Family theatricals, December 1787

Our next scene is set in the winter of 1787. Jane Austen has just had her twelfth birthday. We must imagine we are in the large barn at Steventon Rectory with the Austen children…

Firstly we have James, the eldest. George comes next but he isn’t here – he has fits and has been sent to live with another family, where he can be looked after. Then come Edward and Henry. Next comes Cassandra, who is quiet and sensible, and then Francis (Frank), Jane and little Charles.

They are a bright, boisterous, clever, creative family. They love playing games and telling stories. James is the writer of the family. He has recently returned from a trip to France and he is wild about theatricals. He masterminds a plan to put on a play…

The Austens’ cousin Eliza is here too. Older than the others, she was born in India and has lived in London, Germany and France. There she met a Count and married him; she is now the stylish and entrancing Comtesse de Feuillide. Her younger cousins are all besotted with her.

Eliza adores the theatre too and is enthusiastic about the plan to produce plays of their own. She writes to her cousin Phylly Walter to invite her to join the party…

Read Eliza’s letter 📝 or listen to an extract 🎧

Phylly, however, is not enthusiastic. Reading her reply, it is hard not to think of Fanny Price in Mansfield Park

‘They go at Xmas to Steventon & mean to act a play, Which is the Man? and Bon Ton. My uncle’s barn is fitting up quite like a theatre, & all the young folks are to take their part. The Countess is Lady Bob Lardoon in the former and Miss Tittup in the latter. They wish me much of the party and offer to carry me, but I do not think of it. I should like to be a spectator, but am sure I should not have courage to act a part, nor do I wish to attain it.’
Phila Walter to James Walter, 19 September 1787

Listen to the extract 🎧

They paint scenery and fix up the barn like a real theatre. Here they perform comedies, such as Bon Ton, The Wonder, and High Life below Stairs. Eliza takes the leading roles, flirting and showing off. James writes a prologue and epilogue for The Wonder, the words are spoken by Eliza.

Read the prologue 📖 or listen to it below 🎧

Jane may have acted in the family theatricals too. One of the plays performed was Fielding’s satire Tom Thumb. The diminutive hero was often played by a child, so it is possible that Jane took on the role. If not, she was certainly watching with glowing eyes fixed on the stage, a life-long love of theatre beginning to take root.

Jane was writing her own stories and sketches at this time, including an extraordinary short play entitled ‘The Mystery, an unfinished Comedy’. Later, in Mansfield Park, she wrote about amateur theatricals, displaying her understanding of all the glamour and allure of play-acting:

‘Happily for him, a love of the theatre is so general, an itch for acting so strong among young people, that he could hardly out-talk the interest of his hearers. From the first casting of the parts to the epilogue it was all bewitching, and there were few who did not wish to have been a party concerned, or would have hesitated to try their skill.’