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In my previous post about Jane Austen, I looked at the movies Becoming Jane (2007) and Miss Austen Regrets (2008) and questioned how historically accurate they were. There are obvious discrepancies taken in the name of artistic licence, such as the names and situations of her suitors, but there are also more subtle differences, like the more modern representations of her attitudes towards having a career.

A watercolour painting of Jane Austen, by Cassandra Austen

A watercolour painting of Jane Austen, by Cassandra Austen

The best way to get a sense of who a person was – short of talking to them yourself – is to read what they have written. Obviously reading more personal accounts, such as journals and personal letters, allows you to see the person in the way they saw themselves. Their other writings, such as novels, poetry, and published pamphlets or articles, also give a sense of their voice and an idea of what interested them. Reading other people’s first-hand accounts give a sense of how other people perceived this person. Biographies, although a secondary source of information, are valuable in giving a sense of the circumstances and background of the person’s life. So it is in these places that I have sought information on the realities of Jane’s life.

Jane’s Suitors

Thomas Lefroy (years lived)

Thomas Lefroy (1776-1869)

Jane did meet Tom Lefroy in 1795 while she was still living at Steventon, aged 20, and mentions him in her letters to Cassandra. However, there is little evidence that marriage between them was ever seriously contemplated.

You scold me so much in the nice long letter which I have this moment received from you, that I am almost afraid to tell you how my Irish friend and I behaved, Imagine to yourself everything most profligate and shocking the the way of dancing and sitting down together. I can expose myself however, only once more, because he leaves the country soon after next Friday, on which day we are to have a dance at Ashe after all. He is a very gentlemanlike, good-looking, pleasant young man, I assure you. But as to our having ever met, except at the three last balls, I cannot say much; for he is so excessively laughed at about me at Ashe, that he is ashamed of coming to Steventon, and ran away when we called on Mrs Lefroy a few days ago.

9 January, 1796.

John Warren (1771-1831), who proposed to Jane in Becoming Jane, was at Oxford at the same time as James Austen. He also became a pupil of Jane’s father, George Austen. Mr Warren and Jane were always good friends and he was occasionally mentioned in her letters. The following excerpt was written immediately after the above quote regarding Tom Lefroy, in the same letter to her sister.

We left Warren at Dean Gate, in our way home last night, and he is now on his road to town. He left his love, &c., to you, and I will deliver it when we meet. Henry goes to Harden to-day in his way to his Master’s degree. We shall feel the loss of these two most agreeable young men exceedingly, and shall have nothing to console us till the arrival of the Coopers on Tuesday.

9 January, 1796.

Samuel Blackall met Jane in 1798 while visiting the Lefroy’s and soon became an admirer of her. He had intended to visit again at Christmas but upon his return to Cambridge, where he was a Fellow, he discovered that he was not in a position to marry at present, and wrote to Mrs Lefroy to tell her so. In any event, his admiration does not appear to be returned by Jane.

She [Mrs Lefroy] showed me a letter which she had received from her friend a few weeks ago (in answer to one written by her to recommend a nephew of Mrs Russell to his notice at Cambridge), towards the end of which was a sentence to this effect: ‘I am very sorry to hear of Mrs Austen’s illness. It would give me particular pleasure to have an opportunity of improving myself with that family – with a hope of creating to myself nearer interest. But at present I cannot indulge any expectation of it.’

Jane then goes on to comment on this to her sister:

This is rational enough; there is less love and more sense in it that sometimes appears before, and I am well satisfied. It will all go on exceedingly well, and decline away in a very reasonable manner. There seems no likelihood of his coming into Hampshire this Christmas, and it is therefore most probable that our indifference will soon be mutual, unless his regard, which appeared to spring from knowing nothing of me at first, is best supported by never seeing him.

17 November, 1798.

There was one mysterious love interest that occurred in 1801, while Jane’s family was on a visit to Sidmouth from their new home in Bath. We only know this by a few scant remarks that Cassandra had made to several of her nieces and nephews later in her life. Biographer David Cecil goes into some detail about the incident. This man was handsome, intelligent and quite charming, and became quite attached to Jane over the two or three weeks that he was in town. Unfortunately, the gentleman was forced to leave on account of some business and it was understood that he would return soon to see the Austen family again. Before he could do so, the Austen’s received a letter from his brother saying that he had suddenly died. There are very few letters of Jane’s that survive from May 1801 to 1805, which leaves this period of her life quite blank.

Harris Bigg-Wither (1781-1833)

Harris Bigg-Wither (1781-1833)

In 1802, Jane was proposed to by Harris Bigg-Wither, when she was aged 27, on a visit to the family with her sister. She accepted the offer, but then withdrew it the next morning and hurriedly left with her sister to return to Bath. Biographer David Cecil suggests that her reluctance to marry Harris Bigg-Wither might be related to the brief but strong affection she felt for the Sidmouth man.

In 1808, upon a visit to Godmersham, it appears possible that Mr Edward Bridges (1779-1825), made her an offer of marriage. She makes a curious mention of it in a letter to Cassandra, which has led Deirdre LaFaye – an Austen expert – to suggest that it is possible that he did make her an offer, but that she refused.

