LONDON — Katharine Schlesinger says the romance of Jane Austen's novels were partly responsible for inspiring her to become an actress.
So it seems only natural that she's starring in "Northanger Abbey." The 90-minute television adaptation of Austen's 1799 novel airs Dec. 6 as part of the "Mobil Masterpiece Theatre" series on the Public Broadcasting Service.
"I love Jane Austen," Schlesinger said. "I love all those romantic classical books--'Little Women' and the books that you read as a child."
A second factor, no doubt, helped push Schlesinger toward acting--her family tree. Her paternal uncle is John Schlesinger, the Academy Award-winning director of "Midnight Cowboy," "Marathon Man" and "Yanks."
Her maternal great-aunt is Dame Peggy Ashcroft, the Oscar-winning actress in "A Passage to India," who will be 80 on Dec. 22.
John Schlesinger's current film, "Madame Sousatzka," starring Shirley MacLaine in the title role of a piano teacher, is a family affair. It costars Dame Peggy and features the young Katharine Schlesinger in her big-screen debut as one of MacLaine's students.
"I suppose it is nepotism," Schlesinger said with a laugh during an interview backstage at London's Royalty Theater, where she was starring in a stage production of Graham Greene's 1953 play, "The Living Room."
She is adamant, however, that her family was nonetheless neutral about her decision to act.
The BBC production of "Northanger Abbey" catches the book's wry comedy and its satire of Gothic novel conventions. But Schlesinger's wide-eyed appeal as Catherine Morland, the ingenuous heroine, is what caught the British press.
Herbert Kretzmer in the Daily Mail said the 24-year-old Schlesinger "plays the girl with a pleasing, persuasive simplicity, eyes rounded and mouth slightly agape. . . ."
Rosalie Horner in the Daily Mail heralded Schlesinger's "huge blue eyes," praising the show itself as "a masterpiece of film-making."
Schlesinger plays down her features, preferring to point out that the character itself makes the role.
"I loved Catherine Morland," Schlesinger said. "She's very direct and honest. She has no pretensions and admits to everything. She even admits to her own ignorance."
Catherine's naivete in the movie gives rise to both her problems and her charm.
On holiday at the spa in the town of Bath, the ringleted 17-year-old confuses herself with the overemotional heroines in the Gothic novels she adores.
When she finds that her beloved Henry Tilney, played by Peter Firth, has a haunted abbey in his family, Catherine seizes the opportunity to live out her own sensational Gothic tale--until she finds that the ways of life, and the printed word, do not always coincide.
"Catherine lets her imagination run away with her," Schlesinger explained. "She's very open. That's what makes Henry Tilney fall in love with her."
"Northanger Abbey" is from the same producers responsible for last season's "Silas Marner" on PBS. Maggie Wadey wrote the teleplay. Giles Foster directed.
A drama graduate of London's Arts Educational Schools, Schlesinger has made her name on the British stage. After stints in regional repertory playing Shakespeare's Juliet and other roles, she had a year's run on London's commercial West End in the undemanding comedy, "The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole."
Next was five months as the despondent Irina in Anton Chekhov's demanding classic play, "Three Sisters." Now, in the somber "The Living Room," she shares above-the-title billing with established British actresses like Judy Campbell and Dulcie Gray.
"I like the sort of material that deals with emotions and relationships and all the odd subtleties of people," said Schlesinger, who followed up "Northanger Abbey" with the BBC production of "The Diary of Anne Frank," in which she played Anne.
Schlesinger has no firm projects lined up to follow "The Living Room," but her ambition remains strong.
"I want to do a mixture of everything," she said.