Room 2: Theatre and film adaptations in the 1940s

The first half of the twentieth century saw a keen interest in Jane Austen on the home front. The 1930s and ’40s saw the first adaptions of Austen’s novels: in 1935 Helen Jerome’s adaption of Pride and Prejudice ran for 219 performances on Broadway and 317 performances on the West End. This adaption became the basis for the 1940 film of the novel starring Greer Garson and Laurence Olivier.

In May 1940 the Jane Austen Society was founded to foster the study of Jane Austen, and promote public enjoyment and appreciation (Lane, 2016). It must be remembered that, whilst these adaptions and organisations were happening, World War Two raged on, and they cannot be untangled from the context of the conflict. For example, Pride and Prejudice (1940) was filmed whilst areas of Europe were invaded and was released 16 days after the beginning of the Battle of Britain.

On 7 February 1945, 3 months before Victory in Europe Day, St James Theatre presented Emma. This is believed to be the first production of the novel to appear on a London stage. Its performances were at times interrupted by air raids. The actress Anna Neagle, who played Emma, wrote: ‘They responded exactly as we had hoped: it was a happy tour for me’. Neagle was a Jane Austen fan who joined the society in 1948 and named her home in Elstree ‘Hartfield’.

Object: Theatre Poster for Emma at the St James’s Theatre
February – April 1945

This stage adaptation was written by Gordon Glennon and starred Emma Neagle. The show was successful, although it was in competition with London’s air raids and the V1 “Doodlebug” and V2 rockets that fell on London at the time. A V2 exploded very close to the theatre during one evening performance.