This thoughtful and insightful book re-examines Jane Austen successfully, making a strong case for the way in which theatre helped to influence her writing.

When reading any Jane Austen novel today, the first thing that springs to mind is romantic entanglements, but as this clever and detailed book by Paula Byrne proves Austen also had a strong sense of comedy throughout her work. The reason for this? Well Paula Byrne explores the way in which theatre and plays may have influenced her work, with the first section focusing on how her trips to the theatre as well the performances that her and her family would put on when she was growing up stuck with her. This then nicely sets up the second section in which hones even further the ways in which theatre is referred to through her work and the style in which she wrote was influenced by many of the comedies and plays she saw during her lifetime. The final section then shows how her work can still be interpreted in many different ways – but Byrne puts a particular emphasis on how much more successful modern adaptations are when they recognise the sense of comedy can be found behind the stories.

While a lot of the book is analytical, with plenty of references to actors and plays that as modern readers we know less about, Byrne balances this out nicely by ensuring that Jane Austen’s voice is also included to really delve as closely into the way in which Austen constructed her novels as much as possible. In fact, it is equally as interesting to read extracts of Jane Austen’s thoughts and opinions of the plays that she went to see – proving that she would also have made an excellent theatre critic.

By reading The Genius of Jane Austen, as someone who appreciates Austen’s work I was certainly left with a deeper understanding of what she was trying to do with her writing – in particular with regards to Mansfield Park which I have always felt a little awkward and lacking in the liveliness in contrast to her other novels such as ‘Emma’, ‘Pride and Prejudice’ and ‘Sense and Sensibility’ (which are also focused to a lesser extent but still important part of the analysis). However, by seeing it through a different perspective it has made me want to revisit and see it with new eyes. The way in which Byrne sets up each argument that she puts forward makes it a compelling read, particularly when she compares and contrasts ‘Sense and Sensibility’ with Sheridan’s play The Rivals, in terms of plot twists while also ensuring more obvious references to Shakespeare are also included.

Perhaps it could be said that some of the references that Austen makes would slightly go over the modern day readers head and it feels at times that Byrne tries to make everything fit a little too perfectly to her arguments. However, this being said there is plenty to mull over here that makes it deserving a second read.

By Emma Clarendon

The Genius of Jane Austen is available to buy now.

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐


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