Tuesday, 8 November 2016
'The Mystery' of Jane Austen's Childhood
Among the numerous comic works Jane Austen wrote when she was a child, there is a hilarious little play, The Mystery, described as 'an unfinished Comedy'. It has a cast of eight but consists only of three exceptionally short scenes. Jane mimics the tradition of giving characters descriptive or pastoral names – Old Humbug and Young Humbug, Corydon and Daphne. She reduces to the absurd those techniques that create mystery and suspense. The ongoing joke - the 'mystery' - is that the audience is given so little information that it can have no idea what is going on.
The play begins:
Corydon: But Hush! I am interrupted.
Next Young Humbug agrees to follow his father's advice and they both leave the stage. Of course we do not know what the advice is.
So much for the first scene!
In the second scene, we are just in time to catch Mrs. Humbug declaring that she has 'nothing more to say on the Subject'!
The final scene is the only one in which Sir Edward Spangle appears, but he is asleep on a sofa and does not wake up. With such a 'plot', the joke that would have had Jane’s father chuckling the most is the play's dedication to himself:
I humbly solicit your Patronage to the following Comedy, which tho' an unfinished one, is I flatter myself as complete a Mystery as any of its kind.
I am Sir your most Humble Servant
What fun they must have had in the Austen household at Steventon in the 1780s.