(Un) Becoming Jane

becomJaneWhere did November go? Somehow the whole month disappeared in the blink of an eye. At least I was writing. I didn’t participate in NaNoWriMo, as many did, but still, I was writing. Now, it’s nearly Christmas—where did November the year go?

Apart from lamenting the passing of time, I wanted to make a few comments about a movie I hadn’t watched until recently: Becoming Jane. Probably everyone else in the world who enjoys anything to do with Jane Austen has seen it already, considering it was released in 2007. But, even though I’d heard of it, I hadn’t come across it until it became available through Aussie pay TV provider Foxtel just last month (oh, so that’s where November went. Too much television!). So naturally I watched it.

I have mixed feelings about Becoming Jane.


A portrait of the real Tom Lefroy, who went on to become Chief Justice of Ireland.

I’d read comments about it online—and they weren’t flattering ones—but I kept an open mind. In fact, I liked it more than I thought I would, although I think it’s because I enjoyed the romance of the story, as well as the setting. Despite my enjoyment, little things niggled at me, and so I would probably give it a 3 ½ stars out of 5 (similar to many of its reviews, such as that at IMDb).

It may have been partly because I realized that the story—based loosely on the biographical work Becoming Jane Austen by Jon Spence—draws a long bow, considering what is known about Austen’s life. The film deals with the meeting, and subsequent romance, of Jane and a young Irish law student Tom Lefroy. They initially get off on the wrong foot, but begin to banter and flirt, and soon, they are declaring their love for each other and vowing to marry. When Tom fails to win the support of his uncle, on whom he is financially dependent to finish his studies, they part. Eventually they are reunited and decide to elope. It is only when Jane realizes that they are being selfish in wanting to marry when he can barely support his brothers and sisters, that she nobly aborts the elopement and returns to her life, to begin writing what becomes Pride & Prejudice.

What do we know of the real-life friendship of Lefroy and Austen? Well, we know that they did meet around December of 1795 when Tom visited his uncle in order to relax before going back to his studies. Jane reveals very little information in her letters to sister Cassandra, but it seems that they did flirt and spend time together, and an acquaintance gave Jane a portrait he had drawn of Tom. It also seems that others teased them about their flirtation, so much so that Tom became embarrassed by it. How serious the relationship was we’ll never know; Jane jokes about expecting him to make an offer—whether he did or not is unknown, though probably unlikely. He admitted to a nephew late in life that he’d had a ‘boyish love’ for Jane, so probably there was an infatuation—what Regency writers would call ‘calf love’—though there is no evidence to suggest anything stronger or more lasting could, or would, have come of it.

Jane's ball gown in Becoming Jane.

Jane’s fashion-forward ball gown.

The film’s version of events is probably much more romantic than the reality. But I could enjoy the story for what it was. I couldn’t enjoy Anne Hathaway particularly, although she is a fair enough actress and made a decent effort. It was the slips in her accent that annoyed me as well as that persistent ‘feistiness’ that she seems to bring to every performance. I don’t doubt the real Austen would have had a cutting wit, but Hathaway just seemed off at times.

James McAvoy as Tom fared better, but then I do admire him as an actor and as a good looking man (If you don’t think he’s leading man material, try to find a little movie called Penelope, and then we’ll talk). Not that I think his Lefroy bears much resemblance to the real man. I can’t reconcile the hard-living, rakish Tom of the film with the Thomas Lefroy who was, by all accounts, an outstanding student who went on to have a long and distinguished career in law and politics.

The other aspect of the film that really annoyed me was the costuming. Every character in the film, from what I could see, was dressed very much in the style of the late 18th century (including Maggie Smith’s character who, as an older woman, was still wearing gowns she could have worn twenty years earlier)—except for Jane.

This fashion plate from 1795 shows English ladies in ball gowns. Note the abundance of fabric and the way the skirts are shaped, still with the 'poofiness' characteristic of the 18th century.

This fashion plate from 1795 shows English ladies in ball gowns. Note the abundance of fabric and the way the skirts are shaped, with much of the fullness in the skirts’ mid section. Contrast that with the way Jane’s ball gown is virtually A-line, with the fullness (albeit exaggerated by the heavy fabric) at the bottom.

No, unlike the others, in the ballroom scene Jane appears in a higher-waisted empire style typical of years later. The film’s costume designer worked on the premise that 1795 was a transitional period, and that though some women were looking ahead to the style of dress we recognize as the Regency style, most women in the country wouldn’t have been exposed to the latest trends. That is true.

But look at the fashion plates from 1795. Even the most modish of London ladies weren’t wearing quite the same look. Jane is supposed to be so fashion-forward she’s almost psychic? And she’s the only one in the entire neighbourhood who’s remotely fashionable?

A dress from 1795. Here we see less fullness just under the bust but still a lot of fabric in the skirt. No doubt undergarments would have affected how the skirt hung.

A dress from 1795. Here we see slightly less fullness just under the bust but still a lot of fabric in the skirt. No doubt undergarments would have affected how the skirt hung and the overall silhouette.

The biggest leap of faith we have to make, though, is to believe that Tom, and their relationship, would serve as major inspiration for Austen’s works. That she couldn’t have developed an understanding of human character, and more specifically, of matters of the heart, if she hadn’t experienced a real love of her own. I think such an idea is debatable, but more importantly, irrelevant.

I know that many critics and readers want to understand where an author finds inspiration, what drives a writer to choose certain themes or motifs. But we have little real information on Austen’s personal life to do more than conjecture. And what does it matter, in the long run? Her work stands as it is. She knew enough of human emotions to plot their change and growth convincingly. And that is, ultimately, all we can know.

In the end, even though the film itself was well enough made, there were little things that dampened my overall enjoyment. Was it entertaining? On the whole. Was it true to what we know about Austen’s life and work? Not so much.


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