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Becoming Jane Fact and Fiction

A Lady, an authoress—writing in the 18th and publishing in the 19thcenturies—of immortal romances and comedies of manners (and Jane Austen in disguise) had her own life immortalized in Becoming Jane, which is a fragrant stroll through the garden of Jane Austen’s extant letters and elegant novels. Becoming Jane has an elegance to match Lady Middleton’s, a tenacity to equal Lucy’s and a sensibility to rival Marianne’s.

Jane Austen was a prolific letter writer and most of her letters went to her beloved elder sister Cassandra. Jane told Cassandra everything, exposed all her thoughts, including her ridicule of laughable folk, her snappishness and her flirtations. And, as some of us believe, Jane exposed her love and broken heartedness. But Cassandra burned most of Jane’s letters at the time of Jane’s premature and painful death. Jane’s extant letters are devoid of the deeper revelations of Jane’s life and heart.

So to know the story of Jane’s life and loves in its full array, it is necessary to glean and embellish whatever little details can be found in her letters and to scour her novels for themes that ring true with the revelations in the letters. This is precisely what Kevin Hood did with the help of Sarah Williams. Although some say Hood drew mostly from Pride and Prejudice, that is a statement that is true in only a limited sense. Incidentally, the Becoming Jane DVD features parts of an interview with Hood in which he discusses his approach.

Bits from an assortment of Jane Austen’s novels are introduced into Becoming Jane, though, granted, the main structure does echo Pride and Prejudice. Essentially, Becoming Jane compares to Pride and Prejudice in that a stranger blows into Jane’s countryside and home whom Jane instantly dislikes for no better reason than that he offends her dignity (that’s a pretty good reason); she changes her mind and heart about the stranger; a couple runs away and faces disgrace.

Not all of the characters in Becoming Jane are pulled from Pride and Prejudice. Lady Gresham (Maggie Smith) combines Lady de Bourgh and with a splash of Lady Middleton, living nearby and requiring attendance from the whole family on a regular basis. Mr. Wisely, Lady de Bourgh’s well-mannered nephew (Laurence Fox), combines the diffidence of Edward and the reserve of Colonel Brandon with the generous loftiness of Mr. Darcy. Tom Lefroy, played by James McAvoy, spins the wicked Mr. Wickham together with the courageous Captain Wentworth. Except for the fact that Jane is prejudiced against him, I see nothing of Mr. Darcy in Lefroy. Further, Jane’s mother (Julie Walters) has nothing of a Mrs. Bennett about her. Mrs. Austen comes from Catherine’s mother, Mrs. Moreland, in Northanger Abbey. Mrs. Moreland is levelheaded and practical; she is also the Austen mother we know least about.

A significant oversight in Becoming Jane puts Jane in ordinary day clothes of a dark color, reserved for women of a low station who work. This casts Jane in a sort of Cinderella role. Historically, it is the eldest daughter, in this case Cassandra, who would be taught to manage the home and help in the work; and this was the case in the Austen home as is evident from Jane Austen’s juvenilia in which Cassandra is cooking away at white sauces and soups in preparation of a great feast while Jane assists.

A second consideration is that the Austen’s were a gentleman’s family, though with few pecuniary resources. In society, each daughter and son would reflect that gentlemanly status with all the dignity of their station. Jane would not be marked out as being somehow outside the fold of the family social situation.

Becoming Jane (PG) is a marvelous mix of what little we know of Jane Austen's life from her letters with what we know of her mind and heart from her novels. It is a film that you and the whole family will enjoy every time you watch it, particularly if you reread your Austen novels and can then pick out bits of which stories are alluded to where.

The Complete Novels of Jane Austen (Wordsworth Library Collection) Book: Available at Amazon.com

Becoming Jane DVD: Available at Amazon.com

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