Jane Austen and Performance by Marina Cano

Cover of Jane Austen and Performance by Marina Cano

Cover of Jane Austen and Performance by Marina Cano.

In Jane Austen and Performance, Marina Cano, who teaches English literature at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, explores Jane Austen's enduring popularity, from the 19th century to the present day.  She uses "performance" in the broadest sense of the term, to include not only film and theatrical adaptations, but also fan fiction, both print and online.  I understand her meaning to be, that whenever you adapt a text, in whatever medium, you are "performing" it.  Cano's introduction is mostly about performance theory, and her use of the word "performance", and it might go over the heads of some readers.  But once you get past the rather densely written introduction, the book is a fascinating study.

Cano begins with a discussion of how the women's suffrage movement, in both Great Britain and the United States, used Jane Austen in pageants of great women, and how suffragists wrote plays that included scenes from her novels.  Both ends of the suffrage movement, the more radical and the more conservative, used Austen as an example of a great woman.  This aspect of Austen appreciation has, I think, not often been studied before, and it is fascinating.  Later in the book, Cano contrasts the use of Austen by the women's suffrage movement with the ambivalent attitude toward her that was shown by the women's movement of the 1970s.  According to Cano, many feminists of the 1970s were troubled by Austen because her novels always end with the marriage of the heroine, and so they thought she was reinforcing traditional roles for women.  But what about the fact that Austen herself never married?  This is not fully addressed in the book.  And there were feminists in the 1970s who did appreciate Austen, very much.

The next part of the book discusses Austen's popularity during and immediately after World War I.  Soldiers in the trenches often read her novels, especially Pride and Prejudice, and found comfort in them.  They were also used as part of hospitals' treatment for shell shock.  In the 1920s, many schools and amateur dramatic societies performed scenes from Austen's novels.  Pride and Prejudice was the novel most often chosen for these theatricals, and it was the more comic scenes, especially Mr. Collins' proposal to Elizabeth, that were most frequently dramatized.  Cano believes that it was at this time that Pride and Prejudice became more popular than Austen's other novels, even though I'm not sure she's right about that.  I had heard before that Pride and Prejudice had always been the most popular.  But it's something that definitely deserves further study.  Cano sees in Austen's post-World War I popularity a nostalgic longing for an idealized England of the past, which never really existed.  After all, Austen's world was also a world at war.  As Cano points out, Austen would have appreciated the irony.

In the next section, Cano explores adaptations of Austen's novels, especially Emma, during and immediately after World War II.  She considers Emma the most "English" and patriotic of Austen's novels, and she thinks it struck a chord with readers during wartime.  In one particularly fascinating section of the book, she discusses stage adaptations of Austen in Scotland in the 1940s and 1950s.  Again, this is an area of Austen studies that has been very little explored.  Several companies, some led by English actors whose theaters were destroyed in the London Blitz, performed plays of Pride and Prejudice, Emma, and Northanger Abbey in Scotland.  Cano discusses how the plays added Scottish elements to Austen's novels.  For example, in photographs from a play of Northanger Abbey, the heroine, Catherine, wears a dress of tartan design.

Cano goes on to discuss the wave of Austen popularity following several film and television adaptations in the 1990s, especially the 1995 BBC miniseries of Pride and Prejudice starring Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle, and the 1995 film of Sense and Sensibility directed by Ang Lee and starring Emma Thompson, who also wrote the screenplay.  This was the beginning of the flood of fan fiction based on Austen which continues today and shows no sign of letting up.  Cano seems to believe that the published sequels to Austen's novels from the 1990s, especially those by Joan Aiken and Emma Tennant, were more feminist than many of those written today.  Aiken's novels, especially, feature heroines who do not marry, who work for a living, or who end up living in all-female communities.

The last part of the book is based on a survey that Cano conducted, on several Austen fan sites, where she asked readers which of Austen's novels they had read, and then about their experience with Austen fandom.  She received over 300 responses from over 31 countries, from people aged between 15 and 80.  Interestingly, only 9 respondents identified as male.  Present-day Austen fandom is overwhelmingly female, probably because today's readers identify her novels with the romance genre, even though of course Austen's novels are much more than that.  Cano doesn't explore this as fully as I would have liked, but there is definitely a contrast between today's fandom and Austen's popularity in the period of the world wars, where many male soldiers read her books, and many of the plays based on them were written by men.

Some Austen scholars seem to think that Austen's current popularity is based much more on the adaptations than on the books themselves, and that many fans have not even read the books.  Cano's study, however, shows that this is untrue.  Most of her respondents have read all of Austen's novels.  It is true that many of them read them only after being introduced to them through one of the adaptations.  Several people, who first read Austen in school, disliked her at first, then grew to appreciate her much later.  Many of the respondents read or write fan fiction, even though several express guilt about doing so.  Much of today's fan fiction focuses on the romantic elements in Austen's novels, and includes explicit sex.  There is a divide in the fan community between those who prefer stories set in Austen's time and those who prefer present-day settings.  Many people who responded to the survey have gone through difficult times in their personal or professional lives and find comfort in Austen, much as the soldiers of World War I did.  I highly recommend Cano's book to anyone interested in Austen's popularity over the years.

Jane Austen and Performance is available from the Hatcher Graduate Library.  I also encourage you to visit the exhibit "The Life and Times of Lizzy Bennet" in the Audubon Room at the Hatcher Graduate Library.  Materials from Special Collections relating to Jane Austen's life and times, including early editions of her novels, will be on display until March 30, 2018.  The exhibit opening, with a lecture by exhibit curators Juli McLoone and Sigrid Cordell, will take place on Nov. 30 at 4:00 pm.

2 Comments

Deborah Kondelik
on Nov. 27, 3:27pm

What I understand regarding "performative" references is that Austen's text is highly influenced by her family's productions that she witnessed as a child and later as a writer. And the fact that her language includes phrases such as "I promise, I bequeath, I apologise" which dramatically speaking are acting tactics. Actors are taught that it is not enough to merely speak the dialogue believably but that through the actor's choice of "tactic" the lines "come alive". For example, take the text (which I have just created in order to demonstrate my point): "I am not going with you. I have other things to occupy my time this day." An actor can choose different tactics. With the first sentence let's say I use the tactic, belittle. And with the second sentence I use the tactic, boast. Using those two tactics creates one kind of person. Or I can choose the tactics, apologize and explain. Those tactics would create quite a different person. Austen writes her books like scenes using tactics such as the ones the author submits in the intro. Further, her writing is subject to interpretation because of the fact that it is "performative" and hence subject to the interpretation of a director and the various actors. Another consideration is subtext - what the actor as the character is thinking beneath the actual words he says. Subtext can be another line of dialogue experienced by the actor as s/he speaks the line. For example, the actor who says "I am not going with you" with the tactic of "apologise" may also have the subtext of "I am so in love with you."

Vicki J Kondelik
on Nov. 27, 3:34pm

Yes, this makes a lot of sense. I think this is what the author was saying in her introduction. Thanks for explaining it!

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