A Playwright's Adventures in Jane Austen Country
Catching up with Sarah Rose Kearns
JASPers from recent years are familiar with the work of (Sarah) Rose Kearns, who presented at her adaptation of Persuasion at JASP in 2017 and streamed her two-woman play, Manydown, in 2021. Rose is currently at work on a second project dramatizing part of Austen's life. Her work on this new project took her to Chawton house, with the support of the JASNA's International Visitor Program.
We asked her to share a bit about her adventures in Chawton; below is her account and a sneak peak at the new project. Anna Austen, one of the many, many nieces and nephews to whom Austen devoted her time, figures prominently in this scene, which reminds us that even after Austen had left her own juvenilia far behind, she was very involved in the lives of adolescent writers. Rose shared that "Anna is most definitely a central character in this play. My hypothesis at this point is that both her romantic dramas and literary aspirations will be a part of what stimulates Jane to pull out Sense and Sensibility (which of course has a dramatic 17-year-old heroine) and revise it for publication — after what seems to have been (as far as we can tell, historically) several years' hiatus from creative writing." Asked to elaborate on her sense of Austen's relationship to Anna, Rose added: "Jane’s attitude to Anna in this scene is (as far as I can achieve it) pretty consistent with how she writes of her in the letters — the sense of amusement mixed with concern. I believe that the arc of the play will be partly about Jane’s reconnecting with her own creativity and professional ambition, and partly about Jane's stepping up to the responsibility of being a mentor for Anna (who, as I imagine it, worships Jane, thinks she is SO cool and funny) — much as Martha and Cassandra have been mentors for Jane (who is of course the baby in their trio) in her various crises." Even this short scene gives us an engaging glimpse of the deep bonds of affection between this community of women.
I’d like to imagine that Sense and Sensibility is a love letter to Anna, and to Martha and Cassandra as well — ordinary women who are also moral and intellectual agents, whose subjective experience of life matters and is so much more rich and interesting than the social and familial roles they're given play.
To stay in the loop about upcoming performances and presentations (including those planned for the JASNA Greater Chicago Region spring gala on May 6, the JASNA NY Capital Region at their annual weekend retreat on Lake George, August 18 to 20, and her second off-Broadway run of Persuasion this coming winter, with the same creative team as last summer's workshop in Warwick, New York) visit www.theholytheatre.org to be added to the mailing list!
Read on for an account of Rose's sojourn at Chawton, and a sneak peak of her newest play (bonus points to any reader who can spot the subtle Chekhov reference!).
I made the pilgrimage to Chawton, for the first time in my life, in the summer of 2022, on a research grant from JASNA , the Jane Austen Society of North America. Chawton is, of course, extraordinary: home to the cottage where Jane Austen composed her greatest works, and to the Elizabethan manor that was once owned by her brother, both of which are open to the public now as resources for learning. I have been an ardent Janeite since I was about thirteen, and it thrilled me simply to be there through a very hot July—reading family letters in the archives, hiking back and forth to my lodgings in Alton in ballet flats, soaking up sense memories for my work.
I am not a scholar by profession but an actor and playwright, the author of two prior Austen-related plays, both of which can boast some connection to JASP. I had the opportunity to speak about my stage adaptation of Persuasion in a panel led by Adam McCune in 2017; and my one-act Manydown—which imagines a dialogue between Jane and her sister Cassandra on the night of the Harris Bigg-Wither proposal—was presented at the virtual symposium in 2021.
The current play, the one I went to Chawton to seek, is a sort of sequel to Manydown—another biographical drama, drawing its plot from a later moment in the Austen sisters’ lives. It unfolds at Chawton Cottage in the spring of 1810 and employs several characters besides Jane and Cassandra, most notably their turbulent niece Anna. So far, my creative approach has been similar to Manydown: the project is filling in lacunae—not violating the historical record as we know it, or at least not on purpose.
No letters of Jane’s from that year have survived, but here’s a little bit of what we do know: it
was the Austen ladies’ and Martha Lloyd’s first full year at Chawton, Jane was thirty-four and still unpublished (still smarting, in my imagination, from her disappointing encounter with Benjamin Crosby the previous spring), and Anna, seventeen, had just broken off an engagement with their neighbor Michael Terry. Anna’s stepmother Mary Lloyd Austen seems to have been angry about this, and Mary recorded in her pocket journals that Anna spent the best part of the next several months at Chawton Cottage with her grandmother and aunts. It was in 1810, presumably, too, that Jane revised Sense and Sensibility for publication.
I’m curious to discover how these threads might be bundled together into a coherent narrative—I sense there’s something there that might possibly be satisfying dramatically, and also present a coherent theory of the case.
Here’s an excerpt from Act One of an unfinished manuscript called “The Austens”:
Anna reenters the dining room and sits near the door, silent and fidgety, as if daring them to notice her.
You may sit with us, minx, but only if you promise to contribute your own share of the talk. Give us some account of these wild doings we hear of—what, in God’s name, would you be at?
I don’t know what you mean, Aunt Jane.
Oh, how shall we put it . . . scampering about the country, house to house, breaking every heart you meet. Well enough, so far as it has gone. But take care you do not get in a scrape.
I was born in a scrape.