By Madelyn Ritrosky
I will state upfront that I am a fan of Pride and Prejudice. So while I have not read all of Jane Austen’s novels, I was nonetheless eager to see the new film Becoming Jane. I went in with the understanding that the screenwriters, Sarah Williams and Kevin Hood, had taken bits of evidence about Austen’s life and speculated about a plethora of unknowns to map out a plausible, knowing, romantic version of her real-life, summer acquaintance with Tom Lefroy.
I also settled into my seat knowing that this would be a romance that could not end with lovers living happily ever after together and that made me wary. As a romantic, I generally want the central couple to end up together, to overcome whatever internal or external forces conspire against their happiness and togetherness.
Yet, Becoming Jane pulled me in and kept me there. The performances of Anne Hathaway as Austen and James McAvoy as Tom Lefroy are engrossing. And their on-screen chemistry feels right on the money. While they share some passionate kisses, their other interactions also convey their deepening and tormented feelings.
One of the film’s speculations, partly grounded in fact, is that Jane Austen incorporated a number of elements of her own life into her first novel, Pride and Prejudice. Actually, as you see in the movie, that classic love story was originally titled First Impressions, and it was indeed the first novel she wrote. (It was, however, her second published novel, re-titled Pride and Prejudice, for publishers initially turned it down in one of those strange twists of history.)
For me, one of the fun things about watching Becoming Jane was noticing all the references, large and small, to Pride and Prejudice. From Lady Gresham (supposed inspiration for Lady Catherine de Bourgh) to a line about a “truth universally acknowledged” to close-ups of Austen’s pen scratching out lines about Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth.
Like her characters, Jane Austen in the film wants to marry for love, but unlike them, she has the misfortune to fall in love with a law student who, if he quits and elopes with her, will in effect be penniless. She makes a heart-wrenching decision that her alter ego Elizabeth Bennet never had to face though Austen came up with some pretty good decisive moments for that enduring couple of Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy.
Becoming Jane situates Jane Austen as a woman, in her time and place, who was ahead of her time. But she’s a quiet rebel, a rebel who spoke eloquently with her pen. Of course, a woman as an author in late 18th and early 19th century England was scandalous in and of itself. She knew it and made her name anyway.
And with Pride and Prejudice, Austen was able to create a romance that was and is egalitarian. That’s the beauty of the story and the reason why it remains, 200 years later, an engaging story with a modern spirit.
And that’s why I enjoyed this latest in a long line of Jane Austen-inspired screen adaptations, from the 1940 to the 1995 to the 2005 versions of Pride and Prejudice, from Sense and Sensibility (1995) to Mansfield Park (1999) to Bridget Jones’s Diary (2001).
Amazingly, yet another film dealing with Jane Austen and her works will be coming out this fall. One of the trailers at the screening of Becoming Jane was for The Jane Austen Book Club. Yes, I will be there.
“Diving in the Deep Pool of Pride and Prejudice Fan Fiction”
“The Timelessness of Jane Austen’s Classic Romance”