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In October 2020 we began working with the Jane Austen’s House to create online content inspired by Austen’s Teenage Writings: works described by her father as, ‘Effusions of Fancy By a very Young Lady Consisting of Tales In a Style entirely new’. To anyone entirely new to the teenage Jane, these pieces are a revelation: throwaway, uninhibited, full of slapstick and dark humour, pastiche, exaggeration and in-jokes for her audience of family and friends. ‘The Author’, as she styles herself, is an observant, precocious teenager with a wild imagination, and she lets it loose on the page.

Kathryn Sutherland’s note that these pieces were not prepared for publication but for ‘sociable reading’ and ‘circulation and performance among family and friends’[1] stuck with us. We learnt that Jane’s family audience, especially her niece Anna Lefroy and nephew James Edward Austen, would comment on and contribute to – even later rewrite – her stories. Exciting parallels with social media posts, improv theatre, mash-ups, fan fiction and interactive or open source online content started to emerge.

Given an intensive timeframe, we dived in and began working with theatre director Matthew Blake and a group of seven young actors trained in devising at RADA to develop short sketches inspired by stories from ‘Volume the First’ (as it is titled with mock-grandeur) of Austen’s Teenage Writings. Lockdown 2 arrived just in time to push our first workshop online. Cue: a fun few hours sharing memes, trying to group narrate Austen’s stories from memory and remembering to ‘unmute’. Devising continued in person, with face masks on and 2m distancing. We reassured ourselves with the thought that men and women were only marginally more likely to get within touching distance in public in Regency times.

Favourite characters soon emerged from a vibrant cast – ranging from Alice ‘who had many rare and charming qualities, but Sobriety was not one of them’, and the Beautifull Cassandra (named after Austen’s sister) who runs wild in London for the day, to Sir William Mountague, aristocratic serial lover and ‘Shot’, and the gorgeous – oh, and he knows it – Charles Adams, whose gaze can clear a room. Austen’s original stories are animated by pastiche, parody, irony and an irreverent, magpie attitude to the literature of her time. In the same spirit, our actors chose not to adapt the precise content of her stories but to creatively riff on the ideas found in them.

The final films were shot over a weekend at the end of the winter lockdown in London and, after a period of loving editing and post-production work, are here for you to enjoy and be inspired by. Comments, contributions, revivals and rewrites welcome!

With special thanks to actors Rachel Barnwell, Leopold Benedict, Jonathan Aubrey-Bentley, Bartel Jespers, Bertille Mirallie, Zoe Moore, and Anita Pomario.

[1] Kathryn Sutherland and Freya Johnston (eds.) Jane Austen, Teenage Writings (OUP, 2017), p.xi

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