Pride and Provocation

Call it the return of romance or just a love of Empire waistlines, but it seems you could make anything Jane Austen wrote — a captioned doodle? a grocery list? a penmanship exercise? — into a box office smash. All six of her novels have become feature films or miniseries; in January a “Masterpiece Theatre” project will introduce new adaptations of four; and Friday brings yet another Austen-related work to the screen.

This time, it’s personal.

“Becoming Jane,” starring Anne Hathaway, is a romantic dramedy based on the life of the author herself. To which fans might say: Holy Mr. Darcy’s wet smock! And to which Jane Austen scholars are saying: Uh-oh.

Jan Fergus teaches a course titled “Jane Austen and Popular Culture in the 21st Century” at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa. She’s written two Austen biographies. But will Friday find Fergus at the multiplex? Not likely: “I would not be able to sit through what looks like a tissue of fabrications and nonsense.”

Why the fuss, you ask?

The main drama in “Becoming Jane” — loosely based on Jon Spence’s 2003 biography, “Becoming Jane Austen” — comes from her secret-wet-kisses, let’s-run-away-together romance with Tom Lefroy (played by a devilishly dishy James McAvoy). It’s all very be-still-my-beating-heart. And though we hate the idea of the truth getting in the way of a good chest-heaving historical chick flick, here are the scant facts:

True, a 20-year-old Austen did flirt with a law student named Tom Lefroy when he visited in 1795. But the most dirt we have on the pair is that they danced at three Christmas balls before he went back to school and that Austen was “too proud” to ask his aunt about him two years later.

In fact, the author’s life is short on provable facts all around. She died (unmarried) of an illness (undiagnosed) at 41. Her sister, Cassandra, destroyed most of her letters. Her only authenticated portrait is a rough sketch done by Cassandra, who was not an artist.

Being a Jane devotee is thus an ascetic pleasure. It means both gleefully analyzing the 200-year-old ephemera that remains and getting one’s knickers in a twist when other fans don’t agree with your theories. Very few authors have fans who refer to themselves with ga-ga diminutives of the writer’s first name: Austen scholars are called Janeites (by themselves– not even by mocking Hemingway profs).

And so it is a truth Hollywood-ily accepted that a film director who decides to make a Jane Austen love story could be in some very deep trouble.

“It was very . . . daunting,” says director Julian Jarrold diplomatically. “Austen fans can be quite passionate. We had various communiques with the Jane Austen Society. They were afraid we would dumb her down or turn her into a chick-lit writer.”

But Jarrold didn’t let the wrath of the Janeites dissuade him. The filmmaker was propelled by a desire to see Jane find love — something her fans can sympathize with, too (more on that later).

The press materials released with the movie hedge any bets: The film “spins the few known facts” of a “seemingly brief” and “apparently rapid” romance into a “boldly imagined” love story about Austen and the man who “perhaps, might have stolen her heart” and “awakened” her talent.

It is this definitive love story that inspires such consternation.

“The idea that Tom Lefroy sparked Jane’s brilliance is totally foolish,” says Deirdre Le Faye, author of “Jane Austen: A Family Record.” “She came from a very smart family. By the time she met Tom she was already an accomplished writer.”

And yet, there Movie Tom is, roguishly criticizing a young Jane’s sophomoric writing and introducing her to grown-up novels like the racy “Tom Jones” — which historians say Austen had actually read long before meeting Lefroy.

We won’t suggest it’s anti-feminist. We’ll just suggest Elinor Dashwood would be appalled.

(At least the film fills in biographical gaps with relevant material: As you watch wealthy Tom and underprivileged Jane frolic through English balls, pretending to hate each other but wittily falling in love, resist the urge to call them Mr. Darcy and Lizzie Bennet. Indeed, Variety’s review calls it “an ersatz ‘Pride and Prejudice’ in all but name.”)

“It’s a very masculine production; you can tell it was male-directed,” says Park Honan, emeritus professor of English at the University of Leeds and author of “Jane Austen: Her Life.” “And it has an unfounded view of creativity, supposing you must be in love to write about love.”

Lest you think he is being an overly prissy academic, Honan, who also wrote a biography of William Shakespeare, points out that he saw the movie “Shakespeare in Love” six times.

“[That movie] has irony to it,” Honan says. “It laughs at itself. No one would walk out of it wondering if Shakespeare had really had an affair with a woman named Viola.” It has irony where “Becoming Jane” has sentimental earnestness, something that Honan says could easily confuse Austen neophytes.

Just ask the Jane Austen Society in London, where the film opened in March. Its members have already begun receiving queries from viewers anxious to learn about Austen suitor Mr. Wisley.

(There is no Mr. Wisley. He is a romantic foil invented for the film.)

Foils, fabrications and fudging aside, we’re rooting for the doomed couple, but why ? We’re perfectly able to handle the writerly miseries of other artists — Shakespeare losing Viola or, more realistically, Hemingway drowning in drink — so why the burning need for Jane to find love?

Because Jane loved love. Emma Woodhouse and the Dashwood sisters did not just find good matches, they found wildly perfect soul mates. We want Jane to find love because thinking of her living without it makes us feel sad, and vaguely guilty for reveling in those fictional romances.

And because Jane played by the rules. She did not abandon her family (Shakespeare), act promiscuously (Wilde), or become an alcoholic (HemingwayFaulknerFitzgeraldSteinbeck). She was the type of well-behaved person our meritocratic society believes deserves happiness. A loveless Jane Austen? How Dickensian.

These fanciful wishes for Austen might explain why the British press was mostly kind to the film: The Daily Mirror called it “delightful and nicely made”; the Times deemed it “giddy as champagne bubbles” despite the “few liberties” taken.

And there are some Austen scholars who welcome the movie.

Leading the pack is Spence, who was tsk-tsked for suggesting in his book a deeper romance between Austen and Lefroy than had previous scholars. (Not nearly, however, as passionate as the film implies; read: Frenching in the courtyard!) “The film captures Jane Austen’s spirit and her values,” Spence says. “I think she would have rather liked it. Besides, could you really make a movie where Jane flirts with a man and then never sees him again? What kind of a movie is that?”

Movie quality aside, there is also the likelihood that the film will draw popular attention to Austen — the woman, not just her work. “Yes, it’s a blend of fact and fiction,” says Marsha Huff, president of the Jane Austen Society of North America. “But hopefully some people will be inspired to dig a little deeper and find out which parts are true.”

Therein lies a quandary. When your entire career is spent toiling in relative obscurity, studying the life and slim six novels of a dead writer, how do you react to your one moment in the spotlight? Do you quibble about factual liberties taken? Or do you excuse its foibles in the name of “Please, oh please allow Jane one clandestine affair!”

Jarrold not surprisingly insists that it’s possible to do both. “We have this image of Jane Austen as a middle-aged spinster,” the director says. “But there was a time when she was young and vibrant.” Veracity aside, he says, “in terms of human relationships, [the story line is] true.” In some ways the idea of a stoically teary-eyed Jane makes us appreciate the happy-ended worlds of her heroines even more.

Even the doubting Le Faye hopes some good can come from the film. But, says the author: “It still ought to be marketed with a health warning.” Autor: Monica Hesse
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