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March 12, 2007

If Becoming Jane did not purport to be about Jane Austen it would be an engaging film - as it is, it is breathtakingly stupid, argues David Womersley: Becoming Jane - Julian Jarrold

Posted by David Womersley

Becoming Jane
Directed by Julian Jarrold
certificate PG, 2007

David Womersley - Thomas Warton Professor of English Literature, University of Oxford - finds Becoming Jane breathtakingly stupid in its literal mindedness.

The crassness of Hollywood when confronted with a landmark in English literature takes the reflexive form of literalisation. A good example comes in the Polanski film of Macbeth. As the tragedy tightens, Shakespeare gives these astonishing lines to Macbeth:

Light thickens; and the crow |
Makes wing to th' rooky wood.
In Polanski's film, this is the cue for a cut away from the face of Macbeth and towards the skyline, where (would you believe it?) a lazy crow is indeed flapping its way towards a rooky wood. This piece of cinematic maladroitness has the effect of turning an extraordinary line of moral introspection into the most banal observation about the external world. It makes Macbeth, for a moment, the tragedy of an ornithologist. Cigars all round. If only Polanski could have found a way to make light thicken, too: that would have been perfection.

Something similar happens in a more diffuse way in Becoming Jane. One of the great puzzles (or non-puzzles, depending on your standpoint) of English literature is how did this sheltered spinster come to write six of the most enduringly enjoyable novels in the language? The oafish prejudices implicit in the question are best left unexamined.

The bracingly stupid answer supplied by Becoming Jane is that she could write the novels because (guess what?) she had lived them first.

So, in this film, Austen's parents are the prototypes for Mr and Mrs Bennett. The words which, in Northanger Abbey, Austen puts into the mouth of Henry Tilney, defending the dignity of the novel as a literary form, in Becoming Jane are spoken (mutatis mutandis) by Jane herself to the man to whom she is attracted, Tom Lefroy, in defence of women's fiction. Lefroy is at first offensive to Jane, as Darcy is to Elizabeth Bennett. Lady Gresham (Maggie Smith) and her nephew Wisley (Laurence Fox) are a dry-run for Lady Catherine de Bourgh and Mr Collins. It is Wisley who coins the famous formulation which launches Pride and Prejudice:

It is a truth universally acknowledged . . .
Judge Langlois (the late lamented Ian Richardson reprising some of his routines from House of Cards), the tyrannical uncle of Lefroy, is the proleptic shadow of General Tilney; etc., etc. The list is, almost, endless.

Becoming Jane is the story of the early life of Jane Austen. What do we know of that life? Very little. All the better, then; few inconvenient truths here to constrain the exuberant genius of our cinematic auteurs. One thing that we do know, however, is that Austen's letters to her sister Cassandra in 1796 mention a Tom Lefroy. The tone of her comments, when mentioning this young Irishman, is of studied lightness. On 9 January she wrote:

I am almost afraid to tell you how my Irish friend and I behaved. Imagine to yourself everything most profligate and shocking in the way of dancing and sitting down together. . . . He is a very gentlemanlike, good-looking, pleasant you man, I assure you. But as to our having ever met, except at the last three balls, I cannot say much; for he is so excessively laughed at about me at Ashe, that he is ashamed of coming to Steventon, and ran away when we called on Mrs Lefroy a few days ago.
And on 15 January, we encounter the same badinage:
At length the Day is come on which I am to flirt my last with Tom Lefroy, & when you receive this it will be over - My tears flow as I write, at the melancholy idea.
In 1798 Austen refers to him in her letters for the last time, noting without any great show of emotion that he was going to pursue his career at the Bar. Whatever in fact existed between Jane Austen and Tom Lefroy, it seems not to have been the grand and tempestuous passion dramatised in Becoming Jane, where an aborted elopement is inserted into the story.

Why is this a problem? The irony is that, had this story been told, not as an episode in the life of Jane Austen, but rather as some free-standing romantic narrative set in the late eighteenth century, it might have been an acute, engaging film, graced with subtle and moving performances from the two leads (Anne Hathaway and James McAvoy). But cutting across the genuine interest of the human story which it has imagined and which it has to tell (an interest quite independent of the fact that one of the protagonists is "Jane Austen") there is the troubling presence of its commonplace understanding of the relation between life and art. If you haven't lived it, so it seems, you can't write about it. Quite what implications this principle holds for the early life of, for instance, Shakespeare (when exactly was it that he committed mass murder, led invading armies, cradled his dead daughter in his arms, acquired an ass's head, cross-dressed in a forest, got lost in a foreign city with his - unknown to history - identical twin, sprouted antlers?) are too alarming for his biographers to contemplate.

At one point in Becoming Jane, Lefroy admonishes Jane that

Experience is vital.
Maybe - but experience is not therefore sufficient, and certainly not determining either. We get no further forward in thinking about the enduring power of Jane Austen's novels by considering them, as Becoming Jane obliges us to do, as exercises in the lesser faculties of memory and transcription.

David Womersley is Thomas Warton Professor of English Literature, University of Oxford. His previous reviews for the Social Affairs Unit can be read here.

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While we're at it; Thomas Lefroy was a fanatical Evangelical Protestant known for public displays of religiosity, diehard opposition to Catholic Emancipation, and prominence in the Society for the Conversion of the Jews (cf the account of him in Richard Lalor Sheil's SKETCHES OF THE IRISH BAR). The film's portrayal of him taking part in bareknuckle boxing in a brothel is about as accurate as portraying Ian Paisley's Martyrs Memorial Church as a lapdancing club.

Posted by: hibernicus at March 13, 2007 11:48 PM

Let's imagine something even more bizarre - A Hollywood "secret life of Manuel de Falla" based on El amor brujo.

Posted by: Robert H. Olley at March 15, 2007 02:29 PM
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