Saturday, October 6, 2018

Jane Austen's Epitaph

A woman, especially, if she have the misfortune of knowing anything, should conceal it as well as she can.
 - Jane Austen, "Northanger Abbey"
"Pride and Prejudice"
Amy Keum, Kailey Boyle, Laura Welsh Berg
Idaho Shakespeare Festival
Photo: DKM Photography
Tonight is opening night for the Great Lakes Theater production of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, directed by Joseph Hanreddy from the play script adapted by Hanreddy and J.R. Sullivan. It appears to be a sumptuous production, and I am already a great fan of Hanreddy’s direction. Previously for GLT he has helmed epic, modern interpretations of King Lear (2015) and Richard III (2013).

My own experience with the works of Jane Austen are limited. By that I mean, I have never read any of her work. I have the same working knowledge of many Americans my age and gender. I have seen Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility (screenplay by Emma Thompson) and Emma, which may have starred Gwyneth Paltrow but is more notable for introducing American audiences to Alan Cumming, Toni Collette and Ewan McGregor.

Last fall I took an unusual journey to Winchester, England. My niece Lydia was graduating from the university, she who was the inspiration for everyone’s favorite character in I Hate This, who was at that time an inquisitive six year-old.

Though I wanted to attend the ceremony, last fall was particularly difficult as my wife was spending most weekends out of town, assisting her father through the final stages of cancer. Leaving town for even a week seemed to me to be terribly selfish. But my mother, who was eighty-two was certainly going to go, and she could use my assistance and my company. Honestly, I thought, I could also use hers.

Winchester Student Union
We spent a lovely few days in Winchester, this was almost a year ago. October, 2017. It was cold, a little damp, but the company was pleasant and we did make the best of our trek. Lydia gave us a tour of her campus, and it was then I learned the strong connection the place has made with Austen, who spent her final years in the city. It is not often you find a large mural of a nineteenth century author in a university cantina.

Her graduating class was enormous. The ceremony was held in the vast and cavernous Winchester Cathedral, even so there were seven commencements, morning and afternoon, for four days. If she had participated in that afternoon's event the keynote speaker would have been David Suchet (of Poirot fame) receiving an honorary degree.

On our way to our seats I noticed David Suchet also narrates the cathedral's audio tour.

It was until we were filing out that someone indicated that the final resting place of Jane Austen was right over there. Right over there? Yes! Right there, in the cathedral. I shimmied my way between folding chairs to the “North Aisle” where I noticed displays about the author. But where was she? Under my feet.
In Memory of JANE AUSTEN, youngest daughter of the late Revd GEORGE AUSTEN, formerly Rector of Steventon in this County. She departed this Life on the 18th of July 1817, aged 41, after a long illness supported with the patience and the hopes of a Christian. The benevolence of her heart, the sweetness of her temper, and the extraordinary endowments of her mind obtained the regard of all who knew her and the warmest love of her intimate connections. Their grief is in proportion to their affection, they know their loss to be irreparable, but in their deepest affliction they are consoled by a firm though humble hope that her charity, devotion, faith and purity have rendered her soul acceptable in the sight of her REDEEMER.
She was published. She was popular. She was anonymous. Her works attributed to "a lady" the author of Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility and Emma and Northanger Abbey and Mansfield Park and so on, were revealed by her own brother to be Jane Austen. But her original epitaph made clear that her greatest contribution was to have been her father's daughter.

Looking up I saw a newer, golden plaque, set into the stone of the wall.
Jane Austen. Known to many by her writings, endeared to her family by the varied charms of her character and ennobled by her Christian faith and piety was born at Steventon in the County of Hants, December 16 1775 and buried in the Cathedral July 18 1817. "She openeth her mouth with wisdom and in her tongue is the law of kindness".
Next to that, a modern contribution, to more clearly set the record straight. It reads in part:
The grave of Jane Austen … with its inscription which gives no indication that she was one of the greatest English writers.
One of the greatest English writers. Perhaps its greatest author, though fans of Dickens might disagree. (Shakespeare, of course, is not an author. He's a poet and a playwright.) Not the greatest woman author, no qualification necessary. The greatest English author, full stop.

We do not generally grant women the appellations of absolute superiority. Serena Williams is the greatest female athlete. Meryl Streep at greatest female film actor. Jane Austen the greatest female author in the English language.

"Though she be but little, she is fierce."
A Midsummer Night's Dream, III.ii
When we call to strip these gender-based qualifications, inevitably there are those who would question why we need to establish supremacy. When women step to the line and cross it, we simply take the line away.

The wife was in Washington, D.C. today, to protest the advancement of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court of the United States of America. We did not believe it would make any difference, but when you have the opportunity to speak up, to make yourself heard, even in the face of disaster, you must seize that opportunity.

And she was heard, indeed, she made a speech and it was broadcast on C-SPAN. She also writes plays.

Pride and Prejudice at Great Lakes Theater is presented in rotating repertory with the musical Mamma Mia! which opened with a bang last weekend. A woman-centered musical paired with the adaptation of a beloved female author.

Dobama Theatre presents a season of work written entirely by female playwrights. The current season at Talespinner Children’s Theatre, also written entirely by local, woman playwrights. Women lead the way. One day the government will follow.

But not today.

Great Lakes Theater presents Jane Austen's "Pride and Prejudice" adapted by Joseph Hanreddy and J.R. Sullivan at the Hanna Theatre through November 4, 2018.

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