Accessibility links

Becoming Jane' Shows Renowned British Novelist Jane Austen in New Light

English novelist Jane Austen wrote with exquisite detail about lives and loves in eighteenth-century English society, but she herself never married and little is known about the author's own romances. A new film aims to fill that gap with a fanciful recreation of how a relationship might have changed her life and sparked creation of her most memorable characters. Alan Silverman has a look at Becoming Jane.

Pride, prejudice and persuasion: each has a role in the flirtation that might lead to marriage in Jane Austen's England; but there is also sense and sensibility. In order to live comfortably and see to her family's needs, a woman of her station - the daughter of a country clergyman - had to marry into money.

Enter Tom Lefroy, the Irish-born cousin of a family friend who meets the 21-year-old Miss Austen and clearly sparks fly.

James McAvoy, seen last year in the acclaimed drama Last King of Scotland, plays Lefroy, who may have been the model for many characters in the novels Austen would later pen.

"Tom Lefroy was a real person who actually went on to become the Lord Chief Justice of Ireland during the Potato Famine," he explains. "So he's a bit of a dark figure, really, but in his early life we know that he was about to propose to Jane Austen. He was a year or two younger than Jane. Listen to me ...we're on first-name basis. He is very much based on a real person;However the relationship is very much hypothesized. It is a kind of essay on what might have gone on between them and how that relationship might have informed her writing and her creation of roles like Darcy and Wickham and Bingley and Collins and all those guys in Pride and Prejudice.

"It's a discussion about the value of experience over imagination and what is more important," adds McAvoy. " It is about him saying 'you've got to taste the world in order to tell somebody what it tastes like. "

"Even though all of her novels end with an engagement or a marriage, she suggested that did not all end happily as a result," says Anne Hathaway, who stars as 21-year-old Jane Austen. The American-born actress says re-reading the novels in preparation for the role led her to believe that, romantic as her writings were, the author's personal experiences gave her a somewhat jaundiced attitude toward romance.

"I think of Sense and Sensibility as a wonderful example," she says. "Nowadays Marianne Dashwood would have gotten over Willoughby and found someone else that was better suited to her. It's just my personal belief, but I don't think Austen liked the loss of Marianne's personality and spunk and passion. I don't think she saw it as a good thing. I also think that a lot of her married couples are very unhappy; one person is (unhappy) or one person is oblivious. I think she was very skeptical of marriage. I think she thought that every once in a while it meant genuine happiness, but it was very difficult getting there and very rare."

Director Julian Jarrold says he tried to meticulously recreate Austen's England; but, like the author, he chose to omit any specific references to political issues of the era such as the aftermath of America's war for independence or the struggle to outlaw the slave trade.

"All of those things like the war and the army and politics and the rest of it are there, off stage, and you feel the influence of them," explains Jarrold. " It is a mistake to think that the novels are just romantic novels. They are very complex, many-layered pieces. That's one of the interesting things about doing this film: there is a romantic element, but all of these other themes as well to examine."

Becoming Jane also features Julie Walters and James Cromwell as the young author's parents. Dame Maggie Smith plays the officious Lady Gresham. The film uses locations in Dublin and County Wicklow, Ireland to stand in for England's Hampshire, where Jane Austen was born and raised.