User Menu

My great uncle was the original Mr Darcy – and from Limerick

Penny Ashton's one-woman comedy is a posthumous collaboration with Jane Austen

Penny Ashton is doing a one-woman show inspired by the work of English novelist Jane Austen.

She’s a New Zealand comedian, commentator and writer, doing a one-woman show inspired by the work of quintessential English novelist Jane Austen, which is a comedy and a romance and a musical featuring a ukulele. And get this: she is sort of related to Jane Austen (her fifth great uncle – is that even a correct term? – was Thomas Langlois Lefroy, suspected to be Austen’s fancyman). Quite a neat happenstance, for a show on an Irish mini-tour.

Penny Ashton has been touring her solo Jane Austen musical for more than five years in the US, the UK (including sell-outs at the Edinburgh Fringe) and down under (at the Adelaide Fringe, there was no A/C in the 40-degree dressingroom, and “I was sweating through my corset!”). She meets Janeites – serious Austen fans – all over the world; “they’re everywhere, they’re delightful”, says Ashton. Austen was on the syllabus at school in New Zealand – her appeal is universal – but Pride and Prejudice in 3rd form, aged 13, “didn’t fully grab me at that stage”.

Later she began to appreciate “bonnet dramas” and Austen screen adaptations. Watching Becoming Jane on a plane in 2007, while contemplating a romantic break-up of her own, set her thinking, which evolved into an improv show that took off. And out of that and a wish to harness “the fond irreverence we found in improvising stories in her style, and write a new story that was evocative of her world”, grew this, Ashton’s first play, the Austen-eque Promise and Promiscuity. It sounds like an affectionate hoot, about a Miss Elspeth battling literary snobbery to write pirate novellas under the male pseudonym Wilbur Smythe and fighting expectations of ankle propriety in 1809. The show features “song, dance, appalling cross stitching” and a ukulele love serenade.

“I believe her dialogue and characters are the best things about her work,” says Ashton. “From fussy mothers to silly sisters to sensible heroines to malodorous suitors and downright evil dowagers. She has some withering one-line zingers and some delightfully sarcastic ripostes. I play nine characters in this piece and love jumping between their exaggerated selves.”

While she includes contemporary pop culture asides, and says those unfamiliar with Austen’s glorious novels enjoy the show, there are added layers for Austen fans, including 33 of her quotes buried in the text.

Irish connection

But what about the fifth great uncle, the lover and the Irish connection? Ashton’s mother’s brother David was doing some family genealogy, and rang out of the blue saying she was the 5th great niece of Thomas Langlois Lefroy. “I knew exactly who he meant, straightaway,” says Ashton.

Lefroy was a Limerick-born Irish-Huguenot politician and Lord Chief Justice of Ireland, auditor of Trinity’s College Historical Society – and a close friend of Jane Austen. In the fictionalised film Becoming Jane, he is James McAvoy. He met Austen on a visit to England in 1796, when she was 20. Their courtship was over the period Pride and Prejudice was written, and some scholars say he may have inspired Mr Darcy’s character.

In some of her extant letters to her sister Cassandra , she writes “I am almost afraid to tell you how my Irish friend and I behaved. Imagine to yourself everything most profligate and shocking in the way of dancing and sitting down together. I can expose myself however, only once more, because he leaves the country soon after next Friday, on which day we are to have a dance at Ashe after all. He is a very gentlemanlike, good-looking, pleasant young man, I assure you.”

Later she writes “the day is come on which I am to flirt my last with Tom Lefroy, and when you receive this it will be over. My tears flow as I write at the melancholy idea.”

The liaison went nowhere, though Austen biographer Claire Tomalin believes a letter years later shows her “bleak remembrance, and persistent interest” in Lefroy. He married another, and had seven children; in 1802 he named his first daughter Jane. If there was a romance, lack of money on both their sides may have put paid to it, Ashton comments, with a quick aside that “nothing diminishes the spirit like poverty”.

Years later, two of Lefroy’s nephews, Gerald De Courcy Lefroy – Penny Ashton’s 4th great grandfather – and his brother Anthony O’Grady Lefroy, both from Limerick, left Ireland for Western Australia after graduating from Trinity College. They sailed in the Lady Grey and arrived at Fremantle in January 1843. Coming ashore, Gerald’s biography says, “their belongings, including equipment and a bag containing 900 sovereigns, fell overboard; fortunately their possessions were soon recovered”. According to the Australian Dictionary of Biography, there they learned the “essentials of colonial husbandry” and supported a petition for a penal establishment in Western Australia, due to labour shortages.

Fast forward and Penny Ashton has a few other strings to her bow, including a new musical Olive Copperbottom “by Charles Dickens” , which includes “more Dickens paraphrase than quotations. He does go on at length!” And, somehow fittingly, she is a licensed marriage celebrant, and creates what sound like lovely ceremonies, where she tells the story of the people and their relationship and weaves in poetry, music, vows and ring exchanges. Sounds a bit like celebrant and best man combined

Promise and Promiscuity: A New Musical by Penny Ashton in collaboration with Jane Austen (deceased) is at Siamsa Tíre, Tralee, November 2nd; Friar’s Gate Theatre, Killmallock, Co Limerick, November 3rd; Belltable, Limerick (as part of Jane Austen 200 November 9th; and Nenagh Arts Centre November 10th.