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Behind the LOLs: Penny Ashton on her pilgrimage to Jane Austen mecca

During the New Zealand International Comedy Festival, ‘Behind the LOLs’ will reveal the inner workings of some of our finest comedy talent. Today: Penny Ashton.

I remember when I started my love affair with bonnets. I vividly recall sitting in the Empire Cinema in Leicester Square in 1996 and being utterly captivated by what was unfolding before me. Emma Thompson’s Sense and Sensibility script, coupled with her and Kate Winslet’s acting and the direction of Ang Lee delivered a flawless masterpiece of corset-fabulousness. If that weren’t enough – there was Hugh Laurie, Hugh Grant, Alan Rickman and a host of other wonderful actors to get my countenance flushing.

I sobbed along with Elinor when she found true love, laughed at Marianne’s silliness and bounced out of the theatre dreaming of my own Colonel Brandon. I am not the sort who wishes to have lived in these times – I am far too fond of feminine hygiene products and not being considered my husband’s chattels – but my word do I like getting lost there for a while.

And I am not the only one.

There is a brand of fiery, staunch, well-read women who hold Jane up with the reverence she deserves. These are cosplay fans like you have never seen them before. No Princess Leia nor Catwoman for them, but rather Elizabeth Bennets, Emma Woodhouses, brocades, bonnets and big balls. I am of course referring to the Janeite.

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The Janeite is a rabid fangirl (and the odd boy) of the most literary kind. Sometimes dressed in Regency attire, sometimes not, but always quoting Mansfield Park or Northanger Abbey when the mood takes them. They’re also always ready to smackdown a terrible adaptation like Austenland. Seriously, (despite Bret McKenzie’s excellent turn) what a piece of crap that was. Janeites are not to be trifled with – as a bunch, their intellect will probably knock your croquet ball for six.

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I have been fortunate enough to have Janeites from all corners of the globe attend my shows in NZ, Australia, Canada and Edinburgh. Most have enjoyed my gentle poking of their idol, thanks be to Jane, but rest assured I know I am being scrutinised assiduously. One woman came up to me in Vancouver and announced she did not like my treatment of Jane Austen’s sister. When I pointed out that Cassandra isn’t even portrayed in my show she paused, squared me up, narrowed her eyes and said, “well… that’s alright then.” Phew.

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In 2014 I decided to take a pilgrimage to the heart of Janeitia, the Jane Austen Festival in Bath. I performed my show in a 200 year-old venue and wandered the streets that were Jane Austen’s home. Unlike Jane, who hated it, I loved my time there. Bath is hands down one of the prettiest places in England and I enjoyed spotting Austen’s various abodes from Trim St to Gay St (my favourite). The chandeliers in the Assembly Rooms make mine look like a glass from a dinghy garage sale. Even the Premier Inn (often an oxymoron) in Bath was delightfully well-appointed.

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I took my little turquoise Fiat 500 down to Hampshire to visit the area Jane loved so dearly. I stayed in a cottage that was straight out of a BBC adaptation, complete with thatched roof and a fire warning. I visited Chawton, Jane’s beloved home for the last years of her life. It was in this cottage that Jane revised her earlier works and penned her later works, many not being published until after her death. The earlier ones took over a decade to publish. Ahhh, to be a woman in entertainment.

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I visited a café called Cassandra’s Cup, journeyed to Winchester Cathedral and stood atop the bones of one of the most influential writers of the English language. Through it all, I had the biggest smile on my face.

I must confess to not having been the most knowledgeable in the life, times and works of Austen before I started my silly theatricals in her vein. Now I am full of facts, jokes and quotes. The most enduring sentiment that I take from all of it is that the woman herself was remarkable, formidable, tenacious, talented and tragically cut short at only 41.

Thanks be to Jane and all those that sail after her. I raise a toast to those keeping her memory alive and hope that in my heroine, Elspeth Slowtree, an aspiring writer of the Regency age, I contribute in my own small way as well.


 

Buy tickets to Penny Ashton’s show Pride and Promiscuity in the NZ International Comedy Festival here

 

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