I wish you may be able to accept Lady Bridges’ invitation, though I could not her son Edward’s; she is a nice woman and honours me by her remembrance.

October 7, 1808.

One thing I can say for certain about Jane and her view of marriage is that she was well aware of the advantages of having money upon marrying. However, she also seemed firm in her views that a marriage without affection was as equally undesirable as one without money. She gave some very pertinent advice to her young niece Fanny in one of her letters, about her suitor Mr Plumtre.

There are such beings in the World perhaps, one in a Thousand, as the Creature You and I should think perfection. Where Grace and Spirit are united to Worth, where the Manners are equal to the Heart and Understanding. But such a person may not come in your way, or if he does, he may not be the eldest son of a Man of Fortune, the brother of your particular friend, and belonging to your own country. Think of this Fanny. Mr J.P. has advantages which do not often meet in one person. […] And now, my dear Fanny, having written so much on one side of the question, I shall turn round and entreat you not to commit yourself further, and not to think of accepting him unless you really do like him. Anything is to be preferred or endured rather than marrying without Affection…

18 November, 1814.

When I first discovered, early in my “Austen education”, that Jane Austen had never married, I remember being shocked! It seemed unthinkable that a person who could write such moving stories about life and love – stories that have stood the test of time and have charmed people born long after her death – never had her own love story.

Even though Jane never married, it is clear that she had a variety of experiences in her relationships with marriageable men; some consisted of mutual friendship, others mere attraction and flirtation, at least one with a more financial allure, and possibly one with a deeper affection that Regency women regarded as a foundation for marriage.

Whilst this tendency to want Jane Austen to have had a love story of her own is understandable, it is possible that this modern appetite for love and romance may cloud our perception of the realities in Jane’s life. It can prevent us understanding the way a Regency woman would perceive her own situation of singleness within the context of her own time.

As someone who is interested in history, I tend to find it more interesting to try to understand this historical context of a person rather than merely watch an entertaining movie about them. Actually, this interest has often driven me from the movie theatre to the nearest bookshop in search of more information – which I can then devour over a cup of tea!

Due to space, I have decided to make a Part 3 to this post which will endeavour to explore the realities of Jane’s career prospects as a female author in the Regency era.

Related Posts

Jane Austen. Who? – Part 1

Aunt Jane!? An Author!?

A Happy New Year – letter from Jane Austen to her niece, Cassy

Northanger Abbey, by Jane Austen – a book review

Sources and Relevant Links

A Portrait of Jane Austen, by David Cecil – Amazon

Becoming Jane (2007) – the movie

Review: Becoming Jane Austen by Jon Spence – by AustenBlog

The Truth about Jane Austen and Tom Lefroy – by Following Austen

Fact and Fiction in Becoming Jane – by Following Austen

John Warren at the Dean Gate Inn – by Austenonly

Miss Austen Regrets (2008) – the movie

Miss Austen Regrets: How Jane lost her own Darcy – an article by The Independant (April 2008)

Miss Austen Regrets: Brook Edward Bridges – by Jane Austen Society of North America

Jane Austen’s letters, Brabourne’s edition – read online

Memoir of Jane Austen, by James Edward Austen-Leigh – read online

Other Jane Austen Biographies (and there are many more!)

Jane Austen: A Life, by Claire Tomalin – buy through Amazon

The Life of Jane Austen, by John Halperin – buy through Amazon

Jane Austen The Woman: Some Biographical Insights, by George Holbert Tucker – buy through Amazon

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There seems to have always been a remarkable interest in who Jane Austen was, from the very moment the authorship of her novels was revealed. This interest extended into the Victorian era when her letters and other unpublished novels were made available to the public. Even now, Jane Austen has an ever-growing army of dedicated fans who avidly devour new movie adaptations and “new sequels” of the Austen novels, as well as movies about Jane’s life itself. Recently I have had the opportunity to watch some movie portrayals of the famous Regency authoress.

Anne Hathaway as Jane Austen, in Becoming Jane (2007).

Anne Hathaway as Jane Austen, in Becoming Jane (2007).

Becoming Jane

Becoming Jane (2007) is loosely based on the speculative biography Becoming Jane Austen, by Jon Spence. It focuses on the life of Jane Austen during her years living at Steventon, before her family moved to Bath. Starring Anne Hathaway as the 20-year-old Jane, the movie shows the close relationship she has with her sister, Cassandra, and her family.

The movie focuses on the period of Jane Austen’s life when most young women of her time would have been looking for a husband. She meets Mr Tom Lefroy at a family party and strikes up an emotionally charged friendship, despite the initial conflict of his rudeness. They fall in love but realise the impossibility of their union unless they can convince his uncle to agree, as Tom is wholly dependant on his uncle for money and career connections. They end up eloping but Jane suddenly decides en route that their love would not survive their eventual poverty and goes back home.

In addition to Tom Lefroy, Jane is also pursued by a (fictional), Mr Wisely, who is the nephew and heir of rich Lady Gresham. She also has a third proposal from Mr John Warren at the conclusion of the movie.

