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A City Full of Swindlers by Jenny Howarth

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BBC Radio 4, 7 May 2009
 
Based on a true story, A City Full of Swindlers tells the story of the Leigh-Perrots, close friends of the Austen family, who endure considerable humiliation as a result of a (wrongful) accusation against Jane Leigh-Perrot (Pamela Miles). Having been to a local milliner's shop to buy lace, Jane is sent to jail on a trumped-up charge of stealing; if found guilty, the punishment will either be death by hanging or transportation to Australia. Her husband James (Tim Pigott-Smith) protests, but there seems little they can do to prevent the apparently relentless course of justice. It is only due to the wiles of their defence counsel - who exposes the conspiracy behind the charge - that Jane walks free to continue life as one of Bath's bourgeoisie.
 
At one level Howarth's play focuses on class conflict: the shop staff enjoy the sight of one of their social superiors enduring public humiliation, and are prepared to commit perjury to continue it. The Leigh-Perrots show admirable stoicism as they insist on the truth of Jane's story, while denying every (false) assumption levelled against them in court. James in particular proves a tower of strength by supporting his wife throughout (even if it results in financial ruin), and willingly paying the legal costs (over 1000) to secure her freedom.
 
At another level A City Full of Secrets explodes the myth that the Austen family lived a safe, comfortable life of endless parties and balls in which the highlight of each day consists of one family paying a social call on another. The play is narrated by Austen's sister Cassandra (Lucy Black), a skittish girl who reports the events with a mixture of sympathy and ghoulish zeal. While sympathizing with the Leigh-Perrots' plight, she found the whole affair an endless source of gossip. Her complacency is abruptly disrupted, however, as she discovers that her father has decided to move her entire family to Bath. Now she and sister Jame would be at the mercy of the "city full of swindlers."
 
Sara Davies' entertaining production proved beyond doubt that the Austen family biography contained certain unsavoury elements that listeners might need to know, if they are to understand what prompted Jane to write her novels. Perhaps she deliberately created her self-contained social world as a response to the Leigh-Perrots' experiences.

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