and for telling us a little about Jane Austen and the Theatre.
Jane Austen loved the theater, an interest which began at an early age, when she and her sister and brothers put on performances in the barn at Steventon Rectory. I was so intrigued by this notion, that when I wrote my novel Jane Austen’s First Love, I included a home theatrical as a major plot point in the story.
Jane and her siblings used to act for a small circle of friends, complete with scenery and memorized lines. The “Steventon Theatricals” began when Jane was seven years old and continued until she was fourteen, at one point (in 1788) presenting plays every few months. The young Austens put on comedies, burlesques, and knockabout farces dealing with scheming daughters, flirting rogues, quarreling servants, disguised ladies, and jealous gallants. James Austen, the eldest son, served as actor-manager, and wrote and spoke his own prologues and epilogues. The Austens’ beguiling cousin Eliza de Feuillide, who was fourteen years Jane’s senior, usually joined in these performances, playing the leading female roles. All the children took part. Jane, who is said to have had a sunny disposition and a gift for reading aloud with great expression, was no doubt a talented young actress.
Engraved print of The Beggar's Opera, London, England circa 1729

            The Steventon Theatricals greatly influenced Jane’s early writing, which includes brief plays and numerous short stories, all comedies, farces, or burlesques. Years later, Jane recalls the dramatic exploits of her youth in her novel Mansfield Park, when the young people put on the somewhat risqué play “Lovers’ Vows.” The theatrical chapters in Mansfield Park are filled with vivid details of the play in progress, designed to showcase the beliefs and emotions of the characters involved. Jane Austen’s nostalgia for her own similar, youthful experiences is nowhere more evident than in this excerpt, when Mr. Yates, a friend of Tom Bertram’s, bemoans his recent, aborted attempt to stage Lovers’ Vows:
“Happily for him, a love of the theatre is so general, an itch for acting so strong among young people, that he could hardly out-talk the interest of his hearers. From the first casting of the parts, to the epilogue, it was all bewitching, and there were few who did not wish to have been a party concerned.” (Mansfield Park, Chapter 13)
Not everyone in Mansfield Park, however, shares this enthusiasm. Edmund Bertrum argues emphatically against the idea of putting on a play, and only accepts a part to afford him the opportunity to rehearse with Mary Crawford, the woman he fancies. Fanny Price, the moral compass of the novel, is uncomfortable about the proceedings on the grounds that the absent patriarch, Sir Thomas, would find it objectionable, and later because the rehearsals have thrown together certain people in an intimate manner which would otherwise never be sanctioned, and is painful for her to watch. Indeed, at the end of the novel, Tom Bertram deems his play “a dangerous intimacy” and “unjustifiable theatre.”
Drury Lane Theater about 1800

If Austen loved acting and the theatre as we believe she did, then why did she present the enterprise in Mansfield Park as irresponsible? Was she simply looking for a way to introduce conflict into the story? Or is there more to it? It is well known that the Austens’ charming (and married) cousin Eliza flirted overtly with her cousins Henry and James whenever she came to visit, and that both were very attracted to her. (Henry eventually married Eliza after she was widowed.) Could it be that Eliza and one or both of the young Austen men, under the guise of the bawdy Steventon Theatricals, behaved somewhat inappropriately with each other—an act the young Jane observed and felt created “a dangerous intimacy”? I think it highly likely that she did.  
It was this idea that inspired the theatrical scenes in my novel Jane Austen’s First Love.
Fifteen-year-old Jane Austen is visiting the ancestral estate of the Bridges family, Goodnestone Park in Kent, when a rainstorm threatens to ruin all the family’s plans. Jane suggests that they put on a play—an endeavor which has disastrous, yet ultimately illuminating results. I had the time of my life researching and writing Jane Austen’s First Love, and hope that readers enjoy it!

Jane Austen's First Love is available at Amazon and Barnes & Noble

Thank you for stopping by on your busy virtual book tour. Your post was illuminating and insightful. I'm glad you shared this aspect of Jane's life with us. 

