I hope some of you have seen this movie by now. Overall, I liked a lot about it, but I have some quibbles and one really messed up the movie. (There is a book, Becoming Jane, which I haven’t read yet. It escaped my radar until now.)
First, what didn’t bother me – that Jane fell crazily in love with Tom Lefroy. I’ve taken this for granted since I first learned enough about Jane Austen to discover it. Reading some of the commentaries around the web has given me a greater understanding of why some people are just never going to “get” romance.
First we have the ones, almost entirely women, who imply that Jane having fallen crazily in love at 20 with anyone would somehow lessen her as an iconic female author. This is like saying that her having all four limbs in working order lessens her. Young people fall in love. That’s what biology and biochemistry designed them for. (I think this is a very creepy picture — talk about child bride and groom! — but you get the idea.)
If she’d never done so, I’d really wonder about her. (In fact, I’d be certain it was in the letters Cassandra – damn her – burned after Jane’s death.)
Then we have the people, mostly men, who point to the few bits of Jane’s writings on the subject that still survive and say the flippant or ironic tone means it wasn’t anything important. What universe do they live in? First, we have those burned letters, presumably including some that Jane had treasured. Then we have Jane herself. Some people gush out every emotion without any guards at all; others protect themselves with a bit of a joke and a flippant tone. This doesn’t really matter to me, so if it doesn’t happen, I won’t be hurt, and especially I won’t be an object of pity. To me, that’s Jane Austen. It’s also Lizzie Bennet. I do believe that Pride and Prejudice was Jane’s cathartic version of her unhappiness, but this time ending in triumph.
What do you think about that? Would you rather Jane had been above such things?
If we accept that Jane wasn’t a gusher and was clever enough to try to protect herself, what we have is powerful, IMO.
On January 9th, 1796, Jane writes to Cassandra for her birthday. She opens with, “In the first place I hope you will live twenty-three years longer. Mr. Tom Lefroy’s birthday was yesterday, so that you are very near of an age.” It is a powerful characteristic of people in love that they see everything in the context of the beloved.
(Read Why We Love, by Dr. Helen Fisher.)
A little later, she says, “You scold me so much in the nice long letter which I have this moment received from you, that I am almost afraid to tell you how my Irish friend and I behaved. Imagine to yourself everything most profligate and shocking in the way of dancing and sitting down together. I can expose myself however, only once more, because he leaves the country soon after next Friday, on which day we are to have a dance at Ashe after all. He is a very gentlemanlike, good-looking, pleasant young man, I assure you. But as to our having ever met, except at the three last balls, I cannot say much; for he is so excessively laughed at about me at Ashe, that he is ashamed of coming to Steventon, and ran away when we called on Mrs. Lefroy a few days ago.”
Here we see that she’s already said things about Tom and been scolded by Cassandra. They are gossiped about, They probably have been meeting in between the three balls.
A little later in the same letter, she can’t resist mentioning him again. “I wish Charles had been at Manydown, because he would have given you some description of my friend, and I think you must be impatient to hear something about him.”
Then a little later, “After I had written the above, we received a visit from Mr. Tom Lefroy and his cousin George. The latter is really very well-behaved now; and as for the other, he has but one fault, which time will, I trust, entirely remove — it is that his morning coat is a great deal too light. He is a very great admirer of Tom Jones, and therefore wears the same coloured clothes, I imagine, which he did when he was wounded.”
This letter is the core of the evidence about Tom Lefroy and I have to wonder if it simply escaped Cassandra’s notice as she got rid of anything she thought might lessen her sister’s repulation.
On the 16th Jane writes, “Our party to Ashe to-morrow night will consist of Edward Cooper, James (for a ball is nothing without him), Buller, who is now staying with us, and I. I look forward with great impatience to it, as I rather expect to receive an offer from my friend in the course of the evening. I shall refuse him, however, unless he promises to give away his white coat.”
That sounds flippant, yes, but to me it’s wearing her heart on her sleeve. Whatever’s been going on, she really feels it’s going to happen. Later in the letter, she writes, “Tell Mary that I make over Mr. Heartley and all his estate to her for her sole use and benefit in future, and not only him, but all my other admirers into the bargain wherever she can find them, even the kiss which C. Powlett wanted to give me, as I mean to confine myself in future to Mr. Tom Lefroy, for whom I don’t care sixpence. Assure her also, as a last and indubitable proof of Warren’s indifference to me, that he actually drew that gentleman’s picture for me, and delivered it to me without a sigh.” (Where did that picture go? Did Jane treasure it all her life, or was she wise enough to destroy it?)
