Unbecoming Jane Austen
I really wanted to title this “Jane Austen is Spinning in her Grave,” but it seemed entirely too undignified an image for a lady whose sense of the ridiculous never veered into vulgarity.
Imagine being a witty woman who lives in a smug, hypocritical, and self-deluded social world, who discreetly pens novels detailing the absurdity of all she sees. And then imagine a batch of smug, hypocritical, self-deluded readers 200 years later taking all those lovingly crafted, hilarious moments, and completely misunderstanding them. Because it’s dollars to doughnuts that is what’s happening all over again with Jane Austen. And now, not with just her literary works, but with her personal life.
There’s a brand new movie out, “Becoming Jane,” [[Spoiler Alert]] which purports to tell the story of Jane Austen’s youthful brush with romance. But they made up the details. It’s based on the fact (confirmed by an existing letter she wrote to her sister) that one night at a party, Jane Austen danced with a certain gentleman a bit longer than convention dictated. She apparently hit it off with law student Tom LeFroy. But she was poor, and he was poor, at least, poor enough that neither had money with which to support a separate household, regardless of how genteel their day-to-day circumstances. Back then, the lack of an independent income meant any future together was impossible. Or might be postponed indefinitely, which was just as good as impossible. So, they did not get engaged, and they did not marry.
Maybe in real life they just danced a few times and had fun chatting now and then while he was visiting his relatives in the neighborhood. Or maybe there was more to it. In the movie, they have both irksome and flirtatious encounters, often pregnant with suppressed attraction. They fall in love. And they even kiss and openly plan to marry. But Tom’s future is under the direction of a stern uncle/patron, whose allowance also supports Tom’s family back home in Ireland. Once she realizes that eloping with Tom will doom his entire family, not just Tom and her, to poverty, Jane declines him. About 95% of all Hollywood movies would have gone for an historically inaccurate but happy ending. This movie does not. In fact, it even goes so far as to show the Jane character 15 or 20 years later, an old maid with graying hair, dressed in an unbecoming gown, meeting her married true love again. She even wears the same gown that the real Jane Austen wore in the one portrait of her known to be genuine. (But the real Jane, being plumper, looked right in it. This Jane, being the usual waiflike Hollywood actress, was swimming in the unflattering costume.) The story ends without a marriage, just as Jane Austen’s life did. That should count for something, shouldn’t it?
I guess. There are so many little period social inaccuracies and so many bits of trite conversational shorthand to move the melodramatic plot along. Yes, of course Maggie Smith’s noble lady in this movie could easily be the model for the smugly inane Lady Catherine de Bourgh in Pride and Prejudice. But nothing is subtle in this faux romance. Nothing is particularly humorous, either. I think the real Jane Austen would be disappointed at the lack of wit. And she might be outraged to learn that in this movie some of her best-known literary bon mots were first uttered by other people, thus suggesting that as a writer, she was more a copier than an inventor. Which is nonsense. The main idea one takes from the movie is that in order to become Jane Austen the wonderful writer, Jane Austen the person had to suffer a doomed love affair. Pretty much the same theme as in the opera “Tales of Hoffman,” but without the glorious, enriching music. It’s not unusual to go for the most obvious and romantic interpretation of a life. But what happened to Jane Austen the funny, funny writer? She’s almost entirely missing from “Becoming Jane.” I left the theater thinking that once again, Hollywood has settled for a simple theme about true love denied, instead of going for what is more difficult yet more accurate, the complex portrayal of a complex person. And a funny one. Sitting around the stuffy ballrooms of Regency society trading quips with the real Jane Austen would have been delicious, naughty fun. Too bad that Jane is a pale shadow in this movie.