It was an honor to take part in your virtual tour and I wish you much success with the new book. I can hardly wait to finish reading it!


  1. I have always loved Mansfield Park. I have often wondered why the play was depicted the way it was as well. I agree that Jane must have been witness to some behavior that bordered on the scandalous. Enjoyed your insights.

  2. I just read in the news that tickets to see Benedict Cumberbatch in Hamlet sold out just seven hours after they were offered - for the whole showing. I love that theater is still a draw. It is almost impossible for me not to see a show each time I am in NYC or catch the traveling productions in Oregon when we are in the US. Jane Austen May have many surprises if she could visit now but the theater might just please her greatly.

  3. I am a huge fan of the theater, too. I probably should have included that in my guest post! My husband and I feel fortunate to live in Los Angeles where there is access to so many great productions. We have season tickets to several theater companies, and wish we had time to see more. Like Jane, I was involved in theatre growing up (performing on stage from elementary school through college) and loved every minute of it. I suported my talented sons in their pursuit of the same, and was the proud "theater mama" serving as costume coordinator and whatever else I could do, while they performed or starred in dozens of productions. What great memories. It's such fun to know that Jane shared the same love for theater and "itch for acting"!

  4. In four years in Ecuador I have not seen one advertisement for a play - not even a school play. However, our twin five-year-old grandchildren love to put on plays. They do Bible dramas and fairy tales (remember Fairy Tale Theater?) which my husband, John and I regularly attend.

    John hated the theater until he saw Cats! and Lion King on Broadway. Of course, he hated ballet until we went and watched Baryshnikov. He was so impressed with the athleticism. We do car races of every sorts and sports to be balanced. Rural Oregon means we drive to Portland or Seattle. But at least we do not have to drive in LA traffic.

    Congrats on your book, Syrie. I already have two copies waiting in the States. JA would be proud of you. She would probably smack me upside the head for A Father's Sins for picking on Mr. Bennet and Jane Bennet. Sigh!

  5. Ah, that flirtatious cousin Eliza! She must have been a gold mine of ideas for you, Syrie. I made some small use of her in my book too. From your comment above, I now know why you were so comfortable in front of a crowd portraying our fair Miss Jane in Diana's two-woman play the second time we met, at the Seattle JASNA meeting. I suffer from stage fright myself, although I find that my enthusiasm for JA and writing goes a long way, giving me courage to do a little public speaking on those subjects from time to time.

    1. Hi Shannon! Eliza doesn't figure in my book at all--she wasn't present during Jane's trip to Kent in 1791. But there is a whole cast of young ladies at Goodnestone Park who are thrilled to be participating in a home theatrical! I admit, I do not suffer from stage fright, as long as I have had plenty of time to rehearse, or am doing a staged reading or talk where I have my script before me. Playing Jane Austen (as a gatekeeper in heaven!) was the realization of a dream come true for me! See the video highlights of our performance in Pasadena here: http://www.syriejames.com/YouArePassionateJane.php

  6. Like Austen, I grew up loving and participating in the theater. I joined the Chattanooga Little Theater Company at 8. I was recruited to play Rhoda in The Bad Seed. The director of the company saw me on TV playing a bossy bunny in a skit about littering put on by my Brownie troop. My father freaked when he realized I was playing a child serial killer. I have always made the theater and literature a part of my JAFF. It seemed the right thing to do. My first begins at the theatre with a performance of the Tempest. I believe Austen's Lydia Bennet was inspired by Richard Sheridan's Lydia Languish in The Rivals. His Lydia had the romantic notion that she should elope with a poor soldier. I had to play on that coincidence in my second JAFF. Your book sounds intriguing. Beth Massey

    1. What a fascinating life you've led, Beth! I hope you enjoy Jane Austen's First Love! You will relate so well to the theatrical scenes in the novel. The young people at Goodnestone Park put on a performance (on Midsummer's Eve) of a Shakespearean comedy that deals with mismatched lovers...see if you can guess which play they choose! :)

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  8. You must have had so fun fun researching this book.