It’s hard to imagine that Jane Austen was only 41 years old when she died. Austen was an uncommonly talented writer who never married, yet wrote of matters of the heart, of true love, of jealousy and, yes, pride and prejudice as if she were an 80-year-old woman putting down observations drawn from her own personal experiences.
Jon Spence’s book Becoming Jane Austen provides the source material for the new epic romance, Becoming Jane, with the lovely Anne Hathaway starring as the young Jane. The film streamlines Spence’s detailed account of what might have been the influences for many of her beloved characters and turns Austen’s own story into something she might have written, only without the wit, the irony and, above all, the happy ending.
In one of her letters, Austen mentions having a crush on Scottish attorney Thomas Lefroy, played here by the absurdly charismatic James McAvoy, and that when he left there were tears. Many presume Lefroy is the template for the infamous Darcy, the one character in fiction no woman can resist.
Becoming Jane opens with the young Austen ruminating on the sound of a particular sentence. When a somewhat indifferent but immediately sexy Lefroy enters the room and is decidedly unimpressed with her writing, naturally she’s hooked on the man she supposedly hates.
What is it about men we hate suddenly becoming men we desire? Was it invented by Austen or just perfected by her? The formula works so well, in fact, that it’s difficult not to be moved by this Jane character and the man she’ll never have, Lefroy. Then again, James McAvoy could probably fall in love with a mop and it would be romantic. Hathaway has done a fine job mastering an English accent and more than holds her own against McAvoy. She is a formidable Austen heroine in desperate need of an Austen ending.
But perhaps where Becoming Jane goes wrong is that it tries too hard to tell Austen’s story while neglecting Austen’s own sense and sensibility. Where Shakespeare in Love was full of witty in-jokes and literary references, Becoming Jane seems to be applying too literally Austen’s plots to her own life.
Wild speculation about an author’s life can often be a lot more fun than the reality, and even here it’s clear that liberties have been taken in order to dramatize what was apparently a very nondescript love life. Just as with Shakespeare, there isn’t a lot of source material to go on. A letter here or there but most have long since been destroyed. And so we are left with our own imagination, or Austen’s imagination, which was full of great stories.
Maybe it is ultimately too hard an idea to grasp that Austen had, at a very young age, keen observational skills and a vivid imagination. Maybe men had nothing to do with it. Maybe, in the end, the men in Austen’s novels exist because they could never have existed in real life.
Worse than that, though, is that the film gives the impression that Austen lived out her old age happily, when in fact she died too young. It is Austen’s death, her inability to write anymore, that is the real story of the woman’s life.