BBC Radio 4, 24-28 February 2013
It's interesting how adaptations
can affect individual listeners in very different ways. On its first publication, Lindsay Ashford's imaginative reinterpretation
of Austen's life caused a storm of indignation by suggesting that perhaps the author's early death at the age of forty-one
was perhaps not due to natural causes. Maybe someone was out to silence her for daring to assume the career of a professional
writer at a time when most women were expected to confine their activities to the home and immediate environs. One critic
praised Ashford's work for setting aside the genteel world normally associated with Austen and creating instead a world of
intrigue and jealousy.
Clive Brill's production certainly managed to recreate that atmosphere through an imaginative use of sound-effects;
for example, through the sound of indistinct chatter in the background while the characters spoke, creating a claustrophobic
world in which everyone commented on everyone else's behaviour. There was no such thing as a "private life" - the
characters were perpetually on show, which made Jane Austen's (Elaine Cassidy's) position extremely precarious.
In truth, however, the production
had strong echoes of James' The Turn of the Screw rather than an Austen adaptation. The central character Anne
Sharp (Ruth Gemmell), former governess to the Austen family and Jane Austen's close friend, strongly suspected that foul play
was afoot, but could never really convince anyone that what she thought was true. On several occasions I felt that she
was imagining things, just like the governess in James' story, when she claims to see the ghosts of Miss Jessel and Peter
Quint haunting Bly House. No one else seemed to believe Anne either; what mattered more was that everyone should sustain
a veneer of respectability.
In the end Anne's suspicions were vindicated in a dénouement that was both unexpected and shocking.
Although Brill's production contained its fair share of familiar aural effects associated with Austen's world - the tinkling
of teacups, the trilling of a waltz - it revealed a much less genteel atmosphere underneath, in which petty jealousies
were transformed into murderous instincts.