Austen’s Women Assembly George Square

An hour in the company of thirteen women from the novels of one of my, and the world’s, favourite authors – what could be better? Dyad Productions have returned to the Fringe with their sell-out hit from 2009. Eliza Bennett (Pride and Prejudice), Marianne Dashwood (Sense and Sensibility), Miss Bates and Emma Woodhouse (Emma) – actress Rebecca Vaughan brings all of these vastly different characters and more to glorious life.

It begins with Austen herself, addressing the gentlemen in the audience on the subject of female “constancy” and the unfounded accusation throughout literary history of women’s fickleness. In life and marriage, she says, men have all the power, women “only the power of refusal” and refusal was not a step lightly taken in a society where women were so financially dependent on men’s patronage. The focus of Austen’s novels is firmly on the women, their relationships with each other, with their menfolk and their place in society. Marriage in Austen’s time was seen as the ultimate goal of any young woman, not necessarily for love but for financial security and social standing. Austin herself didn’t subscribe to this view although she accepted its necessity. Heroines such as Eliza and Emma are quite contentedly single and only true love tempts them into marriage.

Vaughan is superb, able to switch from the misery and heartbreak of Marianne when she is deserted by Willoughby to the comic portrayal of the dotty Miss Bates or the snooty Fanny Dashwood. She starts and finishes with Austen’s most well-loved heroine Eliza Bennett and my only minor criticism here would be that it would have been more effective if she had used the first person rather than the third in the scene of her refusal of Mr D’Arcy. Otherwise she captures our heroine’s spirit and prejudice wonderfully. She includes less obvious characters too – Diana Parker from the unfinished novel Sanditon and Mary Musgrove from Persuasion.

It was ironic that in a show about an age where good manners and etiquette were considered paramount that there was such a lack of them in some of the audience. The usual noisy latecomers and, worse, a couple of early leavers, a couple of mobile phones going off and the man sitting next to me who fell asleep as soon as the show began and snored throughout, threatened to break the spell but Vaughan carried on professionally.

A treat for Austen fans and for those new to her work.

Irene Brownlee