Literature Special: Becoming Jane

A story about how Jane Austen became one of the most remarkable authors of all times

Akrita Reyar

More often than not, one relishes characters of a book coming alive on the silverscreen. The protagonists whom we so relate to, with whom we smile in their moments of joy, or with whom we weep in their moments of misfortune, become living and breathing creatures; a sheer joy.

Who wouldn’t want to see a war of wits between Darcy and Elizabeth, or Mr Knightley silently loving Emma? But what we often miss out on are the stories of the authors; the hands, which have scripted the destiny of so many of the beloved characters.

One of the most famous novelists of all times is Jane Austen. Remarkably, all her books have been dramatized on television or as films or both. But what was her life like? Did she draw from her real life experience to bring alive such a variety of characters, who continue to live hundreds of years since their birth?

Why is it always that in the books that she wrote, after initial snags and complications, those born through her hands always have a happy ending? The answers to these questions have been explored in the film ‘Becoming Jane’.

Directed by Julian Jarrold in 2007, and written by Kevin Hood, the film is a reflective portrayal of a very important, in fact seminal, phase of Jane Austen’s life. The film makers have consulted the letters written by the author and several of her biographies to keep the script as close to reality as possible.

The lead role of Jane is played convincingly by Anne Hathaway and her lover Thomas Langlois Lefroy is enacted by Scottish award winning actor James McAvoy. The film won the US’ People’s Choice Award in the ‘Favourite Independent Movie’ category and also received the ‘Truly Moving Sound Award’ at the Heartland Film Festival.

Anne Hathaway was nominated for the Best Actress award by British Independent Film Awards, while ‘Becoming Jane’ picked several nominations for the ‘Best Film’, ‘Best Sound’ and ‘Best Costume Design’ categories at the Irish Film and Television Awards.

The film pans from the Austen family villa in the countryside, where Jane and her family live a quiet sort of life. She is the youngest daughter of Reverend Austen (James Cromwell) and his wife (Julie Walters), who is keen to find a husband for her daughter.

But Jane is shown as someone who is fun loving and has a flair for writing from the very beginning.

In the parallel is shown Thomas Lefroy in London. He is the nephew of a prominent judge (Ian Richardson), who is also his guardian. Though Tom hails from a fairly poor family and his uncle is trying his best to make a lawyer out of him, he is shown as intelligent but wild. He spends time drinking, boxing and enjoying the company of mistresses.

The several distractions of his life prove too much for his uncle, who warns him and sends him packing with his friend Henry Austen (Joe Anderson) – Jane’s brother- to his village, where some members of the Lefroy family also live.

It is here that Henry takes a fancy for Eliza(Lucy Cohu) a rich widowed cousin, and Jane has her first encounter with Tom. Much like Darcy and Eliza in Pride and Prejudice(P&P), initially the duo don’t take well to each other. At a private reading session, Tom haughtily dismisses Jane’s writing as unremarkable, which hurts her pride immensely, considering that her small social set thought highly of her dribbles.

After a few days, Tom goes out for a ramble where he meets Jane and the two get into a spat again. But this time sparks fly and Tom begins to get curious about Jane, again like in P&P. Soon after a series of interesting run-ins, the two begin to fall in love. Tom, whom Jane had dismissed as an arrogant Irishman, now recommends a racy book to Jane which she reads, much to his surprise.

The chemistry between the two continues to build and Jane starts to take the prospects of marriage to Tom seriously. Meanwhile, her mother is keener in making her match with Mr Wisley (Laurence Fox), who is rich, but has a condescending aunt, Lady Gresham (Maggie Smith), on whom is modeled Lady Catherine de Bourg of P&P. So when Wisley proposes to her, Jane refuses much to the dismay of her mother and outrage of his aunt.
Later at a ball, Wisley notices during the dance that Jane may be attached to Tom. When Jane moves outdoors, Tom follows and the two kiss. He confesses his love for her and they become committed to each other. He promises to argue their case with his uncle, so as to receive permission to marry her.

