Josephine Hutchinson, 1935. Public domain, Wikimedia commons.
On 14th November 1932, a play entitled “Dear Jane: A Comedy of Manners” opened at the Civic Repertory Theatre in New York. Staged by British-born Eva Le Gallienne and written by Eleanor Holmes Hinkley, it was the first dramatization of the life of Jane Austen. As the opening night review in the New York Times said the next day, the audience “were gently wafted back to the days of manners and periwigs, of Dr. Samuel Johnson and Lord Nelson and Trafalgar, and, most important of all, Jane Austen.”
Austen was no longer presented as a very pious spinster, but instead a flirtatious feminist who rejected numerous suitors for her love of writing and the love of her sister.
What is perhaps most significant about this play was that the first two women to play Jane and Cassandra Austen on a professional stage were lovers. Le Gallienne took the role of Cassandra, whilst “the vivacious Josephine Hutchinson” (NY Times) played Jane, a part Le Gallienne told her mother Hutchinson was ideal to play. For eleven performances (unfortunately the play, though garnering reasonable reviews, did not run for very long), Hutchinson and Le Gallienne played out the close relationship between the Austen sisters, always on stage together and conferring with each other.
The two women were a couple for five years, during that time often acting and openly living together. And audiences would have known about their relationship: in 1930, Hutchinson divorced her husband, Robert Bell, and gossip outing the love between her and Le Gallienne was splashed across the newspapers. So the significance of the final scene of the play, when Jane and Cassandra effectively walk off into the sunset together, Jane deciding to live her life by her pen and alongside her best friend, would have been immense: as Devoney Looser has commented, this production meant that the two women could act out their private devotion to each other as adult characters on a public stage.
Bibliography and read more:
- Devoney Looser, The Making of Jane Austen (John Hopkins University Press, 2019), pages 114-117. Also this book is just fabulous, discussing how our understanding of Austen has developed through her staging, illustration, adaptations, politicisation and use in schools.
- The listings for the play here, and more about Eva Le Gallienne and the Civic Theatre here.
- New York Times Archive: 15th November 1932, 24.