Jane Austen’s Life On Screen – “Becoming Jane” & “Miss Austen Regrets”

December 17, 2016

This is our last article for Jane Austen Month, thanks for reading. This won’t be the last appearance of the novelist’s work, or discussion of her novels on screen, so don’t worry – she’ll be around! 

Jane Austen attracts a cult following for a good reason – remarkably talented and intelligent, her vibrant worldview steps from the pages of her novels and the many letters she sent. After falling for her characters, thousands of fans have recognised the woman behind them as someone truly exceptional.

To bring her into a modern, less sophisticated context, she’d be there for you in the wake of a break up with the best chosen words, reminding you of why the match wasn’t meant to be and that you’ll find value in yourself. She’d also be an excellent companion at a dull party, understanding the comedy that can come from monotony. She’d have no time for you either if you were wasting your time, convincing you to make the best of your situation at all times.  She wasn’t perfect, but that’s part of the charm. What’s important is she owned her faults.

Or maybe that’s just my interpretation. Jane Austen has become a character in my life, someone who has supported me through the turbulent years and even helped get me the job I have now – after all, my writings on her work at university gave me a degree. When I feel tired or fed up, I remember that Jane struggled too at times, especially during those years cooped up in Bath. I remember the confidence of Lizzie Bennet and Jane herself when I find my socially awkward self in a tough situation. In short, she’s been a huge support, along with other important novelists in my life.

The cult of Janeites spreads far and wide, and the fascination with her life continues. We know a reasonable amount thanks to basic facts, her letters and the accounts of people who knew her. Jane was born the seventh child of her parents on 16 December 1775 in Steventon. She was encouraged to read widely by her father and was intensely close to her older sister Cassandra. Defying her restraints of a upbringing in a household of financial constraints, she started to anonymously publish her novels in her 30s, receiving some accolades for her work. Like the Brontes, her identity wasn’t fully revealed to the public until after her premature death at the age of 41.

Much of the time around that is still a mystery for many, and Cassandra chose to burn some of the correspondence she shared with Jane after her death, likely to preserve some secrecy. What we do get from what is left is her spirit and character, but as to the events of her life outside of publishing, much remains open to conjecture.

Two films arrived in recent years to offer answers to the questions. Both were released 2007, a busy year for Austen novel adaptations and related media, and they’re remarkably different. The first is Becoming Jane, a rose-tinted Hollywood affair starring an all-star British cast and Anne Hathaway as the young novelist, and the second is Miss Austen Regrets, a BBC television film starring Olivia Williams that looks at the writer in the later stages of her short life. Looking at them separately, it’s remarkable to see the difference in approach.

Becoming Jane

Becoming Jane caused quite the scandal among the devoted Janeites when it first came out. First of all, American actress Anna Hathaway was cast as Jane, whose previous works had largely been confined to fun teen and romantic comedies. Despite the uproar that this caused, Hathaway had been an Austen fan since her early teens, and worked hard on building an English accent, keeping it in place throughout the whole of shooting the film.

Secondly, the novel was based on a rather scandalous biography by Jon Hunter Spence called Becoming Jane Austen, which pieced together a couple of references to a young Irishman Tom LeFroy in Jane’s novels into a pivotal love story. It sought to explain that Jane must’ve had some kind of romance to match Lizzie and Darcy, or Eleanor and Edward. Due to the sparse evidence offered, to many devoted fans it seemed like a risky leap.

However, despite the depth of historical inaccuracies, Becoming Jane accepts its own flaws. It gives lines from Pride and Prejudice to the characters, suggesting that Jane took them from real life inspiration, and creates a Lady Catherine figure in Maggie Smith’s snobbish Lady Gresham. It takes liberties but it understands that it shouldn’t be viewed as a historical drama, rather something inspired by the novelist.

There’s a lot to love about this film really. Hathaway does a good job as Jane, whilst Julie Walters and James Cromwell play her worried parents. In a stirring and painful scene, Mrs Austen angrily reproaches Jane for her refusal to marry for money, before explaining her own pain as she stands there doing manual work that must be hidden from view of the higher classes. It’s not simply a case of being rich – it’s Mrs Austen’s hope that her daughters won’t have to live in fear that their own children will too have to worry about money and housing.

Maggie Smith appears of course, the favourite of British period dramas, and is fantastically villainous. James McAvoy appears as the ultimate romantic hero however, and is a treat for those less cynical Austen fans. Tom is something of a tamed Wickham, although less dastardly.

