My first full length play (Water Child) was produced in Newcastle Australia in 2012. Having won an award for that play and received very enthusiastic reviews and comments from audience members, I was keen to write another. But I had no particular idea about what until one day, like a gift, an idea presented itself. Mr and Mrs Bennet. How – ? why – ? And what inspired this unlikely union? I read Pride and Prejudice again eagerly with those characters in focus, and noted that very little context is provided for their past.
Chapter 42 opens with reflections on their courtship and marriage:
‘HAD Elizabeth's opinion been all drawn from her own family, she could not have formed a very pleasing picture of conjugal felicity or domestic comfort. Her father, captivated by youth and beauty, and that appearance of good humour which youth and beauty generally give, had married a woman whose weak understanding and illiberal mind had, very early in their marriage, put an end to all real affection for her. Respect, esteem, and confidence had vanished for ever; and all his views of domestic happiness were overthrown.’
This outline inspired me to imagine the details of their courtship. Because I am a playwright and not a novelist, it didn’t occur to me to try and write in novel form. The characters, so life like and engaging in the films and mini- series, just came to me as life like people seeking stage to inhabit.
The 2014 premiere production at Newcastle Theatre Company and subsequent tour in 2015 were a huge hit for Austen fans and theatre goers in general. Delighted to have a chance to see these much loved characters fleshed out as younger people, audiences also enjoyed the chance to make connections with other characters of interest.
About the play
Setting: Longbourn, 1780s, 25 years before the novel Pride and Prejudice opens.
James Bennet (28) (a younger Mr Bennet from P&P)
Robert Bennet (50-60) His father
Mary Ellingworth (Robert’s sister, James’ aunt)
Benedict Collins (father of Mr William Collins of P&P)
Mrs Graves (Housekeeper)
George Gardiner, attorney at law
Sarah Gardiner, his wife
Emily Gardiner (18), their daughter (a younger Mrs Bennet of P&P)
Miss Clara Bowman
James Bennet, the twenty-eight year old son of Robert Bennet, is the next in line to inherit the attractive estate of Longbourn. With the shadow of the entail to the Collins family looming large, Robert mounts pressure on the young Mr Bennet to find a suitable match – but his unwillingness to play by the rules sets in motion a series of events that are both comic and at times moving.
The family attorney at law is drawn into the affair and finds a way to throw his attractive but vulgar daughter in the way of a young man above her station. James sees an opportunity to spite his father – but at what cost?
At the premiere production at Newcastle Theatre Company, most of the seats were sold out before opening night. The play was the third biggest selling production in the 57 year history of the company. Audiences laughed and cried and bought tickets to come again. Austen fans and others who had never read or seen Pride and Prejudice left raving.
And see what the critics think:
‘…sophisticated and stylish…’ Michelle Gosper, Sydney Arts Guide
‘…a play that charms the heart… a cleverly layered comedy…’ Michael Byrne, Independent Reviewer
‘… a delight...’ Ken Longworth, Newcastle Herald
‘ …a delightful play with a good plot, clever dialogue and strong characterization.’
Pamela Whalan, Jane Austen Society of Australia Newsletter
Emma Wood: Adding to Austen's story
Emma Wood: Adding to Austen's story
Read an Excerpt
(All rights reserved. Reprinted with express permission of the author)
(In the Gardiners’ sitting room – noticeably more modest than the Bennets’. Sarah Gardiner is plumping cushions and flowers in a slightly manic fashion, making change after change and never being satisfied. Her husband George enters. They stare at each other).
George: My dear, what can you be doing?
Sarah: I simply want everything to look perfect when they arrive!
George: Perhaps the maid would be better equipped to perform this duty than yourself?
Sarah: Hill? Oh good heavens no, she’s utterly useless. If only she had a few years on her she might have learned some sense.
George: (Looking pointedly at Sarah) It’s not always a matter of years, my love.
Sarah: Oh but George, I just want it all to go perfectly. Just think – our youngest daughter married to one of the wealthiest young men in the village!
George: Sarah! Your thoughts run ahead of you. The two have yet to lay eyes on each other.
Sarah: Oh, but when he does, George, he is bound to be delighted indeed! She is a perfect rosebud and you know it well!
George: There is nothing wrong with her face, I grant you. Just make sure she is not overdone. People of consequence do not appreciate a tart. And whatever you do, make sure she speaks some sense if she speaks at all. He will not marry a fool!
Sarah: Indeed he will not, for my daughter is as clever a girl as ever I saw!
George: Sarah. Impress upon her once again: no giggling. Nothing puts off a man of wisdom more than a giggling girl, and we both know she is apt to be such at times when she is nervous.
Sarah: Oh, but that’s just it George. She’s not nervous at all! I haven’t told her anything!
