David Baddiel on his ambassador role at Jane Austen’s House Museum
PUBLISHED: 12:22 15 July 2019 | UPDATED: 12:22 15 July 2019
Comedian and writer David Baddiel, a lifelong fan of Jane Austen, has become ambassador for the author’s Hampshire home museum
Most people will probably know of David Baddiel as an award-winning comic, with partnerships alongside Rob Newman in The Mary Whitehouse Experience and Frank Skinner in Baddiel and Skinner creating some of the most memorable comedy of the nineties. Channelling his love of writing, stand-up has taken a backseat in recent years with David making his mark as a successful novelist, children's author, screenwriter and film and documentary maker. He is a man of many talents, one might say. Fans of the unforgettable Three Lions football anthem might be rather amused to hear of his new role as ambassador of Jane Austen's House Museum but David is no stranger to talking about the beauty of literature which his double first in English from Cambridge attests. Nor is this the first time he has championed Austen, as those who heard his lively debate on BBC Radio 4's Today programme with friend and Austen curmudgeon, Giles Coren, will already know.
When asked why he accepted the offer of becoming an ambassador he says: "I get a lot of requests. Some of them are ones that I feel directly connected to. I have throughout my time, talking about books, been quite militant, for want of a better word, about Jane Austen.
"I've always felt that much as she is obviously well-known and incredibly loved, she is slightly misunderstood. There's a patronising, rather coy attitude towards her as a maiden aunt who was unlucky in love and started writing books. In my opinion, she probably singlehandedly led to the modern realist novel in terms of technique. She's an unbelievable genius. It's between her and Shakespeare as to who's the greatest in English literature."
David joins a long list of literary former ambassadors including the likes of Lucy Worsley, Joanna Trollope and Kathy Lette, who have all given their stalwart support to this literary monument, the only house which is open to the public in which Jane lived. The country cottage in Chawton, where Austen wrote all of her novels, opened its doors on 23 July 1949, becoming Jane Austen's House Museum.
"I love going to places that have been preserved for their connections to great authors," says David. "When they wrote to me, I just thought I should nail my colours to the mast about how important I think Jane Austen is and this is a thoughtful way of doing it."
The museum, which celebrates its 70th anniversary in 2019, holds many of Jane's family treasures, as well as letters and the table at which she wrote much of her work. It will be hosting a plethora of events, including guided walks and writing workshops, as well as a dedicated exhibition about Making the Museum and a special birthday celebration on 27 July 2019.
With the museum welcoming over a million visitors since it opened, it would appear that David isn't alone in his passion for this well-known Hampshire writer either. The fact that Austen has trended on social media some 200 years following her death is testament to her standing in the hallowed halls of literature. But what is it that David thinks makes her so great?
"No one in the world, never mind English literature, was writing novels that were so modern at the time," he explains. "If you go back and look at Nashe and Fanny Burney who were writing at the time, no one had written something where you think this is a real character who I understand as a real person undergoing life and can see into their mind. Everything we think of in terms of the novel, from John Updike to Tolstoy. No one had done it before Jane Austen. That's such an amazing achievement for a rector's daughter from Hampshire, that I find it extraordinary."
Although her novels tell of romance in the middle and upper classes, marriage, finding a suitable beau and the horrors of being left on the shelf, David is keen to champion Austen as a master wordsmith. Far more than bonnets and blunders, there is satire and parody in her novels, a sharp wit and careful use of technique and language. She captures the essence of what it was like to be a woman of her time - something far beyond the clichés of frilly-shirted period dramas in David's opinion.
"She was writing about women and the reality of women at a time when women were not just second-class citizens, they were fifteenth class citizens," he says. "That, in its own small way, is an important political statement, that she manages to write about the struggle of women to exist at a time when it was very hard for them to be independent."
It might seem unusual for this well-known stand-up from the so-called 'lads' generation' to be taking up the mantle to defend Austen's feminology but that's where these two writers meet, despite being centuries apart. They've both shared in the fact that first impressions have stuck.
"It's weird that I'm seen as head of the lad movement, something which was a brief journalistic phenomenon of the nineties. I have always thought of myself as a feminist. Now is the first time that we're seeing proper cracking in the structure of male power, so because I'm interested in storytelling, I'm interested in stories about overcoming obstacles and Jane Austen was able to do that and write under her own name."
David has never shied away from difficult topics in his own writing. He has written about his father's dementia, his mother's affair with a golfing memorabilia salesman and much more inspired from episodes in his life. It's this ability to tell stories with razor sharp wit which has defined his style and here too, Austen continues to inspire.
"Whether I'm doing a novel or a children's book, stand-up or writing a screenplay or documentary, I'm basically storytelling. That's really why I love Jane Austen. She's an incredible master/mistress of story. It's really her storytelling ability which I respond to."
Chatting about who Jane would have been if she'd been writing today, David draws parallels with Phoebe Waller-Bridge, creator of award-winning Fleabag and Killing Eve. How they share the same skill for creating black comedy of the human condition; something which now we take for granted in novels and films.
"Without stretching it too far, I think she'd be Phoebe Waller-Bridge but a lot less dirty," he laughs. "What she invents is a way of writing about characters. You get to feel like you know the insides of the head of the characters without writing in the first person. She writes from the outside and yet you get to feel like you really know them."
As he tells of picking Emma if he had to choose a favourite of Jane's novels, the conversation takes a turn for which character he'd be and why. There's a pause as he thinks for a moment and his answer is predictably unexpected.
"I like to think I'd be Elizabeth Bennett. With a beard," he laughs.
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