One of the most exciting events of my life took place during my trip to England last summer. Any trip to Chawton is an emotional and exciting experience for the Jane Austen lover, of course, whether you visit the Cottage museum on your own, attend a conference at the grandly restored Chawton House Library, or just walk down the village street, imagining Austen there, and perhaps settling down to enjoy a Victoria sponge at Cassandra’s Cup, while gazing happily at the Cottage itself.
Chawton House Library, our stage
Before the performance
But now, as Jane Austen wrote in Pride and Prejudice, “give a loose to your fancy” – and can you imagine having a play that you wrote, put on at Chawton House Library, and just to top things off, actually acting in it yourself? Well, that’s what happened to me! It was such an intoxicating, utterly unique experience, I knew I must share it with you.
Diana Birchall and Syrie James in costume in the Chawton House gardens
In July, Chawton House Library put on a wonderful conference celebrating the bicentenary of Charlotte Bronte’s birth. Set in that beautiful locale, with a program chock filled with marvelous speakers, it was a mostly academic conference, but a very lively and fascinating one. Good talks, walks in the Chawton gardens, the delight of simply being there for a few days, was completely magical, but rather than describe it all fully, I’ll direct you to the conference website for reference, and go on with my own story.
My play is called “You are Passionate, Jane,” and it has had several staged readings in different U.S. locations, but this was its English debut. And England was really where it “belonged to be,” for the play is a dialogue between Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte, set in Heaven. The two never met in real life (Charlotte was born the year before Jane Austen died), but I imagined a Heaven where Jane Austen is the arbiter who decides which literary figures will ascend into honours and bliss after her. And she takes a very dim view of Charlotte, who gave some pretty “severe Philippics” about Austen and her writing. So the play is a comedy, and the title is actually taken from Jane Eyre – the scene where nasty Mrs. Reed says to poor young Jane, “You are passionate, Jane, that you must allow.” The phrase can be taken to mean both Janes, Austen and Eyre.
For each of the staged readings, I have read Charlotte myself. Being dark, and passably “small and insignificant” in appearance, it is a part I can feel reasonably physically comfortable in. And I can imagine Charlotte as very decorous and soft spoken, but with passion, emphasis, and clarity of emotion, just below the surface! I never would have succeeded for one nanosecond in this part, however, had I not had my friend and sometime co-writer (we’ve written two plays for JASNA AGMs together), the notable best-selling authoress Syrie James, to play “my” image of Jane Austen. Syrie, the author of such accomplished and popular works as Jane Austen’s First Love and The Secret Diaries of Charlotte Bronte, has exactly the witty manner and demeanor that I imagined for my celestial Jane Austen, and it is no surprise to me that she has had great success in the part! This allows me, a non-actress, to relax and be her foil, since Syrie is a more experienced and accomplished stage presence. I do have the bonus however of being able to read my own words just as I want them to be said; and so, with lots of rehearsals and much admonishment about my Diaphragm, Syrie and I have managed to work jolly well together! And there never was such fun.
In the gardens as Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte
So on the appointed day I took the train from London to Alton, and had an excited reunion with Syrie and her husband Bill. We drove to Chawton, for a short visit to the cottage. Chawton was looking sublime, piercingly green fields spangled with little white daisies and yellow buttercups under a sunny sky, and blossoming trees. Then we drove to Gilbert White’s house in Selborne, four miles from Chawton, where the naturalist lived and wrote The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne, a few years before Jane Austen’s family became his neighbours. I’d been to Selbourne before, delighted in White’s book, and wanted to visit again because the grounds and the hanging woods are so beautiful, and I was eager to show it all to Syrie and Bill.
We had a beautiful lunch at the café – thick slices of English country ham and cheddar, beautiful fresh cloudy apple juice, and tea and a fresh Victoria sponge. (Do you get the idea I like those?) We took a short survey of the house and the ultra green grounds, which brought this passage from Mansfield Park to mind:
“… the young people, meeting with an outward door, temptingly open on a flight of steps which led immediately to turf and shrubs, and all the sweets of pleasure–grounds, as by one impulse, one wish for air and liberty, all walked out.”
We then went for a hike straight up the gorgeous Zig-Zag (switchbacks carved in 1753) and walked in the shady hanging woods. Then we drove back to our Alton hotel for an early night, as the play was the following evening. We enjoyed the conference talks all day, though I took a break to visit the church and the graves of Mrs. Austen and Cassandra.
Our audience, in the beautiful room
And then it was time to walk back to Chawton House Library, to get ready for the performance. While our audience was finishing their dinner, Syrie and I got into our costumes. She creates her own exquisite Regency gowns, but fortunately Charlotte is plainer-dressed than Jane, and I can make do with a navy blue silk Chico’s Victorian style jacket, long black chiffon skirt, button-up boots, and my grandmother’s locket.
Before the curtain
And the play began! I could hardly believe it was real, that we were standing in the lovely wood-panelled room, with an attentive academic audience gazing at us. Fortunately, our previous performance experiences kicked in, and Syrie and I were thoroughly in the parts and in the moment. People laughed, and the applause at the end went on and on – I remember looking at her and saying, “It’s not stopping!” I took an “Author!” call, and that has got to be one of the most thrilling moments a writer can ever have. Almost best of all, we were approached by a director of the Morgan Library in New York afterwards, and asked if we might be interested in putting on the play there. It didn’t happen – their Bronte conference had other choices in the end – but during the discussion I was intensely aware that this was the greatest affirmation of my writing, to be considered by such an institution, that I had ever had, or probably ever would have.
And that’s it. Syrie and Bill went on for a blissful tour of Ireland, while I enjoyed the rest of a beautiful trip that included visits to Mitford country, Cambridge, Petworth, Hungerford, Ham House, and much more…you can read about my travels on my own blog, Light, Bright and Sparkling (www.lightbrightandsparkling.blogspot.com), though I must caution that, exciting as my adventures always have been to me, I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed a better one than doing my play at Chawton!