Following sneak previews at FRESH LINES at Somerset House in London earlier this year, Austen Sisters will appear at Wells Theatre Festival for two performances only on July 12 and 13. Susannah and Nelly Harker tell us more about their new show AUSTEN SISTERS.
Why did you decide to focus on Jane’s relationship with her sister Cassandra?
We are real-life sisters, so we immediately found ourselves drawn to this relationship. We knew that Jane and Cassandra were lifelong companions and that when they were away from each other they were relentless correspondents. Only 161 of Jane’s letters to her sister survive – but it is likely that there were many hundreds more – and these give us an enticing window into the nature of their bond. However, it is an incomplete picture. Cassandra actually burnt a significant part of this correspondence when she was an older woman, many years after Jane’s death. We found this intriguing. Cassandra was like an incredibly ruthless editor. We were interested in what might have motivated this purge. Was she worried about these letters sullying Jane’s legacy? Was it an act of loyalty? Was there some terrible secret? We liked the idea of exploring Jane and Cassandra’s relationship through the prism of their correspondence, but also through the gaps created by Cassandra’s fire.
Does being real life sisters help bring anything extra to the Jane and Cassandra relationship you are portraying? Have you worked together before?
We have worked together before in an Ayckbourn play called Round and Round the Garden. We laughed a lot, in fact far too much – so much that we swore that we must never work together again. But here we are!
Being real-life sisters gives us a natural feeling for the short-hands sisters use, and also a really grounded way to understand the complexities and ambivalences of these relationships.
We also have Jane and Cassandra’s mother in the play, Mrs Austen [Also played by Susannah]. Aside from each other, she was the major woman in the sisters lives in a world that was dominated by men. It felt necessary to look at the Jane and Cassandra relationship as part of this triad.
People are very attached to their own particular ideas of Jane Austen. How did you get to know and create the Jane we see in the play?
When we think of Jane Austen, it is easy to think of her as the successful author she became – but given that she had written three novels by the age of 23, and was not published until she was 36, recognition and professional success were a long time coming. There was a fallow period in which Jane she was unable to complete any novels, was financially insecure, unsettled and itinerant and, crucially for a woman of her era, unmarried. We wondered what it would be like to see Jane come alive during this period. She was a strong-minded, unmarried woman who had already written three novels (albeit unpublished). She cannot have been entirely passive. She faced important choices. We wanted to explore what these might have been.
Our play begins in Southampton in 1809, towards the end of Jane’s fallow period. We have focused on the Austen women, Jane, Cassandra and Mrs Austen, and on the many domestic dilemmas they faced. We also go back in time, encompassing the parties of Jane and Cassandra’s early womanhood, the fun and frivolity of their youth and some of the times when they escaped the strictures of regency England and felt the world open up in unexpected ways.
Our play [Written by Nelly Harker and Joel Pearcey] is a largely imagined exploration of Jane at this time. But within the play we have adapted some of Jane’s letters as well as some of the more famous and lesser-known characters from her books – see if you can spot them.
And, finally, Susannah, you played Jane Bennet in the 1995 BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. Would you tell us a little more about that?
It was a privilege to be involved in the kind of production that comes around only once in a generation or so. It seemed to really catch people’s imaginations and speak to them directly. Even today, 24 years on, I meet people for whom that production meant, and still means, a lot. But that, I suppose, is the power of Jane.