Biographer Byrne (Kick: The True Story of JFK’s Sister and the Heir to Chatsworth, 2016, etc.) explores Jane Austen’s passion for the theatre and the influence of comedic plays on her writing.
In this updated edition of her first book, originally published by an academic press as Jane Austen and the Theatre, Byrne focuses on the theatrical world of the late 18th century, providing a broad history of the playwrights and the theaters of that time as well as an overview of the performances that Austen attended. The performances served as a source of inspiration for the private family theatricals of Austen’s youth and closely influenced her early attempts at playwriting and fiction and eventually her novel Mansfield Park. In later chapters, Byrne examines how Austen’s knowledge of theatrical technique and use of dialogue played an essential role in building effective scenes and developing characters in all of her novels. The author’s updates of her previous book, geared toward drawing in nonscholarly readers, include an introduction assessing Austen’s increased popularity over the past two decades and, in the final chapter, “Why She Is a Hit in Hollywood,” assessments of the many film and theatrical adaptations of Austen’s work that have captivated audiences over the past century. These include A.A. Milne’s play Miss Elizabeth Bennet, numerous versions of Pride and Prejudice, and the outrageously subversive updating of Emma as the film Clueless, and Byrne evaluates which have proven most successful on their own terms. This chapter, though perhaps more accessible for contemporary readers of Austen, represents a departure from her more scholarly arguments. Ultimately, she writes, “the key difference between the merely escapist and romantic screen renditions of Jane Austen and those that truly succeed as works of art in their own right is the adaptation’s truth not to the letter of her text…but to the spirit of her comedy. The spirit, that is, which she herself learned from the comedic theatre.”
A thoroughly researched, somewhat scholarly investigation of Austen’s oeuvre for devoted Austen fans with some background in literature.