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A radical look at Jane Austen
As you’ve never seen her – as a lover of farce, comic theatre and juvenilia. The Genius of Jane Austen celebrates Britain’s favourite novelist 200 years after her death and explores why her books make such awesome movies, time after time.
Jane Austen loved the theatre. She learned much of her art from a long tradition of English comic drama and took joyous participation in amateur theatricals. Her juvenilia, then Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park and Emma were shaped by the arts of theatrical comedy.
Her admiration for drama’s dialogue, characterisation, plotting, exits and entrances is why she has been dramatised so successfully on screen in the last twenty years – and these versions are at the centre of her continuing fame, culminating in her celebration on £10 note.
Austen expert and author of The Real Jane Austen, Paula Byrne looks at stage adaptations of Austen’s novels (including one called Miss Elizabeth Bennet by A. A. Milne) to modern classics, including the BBC Pride and Prejudice and Persuasion, Emma Thompson’s Sense and Sensibility, and the phenomenally brilliant and successful Clueless, The Genius of Jane Austen presents an Austen not of prim manners and genteel calm, but filled with wild comedy and outrageous behaviour.
‘I relished every page … Byrne’s knowledge of everything Austen wrote has an enviable thoroughness and perception which is rare among Austen scholars and which illuminates the whole of her text. I am tempted to say this is the best book on Jane Austen I have ever read.’ Paul Johnson, The Spectator
‘A definitive and pioneering study of a wholly neglected aspect of Austen’s art’ Michael Caines, Times Literary Supplement
‘A fascinating analysis that marries meticulous historical research with critical imagination and flair’ The Historical Journal
About the author
Paula Byrne is the author the bestselling biographies ‘Perdita’, ‘Mad World’, ‘The Real Jane Austen’, ‘Belle’ and ‘Kick’. She is founder and chief executive of ReLit, the Bibliotherapy Foundation, a charity devoted to the mental health benefits of reading. She is married to Sir Jonathan Bate and lives in Oxford.
Biographer Byrne (The Real Jane Austen) explores Austen's relationship to the theater by placing her letters and novels within the context of popular Georgian-era dramas. While readers naturally associate Austen with the novel, Byrne argues that her use of devices such as comic misunderstandings and dramatic entrances and exits comes from theatrical tradition. Byrne provides a close reading of Austen's various works, with a special emphasis on Mansfield Park's play-related plotline. She draws comparisons between Austen's novels and popular plays of her day, matching Sense and Sensibility's satire to Richard Brinsley Sheridan's The Rivals and noting settings and character types Mansfield Park shares with David Garrick's The Clandestine Marriage. Byrne also explores adaptations of Austen's works for stage and screen, notably A.A. Milne's Miss Elizabeth Bennet and Amy Heckerling's Clueless. At odds with scholarship that casts Austen as provincial and perhaps stodgy, Byrne presents an Austen immersed in her time's popular entertainment, visiting Bath's Theatre Royal and London's Covent Garden, among others, and commenting astutely on performances in her correspondence, from which Byrne quotes liberally. While Byrne's language skews academic, any Austen devotee should appreciate the thorough analysis of the novels and the crediting of previously overlooked influences.