George: Haven’t told her anything about what?
Sarah: About young Mr Bennet!
George: Who on earth does she think she’s meeting then?
Sarah: She knows nothing about it at all!
George: Then why is she upstairs with Hill being dressed in her finest attire?
Sarah: Because I told her there was a surprise, but not what it might be! For all she knows we could just be on a trip to town to see her newly wed sister!
George: Sarah! I made it clear to you, did I not, that Emily was to be made fully aware of the nature of this occasion in order that she might acquit herself well in front of the Bennets?
Sarah: You did, my dear, but I thought better of it!
George: I see. (Pause while he observes her.) Have her sent to me immediately and I will rectify your foolish error. It is fortunate there is still time to do so.
Sarah: But George, I…
George: Sarah. Immediately. And do not take it upon yourself in future to change my carefully laid plans. We both know your talents, and thinking clearly is not among them. (She is crestfallen, and he softens) My dear – please. It is a delicate situation and I have considered at length what must be done. Bring Emily to me quickly before they arrive.
Sarah: Yes George. (she exits)
(George unfolds a letter in his breast pocket and peruses it while he waits, showing an increasing sense of satisfaction at the good fortune awaiting him. Emily appears, nearly complete in her dress, with Sarah behind her. George slowly wanders around her, examining every angle. She is a little anxious about this).
George: Emily, my dear. You look well.
Emily: (constantly looking for clues and moral support from her mother, who is still a little shame faced and hovering nervously). Thank you, Father.
George: I understand you are not aware of the plans I have for you this afternoon.
Emily: No father.
George: Well. You have only a few minutes to prepare yourself.
Emily: For what?
George: I am expecting a young gentleman today who I hope may show an interest in you.
Emily: (giggling nervously) Ooh! Is it Captain Robinson?
George: (sharply) No it is not Captain Robinson! I think I have made my feelings on that young man quite clear. He is a coxcomb if ever I saw one.
Emily: But father, I like him so much and he loves me too and he says…
George: Love?? What nonsense. Of Robinson I wish to hear no more. Like most other young men in uniform he has an eye for a pretty face but he has no serious intentions with you. And even if he did he has no means to make a suitable life for you.
Emily: But father he has…
George: Emily! Listen to what I have to say to you. Do you wish to marry up or down?
Sarah: (whispering) Up!
George: Lord give me strength. There is a man by the name of Bennet visiting today. Do you know of whom I speak?
Emily: Oh yes father, but he is an old man!
George: Not the father, you foolish girl. The son.
Emily: Oh. Does he have one?
George: Yes. One. (Emily is none the wiser) One son.
Sarah: Only one.
Emily: (the penny drops) Oh! And the estate of…
Emily: (pause for thought) But what’s he like?
Sarah: Ooh, very handsome my dear, young and strong…
George: Do not let your mother’s ramblings run away with you my dear. She has only seen him from afar. I have seen him at close range and he looks much like other young men. All you need to know is, he is rich – or will be should he marry. His father, it seems, is in somewhat of a hurry for him to do so.
Emily: Marry?? But father, I’m only just seventeen!
George: Emily! I am your father. Do I not have your best interest at heart? A marriage into the estate of Longbourn is a step into a society no one else in your immediate family could dream of. Your wealth would greatly exceed your sister Philips I can assure you. Now listen to me. You have a pretty face. Use it well – forget that penniless officer and set about becoming mistress of something greater.
Sarah: Longbourn! Imagine!
George: Young Bennet needs to find a wife as soon as possible and if you play your cards right, that young lady could be you! So do as I tell you or commit yourself to dithering with fools and looking back with wild regret!
Sarah: Your father’s right, darling. Just think of what he is worth..!
George: Of course I am right! Have I not had your sister married well? Now let me help you achieve an even finer match. They will be here momentarily. It is a business meeting, but I have arranged for them to come to my home so they can be more comfortable, and keep the matter entirely private. And so they can meet you.
Emily: But I know nothing of business father. What on earth shall I say to them?
George: I’m very glad you asked. Say nothing at all, if possible. Maintain a sweet silence and a sense of decorum.
Sarah: But how shall she answer them if they ask questions of her my dear?
George: I will answer for her.
Sarah: But George!
George: Sarah! Enough. Time is moving fast. Emily - two things you must keep forefront of your mind. Firstly, you will only have one chance to make an impression. You do not move in his circles. I am in the employ of his father, and he does not see me as his equal. Secondly: his father will not view you as a suitable match. You must win the son’s regard sufficiently to have him insist upon you as a bride against his father’s wishes.
Emily: (pause) And I’m to do all this without talking?
