Unseen Austen by Judith French

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BBC Radio 4, 25 September 2008

This often witty and hilarious spoof of Pride and Prejudice envisioned a situation where the two younger Bennet sisters, Lydia (Jodie Whittaker) and Kitty (Jill Cardo), endeavoured to write back to the author and create a new book for themselves. Rather than conforming to Austen’s rather limited conceptions of female behaviour, they wanted to act in a more ‘natural’ manner; this included using colloquial language and admitting their real feelings for the men in their lives. Lizzie Bennet (Clare Corbett) was their sworn enemy, who not only trusted in Austen’s judgment but also fought tooth and nail to remain the heroine of the novel.


Tiring of listening to her sister, Lydia tried to rewrite the story. She believed that what the male suitors most really wanted of their women was not status or femininity but “hot sex and the best apple dumplings in Hertfordshire.” Dismissing Austen as “a stuck-up prick,” Lydia invaded the manuscript and transformed it into a full-blooded melodrama with herself as the heroine, who runs off with Wickham (Chris Paulo). Meanwhile Darcy (Gunnar Cauthery) is left on the sidelines with little to do except complain about not being involved much in the action; he is too much of a wimp to be a melodramatic hero. Lydia has great fun as an Austenian Wicked Lady, riding bareback in a ripped bodice, using the soubriquet Bareback Bessie. Tiring of that particular story, she subsequently imagines herself in a remake of the Swiss Family Robinson, with herself as the captain and the sisters as the unwilling crew.


What makes this play more interesting, however, is that French suggests that Austen herself really wanted to write this kind of novel, but felt herself constrained by the conventions of the period. Instead she created a comedy of manners, relegating Lydia to the cast of minor characters and foregrounding Lizzie instead. The author reasserts her rights as the creator of Pride and Prejudice, leaving Lydia to reflect on what might have been. However the youngest sister does enjoy one compensation: Austen sends her a letter congratulating her on her imagination and her lack of principle. While a lot of what Lydia says and does is nonsense, she represents what the author would like to have been. As a reward Lydia is sent to Brighton with Wickham, with a gift of Fanny Hill. One scarcely needs to wonder what she would get up to once she arrived there.


On the one level, Unseen Austen was an extremely funny play, clearly suggesting that the dialogue in Pride and Prejudice was little more than a fašade, a series of conventions observed by the Bennet sisters in the hope of obtaining husbands. In reality they were red-blooded young women seeking pleasure in whatever form they could. On another level, Judith French deliberately treated Pride and Prejudice as a postmodern text whose author has very little control over her characters. They exist as separate beings in the readers’ minds, just as they exist in the listeners’ minds in this play. If nothing else, postmodernism has taught us that there are limitless possible interpretations of a text, whether literary or otherwise. Unseen Austen proved beyond doubt the truth of this statement.

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