We are two part-time academics. Ellen teaches in the English department and Jim in the IT program at George Mason University.

_Becoming Jane Austen_ · 18 June 07

Dear Miss Vane,

This in from Miss Schuster-Slatt about the film, Becoming Jane Austen:

“Since little is known about any romance Jane Austen may have had, it’s safe to speculate, and screenwriters Kevin Hood and Sarah Williams have crafted a fantasy in which the not-yet-great novelist nearly elopes with Tom Lefroy, a penniless Irishman given to pugilism and bawdry.

Director Julian Jarrold has delivered an overlong film with an uncertain portrayal of its heroine at its superficial heart. Irritatingly, it’s peppered with quotes from Austen’s still unwritten novels improbably stuck in the mouths of her family members. Playing the young genius with a blend of bland insipidity and sophisticated lip gloss that will exasperate even the most tepid Janeite, Anne Hathaway lacks chemistry with the puckish, eyebrow-wiggling James McEvoy as her ill-matched lover. This gives plenty of room for minor characters such as the impressive, eagle-browed James Cromwell as Rev. Austen and Julie Walters in a Mrs. Bennett-like turn as Mrs. Austen, to steal scenes. Maggie Smith has been rolled out to play the requisite fictional elderly dragon lady, and Anna Maxwell Martin as Jane’s sweet sister Cassandra is also noteworthy.

The film is unfailingly pretty, despite a sense of hollow uncertainty that keeps us from being swept into involvement with its principal lady. Fortunately, as a saving grace it rises to a bittersweet, tear-inducing ending. This almost makes you forget the conceptual shakiness of a theme that insists disappointment in love was the catalyst that made Jane Austen what she became.

Miss Schuster-Slatt (aka Diana Birchall)”

Miss Sylvia Drake

Posted by: Ellen

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  1. Miss Schuster-Slatt has kindly permitted me to post an earlier review she wrote (21 April 2006) of the screenplay:

    “I have been meaning to post here because I read Kevin Hood’s screenplay Becoming Jane a year or so ago, and wanted to report on it as there has been so much speculation about the script, but needed to find time to reread it first. I should explain that I am a writer (author of Mrs Darcy’s Dilemma, a best-selling P & P sequel) who works as a story analyst at a major Hollywood studio, and was sent the script by a friend. These things get around, and because of my lifelong interest in Austen I have actually been sent no fewer than four screenplays about the life of Jane Austen in the past couple of years! Yes, really. And Kevin Hood’s was by far, unquestionably, hands down, the best. He is apparently an accomplished English playwright, and his skill and confidence show in the sheer structural economy with which he introduces the large cast of Austen family characters and manipulates them in a natural and unforced way, with charm and humor. I had to admire it; it was one of the few screenplays I’ve read in years where I actually thought I couldn’t do better myself, despite my knowledge stemming from thirty years’ immersion in the subject. I don’t mean to sound arrogant here: I don’t write plays or screenplays myself, just books, and my job is actually reading novels for the studio, but hundreds of thousands of screenplays are circulated in this town, and the vast majority are ill conceived and written. So to “do better” than most of them is not difficult, and in fact the other Austen scripts were better than most of them, too. But Hood’s is something more than that. He is what Jane Austen would call a reading man, but also possesses a light touch. The other Austen screenplays are by reading people but without the dexterity, or have the light touch but are not by reading people!

    Kevin Hood’s drama is not a literal, factual, faithful, plodding replication of precise events in Jane Austen’s life, and if you’re going to read (or see) it constantly exclaiming, “But that never happened! Jane Austen never had a neighbor anything like Lady Catherine! (That’s your Lady Gresham.) Henry Austen never behaved like that in London! If that character is supposed to be Blackall she never met him that early in her life!” then it’s possible that prejudice might prevent you from enjoying it. Justifiable prejudice, indeed, for no one doubts that we Janeites approach these things with our critical antennae very suspiciously extended; but this is a charming story and deserves an open mind. And I can at least explode one misconception that seems to have been assiduously spread by the project’s most ignorant, uninformed man who ever dared to be a press agent (whom I don’t think actually read the script): it does not make it appear that Jane Austen up and decided to become A Novelist because she was disappointed in Tom Lefroy! The script presents her as already a dedicated writer, already singular, already unfond of the marriage market and the idea of being a poor animal, before she meets him! (I can hear the collective sigh of relief.)

