Becoming Jane


by Terri Draper

A historical drama about the young adulthood of Jane Austen, Becoming Jane is a charmingly romantic and tragic tale of love and loss. Becoming Jane attempts to show how Jane Austen, a woman who never married, could write about love as if she knew it so well. It provides the audience with a highly romantic and engaging story. However, in an attempt to depict the real Jane Austen, as opposed to the prim and proper one in the history books, Becoming Jane takes great liberties with the truth.

Jane meets the hero of the film, Thomas Lefroy, in the first few scenes of the movie and, in true Austen style, is repulsed by him. However, through a series of activities including balls and, more obscurely, a cricket game and a boxing match, Jane ends up falling deeply in love with the charming Mr. Lefroy. During the entirety of the film, Jane is in the process of writing First Impressions, which upon publication becomes Pride and Prejudice. Anyone familiar with Jane Austen’s work can easily see the parallels the film makes between the love affair of Jane Austen and Mr. Lefroy and Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice. However, unlike Mr. Darcy, Mr. Lefroy is penniless, making him a very unsuitable match for Jane, the second youngest of seven children born to a middle-class pastor. Jane, being young and high-spirited at the time, does not consider this when she falls for the handsome, young Mr. Lefroy.

Before the young lovers can profess their love, however, Mr. Wisley forces his way into the situation. Mr. Wisley proposes to Jane, causing turmoil in the Austen household. Mrs. Austen feels that it is Jane’s duty to accept the proposal. Mr. Wisley is very rich, and the marriage would be very advantageous. Mrs. Austen also points out that if Jane does not marry, the family cannot afford to support her. Mr. Wisley, ironically, tells Jane that the idea that she could survive by her pen is ridiculous.

Mr. Wisley’s proposal serves only to accelerate Mr. Lefroy and Jane’s relationship. When Mr. Lefroy confronts Jane about marrying for money as opposed to affection, they decide to become engaged themselves, no matter what problems it might cause. They travel to London to persuade Mr. Lefroy’s uncle, on whom his livelihood depends, to permit them to marry. This trip ends disastrously. Mr. Lefroy’s uncle forbids the marriage. Since Lefroy depends on his uncle for money, he calls off the engagement. Jane suggests that they should marry anyway, and Mr. Lefroy will not. His only excuse to Jane is that people depend on him.

After this harsh blow, Jane returns home brokenhearted. During their first dinner out after Jane’s return, the family gets word of a terrible tragedy. Jane’s closest sister, Cassandra, is engaged to a man named Mr. Fowle who at this time is working in the West Indies. Mr. Fowle fell ill his first day in the West Indies and died. A very touching scene follows in which the women of the family try to comfort Cassandra, to no avail.

The next day, Jane accepts Mr. Wisley’s marriage proposal. However, just hours after she accepts, Mr. Lefroy returns and proposes to elope with Jane. After just seeing her sister so devastated at losing her chance at happiness, Jane does not feel that she can pass up this opportunity. She accepts Mr. Lefroy, returns home, packs her things, and tells Cassandra goodbye.

Jane and Mr. Lefroy get on the chaise heading to London, but they have barely made it out of Hampshire when Jane realizes why Mr. Lefroy had initially turned her down in London. He had been supporting his mother and many brothers and sisters with the money he had been receiving from his uncle. Jane would not take happiness at the expense of so many. After a tear-jerking goodbye, Jane returns home and spends the rest of her life, a spinster, living by her pen. She does see Mr. Lefroy one more time in later life; he has named his eldest daughter Jane.

Becoming Jane is a very romantic story, but it is hard to tell how historically accurate it is. Not much is actually known about Jane Austen’s life. Many of her personal letters have been published, but her beloved sister Cassandra destroyed most of Jane Austen’s most personal letters after Jane’s death in 1817 in order to protect her privacy. Jane was a very private person and was only famous posthumously, so her life is not as well documented as the lives of other, more famous writers.

The movie did a wonderful job of depicting Jane’s large close-knit happy family. Her relationship with her sister Cassandra particularly shines in Becoming Jane. The two actresses depict the closeness of Jane and Cassandra’s actual relationship perfectly. Cassandra was also actually engaged, and very in love, to a man named Mr. Fowle who died in the West Indies. Cassandra never married after Mr. Fowle’s death. The brother Henry and the Countess Eliza also had a relationship and married around this time. One family member that is not depicted accurately is Jane’s brother George. Jane’s second brother George was mentally-challenged, but in the movie he is depicted as deaf. It was probably thought simpler to adjust the story line in this way, but a small change could have made the movie much more accurate.

Furthermore, Jane did meet Mr. Lefroy and have a flirtation with him, but that is where the facts end. She met him in December of 1795 and she really liked him. She even admitted to her sister of her behavior with Mr. Lefroy at one ball:

"I am almost afraid to tell you how my Irish friend and I behaved. Imagine to yourself everything most profligate and shocking in the way of dancing and sitting down together."

However, it was merely the flirtation of a nineteen year old girl. After only a couple of weeks his family sent him away because of his growing interest in Jane, who was poor and therefore would afford a very unfavorable match. There was no evidence of an engagement, or an elopement. Jane was upset at the end of the relationship, but there is no evidence to support the film’s supposition that Mr. Lefroy was the great love that gave Jane Austen inspiration for her novels, or that made her shun men for the rest of her life. However, Mr. Lefroy did name his eldest daughter Jane. Whether this is just coincidence, or if he still held feelings for Jane one cannot know.

Regardless of Jane Austen’s and Thomas Lefroy’s feelings for one another, the timeline for Becoming Jane is not correct. Jane Austen knew Thomas Lefroy in December of 1795. Cassandra’s fiancé, Mr. Fowle, in the film dies in the middle of Jane and Mr. Lefroy’s romance, but in actuality he died in 1797. Also, during the film, Jane is writing First Impressions; but Jane Austen actually wrote First Impressions, between October of 1796 and August of 1797. It would have been impossible for all three of these things to be going on at the same time. However, compressing these events makes for a more dramatic and interesting movie.

Mr. Wisley is another character in Becoming Jane that simply serves to make the movie more dramatic. There is no evidence to support that Jane Austen was ever engaged to a Mr. Wisley or that he ever even proposed. There is only record of one proposal that Jane Austen received. She accepted the proposal, but, as in the film, turned it down the following day. The proposal, however, was from a man named Harris Bigg-Wither, and he proposed when she was almost twenty-seven and living in Bath.

Becoming Jane is a dramatic film loosely based on historical events. It gives an idea of the people and the time, but is not a hard story. The facts simply do not measure up to this romanticized story of Jane Austen’s first flirtation. However, there is much that is not known about Jane Austen’s personal life. She lived in anonymity so not much was written about her personal life until after her death. Also, Cassandra Austen did burn many of Jane’s more personal letters to protect Jane. Did she burn them to hide a passionate love affair, and a near elopement with Mr. Lefroy? The public will never know, but the writers of Becoming Jane could not have known either. So, Becoming Jane is a wonderful dramatic movie, but not a historically accurate one.

Bibliography

Dwyer, June. Jane Austen. (New York: The Continuum Publishing Company, 1989).
Nokes, David. Jane Austen: A Life. (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1997).

Further biography recommended:
Claire Tomalin, Jane Austen A Life. (New York: Vintage Books, 1999)