George: Talk if you must, briefly, in an appropriate manner. But with the utmost composure! Now go, and when I ring the bell twice, please enter quietly. The gentlemen will expect to be served tea. I will beckon you for an explanation, and you will whisper to me. I will then inform the gentlemen that Hill has had a fall and you are attending on her behalf.
Emily: But father… what if Hill doesn’t have a fall?
George: Go now, my girl. It is simple enough. I hear their horses approaching. Retire into the next room until you hear the bell. Look to me if you are unsure how to behave. A show of beauty and decorum is all that is required. Sarah, take her please.
(Emily and Sarah exit. George peruses the letter again and prepares some papers. Robert knocks and enters with James unwillingly in tow.)
George: (to Robert) Mr Bennet, sir. How good it is to see you. (to James) Welcome, Mr Bennet.
Robert: Thank you for agreeing to see us at such short notice, Mr Gardiner.
George: No trouble at all, I am sure. Always a pleasure to be engaged in your service. (to James) And Mr Bennet, you are well I trust?
James: Thank you, I am as well as I could hope to be under the circumstances.
George: Good, good. Now, I have received your letter, sir, and in relation to the circumstances Mr Bennet has already alluded to please be assured that the nature of your visit will be treated with the utmost discretion from me…
Robert: Of course, of course. I have always relied on your discretion, or I should hardly have approached you about this most unedifying business. So, shall we get to it?
George: Of course, if you will. I have already taken the liberty of preparing a contract to be examined and privately signed by both of you regarding the… agreement you have reached.
James: Agreement is not quite the word I would have chosen.
Robert: James! Keep your own counsel if you please.
James: Did I speak aloud? I did not mean to. Please accept my apologies father.
Robert: James! Mr Gardiner, please show me the contract.
George: Of course. And perhaps while you peruse the finer details I shall call for some refreshment?
Robert: No need. I wish to attend to the business with expedience and then be gone.
George: Ah. (anxious about the plan) And, Mr Bennet, are you also happy to proceed with no refreshment?
James: If I am to be a pauper I had best get used to a life without delicacies.
George: Ah. Yes, quite so. (He is flustered now and seeks some other reason to ring the bell. Robert is absorbed in the contract. James slumps in a chair and closes his eyes in a conscious effort to appear unruffled by the proceedings. His father scowls at him. George, in desperation, deliberately knocks over a glass of water on his desk, upsetting the papers there). Oh, confound it all!
Robert: Dear me. You have not ruined anything important I trust?
George: I think not, but please excuse me while I seek some assistance to clear this mess… how clumsy I feel… forgive this inconvenience…
Robert: Not at all. I have much here to occupy me while you attend to things. Please do what you need to.
George: Thank you… it will take only a short while I hope… (he rings the bell, still flustered. After a short pause, he rings again, and Emily enters stiffly, clearly uncertain of how to proceed). Emily! (She curtsies) What are you about? Can you not see I am engaged in a matter of business? Where is Hill?
Emily: She… uh…. Hill is…
George: Come here, my child, and speak quietly with me so as not to disturb the gentlemen. (Robert has scarcely looked up from the contract. James has kept his eyes closed throughout this exchange. George beckons Emily to him frantically and they pantomime a discussion.) Hill has fallen? But is she hurt in any serious way?
Emily: (pause as she wonders whether she is allowed to speak. George nods to indicate she may) No father. I believe she will recover. Within a short time. I mean… (she is close to losing her composure, but for George’s fierce eye upon her.) Can I assist you father?
George: Ah… yes indeed. Please ask Hill where the cloths are kept that I may contain this spill until her health is restored… (Emily and George are both aware that neither Bennet has taken any notice of them. Emily emits a strangled sound in her attempts not to giggle. Robert looks towards her for the first time)
Robert: I beg your pardon. Uh… Miss Gardiner, is it not?
Emily: (she curtsies) Yes sir.
George: Miss Emily is my youngest daughter, Mr Bennet, come to my aid as our serving woman has taken a fall….
Robert: Delighted, I am sure. Forgive me being too wrapped up in my business to recall my manners. This is my son, Mr James Bennet. (James maintains his prone position) James!! (He opens his eyes and unwillingly turns to make a new acquaintance. Upon seeing her he is clearly struck by her beauty. He rises, sinks, and rises again, opening his mouth with nothing coming out.) James! This is Miss Emily Gardiner, Mr Gardiner’s daughter.
Robert: (muttering) Oh for heaven’s sake…
James: (suddenly bowing low, in a noticeable change from his usual slack demeanour, and speaking with nervous sincerity) Miss Gardiner. I am… honoured to make your acquaintance.
Emily: I… uh…
(under pressure she feels flustered to breaking point and bursts into helpless giggles, as the men eye her in varying reactions of surprise, regret and delighted admiration. Robert looks sharply towards his smitten son, and then towards George as the possibility of a set up dawns on him.)
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