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How research helps produce prime time TV drama

Jane Austen's home

Jane Austen's home.

The ITV production of Sanditon has grabbed viewers – and headlines – with its occasionally racy interpretation of Jane Austen's unfinished novel. But the popularity of Andrew Davies' production also illustrates the value of an Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) project to digitise the author's manuscripts.

Sanditon was written just before Jane Austen’s death in 1817 and tells the story of an unconventional woman called Charlotte Heywood and her relationship with Sidney Parker.

“One thing that struck me about the production is that it really seems to me that Andrew Davies has consulted the original material,” says Professor Kathryn Sutherland of the University of Oxford and P.I. on Jane Austen’s Fiction Manuscripts: A Digital Edition.

“The first episode is totally frenetic, everyone is rushing around, and one of the phrases that Jane Austen uses in the original manuscript – and then changes her mind about it – is that the characters were 'suffering from the disease of activity'.

“In the published version she uses instead 'the spirit of restless activity'.

“In the TV adaptation there really is a sense that these people are really off their heads; they are crazy people doing crazy things. I have a strong sense that they have worked very closely with the manuscript text, as well as the context and spirit of the age in which she was writing.”

Jane Austen’s Fiction Manuscripts: A Digital Edition is an online resource that can be used free of charge by the general public and the academic community. The manuscripts represent Austen’s output from the age of 12 up to her death aged 41.

They comprise teenage spoofs, adult experiments in novel writing, discarded chapters and the final poignant chapters of the novel left unfinished when she died.

“Jane Austen is one of the very first novelists for whom we have this kind of draft manuscript material,” says Professor Sutherland. “It doesn’t survive in significant amounts before the beginning of the 19th century.

“I thought it would be wonderful for people to see the actual manuscripts. They are different from print – they’re messy, and you can see creation as it happens. They are also intimate objects and give you the illusion that you’re very close to the author.

“It is a virtual re unification of her work, and a visual re mediation of them. It is in itself another adaptation; another performance of her text. It's a chance to see how she did it. And before the project only a handful of scholars had been able to do this.”

Given the enormous popularity of Jane Austen's work around the world – and the limited amount that she wrote – many people are trying to squeeze as much life as possible out of what does exist. Having easy online access to the original manuscripts is a way of doing this.

For example, another unfinished piece of Austen's work, The Watsons, was turned into a play last year by Laura Wade and directed by her husband, the actor Samuel West. It ran at the Chichester Festival in 2018.

“I have concrete evidence that Wade and West consulted the original manuscript, because I worked with them on it,” says Professor Sutherland.

“What they found interesting was looking at the images of the manuscripts online, because by doing this they got an understanding of Jane Austen's own production values.

“Jane Austen wrote in very small booklets that she made herself and used these as a means of disciplining her art. She writes straight into the books, and there is only one draft. The pages are packed with text.”

As a result Wade and West also decided to use the smallest possible space. Because they wanted to physically reflect the fact that Jane Austen is an artist of the confined and her work is about people who are confined socially, emotionally and financially.

“Using a small space onstage became a disciplining act for the actors, and there was no way they would have got to that point without consulting the original manuscript,” says Professor Sutherland. “They wouldn't have got the same perspective from a printed paperback.

“But the thing that really delights me is how much the manuscripts are being used by the general public.

“I believe that this project has really liberated these documents. I get emails from ordinary, interested people – not just students – and they tell me how moved they were just to see Jane Austen's handwriting. I hadn't expected that.

“I can be moved by holding a manuscript. But to hear that people are deeply moved just by seeing a digital image is a wonderful thing I couldn't have imagined.”

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