This weekend I saw Becoming Jane, a film that fictionalizes Jane Austen in the same way that movies have fictionalized her novels. Yes, I know the novels are fiction. But the film treatments of these novels in a certain sense fictionalizes the texts they are based on—going beyond mere reading or interpretation of the texts to willfully create an entirely new entity with independent lives of their own. And so it is with this movie’s treatment of “Jane’s” (as opposed to “Austen’s”) life (for which we do not really have a text, since lives are not texts, however many documents it may leave behind). And although all biographies and history are fictional in the sense that they use narrative and speculation and imagination to make sense of the “facts” that come to us through documents, fictionalizations are conscious, willful departures from texts and documented facts.
Becoming Jane fits into both the “Heritage” genre (as cultural studies scholars call it) and the more widely recognized genre of biopic which can range from the charmingly ridiculous (think Shakespeare in Love, Amadeus and Impromptu) to serious (Frieda and Vincent and Theo). Altman said about Vincent and Theo: “I’m sure my film is not factual, but I hope it’s truthful.” I suspect Julian Jarrold, the film’s director, imagined he was being in some sense “truthful” with his fantasies about “Jane.” Since most people’s sense of truth fondly imposes anachronism on texts and lives alike in service to the cherished notion of the “Universal,” I was fully prepared for the sorts of anachronistic distortions that typify the whole “Jane” film genre (and largely account for their appeal to such a wide—albeit largely female—audience)—which was, of course, exactly what Becoming Jane delivered.
Near the beginning of the film, we see Jane seated at a desk, writing, with a pair of scissors positioned near her ink pot. And then we see her sister Cassandra, reading the letter Jane has written her that is literally full of numerous rectangular holes, cut with meticulous precision, so that Jane’s beautiful script is not marred by inked out deletions. Jane, it seems, wields a pair of blades to edit her letters (rather than producing a clean second draft through copying, as we see her doing with her fiction). Likely the filmmaker provides this image to amuse his viewers (and it certainly did amuse me), but it reminded me from the outset that one of the reasons we know little about Jane Austen and her private life is because Cassandra purged her sister’s letters after her death, to be sure that no minor blot or imperfection would mar the image of her sister that Cassandra wished to project.
Which is to say, since her death, very little has been known about Jane Austen’s private life or, indeed, about her personality or the character of her social relationships.
My sense of dead authors generally takes one of two modes. In rare instances, I will have read the author’s letters and diaries or memoirs, their essays and other nonfiction, and possibly biographies about them. In some indefinable sense, what I know about such an author will merge somehow with my reading of their work. My sense of Virginia Woolf, for instance, partakes of that mode. But the most common mode is that of the author as a near-blank. In this mode, I know a few facts about the author but have no real picture of their life or personality: the author is a name and the producer of a voice that I do know. In other words, I know the second self that the author created. My sense of Jane Austen partakes of that mode. I never think of the real person who produced the voice in which her novels are written when I’m reading her work: she is absent and may as well not exist.
So, as browsing the Seattle movie listings I read that the film was showing (the first that I knew it had even been made) and decided to see it, I realized that I lacked an image of Jane Austen substantial enough to be challenged or affronted by whatever image the movie had chosen to create of her. And I found that an odd realization to make, especially as I went on to consider how the fans of the “Jane” film genre have invented a “Jane” (largely based on their consensual re-invention of “Lizzie,” as so many call Elizabeth Bennet) they are sure they know intimately and do, of course, love.
This train of thought called to mind D.A. Miller’s celebration of Austen’s voice in the opening passage of Jane Austen: or The Secret of Style:
Whereas Emma’s talk merely held Harriet with the charm of a person, what Austen’s writing channeled for us [who read Austen early—say, at eleven or twelve, the age when she began writing] was the considerably more exciting appeal of no longer being one. Here was a truly out-of-body voice, so stirringly free of what it abhorred as “particularity” or “singularity” that it seemed to come from no enunciator at all. It scanted person even in the linguistic sense, rarely acknowledging, by saying I, its origination in an authoring self, or, by saying you, its reception by any other. We rapt, admiring readers might feel we were only eavesdropping on delightful productions intended for nobody in particular. And in other constituents of person—not just body, but psyche, history, social position—the voice was also deficient, so much so that its overall impersonality determined a narrative authority and a beauty of expression both without equal. The former, bare of personal specifications that might situate and hence subvert it, rose to absoluteness; while the latter, likewise emptied of self, achieved classic self-containment. No extraneous static encumbered the dictation of a grammar that completed, and an art that finished, every crystalline sentence. Altogether, such thrillingly inhuman utterance was not stylish; it was Style itself.
