You might think from this title that our meeting dealt with drama and clothing in Emma, but you would be wrong. My title is intentionally misleading, just to draw you in! In fact, we had two topics at our November meeting. One was a discussion, led by member Marilyn, of the role of drama in Jane Austen’s writing, with particular reference to Emma, our book of the year. The second was intended to be a report on the recent Jane Austen Festival in Bath, by member Aylwen, but morphed into being a presentation on historical clothing of the period. It made for a pretty long meeting, but an interesting one nonetheless.
Drama and Jane Austen
Marilyn’s discussion was inspired by her reading, for a previous meeting, Penny Gay’s book Jane Austen and the theatre. Marilyn looked first at what we know or can presume about Jane Austen’s knowledge and experience of the theatre. We actually know quite a bit, through her letters in which she often mentions plays she’d seen or read and through her reference to theatre in the novels. Drama was a major form of entertainment at the time – and family theatricals were a popular pastime in the Austen family.
The issue that most fascinated Marilyn – and that she wanted to explore with us – is Penny Gay’s argument that Austen’s narrative style is strongly informed by her understanding of drama. She argues that Austen’s love of theatre enabled her to see theatricality in everyday life. The codified behaviour at balls, for example, represents the social hierarchy. The village, she says, became Austen’s stage.
Many scenes in her novels read like plays which make them easy to adapt to film. And Emma, for example, could be seen as a 3-act play:
- ACT 1: Emma is the gullible audience of Frank
- ACT 2: the lead up to Box Hill, and Emma’s realisation of the error of her ways
- ACT 3: Emma’s realisation of her love for Mr Knightley.
We wondered in fact whether the 3-volume novel that was pretty standard at the time had some origin in the 3-act play. Anyhow, this notion of the dramatic in Austen’s work is very likely to be raised again as we move onto our 2010 book, Mansfield Park!
Aylwen started by talking about the Jane Austen Festival at Bath – its busy-ness and the Guiness Book of Record for the largest gathering of people dressed in Regency costume. However, the highlight of her talk was the show-and-tell of authentic Regency clothes. Even our male member Bill found it interesting to have a hands-on experience of clothing of the time. Among the items Aylwen showed us were gorgeous satin dance shoes, dresses, a spencer, children’s clothing, bonnets and reticules. She also handed around a delicate piece of Regency muslin, which made most of us think of Henry Tilney’s display of his knowledge of muslin in Northanger Abbey. He says that he knows muslins
Particularly well; I always buy my own cravats, and am allowed to be an excellent judge; and my sister has often trusted me in the choice of a gown. I bought one for her the other day, and it was pronounced to be a prodigious bargain by every lady who saw it. I gave but five shillings a yard for it, and a true Indian muslin. (Ch. 3)
Again, this won’t be the last time we talk about clothing – if only because clothing then, as now, is part of the social fabric (hmmm….). It tells us about the society of the time – what you wear plays a big role in what you can do, how you are seen, and so on – and can illuminate character (as the above quote about Henry Tilney clearly does)!