But then Jane puts a postscript. “Friday. — At length the day is come on which I am to flirt my last with Tom Lefroy, and when you receive this it will be over. My tears flow as I write at the melancholy idea. “
To me, it’s strange that she added that to a letter so full of revealing hopes. It could be evidence that it was all just idle flirtation. After all, she could have destroyed the former and rewritten the innocuous parts. However, as it’s clear that Jane did write some revealing things to her sister, I think she needed to get the letter off and simply wrote the truth because to leave the letter as is would have opened her to more problems.
Tom, of course, had no money of his own and was expected to marry someone who brought money. It seems his family, alarmed by the situation, got him out of Jane’s orbit. All kinds of drama might hide behind what we know, but it’s probable that they did have a practical farewell conversation and then put a brave face on things.
There’s no evidence, by the way, that Tom was wild. Again, I wonder why that was thought necessary. But then, I never “got” the wet shirt scene in the TV Pride and Prejudice. Getting beaten up by a pugilist is even less sexy, IMO. Article about Tom Lefroy.
So there we have what to me are the fragments of a delirious romance that came to nothing because of social practicalities and above all, money. Money, of course, becomes the main theme of Jane Austen’s work. I wrote an article about in in the book(Read Flirting With Pride and Prejudice.) It’s key to Pride and Prejudice and it’s important that in that novel, Jane sweeps away the problem by making Mr. Darcy rich. The modern, unrealistic tendency would be to have Lizzie fall in love with a penniless man like Tom Lefroy, for their families to try to part them for their own good, but for them to believe in love and marry anyway.
Jane was a realist and knew that would be disastrous. Jane’s life was affected by her father’s lack of money, and not just in not being able to marry Tom. She is thrilled when she begins to earn some money from her writing, clearly seeing it as security and an opening door to a richer life.
Evidence was everywhere of the miseries of povrty, and she writes something about love in a cottage not being at all romantic. Love without money was scrimping and saving in damp, draughty, unhealthy places where young children died, and the survivors would have no help in getting on in life. At best it was depending on the kindness of others. Making one’s own way without money or patronage was extremely difficult and took a long time. Tom Fowles, Cassandra’s fiancé, went to the West Indies to get enough money for them to marry on and died of disease there.
(You can see I don’t have much liking for historical romances that send a couple out into the world without adequate money or the obvious means of getting it. Wealth doesn’t solve everything, but it does avoid some basic hardships. What about you? Can you push aside period realities to believe that it’ll all work out anyway?)
So, to the movie.
Official movie site This site is a bit slow because it’s high tech.
I liked the period feel of it, including the mish-mash of costumes. The turn of the century was a time of transition from Georgian to Regency, and generations tend to dress differently in any era. However, having Jane be the only one consistently in the high-waisted Regency style was one of those irritating visual markers Hollywood is fond on. (Like the heroine wearing the odd, modern hats in The Knight’s Tale.)
Blending Pride and Prejudice with Jane’s life was clever, but I was uneasy with what it did to Mr. and Mrs. Austen, especially the latter. Jane’s mother came from an aristocratic family, was clever, witty, and well-read, and a combination of sickly and a hypochondriac. I think the difference was sufficiently far from the truth to distort the story.
It irritated me that Tom Lefroy was shown introducing Jane to Tom Jones when her family was very well read and that was a book they did read together. She was made less educated and more naïve than she was, to what purpose?
And that brings me to the big problem, the one that spoiled the movie for me. The wrong actress. Jane Austen was not beautiful. This is a touched up for clarity version of the original sketch by Cassandra. She’s not only ordinary in appearance, her folded arms and expression suggest a no-nonsense woman of strong opinions. Folded arms were not ladylike, which is why they were altered for the more common image.
By using a beautiful actress, they destroyed the real, powerful story. Jane wasn’t what Regency speak calls an “antidote” – a female whose looks repel. She is sometimes described as pretty, and she had fine eyes – like Lizzie. But she was ordinary in appearance. She was clever, lively, and vivacious, and when young loved balls, clothes, and any excitement that came her way. People who met her were attracted to her for herself, not for beauty.Anna Maxwell Martin, who played Cassandra, would have been a much better choice. What do you think?
The true story is that delicious classic of romantic fiction – one that’s played out in real life all the time – of the woman of ordinary appearance who captures the heart of the handsome, dashing young man because of who she is, not what she looks like. Wouldn’t that have been a transcendently better story to tell? Especially as it’s the true one.
(Next April, two of my trad Regencies will be reissued in trade paperback format, and obviously we’re hoping to sneak them up on unwary Jane Austen fans.*G*)
Comments? Did you like the movie? Would you have liked anything done differently?
Do you like the “ordinary woman gets the dishy guy” story? If so, what are some of your favourites?