Jane Austen’s best-known statement about her work comes from a letter she wrote to her niece in September of 1814. If a novel was what one wanted to write, “3 or 4 Families in a Country Village is the very thing to work on,” wrote Aunt Jane, who had published Pride and Prejudice the year before.
The quotation has encouraged misunderstandings. The most persistent contends that in focusing so tightly, Austen sacrificed the people who made the privileged lives of her protagonists possible. Where later works like Downton Abbey make a point of going downstairs and offering the view from below, superficial readings of Austen’s novels sometimes assume that this perspective was something she overlooked.
It’s this “downstairs at Pemberley” perspective that will be explored from December 2 through December 19 when The Wickhams: Christmas at Pemberley arrives on stage at Ensemble Theatre Company’s New Vic. The second in a trilogy of Pride and Prejudice sequels crafted for the stage by playwrights Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon, what remains implicit in Pride and Prejudice receives a hearty welcome and sustained attention in The Wickhams. Whether or not it vindicates the immortal Jane of all charges associated with her famous statement about the “3 or 4 Families,” The Wickhams: Christmas at Pemberley is sure to delight anyone who enjoys a good romantic comedy, and all but the fussiest of Austen fans.
When ETC staged Miss Bennet, Part I of the Christmas at Pemberley trilogy, in 2017, the magnificent set evoked the gracious life upstairs on Darcy’s estate. Part II, The Wickhams, takes place downstairs in the servant’s quarters at the same time. Mary, the bookish and shy middle sister who is the “Miss Bennet” of Part I’s title, doesn’t even appear in Part II.
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Instead, this sequel tells the simultaneously unfolding story of Lydia, the youngest and wildest Bennet sister, and her bad-boy militia man husband, George Wickham. In addition, we meet a trio of characters who work at Pemberley — Mrs. Reynolds, the housekeeper; Brian, the footman; and Cassie, the new maid. We follow this trio as they prepare the festivities for their employers’ holiday guests, and we gradually perceive the various ways in which upstairs and downstairs interpenetrate and interact.
When I spoke with Michael Butler, the distinguished director helming The Wickhams for ETC, he lauded the script for creating “four great female characters.” In addition to Elizabeth Bennet Darcy (Rebecca Mozo), there’s Lydia (Chelsea Kurtz), Mrs. Reynolds (Nike Doukas), and Cassie (Kodi Jackman). The men include Darcy (Adam Poss), Brian (Will Block), and George Wickham (Kyle T. Hester). The Gunderson-Melcon Pemberley scripts adhere scrupulously to the integrity of Austen’s language, so audiences can expect these trained Shakespeareans to deliver their lines with suitable panache.
What about Austen’s novels allows these sequels to work so well? There are many answers, but I’ll stick with one — the narrator. This suggestion may seem paradoxical, as narration resists transfer to the stage. But it’s the style of that anonymous observer — the generosity of her comic sensibility and the boundless scope of her social imagination — that’s responsible for creating such a sustainable fictional world. Thanks to that deep well of inspiration, we’re still eager to know what’s happening at Pemberley this and every Christmas.
The Wickhams: Christmas at Pemberley previews on Thursday, December 2, and Friday, December 3, and then runs from opening night on Saturday, December 4, through Sunday, December 19. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit etcsb.org.