Eliza conspires to get an invitation for herself and her friends from Tom’s benefactor Lord Chief Judge Langlois and she, Henry, Tom and Jane travel to London. Unfortunately, Tom’s uncle directs all his attention at Eliza, largely ignoring Jane. At the same time, a notorious letter is planted for his uncle, which says Jane belongs to a poor family and is a husband hunter. So when Tom asks for permission to marry Jane, it is obviously turned down.

Jane is heart broken and returns home where she accepts the hand of Mr Wisley. Meanwhile, Tom discovers that he cannot live without Jane and the two elope, causing quite a scandal.

During their journey, Jane chances upon a letter which reveals to her that Tom is the sole bread winner of his family and their secret marriage would spell disaster for the poor souls who look to him for sustenance. Jane changes her mind. This is perhaps the most poignant moment of the movie. Despite Tom’s ardent pleading, Jane sacrifices her love for the welfare of his family. Jane’s deep ache and crying heart are beautifully depicted by Anne Hathaway and she is shown riding away, seeing Tom’s slowly diminishing image in the mirror of her carriage.

Jane returns home where she is rebuked by Lady Gresham, who wants her to be declared an outcast, but her family accepts her with open arms. Another young man (John Warren), who studies at the church with her father, then confesses his love to her. Jane discovers that it was he who had sent that blasphemous letter to Tom’s uncle and spoilt her life. She refuses him quietly.

Jane then engages in a dignified repartee with Lady Gresham, which impresses Mr Wisley. They both walk in the shrubbery, where she apologises to him for her behaviour.
He remarks that it seems Jane is determined not to marry without love, but will not marry for it either. The two decide to part as friends and he wishes her luck for her future career as an author.

It is here that he asks her about the plots that she would like to weave. Jane says she is determined to give all her characters, who will face some initial obstacles, a happy ending; it is left unsaid that the reason is the tragic end of her own love life. As a counter, Mr Wisley says that’s a “truth universally acknowledged”. The line becomes the inspiration for the opening of P&P, which Jane Austen had initially named as ‘First Impressions’ following her first few meetings with Thomas.

After a fast forward to many years later, Eliza and Henry, now married, are shown seated at an opera. A much older Jane is with them. A young girl approaches Jane and tells her how much she enjoyed P&P. Henry tries to intervene by saying that Jane would like to remain anonymous. Suddenly Thomas, who is also present but shying away from coming forward, is pulled in by Henry. It is his daughter who is begging Jane for a public reading, which she refuses. But when Tom’s daughter persists, he silences her by calling out to her as “Jane”.

Jane Austen realizes the love Thomas still has for her, and that he has named his daughter after her. She agrees to read. While listening to her attentively, Tom looks longingly at her and is shown fiddling with his wedding ring. This last frame of the film particularly is worth a thousand words.

At the end, viewers are told that Jane remained single all her life and that Thomas actually named his daughter Jane.

The film was shot in Ireland rather than Hampshire, where Jane belonged. The director felt that modern day Hampshire had altered way too much to be able to bring out the feeling of the old rustic setting. Interestingly enough, ‘Becoming Jane’ was shot in many of those areas of Ireland which the real Chief Justice Lefroy (what Tom eventually became) frequented and loved.

The film itself is, undoubtedly, a moving and profound depiction of one the most famous names in literature. It delves deeply into multi-layered emotions that Jane may have felt in a very decisive phase of her life.

It intensely explores the making of a great author and how so many of her real life experiences lent her a rich harvest of protagonists and plots. Though she chiseled them finely, all her characters feel very life like for the simple reason that they were actual people in flesh and blood who breathed on this earth and who underwent ordeals and trials. Their names have been changed and their ultimate fates manipulated, so as to give them some relief and happiness in the world of words at least.

Most importantly, it shows the evolution of young countryside woman - her maturing as a person, her gaining gravitas and character, her finding independence, her hurting, her learning, her inspiration, her reaching the pinnacle of success, and everything else that eventually led into her becoming Jane.

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