Austen’s Regretted Mischance to See Mrs. Siddons

Image of the painting Sarah Siddons by Thomas Gainsborough“I have no chance of seeing Mrs. Siddons.  – She did act on Monday, but Henry was told by the Boxkeeper that he did not think she would, the places, & all thought of it, were given up. I should have particularly liked to see her in Constance, & could swear at her with little effort for disappointing me. Jane Austen to her sister Cassandra, 25 April 1811, London, The Letters of Jane Austen 

Jane Austen took every opportunity to enjoy the London theatre scene when she stayed in town with her brother Henry Austen. In 1811, she was looking forward to seeing the great tragedienne actress of the day, Mrs. Siddons, who was currently playing Constance in King John at Covent Garden. Imagine her excitement at the prospect of seeing the icon of British theatre who was nearing the end of her long and infamous career. When their best laid plans were spoiled by a misinformed Boxkeeper, (an attendant at the theatre who was responsible for managing the box seats), I pity poor Henry the arduous task of breaking the bad news to his sister. Their disappointment must have been doubled when they later learned that Mrs. Siddons had performed, but in another production! No wonder Jane Austen wants to swear at her! 

Illustration of Mrs. Siddons as Lady MacbethSarah Siddons (1755-1831) and Jane Austen (1775-1817) share three coincidences together; 1.) They both resided in Bath and Southampton, but not at the same time; – Mrs. Siddons lived in Bath early in her career and in Southampton after her retirement in 1812. 2.) They also shared an affinity for Shakespeare; – Siddons by her portrayals of his tragic heroines such as Lady Macbeth in Macbeth, Desdemona in Othello, Rosalind in As You Like It, and Ophelia in Hamlet, and Austen by reading and studying of his works, and referencing them in her novels. 3.) They are both considered by critics and the public to be early icons of their genre; Mrs. Siddons as the first modern ‘star’, and Miss Austen as the first modern novelist.   Continue reading