It may come as a surprise to London bookworms that Jane Austen wrote hundreds and hundreds of novels beyond those she is famous for. The distinguished Austen scholar Professor Sam Patton has spent many years uncovering and verifying these lost works despite the literary establishment's attempts to keep them under wraps.
Fortunately, London audiences can request for any of the forgotten classics of Austen's oeuvre to be performed on stage by the comic players known as Austentatious. Professor Patton tells us more of her remarkable and historic finds and of Austentatious's great work repairing the great writer's missing contribution to culture.
Why did you first choose to search for the forgotten works of Jane Austen?
I've admired Jane Austen since I was a small child and the only books in the house were Pride & Prejudice and the Blue Peter Annual 1973, which was a dry year. Growing up reading her wit, her wordplay and her wondrous storytelling inspired me to study her in more depth and I'm proud to say that I have now even gone as far as to read the entirety of Mansfield Park.
Are there any particular London novels that Jane lost?
Hundreds! Why, just this summer, Austentatious had the pleasure of performing Jane Austen’s Beard & Prejudice in Shoreditch at the Udderbelly on Southbank. Like so many of her novels, it involved copious high-fives, hardcore rave and hipster vernacular.
Other works in Jane’s gritty urban canon include Pride & Prejudice origin stories, Lady Catherine de Borough and Bingley-by-Bow, and, of course, her searing diatribe on East London fashion: Breeches Be Cray-Cray.
Do you think masterpieces such as Pride & Predator have been so over-shadowed by her more genteel works?
Excellent question. Many of her lesser-known works, such as Pride & Predator, The Empire Line Strikes Back and Mansfield Shark have presented a very different side to Austen's already complex style. During our performances we retain the romance and biting satire of polite society from her more popular works, but we add to that science fiction, gore, criminal activity and flesh-eating creatures. I just don't think society has been ready for it. Until now.
There are those in the literary establishment who argue Austen's lost works are best forgotten. Are there any titles you regret recovering?
I would argue that nearly all her works are pure gems. Although her avant-garde nonsense piece, Who's in the Freezer?, which she wrote in two hours, using only the letters a & f is mostly unperformable.
During our performances we retain the romance and biting satire of polite society from her more popular works, but we add to that science fiction, gore, criminal activity and flesh-eating creatures.
What has been your favourite novel to bring to the stage?
Oh, there have been so many wonderful novels. Recently, we have enjoyed Snakes on a Carriage, Strictly Come Darcy, Bath to the Future, and one of her more moving works, Magic Mike at Pemberley. But we are always ready and willing to find more!
How would Jane spend her time in the capital?
While in London, Jane – and, indeed, a few of her characters — enjoyed visiting Astley’s Amphitheatre, home to such tantalising spectacles as SIGNOR LIONARDI’S CABINET OF MONKIES [sic]. Alas, Astley’s was later demolished, but Austen would never let a spot of destruction deter her from the simian pleasures of our great capital.
If Jane felt the urge to experience a cabinet of monkeys today, she would doubtless march straight to the Natural History Museum, London Zoo or, most bestial of all, the Houses of Parliament.
Isn't it fortunate that Austen wrote so many comedies?
Quite. As Jane wrote in Mansfield Park, "Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery." Thank heavens she was so strict. Shame and melancholy were rife amongst pens in the early 1800s, but Jane placed her writing implements under a strict regimen of comedic pursuits to keep their ink levels high.
Few realise that all Jane's comedies — 864 novels, at my last count — were inspired by her much-loved pen collection. In an early draft of Pride and Prejudice, charmingly dry felt-tip, Elizabeth Pennet, is drawn to the shady Mr. Bic-ham, but, happily, Lizzy gets Penberley, while Bic-ham's nib ends up in Lid-ia.
Jane's beloved books have been adapted and re-imagined so many times one can sometimes scarcely recognise them. What, for example, would Jane think of the take on London life that is Bridget Jones's Diary?
Judging by Jane’s own diary, I strongly suspect she and Bridget would get on.
Saturday 3 December 1802
8 stone 4 (v.g. - equivalent of 5 obese pugs), libations 9 (orange wine 5, negus 1, bowls of spiked trifle 3), snuff 4 boxes (crisis), food copious.
8 a.m. Aargh. Where am I? Tongue feels like dead squirrel. Want cheese.
8.04 a.m. Oh God. Harris Bigg-Wither proposed. Said yes. OH GOD.
8.30 a.m. Ugh. Cassandra stopped me from climbing out of the window. Will let Harris down gently, as soon as I find other shoe. Cannot in good conscience marry someone I do not love. Sigh. Cheese pangs now urgent.
4 p.m. Told Harris no. V. relieved not to be hitched to a man whose surname sounds like a gigantic look of despair, but now convinced I am a witch. Keep thinking about Tom Lefroy. En route to Steventon in carriage. Contents: hideous emotional baggage; Cassandra; 3½ pairs of shoes.
10.37 p.m. Feel soooooo muchbetter. Who neeza husbands? Gonna marry dis trifle. Ooh, cheese! Gah. A singlewoman in possession ovagood stilton mussbe in wantova knife.
By Jenni Ajderian.
Crosstentatious charity show
The group will also perform a special charity version of the show in aid of the Pancreatic Cancer Research Fund with the girls dress as boys and the boys dress as girls: Crosstentatious plays at Leicester Square Theatre, 9 Jan, 7pm, Tickets: £12.50/£10.