Was there a real Mr. Darcy? “Becoming Jane”, based on a book by Jon Spence. speculates that Jane Austen’s romance with a dashing Irishman helped turn her from the unpublished “plain Jane” writing for family and friends, into the Jane Austen who created one of literature’s most famous and beloved novels. At one point we even see her writing the draft of “First Impressions”, which eventually became the basis of Pride and Prejudice. Any resemblance between Jane and Elizabeth Bennett, or Tom Lefroy and Fitzwilliam Darcy is not coincidental.
Anne Hathaway is fine as Jane, likewise up-and-coming James McAvoy as Tom LeFroy, a young Irish lawyer-in-training banished to the country. Tom, you see, is a bit of a lad, as the British say. He likes to fight, drink, gamble and hang out in places of ill repute. This gets back to his uncle the judge, who banishes him from London temptations to stay with his rural relatives.
After he dismisses her writing at a house party, Jane decides she doesn’t much care for Mr. Lefroy and the verbal sparring begins. Meantime, Jane’s sister Cassandra has become engaged and Mrs. Austen is anxious to see her other daughter married off too. But the suitor Mrs. Austen has in mind is as dull and awkward as he is rich. Jane has other ideas, such as earning a living by her writing. Besides, she wants to marry for love, an idea that enrages her mother, who did just that and ended up living in genteel poverty. Reverend Austen overhears the conversation and the pain on his face is heartbreaking.
Tom seems to get a kick out of flustering Jane. When they met along a woodsy trail not long after the house party, she acidly remarks he should learn about the local natural attractions if he is so bored by the country. Tom eventually strikes back, catching Jane trying to sneak out of a friend’s library when she realizes he’s there. He reads aloud a suggestive-sounding passage from a book about nature while slyly eying the flustered Jane. He then suggests she read Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones, a bawdy book for its time. Surprisingly, Jane agrees, winning Tom’s admiration.
Love grows slowly but surely between them. Jane begins to think she can marry for love too. The obstacle: both Jane and Tom are as poor as church mice. But Tom believes his uncle will give them his blessing when he meets Jane. After a disastrous meeting with Tom’s rich uncle, a disillusioned Jane returns home and before long, hears that Tom has a new fiancée. But Tom doesn’t want to lose his Jane. The only way they can be together is if they elope and leave everything, and everybody behind.
Is the movie art imitating reality? In real life, Jane only mentioned Tom twice in letters to her sister and his visit to Steventon was a short one. Whether their relationship was a love match or merely a flirtation will forever remain a mystery: less than 200 of Jane’s estimated 3,000 letters exist. However, romantics take heed: Tom named his first daughter Jane.
“Becoming Jane” is a sweet but slight movie, with charming characters, witty conversations and lovely landscapes (County Wicklow in Ireland stands in for the English countryside). However, it plays more like a retread of the 2005 “Pride and Prejudice” with Keira Knightley (who had also been considered for the part of Jane Austen!). So if you think you’ve seen it all before, you have.