If Jane Austen were alive, Margot Melcon thinks, she'd be an influencer.
"Austen would love social media, the opportunity to gossip, share her wit and information. She had this extraordinary opportunity that was hard-won — and not available to many women in her era — to comment on society," said Melcon, who co-wrote "Georgiana & Kitty: Christmas at Pemberley," which premieres Saturday at Jungle Theater. "She would be real good at Twitter."
"Georgiana & Kitty" concludes a trilogy in which Melcon and Lauren Gunderson imagine the holiday goings-on at the estate owned by "Pride and Prejudice" hottie Fitzwilliam Darcy. Its predecessors, "Miss Bennet" and "The Wickhams," explored the adventures of Austen's feisty Elizabeth Bennet (Sun Mee Chomet) and Darcy (James Rodriguez). They're in the new one, too, but the spotlight is on younger sisters Georgiana Darcy (Marisa B. Tejeda) and Kitty Bennet (Becca Hart).
One motivation for writing the plays — "Miss Bennet" debuted at the Jungle in 2017 — was to counter the misogynistic meme that women aren't funny. Comedians Tina Fey and Wanda Sykes torpedoed that narrative by pointing out many funny women of our era, but Gunderson and Melcon note that Austen was making us guffaw two centuries ago, and Aphra Behn wrote comedies in the 1600s.
"I was like: 'Hi, Jane Austen has been here the whole time,'" said Gunderson. "The sisterhood in her books is something Margot and I — both of whom have sisters — find meaningful. That stuff never goes out of style, someone who gives her characters full, beating hearts and incredibly funny, savvy minds."
Those beating hearts are a big reason Austen still speaks to us, according to Elaine Auyoung, associate professor of English at the University of Minnesota and author of "When Fiction Feels Real: Representation and the Reading Mind."
"Austen does a lot to help readers figure out what makes her characters tick. It's easy to imagine 'what Mrs. Bennet would say' in any given situation," wrote Auyoung in an email. "She's known for having a very ironic and indirect style, which allows you to feel like you're keeping up with someone who's exceptionally intelligent. It's a pleasure to be aligned with this very sharp, witty narrator."
Austen presents a bunch of female perspectives in her books. In "Pride and Prejudice," the Bennet family alone has six distinctive women. Each could be the star of her own novel.
"That is refreshing because we want everybody in our audiences to be able to say, 'I kind of identify with this character' or 'I identify with that one,'" said Melcon, adding that it's fun to have multiple viewpoints to play with. "In a lot of American theater, you see [a total of] two women on stage, one of whom doesn't get to do much."
Ahead of her time?
Even though Austen was ahead of her time, she was a woman of the early 1800s — one whose books weren't published under her name because it wasn't considered appropriate. She also knew firsthand the transactional nature of Regency-era romance, where women often chose husbands whose fortunes would bolster their families' bottom lines. But Melcon and Gunderson note that Austen's heroines found love not by following the money but by being true to themselves.
"That's the part that I think endures, this message she has throughout all her novels: There are a lot of ways to get what you want, being manipulative or strategic or genuine — and the heroes of her stories are so often the folks who are uncompromising and authentic," Melcon said.
Although its predecessors still included a fair amount of which-dude-will-end-up-with-which-woman, "Georgiana & Kitty" offers a different take.
"It's actually a love story about [the title characters], about those real, long-term friendships that are the core foundation of a life well lived," Gunderson said. "We have love stories that are man-and-wife stories, but this is about these women and all the things they go through together, and saying 'I love you' and 'I forgive you' and 'Let's keep going.'"
Humans have not changed much, other than acquiring cellphones, Gunderson said, and gender equity still isn't here. But she believes Austen would dig the 2020s.
"What would be so useful about her now is that she has a way of describing serious things with such a sense of humor," said Gunderson. "I think she would say, 'Me, too' at some point in her life. She'd go from being grateful that her book was published, even though her name wasn't on it, to saying, 'You're going to put my name on it. And you're going to pay me as much as you'd pay a man.'"
Auyoung doubts that Austen would embrace Twitter, mostly because the novelist valued self-reflection over self-importance. But all three women agree that, if Austen were with us today, she'd be thrilled by many changes since her era and baffled that things haven't changed more.
'Georgiana & Kitty: Christmas at Pemberley'
Who: By Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon. Directed by Christina Baldwin and Angela Timberman.
When: 7:30 p.m. Tue. -Sat., 2 p.m. Sun. Ends Dec. 23.
Where: Jungle Theater, 2951 Lyndale Av. S., Mpls.
Tickets: $45 suggested but pay-as-you-are, 612-822-7063 or jungletheater.org.