Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Becoming Jane

I watched 39 minutes of Becoming Jane (2007), until the DVD player began to skip and stutter, and the whole entertainment ground to a halt. From the first scenes, I wanted to ask: "How do we know how people lived their private lives? How do we know how they behaved, what they thought, how they passed their time?" For Jane Austen, we know little. There are her writings, some letters, some biographies based on second- and third-hand accounts. But there is little else. Her novels may have been to some extent autobiographical, though attempting to reach conclusions about a writer's life based on fictional novels is always risky if not reckless. Austen lived with her poverty-stricken family deep in the English countryside, in Steventon, Hampshire. She never married. For all we know she never had a love affair or even felt love for another soul outside her family group. The novels came from somewhere, of course. She must have been a deeply imaginative and perceptive woman.

For me, there is not a true note in this film, at least in the first 39 minutes of it. Every detail, every image, every glance, every small act or behavior, seems false and artificial. The film gives us Jane Austen's era as viewers in the first decade of the 21st century want to envision it. Jane in the film is a frustrated and ambitious writer, young and earnest, always scribbling away while her sisters worry about potential suitors and clothing and her mother toils away at housework. Jane speaks out. She is witty and ironic, she holds herself apart from the rest of her family and their crowd, she feels smothered and stultified without even knowing that she feels so.

A young man named Tom LeFroy studying for the bar in London is sentenced by his uncle for ungentlemanly behavior to live for a time in the country with his cousins. Jane catches his eye. He lectures her on the necessity of widening her experience so that she can be a better writer. He suggests she read Tom Jones, and she does with much avidity. I suppose the novel will inspire her at some point after the 39th minute (though Fielding and Austen have virtually nothing in common). I suppose some sort of relationship with this man will provide the catalyst that makes her a great writer. If I make it to the 40th and 41st minute, perhaps I'll find out.

This film is earnest and high-toned. It reveals nothing about the mystery of Jane Austen's life and novels. It speculates and imagines and leaves us gaping, grasping. Anne Hathaway as Jane can be appealing and earnest, but she cannot act, and she never for a moment convinces me that she connects meaningfully with Jane Austen, and I know virtually nothing about Jane Austen.

. . .

Well, I did watch the rest of the film. It was better than I had anticipated. The film does a good job of taking elements from Austen's novels—details, character-types, events—and weaving them into the story it tells of Jane's early life—implying that she created her novels by drawing from her own life, which she undoubtedly did to an extent. I am still suspicious of the film's authenticity and of Hathaway's portrayal of Jane. The idea that Austen may have had some sort of friendship or bond with Tom LeFroy, while based on sketchy information and a comment from LeFroy himself that he had loved Austen, though in a "boyish" way, is mainly fictional speculation. In the film, LeFroy and Jane fall in love and elope. But on their way to be married Jane discovers that LeFroy (who will be disowned by his uncle for the elopement) supports his impoverished mother and sisters in Ireland with the allowance his uncle gives him. She refuses to go on with the marriage and returns to her family home. The film portrays this act of self-sacrifice as the event that made her into the writer she became (although she is already at work in the film on the book that she would later revise into Pride and Prejudice).

So the image this film puts forth for our consideration is that of a noble and suffering artist who gives up the man she loves for the welfare of his family. We all want our artists to be noble and better than we are. In this case, the story is largely invented and involves some events (the elopement, for instance) that almost certainly did not occur. Again, the film gives us the Jane Austen that our modern era wants to envision without telling us much about the historical person or about the motives that enabled her as a writer.

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