Be warned – this one gets a little academic.
I’m about to embark on a ‘Special Author’ paper concentrating on Jane Austen and in addition to reading her six celebrated novels and her various other writings in preparation, I’ve taken the opportunity to watch a range of TV and film adaptations based on Austen’s books.
I’ve always been a big fan of Clueless, Amy Heckerling’s genius update of Emma, the script of which is arguably more ironic than Austen herself. Re-watching it (twice) after having read the book allows for enjoyable character-matching. ITV’s efforts, however, are hit-and-miss affairs; their Mansfield Park stars an unlikely but largely successful Billie Piper as Fanny Price, but obliterates all of the subtleties of Austen’s original text in favour of beating us over the head with foam fingers pointing out who fancies who.
But I digress. It’s not an adaptation I’m here to discuss, but the 2007 biopic Becoming Jane, directed by The Girl helmsman Julian Jarrold.
Literary criticism has long recognised that biographies of deceased authors who lived in times gone by can be as much influenced by the interests and critical persuasions of their writers than by the facts of the subject’s life. Austen is no exception. Although little information survives about her real life, this hasn’t stopped biographers and filmmakers from throwing in their two cents. Austen academic Jan Fergus writes (in CUP’s Jane Austen in Context, edited by Janet Todd) of two streams in Austenian biography; one which favours the sparse evidence left in family documents to present Austen as ‘an ideal unmarried domestic woman…modest, helpful, [and] unassuming’, and a more ‘disturbing’ strand which emphasises familial scandal and struggle to create a portrayal of Austen as an ‘embittered, disappointed woman trapped in a thoroughly unpleasant family’.
Kevin Hood and Sarah Williams’ screenplay for Becoming Jane aims somewhere between the two, the route Fergus suggests as a means for achieving ‘more accurate assessment of Austen’s life and work’. However, in this film Austen’s literary work is largely neglected in favour of a speculative look at her life.
Becoming Jane is an extremely narrow biopic, focussing predominantly on Austen’s reported ‘flirtation’ with Irishman Tom Lefroy, and attempting to tell this story as if it were one of Austen’s own marriage plots. Austen’s real life encounter with Lefroy took place in the 1790s, during the period in which she was drafting early versions of the novels we now know as Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice. In Jarrold’s film Austen’s status as an aspiring ‘authoress’ is largely passed over in favour of dances, crimson-clad soldiers, and painfully drawn-out longing glances – to name but a few of popular culture’s favourite Austenian tropes. From the perspective of a non-specialist Austen enthusiast, it probably doesn’t hurt that there’s far more kissing than Georgian propriety would have allowed. Plus James McAvoy’s bare bottom.
Casting is one area where the film is difficult to fault. American actress Anne Hathaway plays Jane, proving that she can actually pull off a British accent, albeit one limited to the eighteenth century’s middle classes (witness the regional rollercoaster she delivered as modern ‘Yorkshire’ lass Emma Morley in Lone Scherfig’s One Day). As Hathaway is now far more famous and is also bedazzled with an Oscar, you may be forgiven for thinking her too much of a familiar face to be credible in creating an almost faceless famed lady. Thankfully, she remains understated in ensemble scenes depicting Austen’s many siblings.
City boy Lefroy is fleshed out by James McAvoy (no rhyme intended, really), who amuses with fish-out-of-water scenarios when banished to the country in the first act. It’s this device which brings
our potential couple together, and from here their relationship plays out incredibly similarly to that of Elizabeth Bennet and Mr Darcy in Pride and Prejudice (both Jane and Elizabeth condemn the characters of their respective love interests, who are in each case standing within earshot). Although the leads impress, not all of the stellar cast are utilised so well; we don’t see enough of national treasure Julie Walters in her role as Mrs Austen, and even Maggie Smith as Lady Gresham is rather too reminiscent of Judi Dench’s Lady Catherine de Bourgh in Joe Wright’s 2005 Pride & Prejudice.
Although Becoming Jane tells a fanciful tale and gives a problematic view of Austen as a repressed and self-denying woman sexually awakened by Lefroy, who is painted as a sexy seducer with a soft centre, the real facts of Austen’s life destroy any chance of a conventional Austenian or romantic comedy conclusion: Austen and Lefroy did not marry, and to marry them on screen would be a transgression of biography far exceeding a little exaggeration or bias.
Instead, the film’s coda, giving us a dodgily made-up Hathaway as an older Austen, is far less frustrating than many of the scenes which precede it. We are finally given a glimpse of Austen as a happy and successful published author; an image more worthy of celebration than the sexist gender stereotypes of the past.
Despite my negativity, Becoming Jane is a likeable film, but, perhaps like many biopics, is designed to entertain at least as much as to inform ,and should therefore be viewed with a generous pinch of salt. And a tub of Ben & Jerry’s.
This bi-centenary year of the publication of Pride and Prejudice has perpetuated this novel’s dominant popularity among Austen lovers in the general population (I blame Colin Firth), and demonstrated that the cult of Austen is far from dying out. Further evidence is this month’s Austenland (released 27th September), in which an American Austen-obsessive (Keri Russell) takes part in an immersive Regency experience – think a more commercial, more Hollywood-y version of ITV’s imaginative Lost in Austen. Watch this space for my review.