Austen's Women Are Doing It For Themselves

Playwright and actress Rebecca Vaughan on her one-woman show

'It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.' Thus begins one of the most famous 19th century novels in the English language: Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice.

It could be argued that that single, beautifully crafted sentence, with its multitude of social, political and economic subtexts, forms the basis of almost all of Austen’s novels. In characteristically frank fashion, she passes judgement upon the male of the species, without either consulting him or asking his permission. He is at the centre of the debate, yet absent from it.

In contrast, her collection of strong, sparky, mischievous, interfering, ambitious, needy, neglected, obedient, overbearing women have inspired a delightful one-woman show, shortly to begin a tour in Ireland.

English actress Rebecca Vaughan created Austen’s Women as the first production for her newly-formed theatre company, Dyad Productions. It is directed by Guy Masterson, much admired by Northern Ireland audiences for one-man shows like Animal Farm and Under Milk Wood.

Vaughan ran Masterson’s touring company for two years, before deciding to strike out on her own in 2009. When pondering a subject to tackle in her own production, she did not have to look much further than her own book shelves.

'The first Jane Austen book I read was Emma,' Vaughan recalls. 'I was 15. Emma is a brilliant creation: she’s so witty and acerbic. It’s very easy for a teenager to identify with her. She keeps getting everything wrong and never seems to learn from her mistakes. Yet she means well.

'Before going to drama school, I studied English literature at university,' she adds. 'My great passions are literature, history and the stage, and when I formed Dyad, my aim was to try to bring those three elements together.'

Choosing the featured characters for Austen’s Women was, understandably, something of a daunting task to begin with. 'I re-read all the novels several times in preparing for this show and made a list of possible characters. It amounted to 84 names. On that basis, it would have run for about three days!'

Vaughan finally whittled the roll call down to 13, plus a narrator. They include iconic figures like Elizabeth Bennett from Pride and Prejudice, Emma Woodhouse and the Dashwood sisters from Sense and Sensibility, as well as a number of less familiar characters. Vaughan was also keen to preserve Austen’s own narrative voice.

'Jane Austen’s wonderful descriptions and acute observations provide the perfect linkages between the characters,' Vaughan says. 'It was a joy to put together, with every word written by Jane.'

Vaughan is adamant that you do not need to be an Austen expert to enjoy her show. On the contrary, she argues, discovering lesser characters is part of the enjoyment of Austen's Women.

'Audiences may be meeting some women for the first time. I have included the passage in which Mary Musgrove from Persuasion is bewailing the fact that her husband is out enjoying herself while she’s stuck at home with a sick child. And an extract by Mary Stanhope from the epistolary novel The Three Sisters always gets the most laughs.'

Vaughan argues that while Austen’s women are almost entirely defined by their marital status, it is a situation with which the writer herself was clearly uncomfortable.

'She records the way that women were forced to sit around in drawing rooms, waiting for men to come to them, and then she creates characters like Lizzie Bennett, who break the mould by going off to read a book or take a walk,' Vaughan explains.

'Jane herself made a conscious decision not to marry, even though it would have meant she would have been financially better off. She actually turned down two offers and, as a result, had no choice but to move around with her family.

'Her brother didn’t approve of her being a writer and forbade her to have her by-line on her books. Emma was the first to carry her name and only then because it was decreed by the Prince Regent, who was a fan. Her name subsequently appeared on Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, but they were published posthumously.'

Vaughan admits that she is thrilled when her show prompts someone to take his or first step into the literary world of Austen, and believes that the power of theatre often lies in its ability to encourage audiences to learn more about the subject at hand.

'It’s easy to sideline Austen into some kind of period chick-lit category, but she’s so much bigger and braver than that, so very much ahead of her time,' Austen argues. 'She has massive contemporary appeal, her writing is dark, satirical and very, very funny.

'Loads of fans come to the show, many of them dragging along a slightly unwilling partner – usually male!' Vaughan laughs wickedly. 'I just love it when someone says afterwards that they are going to go off and give one of the books a try. I feel then that my job is done.'

Austen’s Women tours to venues throughout Northern Ireland, beginning in the Strule Arts Centre in Omagh on November 9 and finishing in the Island Arts Centre in Lisburn on November 18. Visit What's On for more information.

Before the performance at the Riverside Theatre in Coleraine, Dr Katherine Byrne, a lecturer in English at the University of Ulster, will talk about why women in the 21st century relate so positively to Jane Austen’s heroines and why the novels are so relevant and popular today.