It's December 1802. It is a big decision to say, "Yes," to a marriage proposal. It is an even a bigger decision to refuse the offer after twelve hours. Especially if you are Jane Austen.
Estate owner Harris Bigg-Wither has proposed to Jane Austen. This is the story of those twelve hours.
Jane Austen is now twenty-six, is back in Hampshire visiting her friends Catherine and Alethea, members of the wealthy Wither family on the Manydown estate.
In "Twelve Hours" Phil Howe recreates an intense event in Jane Austen's life that is often overlooked. It can be read as a story, a dramatic monologue or performed in theatre or non-theatre spaces. It is a sensitive subject which he has approached with sentiment, humour and respect.
This book is a must-read for all fans of Jane Austen, her real-life, her novels, the films and TV dramas based on her books, and all book-lovers who thrive on stories of romance.
The delightful Church of St Lawrence in Wooton St Lawrence, Basingstoke was packed to capacity last Thursday. Unusual; not for a service but for a premiere of a new drama.
There were over 100 people in the audience and the atmosphere was electric. The setting was perfect because the play, Twelve Hours, tells the story of Jane Austen's brief engagement to Harris-Bigg Wither whose family once owned this country estate. In fact, had she married Harris Bigg-Wither we learn that Jane Austen would have been the mistress of Manydown and may well have been married in this very church. Her would-be suitor is buried there.
Jane Austen was played by tall and elegant Kerry Fitzgerald of Purple Ostrich Productions. She was dressed in a beautifully designed Regency-style muslin dress, typical of the period, plus mop cap and shawl for her entrance. The stage was simply set with a Georgian chair and table, laid out with church candles, a white quill pen and ink pot, hairbrush and mirror. We knew from the start that Miss Austen was pleased at the age of 26 to have accepted this offer of marriage. She was described as a husband-hunting-butterfly and Kerry used her engagement ring with subtle effect throughout the performance to signify the change in her attitude towards her suitor.
The play had three scenes. The first, established who she was and why she was so thrilled about this marriage offer. It sounded like a typical Austen romance where a rich young man likely to inherit a fortune is in search of a wife. The wife-to-be in this instance is almost too old for eligibility so she jumps at the chance of a secure future. Scene one included many tales of local families, recorded in Jane Austen's letters, which had the audience in fits of laughter from time to time. In scene two she wakes at midnight and prepares the audience with her long list of doubts. In the final scene there is resolution and we learn to accept that her books will be her children, she will not accept a marriage of convenience with its expectations of heirs and spares.
It's a cleverly constructed piece of drama. In the prologue, author Phil Howe explains how he developed the idea from a combination of insight he has gained into Jane Austen's life through the guided tours which he operates with his company, Hidden Britain Tours. He candidly admits that no man should normally know as much about Jane Austen's real life, let alone create a play that tries to penetrate her thoughts. However, judging from the audience's overwhelming applause he has succeeded.
I sent Emma Thompson a copy of Twelve Hours and she said;
"Thank you for the play which I read and loved. I hope it gets performed regularly by many others - it’s funny, pithy, lucid and very moving. Very Jane".
Performer Ian May-Miller summarised the event as;
"...a superbly conceived and written play by Phil imagining Jane Austen's thoughts and inner debates during the 12 hours that she was engaged. Kerry Fitzgerald's delivery was convincing and entertaining as, for us in the audience, she became Jane Austen from the moment she stepped on the stage. A packed church at Wootton St Lawrence was lucky to have witnessed a real treat."
Twelve Hours has been performed three times this year so far with hopes of more to come.
A sold out performance at Wooton St Lawrence, North Hampshire was generously supported by Dame Emma Thompson who gave funds to support the play and the village church’s improvement programme.
St Lawrence Church community want to install a kitchen and toilet facilities to make it a better, more convivial social space.
Potential audience members were turned away as the play sold out again in September at Proteus Creation Space in Basingstoke with so many favourable comments from the audience that there may be a repeat show soon.
The following evening the play went to All Saints Church, Dummer, again all tickets sold out and the play had great audience feedback. This has encouraged actor Stacy Hart to take the show under her wing and plans to take it to a wider audience in the UK.
The Rt Honourable Dame Maria Miller MP was present and liked the play so I now have double Dame approval! As a result of this performance a copy of the play has been sent to France for a potential show there and it has had a Stateside premiere in Florida.
Director Nick Ash is equally enthusiastic about taking the show on the road. There are promises of more performances in the local area next year to celebrate Jane Austen’s links with Hampshire.
If you would like to host a performance of Twelve Hours and you can provide a venue we would be delighted to hear from you, please contact Phil Howe on 01256 814222 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
You can buy copies directly from the author, price £9.99 + P&P. We accept most major debit/credit cards.
Hidden Britain Tours Press
28 Chequers Road
Hampshire RG21 7PU
Call +44 (0)1256 814222 or email email@example.com
Author - Phil Howe
Title - Twelve Hours - A play about Jane Austen's twelve hour engagement.
Publisher - Hidden Britain Tours Press 2019
Format - Paperback 48 pages.
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