    Yes, it is a love story, in which she has a romance with Tom Lefroy and is disappointed. It takes touches from Mr Darcy and elsewhere and attributes them to Lefroy’s character, a ploy which must be fictional. The poverty of the Austens is played up and surely JA’s parents never pressured her to marry as these do. There are quibbles, but all is accomplished with such panache and confidence that the script finally wins us over. There is invention galore: Eliza is more involved in the Lefroy matter than she could really have been (but why not bring her in); and there are scenes such as a sneaking-away to Astley’s and a meeting with Ann Radcliffe that are purely imaginary, but fun. The prominence in the plot of Judge Langlois, some changed names, the presence of Jane Austen at a bloody birth, an aborted elopement – yes, considerable invention. This is fiction, but plausible fiction, done in a consistent manner, with an internal truth all its own. Most of all, Hood’s achievement is that the contingencies of the plot actually make you feel. How rare is that in a screenplay! I confess that I, jaded I, actually shed a tear, which happens perhaps twice a decade. A very effective script and I will defend it. I will further venture to say that if it is not screwed up in the production (which could easily happen…I am not an Anne Hathaway fan, but then I also wanted to beat Keira Knightley about the head with her own torn off shin bone, to paraphrase Mark Twain), judging by the screenplay alone, this has at least a good chance of being a charming, moving, enjoyable film.

    I will now take questions
    Elinor    Jun 22, 6:43am    #
  2. I’ve been reading Jon Spence’s biography, Becoming Jane Austen. He was the advisor for the film and has done an apparently respectable edition of Edward Austen’s diaries. His book is often demoralizing and irritating because he’s so locally politicized (alert to what he knows specific individuals in JASNA or Austen studies want to be presented ast truth) without ever seeming to be. So not a breath of explicit mention that Eliza could be Hastings daughter and endless other rationales for the money Hastings paid—in fact he discovered other payments to Eliza and her mother. It is odd the man should pay so much I have to admit :), so odd perhaps another explanation is needed beyond the motive of keeping Philadelphia Austen silent.

    But that’s just one detail: the opening section presents a seamless justification and rationale for density, obtuseness and I don’t know what else in feeling and action in the Austen family that was inhumane and ignored individual feelings totally. Maybe not so paradoxically everytime he has to record a particularly nasty action (like the great-grandfather's will), he says this sort of thing is exceptional. Most people did the decent thing. But he's not got much proof in the Austens. He does have a theory that Austen met Lefroi after the one season and apparently does think this was a pivotal romance. So except for that (which makes the film) he’s all against love and for money :). It makes me remember Scott at his best in non-fiction and criticisms of contemporary novels: in his review of Emma, Scott criticizes what he takes to be is the consensus of the morality of the Austen books: he takes them to be strongly anti-romantic, and anti-idealism and counters by saying surely we don't need to be taught selfishness and the use of prudence made by interested people.

    Of course it could be Spence will then show hurt and outrage in Austen's books, but peeping ahead he shows Austen to be complicit and in agreement with these anti-romantic norms in the juvenilia (and rejoices). Whether Austen is presented as in life pro goals of material prudence and tenacity after the slightest crumb from the table of a relative no matter how far off remains to be seen. The book may improve as Austen herself grows older: Becoming Jane Austen is written like most biographies like a novel although this is not acknowledged -- David Nokes is unusual for acknowledging this.

    And oh yes says he in his preface we all know the portrait by Cassandra is “problematical” and it’s much preferable to be able to let our imaginations go free and think of Anne Hathaway! So he supports his place in the movie industry as an "expert" who can give films respect.

    He does bring in new information and it reminds me of Austen's life as it's usually told. He writes concisely, dryly, and will give me insight into the Becoming Jane Austen movie when I see it. I’d do better were I to read the screenplay, but that alas I cannot have.

    Elinor    Jul 1, 10:58pm    #
  3. Late the other night I read well into Spencer’s Becoming Jane Austen. Here is the source for the new fantasy novels about Lefroy and Austen. The man has erected a fantasy, using the sleuthing techniques with an appearance of grave scholarship in his tone and references. He invents or supposes one more meeting between Lefroy and Austen in London—- by suggesting one time she stayed in London with someone related to the Lefroys (very easy) and that Lefroy was there. He takes Lefroy’s family and makes them into the Bennets who also had a son (4 or 5 daughters desperate to marry off and the son to get a career for). So we have the center of P&P. Jane waited in London after that for Lefroy to call and he never did. Voila the Jane and Bingley story.

    What he does is take a letter Austen wrote from London that is vague, short and dated from Cork Street. He discovers Benjamin Langlois was a rate-payer there so he supposes Tom Lefroy was staying there and Austen too. We have no evidence anywhere either stayed there. He’s astute: he writes in reverse from the assumption we know they were three, so Austen’s reticence in not mentioning his name becomes ominous. How strange “she doesn’t mention Tom’s name at all.” He supposes Langlois was a Mr Collins type. It’s endless. The patina of scholarship is observed by remarks now and again that we can’t know this or that for sure.