While Becoming Jane does not offer us an image of Jane Austen powerful enough to stamp the imagination forever with its imprint (or, I would guess, even set out to do so), its entire point, however, is to fix that voice to the fantasy of a particular person, body, and set of experiences that the movie imagines made Austen the author she became. (Hence, of course, the “becoming.”) Much of the delight of a film aimed at fans of “Jane” must, of course, be the constant occurrence of recognizable lines and figures from the film versions of the novels.
And so Anne Hathaway’s Jane herself is naturally an amalgamation of Austen’s heroines, while the people in her life and the situations she finds herself in are a combination of those to be found in her novels, fashioned onto a few carefully selected struts of the framework that is the little that is known of Jane Austen’s life. (For the record, the film’s hero, Tom Lefroy, was in real life a member of the bar in Ireland, had nine children with the woman he married in 1799, and became Lord Chief Justice of Ireland in 1852; Austen did mention him in a few letters and remarked of him that he was “a great admirer of Tom Jones” [which book Austen no doubt read without Lefroy’s prompting] and that that admiration inspired his only fault, that of wearing light-colored and colorful coats.)
It’s a formula that works perfectly to create a film that fits nicely within the Jane-film genre. Thus, Jane’s mother, Mrs. Austen, resembles the two television-film versions of Mrs. Bennet; Judge Langlois resembles the General in Northanger Abbey; Lucy Lefroy resembles Mary in Pride and Prejudice; Lady Gresham (a wholly invented character) combines Lady Catherine de Burgh and Lady Dalrymple in Persuasion, and so on. Even more importantly, perhaps, the characters spout familiar lines.
If one were to take the movie seriously, one would have to conclude that Jarrold means us to believe that the Austen wit was all around her, ready for to be used: but of course that’s not the reason those lines can be found on the characters’ lips: like the resemblances between the film’s characters and those of the film version of the novels, they’re meant to afford the viewer with the pleasure of recognition.
Jarrold affords us occasional moments of recognition of scenes from other, non-Austen heritage films: how can we not recall Merchant-Ivory’s Room with a View when seeing Jane and the Countess running through the woods after LeFroy and Jane’s brother Henry, to watch them strip off their clothes & dive naked into the water (even as we also think of Colin Frith’s Darcy nude in his bath and later diving into a pond to cool off after a long ride home)?
Still, most narratives have subtexts, and this movie is no exception. The principal subtext is rather heavy-handed: the sexual excitement and romantic infatuation followed by self-sacrifice of her affair with Lefroy gave Jane the experience she needed to produce those wonderful novels. And yet a second, subtler subtext offers a kernel of truth to be found beneath the multiple layers of the film’s fantasy. This emerges in the scene in which Jane meets Mrs. Radcliffe, the Gothic novelist who actually made a living by her pen, and realizes there might be an alternative to the life her mother tells her she must accept. Mrs. Radcliffe’s novels involve wild adventure and exotic travel. When Jane asks her about her experience (which Tom has been telling her she needs to acquire in order to write Real Novels), Mrs. Radcliffe comments that imagination can make up for all that the writer lacks in experience.
Becoming Jane had a few jarring moments, of course. I can’t imagine what possessed Jarrold to have Jane make a crack about who may judge who’s really important, for the crack was obviously intended to draw attention to how much more important she would become posthumously, when all those who viewed her as an impertinent, insignificant chit had sunk into ordinary obscurity: thus winking to the viewer to enjoy the irony (which certainly did not need to be pointed out to anyone in the theater).
In sum, the movie was a frolic that accomplished its aim and I’ve no doubt it will give the fans of “Jane” repeated hours of pleasure. Still, it would have been interesting to have had Robert Altman’s version of Jane Austen: I can’t help but thinking he might have been more interested in elucidating the enigma D.A. Miller admires, rather than conflating the fictionalizations of the writer's fictions with the writer.