Becoming Jane: much better than I expected


I just went to see the film Becoming Jane. Having read a couple of reviews, I didn’t want to see it but I arrived at nine p.m. at the cinema determined to see a movie and it was the least bad of my options.

On returning and doing a quick Google I can’t find a good review of it, though I guess they must exist. They generally portray the film as a cynical attempt to cash in. Jonathan Dawson begins wittily on the ABC website “It is a truth universally acknowledged that the BBC, or an American Cable Channel in possession of a fortune, or, indeed, any writer in need of a classy romantic plot, will sooner or later turn to Jane Austen.” He then concludes as do so many of the reviews “Becoming Jane is charming stuff and a pleasant diversion, but pales beside the original. Every character seems like a cut and paste pinch from the Austen oeuvre, least successfully the character of âJaneâ herself.”

Well maybe that’s right. You have the advice of lots of reviewers who say pretty much the same thing. Me? Well a couple of warnings. I love Jane Austen, I love the eighteenth century (which Jane Austen has honorary admittance to in my book even though she wrote her great novels in the early nineteenth century). I am also given to enthusiasms when I like something.

And I really liked Becoming Jane. There’s a problem I think with the way its reviewers have taken their own expectations to it and this has then (it seems to me) distorted their response. There are lots of criticisms of the film being a pale immitation of Jane Austen. Well, yes, the film is not a work of genius and Jane Austen’s novels are. But then that’s a pretty ridiculous standard to apply.

I liked the derivativeness of the characters which so many of the reviews panned. They’re all good characters, and why not take them from Jane’s fiction – amended as the story requires in precisely the way that most writers (including Jane Austen?) take models from life and alter them to suit. The adaptation of scenes from Pride and Prejudice is a perfectly plausible way to reconstruct a romance that she had. If you weren’t a literary genius how else would you do it? In this sense I agree with one brief review which says this. “Itâs a film easy to enjoy because it does not take itself too seriously.”

Likewise take note of what is said by Jon Spence who wrote the biography Becoming Jane Austen on which the film was (loosely) based.

1 are tremendously different, and that was one of the things that I learned from being associated with the film. When I first read the screenplay I had lots of questions; why did you do this, because you could make it closer to what actually happened, and you could change this or that. But I came to realise that because of the demands…what will be good visually, how do you create the rhythm of a film…it’s quite different from the rhythm of a novel and certainly of a biography. And so the people who wrote the screen play were inspired by it, let’s say, and then they let their imaginations go. What impressed me from the very beginning is what a good story they made of it.

The film has a powerful artistic point which it makes with clarity, economy and passion. That point relates to Jane’s irony and the way in which it was the heart of her art. It proposes that Jane’s passionate but impossible romance with Lefroy was the foundation of her art. Historical verisimilitude is not particularly relevant here – this is historical fiction and the point of the story is the relationship between art and life.

It is because it makes this point – a different point to Austen’s novels – I think it is very successful at what it attempts to do. There is also something else – very important in film. The protagonists – Anne Hathaway and James McAvoy can really act. And that makes a huge difference (Just imagine if Ronald Reagan had got that job as lead in Casablanca!). Some reviewers said that Anne Hathaway looked too good to be Jane. Well perhaps – but I wasn’t complaining.

Becoming Jane presents the (tragic?) distance between life and art and shows how it came to be that things worked out in Jane Austen’s fiction, whilst they did not in her life and how, like us all, she somehow sought to make something of that very unnerving state of affairs.

  1. My book and the film[]
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Ken Parish
17 years ago

I wish I could agree, but I found Becoming Jane a load of crap, albeit beautifully filmed and acted and mildly entertaining.

One could probably ignore the gross historical liberties if the plot contained even a smidgin of the subtlety and irony for which Austen herself is rightly immortal. Merely making that point didactically in the context of a simplistic screenplay that exploited every possible cinematic cliche in the most crass manner imaginable just doesn’t cut the mustard (fleeing together in stagecoach in soaking, stormy weather; moon glimpsed through looming storm clouds; walking wistfully along beach in watery sunset etc etc).

Nor do I think that at least some degree of fidelity to the probable historical record is completely irrelevant. As far as one can see, there is at least some evidence that Austen might have had a brief affair with the young Tom Lefroy. But there is no evidence whatever that, after spurning her (possibly due to his uncle’s disapproval) he secretly returned and tried to elope with her, only to be met eventually by a Jane who self-sacrificingly gave him up after she belatedly realised what it would mean for the poverty-stricken rellies he supported back in Ireland!! It’s so melodramatically corny (not to mention extraordinarily unlikely and utterly unsupported by historical evidence) that it completely spoiled my equivocal enjoyment of the movie until that point. If Jane had really scandalously eloped with an Irish law student, only to return ostentatiously (austentatiously??), does anyone really believe there would be no trace whatever in correspondence?

