Jane Austen gets the Shakespeare in Love treatment
Jane Austen has seen a lot of Hollywood love in recent
years. Film versions of 'Sense and Sensibility,' 'Emma,' and 'Pride
and Prejudice' have garnered critical raves and Oscar nominations.
Now, in the new film 'Becoming Jane,' the author herself steps into
Much like 1998s acclaimed 'Shakespeare in Love,' 'Becoming
Jane' proposes that a love affair early in life became the inspiration
for the authors greatest work. In Jane Austens case,
the romance was with a dashing Irishman named Tom Lefroy. Their
passionate affair, the film tells us, helped inspire Jane to pen
her masterpiece, 'Pride and Prejudice.'
Its a lovely tale, one that Austen herself would have delighted
in. But did real life play out as the movie suggests? Read on.
Q. Did a young Jane Austen actually fall in love with Tom Lefroy?
A. Probably, though well never know for sure, since much of
Austens emotional life is shrouded in uncertainty. She wrote
countless letters to family and friends, but many of them, particularly
those from this period, were destroyed by well-meaning family members
after her death.
But Tom Lefroy does make an appearance in some of Janes surviving
letters, and many Austen scholars believe that the pairboth
twenty when they metdid
fall in love in the winter of 1795. How serious their flirtation
went is debated, but Lefroy himself, in his old age, confided to
a nephew that he had once loved Jane Austen.
Q. Was Lefroy much the way hes depicted in the film?
A. The charm and the wit, yes, though the scene in which Tom displays
an initial disdain for Janes work is probably fictional.
The situation of the actual Tom Lefroy was shown accurately. The
eldest son among eleven children, Toms financial future (and
that of his family) depended entirely on his staying in the good
graces of his rich uncle.
Marriage to Jane Austen, the daughter of a poor clergyman, was simply
Q. Did Jane begin to write 'Pride and Prejudice' during this
A. Yes, the first draft of 'First Impressions' (as she initially
called it) was begun when Jane was twenty. And while one of the
delights of the film is spotting the many references to lines and
situations from 'Pride and
Prejudice,' its impossible to say how much Janes relationship
with Lefroy influenced the writing.
Q. In the film, Jane is friendly with a deaf and dumb man from
the village. Who was he?
A. Though its not clearly stated, that was George, Janes
older brother. His situation illustrates the rather harsh family
customs of Austens era.
Janes mother followed the common practice among the gentry
of sending away ones infants to be cared for by a local village
family. All the Austen children lived with foster families, until
they were deemed to have reached he age of reason and
could be expected to behave properly, at which point they were brought
George, however, didnt develop normally, and thus never came
home. Though his family sent money for his upkeep all his life,
he never lived with them. Austen scholars guess that he was deaf
and dumb, since Jane alluded in her letters to knowing sign language.
Q. Did Jane receive offers of marriage?
A. The films wealthy but dull suitor-- Mr. Wisley-- was a
Hollywood invention. But Jane did receive at least one marriage
proposal, though it happened years after the films events.
Mr. Harris Bigg-Wither, a wealthy
young man, unexpectedly asked for her hand while Jane was visiting
his sisters at his family's home. He was twenty-two, she was twenty-seven.
Jane accepted, then after a sleepless night broke the engagement,
saying she felt merely esteem, rather than love for the gentleman.
It was a gutsy decision, since Jane was poor (she had yet to make
a penny from her writing) and the marriage would have ensured her
own and her familys
financial fortune. But its a decision that Elizabeth Bennet,
and most of Janes heroines, would have understood.
Q. Did Jane try to stay anonymous when publishing her books?
A. Yes. Austen followed the tradition of other female novelists
of the time by signing her books, By a Lady, or By
Lady A.. But as the film shows, her authorship became a fairly
open secret among those who knew her. This was due mostly to her
brother Henry, who delighted in telling everyone about his accomplished
Success came late to Austen, and she had too little time to enjoy
it. Though she had written complete drafts of 'Pride and Prejudice'
and at least two other novels by her early twenties, she didnt
publish any of them until she
was in her late thirties. Her first book only appeared in 1811;
the next three followed in 1813, 1814, and 1816. Her last two books
were published posthumously in 1817. It was only after her death
that her name became
widely known, and her talent celebrated.
Q. What's a good source for more information on the real Jane
A. Try Claire Tomalins Jane Austen: A Life, or Jon
Spences Becoming Jane Austen.
Cathy Schultz, Ph.D., is a history professor
at the University of St. Francis in Illinois and writes a syndicated
column on historical films. You can reach her at email@example.com.