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August 2, 2007

Jane Unbecoming

Will the real Jane Austen please step forward? Probably not

Tall tales: Anne Hathaway as Jane Austen in Becoming Jane(Photo: Miramax Films)

"How does the story begin?" asks Cassandra Austen of her sister Jane.

"Badly," Jane replies.

"And then?"

"It gets worse."

The Austen sisters are discussing First Impressions (which will later become the well-known and adored Pride and Prejudice) in this scene from Becoming Jane, Julian Jarrold's new biopic about the inspirations behind the novels of the 19th-century author Jane Austen. They might as well be talking about the film they are in. The story focuses on the supposed romance between a 22-year-old Jane (played by Anne Hathaway) and Tom Lefroy (James McAvoy), a charming, roguish Irish law student who would later become a Member of Parliament and the Chief Lord Justice of Ireland. And at first, everything seems right. What would a Jane Austen story be, after all, without its witty heroines, flawed but lovable gentlemen and picturesque manors?

But something isn't right. Or rather, it's that things are too right, and that is where it goes from bad to worse. References to Austen's novels -- subtle and otherwise -- abound in Becoming Jane, painting a picture of her that is almost a carbon copy of her writing. Strange: the factual information about Austen's life is very limited, and that of her relationship with Lefroy almost nonexistent. Of the 4,000-plus letters Austen is thought to have written, only 160 survive; of those, only three or four reference Lefroy, and none actually confirm anything beyond friendship or even mere acquaintance.

"[Jane] was quite rude about people in her letters," Jarrold told me during a recent interview in New York. "Her sister Cassandra, who was a much more conservative character, burnt most of the letters, so no one knows exactly what happened. But there are guesses that Cassandra wanted to keep a very safe record of [Jane's] life."

A safe record indeed. With only those 160 letters and five novels extant, almost nothing is known about the life of one of the greatest and most beloved authors of English literature, let alone about one young man who may or may not have been the inspiration for some of the most famous characters in literary history. "At the end of the day, we don't 100 percent know," Jarrold admitted. "So we've taken the facts that we do know, and then we've imagined to a degree with this film, with reference to the characters in [Austen's] novels which relate to her life."

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This is where the problems arise: We don't know much about her life. And while it is usually safe to assume that there is something of all authors in their stories, it seems disingenuous to imagine Austen so extensively only through her novels. In terms of Pride and Prejudice references alone, Lefroy, for example, is a mix of both Mr. Darcy's intelligence and kind character as well as Mr. Wickham's seductive charm and fondness for the opposite sex. Mrs. Bennet's insatiable desire to marry her daughters to socially and financially stable young men is mirrored in Mrs. Austen (played by Julie Walters); Maggie Smith's Lady Gresham is inarguably the prototype for the proud, opinionated Lady Catherine de Bourgh. The script even goes so far as to show Jane scribbling a note when Lady Gresham mentions a "little wilderness or shrubbery" behind the Austen's house, a near word-for-word reproduction of Lady Catherine's comment to Elizabeth Bennet about a "prettyish kind of a little wilderness on one side of your lawn."

The implications of this awkward "referencing," however, leave no room for the genius and originality attributed to Austen over the years. Granted, Jarrold and screenwriters Kevin Hood and Sarah Williams had less historical material to work with than recent films addressing 20th-century writers like Iris Murdoch, Virginia Woolf or Sylvia Plath. But Becoming Jane would rather ask audiences to believe her novels are a transcription of real life than underscore the style of an intellectual who refined her experiences into something resembling literature before reinforcing them with humor and imagination. This isn't to say Hathaway's Jane lacks these characteristics; she engages Tom in a spirited banter over whether or not experience yields better writing, and her forceful intelligence raises eyebrows at the dinner table when she amends Tom's uncle on the definition and interpretation of irony.

Which it makes it even more ironic that a "biography" of Austen, told in the style of one of her filmed novels, should fall so short of satisfying in terms of an Austen story. Hathaway and McAvoy share a strong chemistry, yet the underdeveloped relationship between Austen and Lefroy never quite convinces us that this is the great experience that inspired Jane's remarkable prose. The social challenges are still quite prevalent, but are explored with less subtlety and wit. Becoming Jane's ultimate irony -- one that won't be lost on many Austen fans, who are familiar with her mastery of that particular device -- is that viewers don't really understand that much more about Austen as a woman or as an author by the time the credits roll. She's there, but only just so; Jarrold makes a valiant attempt to interpret Austen in a new light, as a feisty, vibrant young woman, but the question becomes whether or not it is possible to look at Jane Austen simply as Jane Austen or if we have no other choice but to imagine her as one of her own characters.

It is bad enough to have patched together a writer's life almost exclusively from her novels. But to also get nothing new out of it? Indeed, that's just a story that goes from bad to worse.



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