The movie’s producers obviously couldn’t resist (no doubt for cynically commercial reasons) making both Jane and Tom noble, entirely sympathetic characters agaisnt whom cruel fate conspires, and with few if any shades of grey. The historical reality appears to be that, if a romance actually occurred, Tom obediently gave Jane the flick to avoid imperilling the patronage of his rich uncle. Moreover, it must have been something along those lines if Lefroy was indeed partly the inspiration for Mr D’Arcy. That could hardly have been the case if Lefroy had really been the one-dimensionally noble character the movie paints him.

This movie could have been so much better if it had embraced the ambiguity, sadness and irony of Austen’s actual life and (perhaps) unrequited love, instead of turning her into a simplistic character in a Mills and Boon romance, and Tom into a smitten romantic buffoon instead of the calculating social climber he probably was. It wouldn’t have needed to be an Austen-like “work of genius” to have achieved this, just a movie that skirted cheap melodrama and the cretinously obvious.

derrida derider
derrida derider
17 years ago

Ugh, a chick flick.

But seriously, anyone who reads Austen must be aware that she would have been an awful bitch in real life (people who generally think the best of other people aren’t capable of writing about them with such savagery). And given her disdainful attitude to feminne beauty I also suspect she was very much a plain Jane.

The gorgeous Ms Hathaway was miscast.

Ken Parish
17 years ago


I don’t disagree with most of your points, but my disappointment with the movie was more fundamental than I’ve apparently been able to convey. If the real Jane Austen had experienced the sort of tumultuous love affair portrayed here, with an extraordinarily sexy and wholly admirable suitor prepared to give up everything for love of her, and if it had only been through her own belated self-sacrificing sense of familial obligation that she managed to spurn the gorgeous and devoted Tom’s advances, then surely the real Jane’s subsequent sense and sensibility would have been very different indeed from the astringent, sceptical, analytical author she actually became. The Jane of this movie would far more likely have become a writer of exactly the sort of cheap bodice-ripper Mills and Boon romances that the movie itself exemplifies.

This movie could so easily have been so much more, exploring the wellsprings of Austen’s creativity and worldview in a far more credible way, using the brief affair with a sexy but social climbing cad and bounder Tom to tell us more about the real world that Austen inhabited. Of course, it would have needed to take a risk or two with the chickflick formula, but a half way decent film-maker could have pulled it off. In fact, Becoming Jane was even a bit of a disappointment as a chickflick. Surely they could have at least given the semi-reluctant husbands in the audience an accidental eyeful of Anne Hathaway’s unconfined tits (maybe they did while I was out at the loo?) and the chicks and gays a glimpse of James McAvoy’s willy not just his bare bum.

17 years ago

I was appalled by Becoming Jane, largely because of how inept it is as a film, and secondarily because it is a deeply antifeminist view of Austen’s creativity and art. Thirdly, I guess, because it’s having all kinds of lamentable effects on what university students to whom I’m trying to teach Mansfield Park think Jane Austen’s fiction (FICTION) is all about, because unfortunately, they do believe that JA hung out with pugilists and swordfighters, was an ace cricketer, spent all day wandering about Sherwood Forest tenderly ministering to her intellectually disabled brother etc.

Generically it is an example of what Stanley Cavell calls “the melodrama of the Unknown Woman” – films like Now, Voyager. But it’s a poor one because the romance is stilted, bloodless, and drastically incomplete, unconsummated. To suggest a woman as intelligent as JA would give up the opportunity for a life of physical love for the reason posited in the movie although (also according to the movie) she wanted it so much, is to say she was an emotional coward.

The film insults Austen’s freely taken decision to remain unmarried and pursue her art. It also doesn’t know what to do with the fact that she was a COMIC novelist, not a tragedian. The popular conception of the status of late c18 middle-class English women is that they had about as much fun and freedom as their counterparts in post-revolutionary Iran. We like to think Austen was tragically prevented from marrying – oh my god, can’t we just be a little bit glad she managed to stay unmarried, since that’s how she wrote six novels? So it awkwardly squeezes Austen’s life into a cliched, invented narrative of repressive social disapproval. No coincidence that the main agent of this disapproval in the film was a wholly made-up character (Maggie Smith’s) based I guess on Lady Catherine de Bourgh.

The thing that angered me most however is that the film plainly says JA was a bad, inept writer on the wrong track altogether before thwarted passion taught her about art. This is such a bullshit view of how a person learns to be an artist (let alone the controlled and deliberate one Austen is) and of what writing is. Given our age’s infatuation with biography it’s not altogether surprising that the film implies her mastery originated with her own life experiences (I don’t think it did, unless you count wide reading as a life experience.) But did they really have to say she learned how to write because she almost ran off with a fellow?