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Becoming Jane fun, but story bit of stretch for Austen fans

By Philip Martin

This article was published August 17, 2007 at 3:42 a.m.

— Not being an authentic Austenite, I had no problem enjoying Julian (Kinky Boots) Jarrold's Becoming Jane, a highly speculative account of a love affair that young Jane Austen could have had with Irish lawyer (and much later chief justice of Ireland) Thomas Langlois Lefroy, who met Austen sometime around Christmas 1795. Lefroy was mentioned in a couple of Austen's letters to her sister Cassandra. She called him her "Irish friend."

Maybe the strongest indication that Austen and Lefroy were more than casual buddies is that he named his eldest daughter Jane Christmas Lefroy. Since the girl was born in June 1802, some have deduced she was secretly named for Austen - the Christmas serving as a further clue. On the other hand, genealogists have pointed out that Christmas was not an unknown family name and it is as least as likely that Miss Lefroy was named for ancestors as for the "inventor of the modern novel."

But it seems uncharitable to deny poor Jane Austen this chaste, hypothetical affair; shouldn't she who contributed so much to the pool of collective romantic assumptions not have had at least one (albeit brief and chaste) fling? Maybe the old image of Austen the spinster ought to be shattered - is there any harm in reimagining her as one of her own heroines?

Specifically, Becoming Jane seems to posit an Austen based on one of the author's enduring creations, Elizabeth Bennet of Pride and Prejudice, recently portrayed on screen by adorably feisty Keira Knightley. So it feels right that the American analog to Knightley, Anne Hathaway (who in the wayback before Brokeback Mountain, Havoc and The Devil Wears Prada was a House of Mouse princess), stars as 20-year-old Jane.

Hathaway, with her oversize facial features and good enough British accent (sticklers might object, but I have absolutely no idea how a young Hampshire woman during the Regency period should sound), is appropriately (if inaccurately) fetching and demure. She is capable of projecting intelligence without the benefit of especially sparkling dialogue - one of the curious things about Becoming Jane is that it dares present us with a callow Austen whose capabilities have yet to catch up with her self-esteem.

Lefroy (James McAvoy) shows up in the provinces with a reputation as a rake and a spendthrift who's entirely dependent on his uncle - a London jurist - for support. On his arrival in Hampshire he strays into a celebration where Jane is reading one of her essays. While everyone else is impressed by Jane's reading - the scene recalls Samuel Johnson's quote about a woman's preaching being like a dog walking on its hind legs: "It is not done well but one is surprised to find it done at all" - Lefroy challenges her. She has potential, but he sees her as a naive country poseur who lacks the wild experience necessary for real writing.

"If you wish to practice the art of fiction, to be considered the equal of a masculine author, then your horizons must be, er, widened," he tells her, as he presents her with a copy Henry Fielding's Tom Jones. (Those who see Austen as an ur-feminist might bristle at this scene, especially since Lefroy's evaluation seems correct.)

Wounded and resentful, Austen furiously devours the book, which she pretends to find scandalous, just as she pretends to find rough-mannered Lefroy brutish and short. (He is short, at least in some scenes.) But when he doffs his velvet frock coat to intervene on behalf of the vanquished in a one-sided boxing match, well, you just know it's true love.

Lefroy is supposed to be the model for Mr. Darcy of Pride and Prejudice. And so Mr. and Mrs. Austen (James Cromwell and Julie Walters) appear to inspire Mr. and Mrs. Bennet, the doting father and practical mother of flighty Lizzie.

Maggie Smith shows up as (fictional) Lady Gresham, who seems very much like Lady Catherine de Bourgh, the noblewoman who in Pride and Prejudice expects Darcy to marry her daughter. Here, Lady G. means to foist off her priggish (but ultimately good-hearted) nephew Mr. Wilsey (Laurence Fox) on Jane.

It seems a stretch to reconcile the facts of Austen's life - she died, unmarried, at 41 - with this romping costume romantic comedy, although Becoming Jane makes every attempt to save our heroine from humiliation. Everyone has to listen to the whispered urgencies of their consciences. All of them in the end do a far better thing than they have ever done before. Becoming Jane isn't the best of times - it isn't Austen - but it's an entertaining enough way to spend a couple of hours.

MovieStyle, Pages 41, 43 on 08/17/2007

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