If I had the magical ability to choose one movie and erase its existence from the planet, I would choose “Becoming Jane” without a second thought. This movie had the wonderful opportunity of showcasing the extraordinary yet ordinary life of one of the most popular and important English writers that has ever lived. But instead, it reduced her story to yet another overly-dramatic love story with misogynist undertones.
I have strong feelings about this film.
Let’s start with the basic facts. Jane Austen (1775-1817) lived most of her life in relative obscurity. She was the daughter of a relatively poor vicar who relied on her older brothers to support her, her single sister, and their aging mother after their father passed. During her lifetime, she wrote a series of short stories and unfinished novellas as well as 6 novels, 4 of which were published in her lifetime and 2 posthumously. She never married, although she was engaged to a Harris Bigg-wither (you can’t make a name like that up…) for a total of one day before changing her mind and breaking it off. Throughout her life, Jane wrote many letters to her sister Cassandra who burned a great deal of them after Jane died because she wanted to protect the reputation of her sister and felt the letters would make people think less of her. As a result, there a large gaps and areas in Austen’s life that we know little about. “Becoming Jane” centres on the time before Austen’s novels were published. It tells the story of Austen and Tom Le Froy, a poor nephew come to stay for the summer from London. Le Froy was a real person, and over the course of one summer Jane writes to Cassandra and mentions a continued flirtation with him. At one point she mentions that she thinks he will propose. However Le Froy leaves with no proposal being made, and that’s that.
That is the reality. The film takes this fairly inconsequential story and goes crazy. Basically (spoiler alert) the movie paints Le Froy as the love of young Jane’s life who shows her how much more there is to life than her living room readings and they decide to run away together because Le Froy’s family will not support the match. However at the last second, Jane finds out Le Froy is supposed to support his brood of younger siblings and leaves him mid-journey so he can be free to do so. The movie ends with her returning home.
Now, if this was all there was to the movie, I could live with it. I understand artistic license, especially concerning historical movies, and I realize that the truth doesn’t usually sell movie tickets. The love story is certainly compelling and, despite Anne Hathaway’s horrific attempt at an English accent, the relationship is beautifully played out by Hathaway and the ever-gorgeous James McAvoy.
The problem I have with the movie lies in its depiction of Le Froy’s influence over Austen’s writing. Austen is portrayed as a pampered young girl whose family indulges her silly and long winded writings which are in reality of little consequence. Enter Le Froy, who is openly bored by her writing and refuses to cater to Austen’s feelings. The two clash as Austen apparently cannot understand how someone could not appreciate her writing. In one scene, Austen stumbles upon Le Froy in the family library, whereupon he tells her that she needs to ‘widen her horizons’, a thinly veiled euphemism that links his male influence to her writing talent. After the two get over their differences and fall in love, Austen, apparently filled to the brim with emotion, sits down and frantically starts writing “First Impressions”, which of course is the original title of “Pride and Prejudice”. It is insinuated that Le Froy is her inspiration as the pair’s first impressions of each other are highly negative, and that she is only able to write properly after having met him.
Herein lies my greatest critique of the movie. It is only after meeting and being influenced by Le Froy that Austen is able to write properly, and to write well. She needed him to ‘widen her horizons’ before her work had any value. Now, defenders of the movie I’m sure would say that it has nothing to do with the fact that Le Froy is a man and everything to do with the power of love. And I understand that. Relationships of every kind have a powerful affect on our lives and I’m sure, many authors’ writing. But there is a big difference between being inspired by a loved one and actually getting your talent from one.
Austen lived in a time when women were not seen as capable of writing. Only a short while before her life, women actually needed to get the signatures of several men testifying that they did actually write their novels even to get published. So it is significant to portray her as incapable of writing until a man enters her life and tells her how in a way that would be less significant now.
Jane Austen was a great writer, certainly one of the greatest of her time. Her novels have been in publication for hundreds of years and “Pride and Prejudice” is one of the most widely recognized stories in the world. Her writing is incredible, full of satire, societal critique, beautiful prose, fantastic female and male characters, incredibly deep observations on human nature and character, and of course, wonderful stories. She wrote like this without the influence of a man. She was single, and it’s important. I’m sure there were men in her life, maybe even Le Froy, who influenced her writing. But she was always going to be the author of Pride and Prejudice, regardless of her personal life. And to erase that, to portray her as an unrefined rock polished and made useful and talented by a man, is to insult her memory and the countless women authors who have been inspired by her.
Essentially, the title of the movie says it all. Austen did not ‘become’ herself after falling in love. She was always Jane. Every person is already themselves when they fall in love. And to suggest otherwise in the context of a historically marginalized person who lived in an era where women were not considered people, is to do a great author a huge grievance. I’m sure there are other readings of this movie. I’m sure that there are people who would completely disagree with my reading of it. But at the end of the day, this hyper-romanticized and historically weak movie in no way pays tribute to the greatness of Jane Austen, and that is such a shame.
To provide a comparison, the film “Miss Potter” follows a similar failed love story of a young female author but manages to avoid the sexism of “Becoming Jane”. Beatrix Potter, beloved children’s author and artist, falls in love and becomes engaged to a man who later tragically dies from influenza. This is historically accurate so already it’s a step above “Becoming Jane”. But what “Miss Potter” does that “Becoming Jane” fails to do is show that Potter’s talent is not created or refined by her fiance. Inspired and encouraged, of course. But she does not ‘become’ Beatrix. She already is Beatrix. And that’s how you write a biopic of a female author.
Note: the relationship between Austen and Le Froy is by no means the only historical inaccuracy of “Becoming Jane”. Another significant change is the fact that Austen is seen living with her disabled brother. The Austen family did have a son with some kind of disability but, like everyone else at the time, they sent him to an institution for his entire life, never even visiting as far as we can tell. To portray the Austen family as lovingly accepting and defending him is an insult to the memory of the countless people like him who were shoved into awful places and have been largely forgotten by history.