In celebration of the 200th anniversary of the first publication of Sense and Sensibility I had promised to write at least one post about the book each week. I failed in that vow last week, so there is much make up.
Today, I thought you might like to see what was in effect the first professional adaptation of a scene from Sense and Sensibility. It was written in 1911 by Rosina Filippi, the actress,and was included in her book, Dualogues and Scenes from the Novels of Jane Austen arranged and adapted for Drawing Room Performance. The frontispiece is shown above.
Above is one of the few existing photographs of the actress. She is shown on the left, in a performance of The Gay Gordans, together with her fellow actor Seymour Hicks, and below on the right in the same production.These are both Edwardian postcards I have in my collection.
She was an acclaimed actress, famed for her comedic roles, who also ran a drama school: Sir Felix Alymer was one of her most successful students.
She was obviously a fan of Jane Austen’s works, which prompted her, in part, to write the scenes, and in the Introduction to her book she comments :
Jane Austen as a novelist has won and maintained a place in the first rank, but as a writer of true comedy she has been too long unrecognised. She is essentially dramatic, and her characters assume shape, form and colour; her plots are human, her people are alive. No individual in any of her novels degenerates into caricature, yet there is not one but has a touch of the humourous in his or her composition.
How strange it seems now that Jane Austen’s humour was not fully appreciated by late 19th century readers!
Her dualogues and scenes are complete in themselves and in them one appreciates the maxim of Alexandre Dumas who declared that the only essentials for a play were “une passion, deux personages et un paravent” (which translates as “an enthusiasm, two people and a screen”-jfw).
Her other motive for writing the book was the dearth of good duologues and one-act plays available and suitable for amateur performance at the time:
The acting rights of the best pieces being reserved, it is difficult for the uninitiated to obtain them: moreover it is expensive and so the orange covered book is sought and a play neither clever nor interesting selected simply because it is found to contain the requisite number of characters and has no elaborate scenery
She was very strict about how her scenes were to be performed: though they were intended for amateurs she was very insistent that proper costumes should be worn:
Keeping therefore to this rule, these scenes should be represented with no scenery whatever ( by scenery I mean stage,proscenium, footlights and curtain) but it is essential that the accurate costume of the day should be worn; for thought the plot and sentiments throughly appeal to the modern mind, the language belongs to a past generation, and an incongruity would arise were it spoken in modern dress.
Indeed, she gave instructions for the exact type of clothes to be worn by the amateurs,which were inserted in the text: and ensured that her illustrator, Margaret Fletcher,included a pen and ink sketch of the type of costume to be worn in each scene. This is what she recommended for the Sense and Sensibility scene, which involves only Mr and Mrs John Dashwood.
Here is Miss Fletcher’s sketch ( do note you can enlarge it by clicking on it):
The scene Miss Filippi chose to adapt for amateur performance from Sense and Sensibility is almost the whole of Chapter 2. This is the famous section where Fanny Dashwood attempts and succeeds in subverting John Dashwood’s rush of empathy for his step family. She succeeds in persuading him to forget his deathbed wish made to his father and to give the Dashwood ladies no financial aid whatsoever.
Miss Phillip makes this point in the introduction about the difficulties of adapting scenes:
In order to make the plots clear and the dualogues intelligible to those of the audience who are unacquainted with the novles themselves, a few words in monologue form have sometimes been added to the text- the greatest care being taken however to keep as much as possible to the spirit of the original – while for dramatic effect and finish, the time or place of action has often been changed from a garden or street scene to that of an interior least the absence of scenery should be felt by the actors or audience.
She does get some tiny details wrong- Mrs Dashwood’s china and linen came from her previous home Stanhill,and was not part of the Norland estate for example- but in the main the character of Jane Austen’s masterful chapter is kept. Here is part of the text for you to have a small taste of the adaptation:
In order for you to get the full effect of the scene as adapted by Miss Filippi, I have created a page full of scans of the whole section of the book which you can access here ( note you can enlarge the pages by clicking on them)and from the AustenOnly Sense and Sensibility Page. I do hope you will enjoy reading them ,and advise you do so while also looking at Chapter 2 of Sense and Sensibility so that you can easily compare the two
All in all I find these scenes to be mostly accurate and intriguing, giving us glimpses into how Jane Austen was first appreciated by a wider audience .The amateurs for whom this book was written were obviously highly competent performers, in my humble opinion. This is a charming book, which gives us some indication of the growing craze for Jane Austen’s works in the early 20th century, and I hope you enjoy reading the whole of its only Sense and Sensibility scene .