    This is a parody of scholarship. It is fundamental that if something is not mentioned anywhere in a letter you cannot argue the letter is all about that. Spence takes one letter dated from Cork Street and with no evidence beyond the connection of an uncle of Lefroy as a ratepayer for a house on that blocke says Austen must have stayed in lodging with Langlois where Tom Lefroy stayed .Then he reads a letter which no where mentions Lefroy or anything about or connected to him and argues that she was repressing the name and all that happened.

    He takes endless advantage that you can argue anything at this point (as I suggested in my chapter "Riddled with Untruths"). What he does is some autobiography we say we see for sure in the fiction he sometimes accepts, but sometimes not. It seems to me no coincidence that he rejects Eliza as illegitimate and rejects Catherine as showing Philadelphia’s early life and has Hancock as the kindest sweetest man and that marriage as just a conventional one where the poor wife was sorry to live apart. Right. Every common prejudice among philistines and fools is fed. He defends materialism in the Austen family at every point and finds Austen to be nasty that way too—only he praises her for supposedly making fun of Henry. He builds a many year romance between Eliza and Henry with Eliza as a bitch. Philadelphia the cousin is a boring horror. With no reason he will then pick other details and read into them. Remember my rejected chapter where I said biography is now impossible as anything may be argued. BJA is an instance of reading what you please when you think it will please. What makes it plausible is he looks for patterns.

    To be fair, when I read Austen’s letters & family papers I came up with 4 romances, all vague and short. 3 you know: Lefroy vague and short, the night of the proposal and running away, and (possibly) this persistent rumor of something in the early 1800s as the family travelled in summer. But I think Jane Austen was also drawn late in her life (not old just late in her short life) to an apothecary she was genial with. So it’s easy to do.

    But where I sense bad faith is each time Spence makes a decision it’s the sort of decision that pleases the crowd. He sneers at James Austen continually. There’s no reason not to believe James was the young man Eliza flirted with when this play was done (this is the incident that is a core of _MP), but Spence thinks James a dullard. From the literary point of view James is better than Henry and we know for sure he wrote much; he also became a clergyman, was serious and earnest (an Edmund type). Spence makes Edward to be honest, wonderful, candid (he did an edition of the journals), this man who left his sisters to live in a tiny cold cottage until his wife died, upon whom he inflicted endless children (as did his other brothers on their wives—Austen profited from their deaths by replacing them).

    Jan Fergus sees Austen as a businesswoman. She’ll like Spence’s presentation. He offends no one who doesn’t want sex outside marriage. He has a patina of apparent sense: it’s a man’s book Becoming JA.

    The Lefroy story is one that appeals to the public. They’ve got a bunch of young actors who look like something straight from a Harlequin romance. I looked at the pictures on that blog. From the blogger's choice I don’t know which of the two young people seemed to me more out of some Harlequin romance: how skinny they both are, the man utterly sentimental, the woman effete.

    So now we will watch utter unreality take over the Austen biography. It’s ironic when I think of Nokes’s book: he read into the novels and papers a liberal left story which was what one might expect of his generation. Tomalin updated Jenkins. All the attempts to depart either the critique type (Nokes, Harding) or Jenkins-Tomalin sentiment have not caught on with the violence or sex conformist archetype-inclined public.

    The movies does it too. And these sequels masquerading as biography.

    People will make a lot of money using this argument from ignorance and absolute reverse documentation..

    Elinor    Jul 6, 2:02pm    #
  4. On Austen-l, Edith Lank wrote as follows:

    “re Tom Lefroy, I’ve always been touched by the letter to Cassandra in which JA tells of a visit to, no I think maybe from, Mrs. Lefroy some months after Tom had left. JA too proud to inquire about the nephew, fortunately her father brings him into the conversation. JA clearly expects Cassandra to
    understand just how much JA wished for news of him. One thinks of Anne Elliot so many years later, can’t remember the scene exactly, longing to hear whether the newly returned Captain mentioned her, and too proud to ask.”

    To which I replied:

    I do agree with Edith that there is evidence in the letters we had Austen liked Lefroy and was perhaps (it’s not clear) hurt when he was taken so abruptly away. However, her later hunger for romance and the feelings behind Persuasion could just as easily be more general and there are other passing intense emotions here and there for people and writers she comes across. We don’t know how long she remembered Lefroy. I am willing to believe the family’s comments at the time there was a romance in the early 1800s where the young man died. I find in the letters in London a passing genuine liking for an apothecary but the class divide was too much for her. She was a snob (as we would look at things).

    I forgot the letter about her father bringing up the subject of Lefroy. Here we have more real evidence she was damaged when the Lefroy family removed Lefroy. To my mind Spence’s not bringing up this letter (ever) and instead defending the family’s attitudes towards Jane and money and place is part of what makes me suspect bad faith on his part—for here is evidence of some lingering love and deep hurt.

    Elinor    Jul 9, 8:14am    #

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