It is a truth universally acknowledged that the gaps in this Jane Austen biography were filled in from Pride and Prejudice
Director: Julian Jarrold
Entertainment grade: B–
History grade: C
Jane Austen is remembered for six novels she published in the early 19th century, originally under the pseudonym “A Lady”.
The times in which Jane Austen (Anne Hathaway) lived were not all ringlets, chintz and cotillions, you know. There’s a scene of her ageing parents going at it in bed within the first few minutes. Then it’s off to London, where Tom Lefroy (James McAvoy) is bare-knuckle boxing and snogging prostitutes. Then back to the country, where there’s a Wicker Man-style carnival going on, complete with everyone wearing horses’ heads and setting things on fire. Doubtless high jinks went on in the 1790s, and all this is a welcome alternative to the sort of drippy schmaltz that some Austen adaptations deliver, but since none of it has anything to do with the story, it feels like someone’s trying to prove a point. We get it: people in olden times drank too much, had wild sex, got naked and wrestled in the streets, and on special days dressed up as barnyard animals and summoned the god of hellfire. Now, we sit at work all day looking at stuff on the internet, then go home and look at stuff on the internet. This is called “progress”. It is widely considered to be some sort of achievement.
Tom’s uncle, on whom he depends for money, doesn’t like him bare-knuckle boxing or snogging prostitutes. As a punishment, he sends Tom to Hampshire. Arriving in the middle of Jane reading out a letter to her sister, Tom interrupts, then falls asleep, and afterwards sneers at her for her writing’s “juvenile self-regard”. Then he goes for a splosh through some muddy woods, sulkily swishing at bits of tree with his stick. He meets Jane, who is quite rightly fed up with him already. “Was I deficient in rapture?” he asks. “In consciousness,” she snaps back. So far, so Pride and Prejudice.
Pride and Prejudice gets drawn on a lot, because there isn’t much evidence for what happened between Austen and Lefroy in real life. Though the film is creative about this, incorporating characters from the novel (most obviously, Maggie Smith effectively playing Lady Catherine de Bourgh), there is some historical justification for it. Austen did write Pride and Prejudice soon after her liaison with Lefroy. Infuriating and lofty though Darcy may be, though, Tom is worse. “If you wish to practise the art of fiction, to be the equal of a masculine author, experience is vital,” he tells Jane sleazily. And pompously, what with all he knows about it – this sottish whelp of a trainee lawyer who has never written anything more significant than a shopping list. Lizzy Bennet surely would have decked him.
Unlike Mr Darcy, Tom doesn’t have a whacking great country house and £10,000 a year. Neither does Jane, so they can’t get married. The film departs dramatically from the little we know of their relationship, and has her agreeing to elope with him. Austen fans will already know that she never married, so she has to get out of the carriage at some point and head home to her parents. When she does, it’s contrived, but nicely played – then, alarmingly, the film doesn’t end. All you really need at this point is for her to murmur to Tom: “We’ll always have Hampshire.” Then, she should bump into the bestselling gothic novelist Mrs Radcliffe, who turned up earlier to warn her off trying to have both books and boys in her life, and say: “Ann, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.” End credits. Instead, we get a wholly uncalled-for 20 minutes of baggy resolution. Pride and Prejudice has at least two, arguably three, baggy resolution chapters at the end, but they’re nowhere near as baggy as the resolution here.
Becoming Jane leaves reality behind in its second half, and suffers for it – but it’s a pleasant enough flirtation with a literary great.