Top positive review
12 December 2015
Jane Austen was born out of place and time, a modern woman who lived before modernity existed. Rich creatively, she was poor materially and emotionally, if by ‘emotional’ we mean romantic love reciprocated. Yet she was intoxicated by love at least once, its cause Thomas Lefroy, a lively young gentleman of nearly 20 who had come down to Hampshire from London for the Christmas social season. Jane was also 20 that winter — the fateful winter of 1795.
Together the lovers dance. In the meditative trance the world dissolves and disappears around them. What remains is the face and body of the lover, a face in full view, a body held close.
They were like that. They drank, flirted, danced. And in the private moments, stolen as they were, can we doubt how they were to each other and what they did? Kisses, embraces, oaths of devotion — the least of it. More we will never know. Jane’s letters barely survive to hint at intimacies, though a few from that magical winter do. We know she loved him and was loved in return.
But it wasn’t to last. Both the winter and their young love passed.
Jane lived in genteel poverty. So did Thomas. He had to raise himself in society through a propitious marriage (and did).
When Thomas was leaving Hampshire to return to London Jane wrote to her sister Cassandra who was in Berkshire that winter:
“The day is come on which I am to flirt my last with Tom Lefroy, and when you receive this it will be over — my tears flow as I write at the melancholy idea.”
Claire Tomalin in her fine book Jane Austen: A Life (1997) adds:
“It’s a joke, yes [Jane’s letter], but made with the intention of misleading her sister; the joke is undermined when you look back at the letter of the week before, with its unequivocal message that she was in love.”
“Tom Lefroy was also in love with her, even if he was not yet risking proposals of marriage. He confessed as much to a nephew when he was an old man: ‘he said in so many words that he was in love with her, although he qualifies his confession by saying it was boyish love’. Boyish love is after all the most passionate love there is, and the qualification, far from diminishing the remembered flame, makes it blaze up brighter.”
This forms the backstory to the beginning of the film, which opens in 1802 at Manydown House, a large country estate near Steventon (Jane’s village), owned by the Bigg-Withers family. Harris Bigg-Withers, the estate’s heir apparent, was 22, five years younger than Jane. On the second night of December he proposed marriage to Jane. She consented. She had known Harris and the Bigg-Withers family for many years. In fact, weird twist of fate, it was in this very house — Manydown — that Jane had danced with Tom those seven long years ago.
Jane’s sleep that night, if she slept at all, was fitful. She and Cassandra might have talked throughout the night. Next morning Jane broke the engagement, packed her bags, took the carriage home. She knew what she was doing and what it meant. She was 27 and unlikely, with no property to her name, to receive further proposals. She knew too what it would mean for her family. The Bigg-Withers family were rich. As mistress of Manydown she could have provided for herself, Cassandra, her mother and servants. “And to think I could have been mistress of all this,” Lizzie Bennet says upon seeing Pemberley for the first time. What were Jane’s thoughts during that carriage ride home? If she thought of Lizzie, it wouldn’t be the first time life has imitated art.
She didn’t love him, so she couldn’t do it. Better to remain poor, independent and single than be trapped in a loveless marriage. It’s the best explanation we have. Jane was complex and would not compromise. Instead of a husband, she had imagination. Instead of children, she had characters. Had she married, who can say? Very possibly no Mansfield Park, Emma, Persuasion — her maturest works.
Even so, she regrets. She looks back and wonders, considers the impossible complexity of what-ifs. She can’t return but does so in memory, time and again. The cause is Fanny Knight, the young daughter of her brother Edward Austen-Knight. Fanny is nearly 20, the very age Jane was when she met Tom Lefroy. Aunt Jane thus becomes Fanny’s agony aunt. Fanny is in love with love and eager to marry. But to whom? Many young men abound, it seems, but who is right and appropriate? Furthermore, what exactly is right and appropriate? How can we know? Does Aunt Jane even know? Why should Fanny rely on the advice of someone who seems to have failed so miserably in love? In the real world beyond novels what has Jane to offer anyone? Fanny’s hunger and quest for love sets off this train of doubt in Jane’s mind.
Time and again Jane confesses to Cassandra and others that she’s happy with her choices. Trouble is, she doesn’t look it, seldom smiling and laughing. What one mainly sees is frustration, melancholy, irony, she the great unloved writer of love. And it looks like this contradiction is tearing her apart. One scene in London shows it clearly.
Jane has gone to London to meet her banker brother Henry. He acts as her literary agent as well. She has just finished writing Emma, so the year is 1815. Of course she wants the best deal possible for it, despite the gap of four years since her last novel (Mansfield Park) appeared. During her London stay Henry is taken ill with terrible stomach pains. Jane fetches a doctor for him on her own. The young handsome doctor, Mr. Haden, turns out to be a great fan and admirer of Jane’s books. He is clever, insightful, sensitive. He doesn’t flatter her. He has actually read the books and understands them, as few men seem to. He knows Jane psychologically, or at least what her characters mean to her. The two of them talk, drink, socialise during Henry’s convalescence, the doctor checking on him frequently, or even more frequently than might be expected. We see what is happening. Jane is overcome with surprise at her own emotion. As for Dr. Haden, the look in his eyes seems genuine. But…Fanny is there too. Jane is nearly 40, Fanny not yet 20. Fanny is at the pianoforte, struggling with a tune. Dr. Haden attends to her, helping to place her fingers on the keys. Jane notices. She watches intensely. Red rises in her face, the scarlet mark of jealousy. She knows: Dr. Haden loves Jane Austen, author, not Jane Austen, woman. This scene is meant to be heartbreaking and is.
Cassandra abides by Jane throughout. She is devout and loving, proud of her little sister and all that she has accomplished. Most were too close to Jane to appreciate her genius and uniqueness. But Cassandra does, her gift one of both closeness and understanding. Which is why she always protected Jane; first in life, later in death, guarding her reputation. It was she who burned nearly all of Jane’s letters on Jane’s instructions, ensuring that our knowledge of Jane’s inner life would remain obscure and patchy.
But all is not solemn and melancholy in this fine film. Jane’s wit, never suppressed, shines through time and again. Humour was her armour; it let her laugh at the world instead of crying because of it. Wit sustains her, setting her apart from others, even those who try to compete with it, as a pompous MP does at one dinner party, flattering her with the sort of empty homilies she’s heard time and again from the semi-literate, meaning those who have passingly and superficially read her novels.
Jane made 21st century choices in the 19th. She did so because she had to; it’s how she was made and thought. The world has caught up with her now. She and her books are more popular than ever, having outlived most of her contemporaries. She’s on the ten-pound note in Britain (or will be soon enough in 2017), and I can’t remember anymore where Shakespeare is (possibly on the backside of the twenty).
This thoughtful film provides sublime insight into the troubled heart of Jane Austen, a woman of flesh and blood, not Regency tea parties and parlour chit-chat.
Thank you, Jane.