The Genius of Jane Austen by Paula Byrne

The Genius of Jane Austen: Jane Austen, The Theatre, and Why Hollywood Loves Her by Paula Byrne


The Genius of Jane Austen is a fascinating book about Jane Austen’s connection to and interest in the theatre and how her reworking of comedic drama and farce in her novels is comparable to the reworking of her novels into film and television in the modern day. The majority of the book is part biographical and historical account of Austen’s theatrical interest and part close reading of her works in relation to major drama and other comedic work of her time. This is a reissue of Byrne’s earlier book Jane Austen and the Theatre in time for the bicentenary of Austen’s death this year, but with a new look at Austen in Hollywood and on TV to close the book.

From the introduction, Byrne sets out to show the importance of specifically English stage comedy to Austen’s work, but also to the influence of drama in her life and her novels. The first section focuses on Austen’s experience of the theatre, giving details about private performances and about professional theatre at the time. It is an interesting introduction to the theatre of the period through the lens of a famous novelist. References to other works bring in a sense of the literary scene of the late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century, from how Northanger Abbey uses theatre references to parody Burney’s Evelina to pointing out that Austen saw (and greatly enjoyed) the pantomime of Don Juan that Byron famously mentions at the start of his poem.

The second part of the book is about the theatre and Austen’s novels, with a straightforward structure of chapters focusing on certain novels and then interrogating both theatrical sources and theatrical techniques within these works. Casual fans of Austen and students working on certain texts may skim past to their favourite novels, but as a whole it provides an illuminating if rather detailed explanation of many interesting elements of Austen’s novels and how they relate to other texts and to dramatic conventions and stock figures.

The final chapter—the one which allows the word ‘Hollywood’ to be so prominent in the book—is possibly its most enticing part, a fairly critical look at Austen adaptations that argues that the best adaptations actively ‘adapt’ Austen, keeping the spirit of her comedy, but making it work in a different format. Byrne highlights key flaws in many Austen adaptations and gives an extended discussion of the film Clueless and how it adapts Emma more successfully than most straight adaptations of Emma that is fascinating to read. At the end, this seemingly unrelated chapter is brought together by comparing these less traditional adaptations of Austen with her own transformations of dramatic comedy of the eighteenth century, albeit briefly.

Byrne’s book is a great read for Austen fans, with enough depth and footnotes for further information, but without being an unapproachable book of literary criticism. Instead, it serves as an illuminating account of the early nineteenth-century theatre, an interesting take on various parts of Austen’s novels, and a ‘state of the nation’ type look at film and TV adaptations up to the present day. Even those with more of an interest in the general period and its literature than Austen in particular can find good material from the first section in particular, and the final chapter has interesting points that can be related to other overly adapted writers as well, such as Shakespeare who Byrne compares Austen to from the start.