Recording The Young Jane Austen: How Crimson Cats produced an audio book of some of Jane’s Juvenilia by Michael Bartlett, Editor, Crimson Cats Audio Books.
“Madam, You are a Phoenix. Your taste is refined, your Sentiments are noble, and your Virtues innumerable.”
So begins the Dedication to The Beautifull Cassandra, a story that the 12-year old Jane Austen wrote for her sister. Jane’s Juvenilia may be less well known than her later novels but, although these stories lack the sophistication and polish of her adult writing, Jane’s acute observation and her wicked sense of humour are already apparent. Jane, the teenager, cast a very beady eye on the behaviour of grownups who squabbled, eloped and drank too much.
We decided to publish an audio book of some of Jane Austen’s Juvenilia because we wanted to bring them to a wider audience. The policy of Crimson Cats is to produce audio versions of books that are rather different from the mainstream and books which, as far as we know, have never been done in audio before.
The first stage was to choose the pieces we wanted to use. Crimson Cats publications are mostly all single CDs because this simplifies our production process, but it limits us to a maximum of 79 minutes of material. We wanted a reasonable variety but as some of the Juvenilia are very short (Mr Harley is less than a page long) that was fairly easily achieved.
Now we needed the text. It was not difficult to obtain a printed copy but although Jane Austen is, of course, long since out of copyright the problem with a published text is that if an editor has made changes for any reason, that version may be back in copyright. We did not know, so in the interests of safety we decided to work from the original manuscripts.
The manuscript of one of the pieces we wanted, The History of England, is held in the British Library and much of their material is now on-line. The design of their site and additional notes are, of course, not free to use, but Jane’s actual text is, so a quick download solved that one.
The original manuscripts of the other 5 pieces we wanted to use are in the Bodleian Library in Oxford and that material was not then available on-line. The staff at the Bodleian were very helpful but, as with most large libraries, they needed to know the shelf reference number before they could help and that took some finding. Once we had it life became easier. For a modest fee they photocopied the material for us and so we had our text, albeit in Jane’s own handwriting which at times took some deciphering. The other stories we chose were The Beautifull Cassandra, Jack and Alice, Mr Harley, Henry and Eliza, and Amelia Webster.
With our script sorted out we turned our attention to the reader. I have been producing radio plays and book readings for many years (many of them with the BBC) so I know a lot of actors personally. For this book I needed someone who sounded young (Jane wrote these pieces when she was between the ages of 12 and 15) but someone who was really that age would not have the experience to read these stories as well as I wanted them done.
The answer was Teresa Gallagher, a very experienced actress and reader, who has the ability to adjust her voice to the young, breathy quality of a teenager but who can also deepen her voice for the older characters. Teresa has won awards for her audio book reading on both sides of the Atlantic and she liked these stories and agreed to record them for us.
We always try to include a brief audio introduction on our CDs to set the book in context and here we were fortunate enough to persuade Jean Bowden, retired curator of the Jane Austen House at Chawton in Hampshire, to write and record the opening track.
Next came the music. We don’t use a lot of music in our audio books as we feel the text is the most important thing. However, it is nice to have some to separate the different tracks and to create the right atmosphere. But what to use that was appropriate?
At this point Ann Channon, House Manager at the Jane Austen House, came up with a lovely idea. In the reception area at the House there stands a Clementi square piano, sadly not the one that Jane herself used but an identical one from the same period. A square piano has a wooden frame and so sounds very different from modern pianos. Also in the House they have copies of Jane’s music books containing a range of the pieces she would have played in the evenings. Ann suggested we could play some of this music on their square piano and we jumped at the chance.
We found an experienced pianist, Peter White, who was keen to try playing a square piano so one afternoon we all went down to Chawton. We could not actually record the pieces we wanted until after the House was closed so Peter used the afternoon to practise. It was not long before there was a little crowd of visitors gathered in reception listening to Jane’s favourite music being played on “Jane’s” piano. It was one of those magic moments. Once the House was closed we recorded a number of pieces from which I eventually made the final selection which we use on the CD.
There was one other bonus from that evening. We needed a picture to go on the front of the CD and one of Ann’s colleagues at the House suggested a picture of Jane’s niece, Fanny Knight, which was actually drawn by Jane’s sister, Cassandra. It shows a young woman sitting at a desk writing and was ideal. It was also owned by the House who gave us permission to use it so there was no copyright problem.
So now we had everything we needed. The actual production was very straightforward and most enjoyable because, as always, if you get the script right and find the right actor, then 90% of the creative work is done. The final job was to choose the short audio extracts to go on our web site so that anyone interested in the recording could hear some of it first.
One small problem emerged after publication. We gave the CD the overall title of The Beautifull Cassandra and other Early Writings by the young Jane Austen but we chose to spell “Beautifull” with a double “ll” at the end, which is the way that Jane herself spelled it. We thought this was a nice touch but it has caused endless problems with many people, with varying degrees of courtesy, pointing out our “spelling mistake”.
Even so The Beautifull Cassandra has proved to be one of our most popular titles. One of the things I personally like about it is that these stories are very funny. Jane wrote them to amuse her family and friends and, like all her work, they were written to be read aloud. Jane might have been over-awed by CD and download technology but I like to think that she would have enjoyed listening to this audio book.
The Beautifull Cassandra, like all Crimson Cats publications, is available as a CD or as an MP3 download from our web site: http://www.crimsoncats.co.uk
Editor, Crimson Cats Audio Books
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