Jane’s family prefer the match with Mr Wisely, as the marriage will provide their daughter with money and security. As she does not have much dowry, attracting a husband who is not already rich will be difficult for her. Jane talks frequently of her hopes of making her fortune by her pen, rather than by marriage, however her family – whilst they encourage her writing – seem to be skeptical about this.

I remember really liking this movie when it was first released, thinking that it seemed to portray the vivaciousness and wittiness that I believed was accurate to the author’s voice in her novels. It also seemed to cleverly link some of the everyday occasions in Jane’s life to the events in her novels, particularly Pride and Prejudice, thus illustrating the ways in which she could have gleaned inspiration from her life. Unfortunately, as I began to research Jane Austen’s life in more detail it became apparent (and irritatingly annoying) that Becoming Jane was almost completely fiction!

Olivia as Jane Austen, in Miss Austen Regrets (2008).

Olivia Williams as Jane Austen, in Miss Austen Regrets (2008).

Miss Austen Regrets

I have also recently seen the movie Miss Austen Regrets (2008), starring Olivia Williams, which follows Jane’s later life as a much-loved spinster aunt and burgeoning author when she lived at Chawton Cottage.

This portrayal sees Jane spending time with her niece Fanny (daughter of her brother, Edward Knight) as she tries to decide whether or not to marry a charming Mr Plumtree. Jane uses her previous experiences in love and life to help guide her young niece in her decision.

The movie focuses on the fact that Jane remained unmarried and was poorer than she might have been if she had chosen to marry. Jane is made to feel responsible for not furthering the family fortunes when she refused to marry Harris Bigg in her earlier years, and maybe it is for this reason that she is preoccupied about writing for money in order to provide for her mother and sister.

The other love interest featured in this movie is that of Reverend Edward Bridges, who was the brother-in-law to Jane’s brother, Edward Knight. According to the screenplay, he had proposed to Jane several years earlier and been refused and had then married a Miss Harriet Foote. As could be expected, their conversations are peppered with the what-if’s and the could-have-been’s that one naturally has when considering what could have happened if a different decision had been made.

Whilst this movie is fairly soundly based on the letters of Jane Austen that were written between 1813 and 1815, the portrayal of Jane as a character seems markedly more melancholy and regretful than her letters indicate her to be. In fact, her conversations often bordered on being bitter and her relationship with her sister seemed equally strained. I found it hard to imagine that Jane could be like this after reading her letters.

A watercolour painting of Jane Austen, by Cassandra Austen

A watercolour painting of Jane Austen, by Cassandra Austen

So just who was Jane Austen?

Whilst I enjoyed both of these movies in different ways, I was initially puzzled as to why these portrayals of Jane Austen did not match up with the sort of person I had experienced through reading her personal letters.

One thing that bothered me was that these depictions of Jane seemed to be overly modern in terms of ideology. It was almost as though we, as a 21st century world, had infused our own more modern feminist ideologies on this Regency woman, such as the desire to have a career, to earn an independent living, and to marry for love. Whilst these modern ideals are important to the women of today, it is probably not accurate to suggest that the same ideals are ones that Regency women – or Jane in particular – aspired to, at least not in the same way that modern women value them.

However, it could be more simple than that. It could be more to do with movie producers generating a bottom dollar by striving to make a screenplay acceptable to a modern audience, regardless of whether the resulting movie is accurate in its depiction of a historical figure. This makes sense really. These days movies need to have a good storyline with maybe some action or romance to help them attract interest and make money in the box office. In short, the content of a movie (historical or otherwise) needs to meet the ideals and expectations of a modern audience. It is possible that a truly accurate portrayal of Jane Austen might be just too boring for us all to watch!? Heaven forbid, but that could be true!

What are your reflections on these movies? Do they fit with your picture of who Jane Austen was? Do you prefer a historical accurate film or one with a good storyline?

In my next post on this topic, I will attempt to examine some of the realities of Jane’s life, including the men who featured in her life as possible suitors. I will also explore some of the ways in which our modern ideologies may have affected our view of who Jane Austen was. For instance, is it accurate to suggest that she wanted to have a career or that she wanted to be famous, and is it realistic to assume that she could have become rich?

Related Posts

Aunt Jane!? An Author!?

Christmas with Jane Austen

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies – a book review

Lady Susan: an eighteenth century epistolary novella – a book review

Sources and Relevant Links

A Portrait of Jane Austen, by David Cecil – Amazon

Becoming Jane (2007) – the movie

Review: Becoming Jane Austen by Jon Spence – by AustenBlog

The Truth about Jane Austen and Tom Lefroy – by Following Austen

Fact and Fiction in Becoming Jane – by Following Austen

Miss Austen Regrets (2008) – the movie

Miss Austen Regrets: How Jane lost her own Darcy – an article by The Independant (April 2008)

Miss Austen Regrets: Brook Edward Bridges – by Jane Austen Society of North America

Jane Austen’s letters, Brabourne’s edition – read online

Memoir of Jane Austen, by James Edward Austen-Leigh – read online

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