I love movies and I love Jane Austen, so what could be better than a movie about Jane Austen?
I’ve been building my private library for years – movies to my taste, distinctly separate from my husband’s much larger collection of action/sci-fi films. In mine, adaptations of Jane Austen’s books feature prominently. I now own three versions of Pride and Prejudice (with an extra copy of P&P’95 as a loaner), two versions of Sense and Sensibility, three Emmas, one Northanger Abbey, and one Persuasion. (I have yet to find a production of Mansfield Park that I like.) Then there are the odd, related films, but I had nothing about Jane Austen herself until Becoming Jane arrived on the scene.
I went to see the movie at a theater when it came out in 2007. How could I not? I was too impatient to wait until the video was released. I had to find out for myself whether or not it was worthy to assume a connection to our dear Jane. From the trailer and blurb, I was suspicious:
It’s the untold romance that inspired the novels of one of the world’s most celebrated authors. When the dashing Tom Lefroy, a reckless and penniless lawyer-to-be, enters Jane’s life, he offends the emerging writer’s sense and sensibility. Soon the clashing egos set off sparks that ignite a passionate romance and fuel Jane’s dream of doing the unthinkable – marrying for love.
I considered myself pretty well informed about Jane Austen by then, and so I was prepared to be offended by any inaccuracies in the film. I was prepared to be indignant if the producers had played fast and loose with the facts… which they had. Two of the major players (Lady Gresham and Mr. Wisley) never existed. And although it’s true that Jane met and had a brief but flagrant flirtation with Tom Lefroy, there’s no evidence to show that their romance went anywhere near as far as it does in the film.
But instead of being offended as I watched it, I remember being sucked into the romance.
It’s a very well-made film. The cinematography is beautiful, the dialogue witty, the musical score brilliant, and the cast top-drawer. No, Anne Hathaway’s accent isn’t perfect, but that’s a fairly minor flaw. Otherwise her performance is believable and engaging. James McAvoy, who, at the time, I’d never seen before, was excellent as the male lead. And you should expect nothing less from proven talents like Julie Walters, James Cromwell, and Maggie Smith.
So, what of the story itself? I think the reason it works, even for somewhat of a Jane Austen purist like me, is that, although not factually accurate, it respects the lady and her legacy. It gets the spirit right if not the details, showing Jane as an intelligent, witty young woman, full of potential, facing a world where social constraints severely limit her possibilities. It depicts the challenges she no doubt faced, the difficult odds against her marrying for love and at the same time being allowed to fulfill her writing aspirations. If Tom Lefroy truly was Jane’s one true love, things might have played out very similarly in reality.
Perhaps most importantly, Becoming Jane feels like a story JA might have written herself (except for the less-than-perfectly-happy ending, that is). It also seeks to explain what so many have wondered: how with supposedly little personal experience Austen could have written so expertly about romance, how Jane the inexperienced girl became Jane the accomplished author.
There are plenty of authentic touches incorporated to satisfy JA insiders: an excerpt about Tom from her letter to Cassandra, lines from her books cleverly worked in to the script, music based on tunes found in her personal music book. For example, a snippet of this Lady Catherine speech:
“Miss Bennet, there seemed to be a prettyish kind of a little wilderness on one side of your lawn. I should be glad to take a turn in it, if you will favour me with your company.” (Pride and Prejudice, chapter 56)
I didn’t mind that what the movie depicted was largely fiction, not fact. After all, fiction is my stock and trade. My strongest criticism, is that it was not clearly labeled as such, leaving the otherwise uninformed to assume what they saw is what really happened with Jane Austen. But in the end, I enjoyed the movie too much to quibble, and I soon added Becoming Jane to my personal collection.
It’s hard to believe well over a decade has passed since I first saw that film, and it would be difficult to estimate how many times I’ve watched it since then – at least 20, I’m sure.
As most of you know, I have my own theory as to the source of Jane Austen’s knowledge of romance. Although in The Persuasion of Miss Jane Austen Tom Lefroy is no more than a youthful infatuation, I have to admit that writing the banter between him and Jane was a delight – perhaps somewhat inspired by how their relationship was depicted in this film.
Although I don’t remember thinking about it at the time, maybe discovering I could enjoy Becoming Jane – a less-than-strictly-factual story about Jane Austen – gave me tacit permission to imagine and write one of my own!
So, what did you think of Becoming Jane? Are you a fan? Why or why not? And if you say you prefer my version of events in TPoMJA, I won’t argue with you. So do I, but nobody has made a movie of it for me to watch… not yet anyway.