An unbecoming view of Jane Austen
Oh, to read an Austen novel pre-1996, before theme-park Austen-mania turned her into an early-day Bridget Jones!
It is a truth universally acknowledged that every able mind of reading age must skim read Pride and Prejudice searching for the bit where Colin Firth strides out of a lake in clinging wet britches. And it is a truth universally acknowledged that the film industry must produce at least one film per year, cashing in on the decade of Jane Austen fever, initiated by said britches in the 1996 Andrew Davies BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. Oh, to read an Austen novel pre-1996, when the treasured spinster was considered barbed and ironic, with not a ripped bodice or rippling chest in sight.
If adaptations of Austen novels were ornamental collectibles, theme park Austen-mania would be crammed to breaking point with Royal Doulton tat, for there have been seven film adaptations in 12 years, countless TV dramas and contemporary spin offs including Clueless and the Bridget Jones franchise. And there is no stopping the mania. Pride and Prejudice has recently been declared the nation’s favourite book in every reading demographic. ITV are on cue to unleash their Austen season, Andrew Davies will no doubt have Willoughby stripped bare but for a riding crop in a new BBC adaptation of Sense and Sensibility, and at the cinema this week, Becoming Jane exposes the real life sexual passion of Miss Austen herself.
The theory behind ‘becoming Jane’ is that, for Jane Austen to write so well about love, she must, at one point have been violently in love herself. If Becoming Jane is anything to go by, Pride and Prejudice is not an ironical character study of a particularly small portion of Georgian society, but a blustering epic of love and longing, featuring an orphan gypsy child called Mr Darcy who runs about Pemberley moor in wet britches, destroying dynasties, and hanging small puppies in pursuit of his soul, his Elizabeth. In view of this fact, it is only appropriate to look to the life of the author, to chart where this astonishing passion must have derived. Fortunately for the makers of Becoming Jane, it becomes clear from reading an obscure biography of Jane Austen, that she was in fact Percy Bysshe Shelley.
In fact, (sorry York Notes fans) Austen novels have nothing to do with raw passion and odes to nature.
‘Love’ tends to be treated in a thoroughly unromantic way in Austen novels and when it is represented as a passion (as in Elizabeth’s brief infatuation for Wickham in Pride and Prejudice, or Marianne’s for Willoughby, in Sense and Sensibility) Miss Austen shoots it down with sly ridicule. More often than not, Austen heroines are married off in the most sensible, practical way possible, as a sort of sensible ditch-all land grab. Marianne may love Willoughby, but she marries Colonel Brandon.
Becoming Jane, then, is a perfectly pointless film for it charts the central romantic episode of Jane’s fictionalised life, in which she had to sacrifice her one great love in order to become great British authoress, national treasure and top of the pops when it comes to all our reading tastes. James McAvoy plays Tom Lefroy, a roguish, bare-knuckle brawling, teenage Irishman who dazzles a young, beautiful, cricket playing, piano pounding Jane. They dislike each other immediately (just like Darcy and Elizabeth!) before quickly coming to appreciate one another’s merits. Jane spawns some very unamusing prose, which is read out on screen and talks wistfully of ‘living by her pen’ while her mother lectures her on having to ‘dig her own potatoes’. Lefroy educates Jane on the merits of Tom Jones and takes her to visit Ann Radcliffe. They quickly decide to marry – but when Tom’s rich uncle denies his permission, Jane is dispatched back home to commence writing First Impressions (the early draft of Pride and Prejudice) in floods of tears. Later, Tom decides he does want to marry her after all and they decide to elope. And then don’t. And that’s about it.
The excruciating thing about present-day Austen mania is that it has absolutely nothing to do with Austen. Austen’s genius lies in her wit and her style. Film adaptations, such as the most recent adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, ditch the dialogue in favour of being ‘modern’ and ‘appealing’ and end up being Bridget Jones in sprigged muslin. So it’s not really surprising that in Becoming Jane our hero is just another Bridget, who has to give up her Darcy. Poor Jane, she’s just one of us, a single girl in a single world, dreaming of her own Darcy and scratching away with pen and ink to counteract the tick-tocking inexorability of her biological clock. It smacks of a rather patronising attitude to poor Miss Austen, the spinster low on imagination, that she could not write novels with a hint of invention. It is perhaps interesting to note that there has not yet been a biopic of William Golding in which he was marooned on an island with a load of schoolchildren, or about Tolstoy’s conferences with Kutusov or Nabokov’s penchant for a pre-teen named Delores.
In short, Becoming Jane says nothing at all about what it might have taken to become Jane Austen. Jane Austen has become a brand, and the film is another piece of the merchandise: it is shot like an Austen adaptation, acted like an Austen adaptation, and has plenty of characters in it who are meant to be like those in an Austen adaptation. Dame Maggie Smith plays someone who is meant to be the model for Lady Catherine DeBourgh, there is a Mr Collins-like clergyman and a Mrs Bennet-like mother.
There are also some quite disturbing additions for Austen lovers. One is the opening scene, in which an aged Mr Austen goes down on Mrs Austen beneath the bedclothes. Another would be the encounter between Lefroy and Jane in a library, when he cocks his eyebrow and suggests that her ‘horizons must be widened’. It has been a decades-long, favourite pursuit of academics in dire need of money to make staid Georgians carnal, but surely this is bizarre?
At one point, Dame Maggie Smith comes to visit the Austen household to utter one of Lady Catherine De Bourgh’s famed lines: ‘there is a pretty sort of wilderness at the side of the house’ before breaking off as she sees Jane rushing off to a bench with her notebook to write the whole encounter down. ‘What is she doing, writing?’ Lady Catherine demands, ‘Can’t you stop her?’
The work churned out by this big screen Jane Austen would be turgid, dithering Bridget-like wittering, blotted by the drip-drip of tears. Turn off the TV and rip up that cinema ticket, the only way you can appreciate Becoming Jane is by grabbing one of those Austen’s on your bookshelf and devouring it in a sitting.
Emily Hill is staff writer at spiked, and a blogger for Dazed and Confused.
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