Tom LeFroy in the film has enjoyed the freedom of a young man in the Regency Era that women could never be privy to, spending his time in gambling houses and seedy establishments. When he meets Jane, he challenges her on her small worldview and is disarmingly flirty, whilst she in turn reminds him of his privilege to have lived and experienced far more. When Tom falls for her, he’s a man who has finally found a passion that doesn’t bore him. The chemistry between the two is believable and oh so charged. It also has one of the best period drama dance scenes, where sensuality can take a lead role amongst repressed emotions. Just look at this scene –

When Tom suddenly appears with that smile at the one minute mark, it thrills both a bored Jane and the viewers at home. I could watch it a million times and never get tired of it: the way they start off delighted to be together before it turns into something more serious. In one brief and magical dance scene, they realise how they truly feel about each other.

There’s much to recommend Becoming Jane, but don’t expect it to be accurate. What I enjoy about it is that it gives Jane Austen a love story, one that we can never know if she had. It also explores the pressures that we know she must have definitely faced at home. After all, the fact that we know that the Austens were due to be a poor family with the death of the patriarch, and that Jane wrote so believably of the issue in several of her novels, makes this one of the most likeliest plot strands of the film. It’s a situation that’s performed exceptionally well by the script and the actors themselves.

It’s the ideal Sunday watching – grab a cup of tea and some chocolates and enjoy some unabashed romance. Austen herself might have thought it a little ridiculous but I imagine even she wouldn’t have been immune to that dance scene.

Miss Austen Regrets

Miss Austen Regrets is a remarkably different creature to Becoming Jane, although both deal with the breaking up of a marriage proposal. Olivia Williams plays the novelist at the age of almost 40, unknowingly in the last few years of her life. It’s largely based on the letters to her niece Fanny, who was seeking advice on her own romantic endeavours.

The Jane Austen in this film is different to Hathaway’s version, still possessed with remarkable wit and intelligence. However, she’s rather bitter at times, flirtatious and prone to winding up those that bore her, rather than simply criticising them with her pen. Her sharpness that we understand from the satirical nature of her novels has a degree of anger and impatience this time, and she has to go through some difficult emotions to understand her flaws.

It’s a strong reflection of her novels – whilst many have criticised or enjoyed her novels for their romantic aspect (a focus of many screen adaptations), others enjoy it for its cynicism that permeates the writing at times. This interpretation of Austen understands that cynicism – as Jane in the film states: ‘The only way to get a man like Mr Darcy is to make him up’.

Imogen Poots plays Austen’s intensely naive niece, whilst a very young Tom Hiddleston plays Mr Plumtree, the object of her affections. Their romance is young and sweet, but Plumtree has obvious faults in Jane’s eyes. It becomes a reminder for the novelist of her situation of life, and reminds her of an event in her youth that is actually historically accurate.

As in the flashbacks in the film, a young Jane did accept the proposal of a wealthy landowner but changed her mind the next morning. The film argues that whilst she’s aware that that changed her financial situation for herself and her widowed sister, that wasn’t a true regret. Instead, they introduce a previous romantic interest that may be part fiction, the Reverend Brook Bridges (Hugh Bonneville), who Jane had feelings for a young age but due to various issues, ended up marrying someone else.

That appears to be a realisation for her – that she was stuck with so many conflicting feelings that her own potential marriages were the one thing she could never decisively have an opinion on. It also touches on her own connection to sensuality, as she is aware that she’s missed one of the defining features of a marriage.

Much of the film also portrays Jane as someone who wasn’t conventional in a lot of senses. There’s obviously the fact that she was a novelist and didn’t marry, but she breaks other boundaries placed on a woman in the Regency Era. Despite her age and marital status, this Jane flirts mercilessly. She gets tipsy on wine and has an open conversation with her niece on the men, whilst they look in on the men doing the same whilst smoking and gambling. However, they get caught by Bridges and Jane gets told off unfairly for not being the dignified Regency woman everyone expects.

This theme continues in the next scene as she discusses raising the money expected for her novels, as she’d like to be able to support herself further. Her brother shuts her down, warning her that she’s pushing her boundaries, yet faced with money troubles himself, he resents having to support her and bitterly wishes she’d married. It’s easy to see that Jane is shown to be completely out of her time – an independent woman whose life ambitions would been helped a little more in a modern era.

Miss Austen Regrets is a difficult watch, and embraces our favourite author’s faults. However, it’s definitely worth seeing for a new perspective that still remembers her strengths.

Our Jane Austen

Jane Austen will remain a steadfast icon to her fans and to the world of literature. A complex woman with a life that held much mystery, we’re bound to conjecture through adaptations such as these. Yet ultimately, what we remember most is the talent she possessed and the strength that led to her breaking barriers and defying convention as a decisive female author.

More about Jen Scouler

Jen Scouler is a magazine journalist, film critic and the founder of Lost In Drama. With degrees in both English Literature and Digital Journalism, she has experience of writing for popular print and online publications. Jen is also devoted to her metaphorical novelist aunties - Aunt Jane, Charlotte and Jo are particular favourites - and is usually found with an Earl Grey tea in hand.

Speak your mind, dear reader.

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