In 2007, with my heart crumbling after a British attack of the tall and handsome kind, I boarded a plane to ply my comedic wares in Canada. The ensuing flight involved a lot of silent crying, snuffling through tiny bottles of wine, and looking for cinematic escapism. Having long been a fan of the bonnet drama, I was excited to watch Becoming Jane, a biopic about the young Jane Austen (Anne Hathaway) and her flirtation with the Irish charmer and possible Mr. Darcy–inspiration, Thomas Langlois Lefroy (James McAvoy).
I was happily immersed in the constitutionals and countenances until I realized that Jane’s romantic life (SPOILER ALERT) wasn’t going to end well. Neither had sufficient means to keep them in pork pies and sherries, and so marriage was impossible for them and they parted ways. Cue more tears from me, more memories of my own failed romance due to geographical impossibilities, and many more tiny wines. Even though I got over the fireman eventually (yes, FIREMAN), the movie always stuck in my mind as an intimate moment between Jane and myself on the nature of romance and insurmountable circumstance.
The following year, on invitation from the Wellington Improv Festival in my native New Zealand, I developed Austen Found, an improvised Austen-esque musical. It was so successful we (delicately) toured it through the country, always carefully covering our ankles as we went. Touring a large show is, however, a strain on one’s purse strings and so I developed a solo show in a similar vein: Promise and Promiscuity. It’s a one-woman musical where I jump between nine different characters who are all Austen archetypes. The sensible sister, the uptight prig, the affable charmer, the liver-spotted duchess, and so on, all tell a typically Jane-esque tale through song, dance, and appalling cross-stitching. Having previously improvised over fourty Austen musicals, I knew how to mine both the laughs and the drama, and used them to bring our heroine Elspeth Slowtree to life.
And then in 2013, just before it ponced upon the stage for the first time I got an email from my uncle in Australia: “You seem to do a lot with Jane Austen, did you know you are related to her boyfriend Thomas Langlois Lefroy? He is your fifth great uncle.”
I couldn’t believe it. James McAvoy… MY uncle! Uncy Thomas (who became the Lord Chief Justice of Ireland) had a nephew who moved to Australia, whose progeny, amazingly, led to me. He is my great-grandmother’s great-grandfather’s brother. Bloody hell.
The story of Tom and Jane suddenly took on extra resonance, particularly in terms of the precarious nature of a woman’s lot in a time when marriage prospects were dictated by her assets (and not the fleshy ones that I am abundant in). Tom went onto to marry a wealthier woman and live to the overripe age of ninety-three after persecuting many a Catholic in Ireland, whereas Jane died relatively poor and unwed at only forty-one, having produced some of the most influential works of the English language.
I therefore hope that my comic tale of a young woman desperate to become a writer in the Regency Age does Jane proud. She lived in a time where a gentlewoman even having a vocation was so unthinkable that Austen herself had to fight to be published for over a decade, and then only did so under the pseudonym “A Lady.” I have borrowed thirty-three of her own genius lines to make my characters sound so much the better and, happily, Beethoven and Strauss et al. let me pilfer from them as well. I do believe Strauss’ “Radetzky March” mashed up with some Mr. Darcy action is a joy to behold.
And, serendipitously, my story has its own Austen-ever-after ending. In March I got married, succumbing to yet another British attack of the tall and handsome kind. Luckily, though, this being 2016, my current assets are more than enough for him.
And… I am forty-two.
Promise & Promiscuity: A New Musical by Jane Austen and Penny Ashton is on at the Randolph Theatre as part of the Toronto Fringe Festival from July 1 to July 9
Click here for tickets or more information