Portrait in colour

23rd August 1996 at 01:00
My Solitary Elegance: the woman behind the works of Jane Austen Written and performed by Judith French, Edinburgh Assembly Rooms

The only surviving image of Jane Austen is a faded watercolour by her sister Cassandra. Judith French's one-woman show puts roses in her cheeks.

Any conventional picture of a maiden aunt bent over her writing desk or sewing basket is elbowed aside by French's feisty gestures and vivid delivery. Her Jane burns up surplus energy in the ballroom, mimicks her hapless neighbours and jostles for a niche in a crowded society that casts single women at the mercy of richer relations.

Feelings run deep, too, as French captures the 13-year-old's fury at her brothers' censorship, the older Jane's frustration at being left helpless by Cassandra's grief, her misery in exile in "that vile metropolis, Bath" and despair when bereavement turns the sisters and their mother into nomads, always packing up and moving on. Jane's variety of luggage is touching. She has a country-mouse suitcase for visiting her brother's grand estate and a homely trunk for coming to roost at Chawton, scene of her most intensive period of writing.

This production will be most enjoyed for French's portrayal of Austen's sense of herself as a writer - her glee at creating her most famous "silent and cross" hero, and the ferocity of her war on "slang, jargon and sentimental hogwash I Napoleon's campaigns may be over but mine are just beginning".

Like the manuscripts covered by letters and laundry lists, the author's inner life is revealed with little apparent effort.

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