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  • Writer's pictureDeborah Yaffe

Star attraction

Jane Austen has had friends in high places for a very long time. In 1815, she famously accepted an offer (one of those offers you can’t refuse, really) to dedicate Emma to the Prince Regent, reputedly a fan. And now, more than two centuries after her death, she’ll be headlining an upcoming literary festival at Hampton Court Palace, in Greater London.

The Queen’s Reading Room, a literary charity presided over by the UK’s Queen Camilla, is throwing the June 11 shindig, which will include a tribute to the late historical novelist Hilary Mantel, a conversation about Shakespeare with actor Judi Dench, and sessions on crime writing, spy fiction, and women’s history, featuring well-known British authors and performers.

But the opening act is a shortened version of a show currently running in London: Austentatious, which features a cast of nine actors in Regency costumes improvising an Austen novel based on a title supplied by the audience. Or, as in this case, supplied by the queen of England, whose Austen fandom has been common knowledge for years now (see, for example, here and here).

It’s not entirely clear whether the press understands the concept of improvisation, or so we might conclude from all the headlines announcing, “Queen commissions play in the style of Jane Austen”: Unless the royal occasion compels a significant change of procedure, the actors won’t know what they’re performing until they’re performing it. Or is Camilla giving them a sneak preview of her suggested title and more than two months’ time to prepare her “commission”? Seems like that would be cheating.

Either way, the performance—and, indeed, the entire festival—sounds fun, although it doesn’t come cheap: Tickets for each event cost either £17.50 ($22) or £35 ($43), so attending all six will run you between £105 and £210 ($130-260). The proceeds benefit charity, but clearly this event is not quite the “accessible, educational and free” literary programming that the Reading Room seeks to promote. Luckily, however, we have six Austen novels that don’t cost much of anything to read.


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