By Penny Ashton
"And what excellent boiled potatoes. It's been many years since I had such an exemplary vegetable." Mr Collins – Pride and Prejudice.
When it comes to the art form of throwing shade, none is as accomplished as that most biting of social commentators, Jane Austen. The 19th-century Queen of Sass died horribly young at only 41, but in her short span, she described some of the most hilariously sarcastic, pompous nitwittery ever committed to parchment.
She could be a grade-A bitch one moment: "The Musgroves had had the ill fortune of a very troublesome, hopeless son; and the good fortune to lose him before he reached his twentieth year"; romantic and swooning the next: "If I loved you less, I might be able to talk about it more", but beating under all her storylines is a heart of comedy salty goodness as delicious as a moist bun.
So having delivered such comic gems as Lady Bertram, "She was a woman who… was of little use and no beauty, thinking more of her pug than her children..." one wonders what exactly did Jane herself find funny?
Let us speculate!
The Prince Regent
Austen was no doubt highly amused when this insufferably entitled root rat, soon to be King George the Fourth, asked that a book be dedicated to him. The Prince Regent, so titled as he governed in place of his father who had gone slightly bonkers but not actually died, was known to be a bit of a philandering dick. But nonetheless, Jane knew what side of her seedcake was buttered and agreed to dedicate Emma to him. This is especially funny as Austen was a signed member of the sisterhood saying of the Prince's wife: "Poor woman, I shall support her as long as I can, because she is a Woman, and because I hate her Husband." But no doubt the dedication helped her sales as if it were a 2019 Woman's Day with Meghan Markle scowling at Kate Middleton on the front.
Jane Austen was the absolute queen of the veiled and not so veiled bitchy takedown. As Mr Bennet says: "'For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbours, and laugh at them in our turn?" In a personal letter from 1801, she says of the unfortunate Mrs Blount, "she has a broad face, white shoes, pink husband, and fat neck". I like to imagine her describing me as "a vapid fame seeking harridan with ridiculous orange hair, a jaw as square as Trafalgar and a chest so voluminous as to topple her over if she wore too ornate a broach".
Many people say that women shouldn't do period comedy... but I beg to differ. The fact that Regency women endured their "monthlies" without ibuprofen, sanitary napkins or tampons is too horrid a notion to contemplate. So I like to imagine that Jane and her sister, Cassandra, sat about drinking sherry punch to ease their lady pangs, then made jokes about their evil Aunt Floella before sobbing over their lost engagements together.
I think that the fact Jane Austen has become a byword for romantic fiction would be of great amusement to the lady herself. It is true her heroines always marry for love, but the more cynical of us note they always marry for money too. Also, the woman who wrote such trembling quotes as: "You pierce my soul. I am half agony, half hope…" never actually got to feel that tremble inside herself. She died unwed in her sister's arms, which though undeniably heartbreaking, are a poor substitute for Rear Admiral Swoonworthy's of the 13th Fleet.
Though Jane's beloved Papa and numerous brothers were vicars, they are undeniably often fodder in her canon. Some are cherished characters, but the odious Mr Collins is one of the best comic creations in literature. Not only is he impressed by vegetables, but his astonishment at being rejected by Elizabeth Bennet is hella funny: "As I must, therefore, conclude that you are not serious in your rejection of me, I shall choose to attribute it to your wish of increasing my love by suspense, according to the usual practice of elegant females.''
If Jane Austen were to be transported in time I believe her takedown of the cataclysmically inept f***-up that is Brexit would be exquisite. "Oh Miss Flopsybottom the country is in such an uproar and it is all due to that most ardent lover of swine, Mr Cameron. He danced with the devilish Mr Farage who, along with the village idiot Boris Johnsoningtonsmithersthwaite, have shafted our once proud nation soundly. All that is to be done is to retire to our beds with fortified port for the constitution and a stockpile of sustenance and medicinal tonics to last til 2050. Oh, and PS, did you see Great Aunt May dancing at the Westminster Ball? She looked to be having some sort of stoke. Quite scandalous."
Austen Found: The Undiscovered Musicals of Jane Austen
Dates: Tue 14 - Sat, May 18, 8.30pm
Venue: Q Theatre Vault
Bookings: comedyfestival.co.nz / 09 3099771