History in the Movies

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'Becoming Jane' shows the love life of author Jane Austen.

‘Becoming Jane’

Jane Austen has seen a great deal of Hollywood love in recent years. Film versions of “Sense and Sensibility,” “Emma,” and “Pride and Prejudice” have garnered critical raves and Oscar nominations. Now, in the new film “Becoming Jane,” the author herself steps into the spotlight.

Much like 1998’s acclaimed “Shakespeare in Love,” “Becoming Jane” proposes that a love affair early in life became the inspiration for the author’s greatest work. In Austen’s case, the romance was with a dashing Irishman named Tom Lefroy. Their passionate affair, the film tells us, helped inspire Austen to pen her masterpiece, “Pride and Prejudice.”

It’s a lovely tale, one that Austen herself would have delighted in. But did real life play out as the movie suggests? Read on.

Q. Did a young Jane Austen actually fall in love with Tom Lefroy?

A. Probably, though we’ll never know for sure, since much of Austen’s emotional life is shrouded in uncertainty. She wrote countless letters to family and friends, but many of them, particularly those from this period, were destroyed by well-meaning family members after her death.

But Lefroy does make an appearance in some of Austen’s surviving letters, and many Austen scholars believe the pair-both 20 when they met-did fall in love in the winter of 1795. How serious their flirtation went is debated, but Lefroy himself, in his old age, confided to a nephew that he had once loved Jane Austen.

Q. Was Lefroy much the way he’s depicted in the film?

A. The charm and the wit, yes, though the scene in which Lefroy displays an initial disdain for Austen’s work is probably fictional.

The situation of the actual Tom Lefroy was shown accurately. The eldest son among 11 children, Lefroy’s financial future (and that of his family) depended entirely on his staying in the good graces of his rich uncle. Marriage to Jane Austen, the daughter of a poor clergyman, was simply unacceptable.

Q. Did Austen begin to write “Pride and Prejudice” during this time?

A. Yes, the first draft of “First Impressions” (as she initially called it) was begun when Austen was 20. And while one of the delights of the film is spotting the many references to lines and situations from “Pride and Prejudice,” it’s impossible to say how much Austen’s relationship with Lefroy influenced the writing.

Q. In the film, Austen is friendly with a deaf and dumb man from the village. Who was he?

A. Though it’s not clearly stated, that was George, Austen’s older brother. His situation illustrates the rather harsh family customs of Austen’s era.

Austen’s mother followed the common practice among the gentry of sending away one’s infants to be cared for by a local village family. All the Austen children lived with foster families, until they were deemed to have “reached the age of reason” and could be expected to behave properly, at which point they were brought home.

George, however, didn’t develop normally, and thus never came home. Though his family sent money for his upkeep all his life, he never lived with them. Austen scholars guess that he was deaf and dumb, since Austen alluded in her letters to knowing sign language.

Q. Did Austen receive offers of marriage?

A. The film’s wealthy but dull suitor- Mr. Wisley- was a Hollywood invention. But Austen did receive at least one marriage proposal, though it happened years after the film’s events. Mr. Harris Bigg-Wither, a wealthy young man, unexpectedly asked for her hand while Austen was visiting his family’s home. He was 22, she was 27. Austen accepted, then, after a sleepless night, broke the engagement, saying she felt merely esteem, rather than love for the gentleman.

It was a gutsy decision, since Austen was poor (she had yet to make a penny from her writing) and the marriage would have ensured her own and her family’s financial fortune. But it’s a decision that Elizabeth Bennet, and most of Austen’s heroines, would have understood.

Q. Did Austen try to stay anonymous when publishing her books?

A. Yes. Austen followed the tradition of other female novelists of the time by signing her books, “By a Lady,” or “By Lady A.” But as the film shows, her authorship became a fairly open secret among those who knew her. This was due mostly to her brother Henry, who delighted in telling everyone about his accomplished sister.

Success came late to Austen, and she had too little time to enjoy it. Though she had written complete drafts of “Pride and Prejudice” and at least two other novels by her early 20s, she didn’t publish any of them until she was in her late 30s. Her first book only appeared in 1811; the next three followed in 1813, 1814, and 1816. Her last two books were published posthumously in 1817. It was only after her death that her name became widely known, and her talent celebrated.

Q. What’s a good source for more information on the real Jane Austen?

A. Try Claire Tomalin’s “Jane Austen: A Life,” or Jon Spence’s “Becoming Jane Austen.”

Cathy Schultz, Ph.D., is a history professor at the University of St. Francis in Illinois and writes a syndicated column on historical films. You can reach her at cschultz@stfrancis.edu