Becoming Jane: Review

BONUS ADAPTATION! Since we’ve know talked about revisionist history and learned a bit about all of that, I thought it would be fun to do two bonuses to our Austen Adaptations! The first is Becoming Jane (2007).

Tom LeFroy (James McAvoy) and Jane Austen (Anne Hawathay)

This film is based on a book titled Becoming Jane Austen by Jon Hunter Spence and is considered a demi-biography as he uses the plot device of Pride and Prejudice as well as Austen’s Letters to piece together her early life as well as the possibility of her romance with Thomas LeFroy based on her mentions of the man from her letters to her sister, Cassandra. I’ve read the letters myself. She mentions him twice in 1795 and once a few years later. If that’s the basis of an unrequited love affair, color me shocked. Jane also mentions trying to find pink silk stockings with much more fervor. The Jane Austen Society does endorse the book by stating the author does seem to understand the character of Jane Austen. Endorsing the book doesn’t mean his book is accurate, only that it is enjoyable to read. I have looked on the JAS website and no where do they claim that rthis book is historically accurate. They only reviewed it as being an enjoyable read. I do think sometimes they should start off such books with a disclaimer that they don’t endorse such books as being historically accurate first off so people don’t believe it’s truthful, only conjecture (because this is where revisionist history can become an issue).

Jane being confronted by her parents, the Rev George Austen (James Cromwell) and Mrs. Austen (Julie Walters).

Firstly, the film gets many things wrong. I have not read the originally source material (the book that the film is based on) so I do not know if the author made the Austen family out to be poorer than they were in reality. If the author did not make them out to be this poor, then this was Hollywood taking liberties with the truth to make Jane seem more desperate to make a rich match than she was in reality. In Deidre Le Faye’s book, Jane Austen’s Country Life, she points out that Rev. Austen made over 300£ profit on his own farm that he rented during a “bad” year. That’s about $590 (roughly as exchange rates vary daily), but that’s still a fairly decent profit in a bad year, given how much he had to pay in rent, plus the workers who were doing the actual labor. Mrs. Austen was known to grow berry bushes, chickens and other fowls. No where have I ever come across her sowing or digging up her own potatoes. Remember that Mr. Bennet spends around 100£ a year on each of his girl’s allowances in Pride and Prejudice, so having three times that amount extra per year is not a bad thing. Yes, Jane was not from a wealthy family, but she wasn’t as poor as the filmmakers made her out to be. When her father died in 1805, they did sink into poverty, this is true. But at the time of this film (being, I believe 1795), she wasn’t poverty stricken yet.

Mrs. LeFroy (Eleanor Metheven), Jane, Lucy LeFroy (Jessica Ashworth), and Comtesse Eliza de Feullide (Lucy Cohu)

The date this takes place also beings me to a state of confusion in terms of the costuming. Looking at the above scene, both Mrs. LeFroy and Eliza are in late 1790s gowns, but Austen is in a gown closer to 1810. The young girl is also shown as being old enough to attend balls and has her hair down, which we should all know by now I have a distinct hatred for. Either she is too young and doesn’t not attend the balls and can have her hair down (which she looks old enough to start having it up anyways), or have it up.

Jane and Mr. Wisely (Laurence Fox)

In real life, Jane Austen agreed to marry Harris Biggs-Wither. The next day, she called it off. From all accounts, he was not a good looking man and they had nothing in common. She was forced into accepting it by her mother, Mrs. Austen. Mr. Wisely, in this film, takes the place of Mr. Biggs-Wither, except he is much better looking and they actually have things in common. Mr. Wisley did not exist in real life.

Eliza, Jane, and Henry Austen (Joe Anderson)

Wandering waistlines aside, I don’t believe umbrellas had out modern coverings of polyurethane yet. Nice use of the pug though. Henry should either have his hair short or have it pulled back. Eliza’s husband was guillotined in 1794, so this taking place in 1795 is historically accurate (at that point). I don’t mind the blue color on Anne Hathaway because it is a lovely color on her, but they use it a lot and the shifting waistlines just bothers me. For a big budget film, one would think they would do a better job at hiring a historical consultant (and not just the author of the book they used as a source material).

Cassandra (Anna Maxwell-Martin) and Jane

A few things they showed in this film that did happen, but they speed up in order to fit into this film. Cassandra did get engaged to a clergyman, who was accompanying his cousin’s ship overseas. They gave him the name Thomas Fowle, which is odd since his name was Robert Fowle. I don’t know why they didn’t just use the man’s name. He did die of yellow fever, but not in 1795, in 1797. His cousin, left Cassandra a 1,000£ legacy to compensate her for the loss of her betrothed. Cassandra never married. George Austen was sent to a small farm where he lived the rest of his life. No where have I found any evidence that he was deaf or hard of hearing. From all accounts he seems to have been on the Autism spectrum. Sign language did exist (there was a form of it that existed in France around the 1800s at that time, but I have no idea of what they were using in the film was at all accurate or not). I don’t recall Jane ever mentioning her brother George at all in her letters so I highly doubt she had any kind of close relationship with him. It’s possible his parents and even a few of his brothers saw him from time to time, but he spent his life away from his family. Jane Austen also never met Mrs. Radcliffe. I wish these two authors would have met in real life, but alas, that never happened!

Lady Gresham (Maggie Smith)

Now, are there any good points? Yes there are. James McAvoy is a treat to watch in this film. I have enjoyed him ever since I saw him in Lion, Witch, and the Wardrobe. He was fantastic in Split and Glass. He is equally talented in this film. Maggie Smith steals what little screen time she has, so it’s always a pleasure to see her whenever she is in a film. Anna as Cassandra is overshadowed by Anne Hathaway, which is a pity since Cassandra is such a vital figure to Jane Austen’s life. Same with Mrs. LeFroy, who barely makes an appearance yet was an important figure to Austen’s life. I do like they showed a game of cricket being played, as the first game was played in Dartford in the early 18th Century (yes, I checked).

Jane & Tom; the red overdress is too 1970s with the thin straps.

The bad points: the costumes are hits and misses. A lot is made of the supposed love affair between LeFroy and Austen base don three mentions in a few letters and LeFroy mentioning years later that he had a “boyish love” for Austen in his youth. The fact is he was already engaged with he went to visit his aunt and met Jane in 1795. If he flirted, Mrs. LeFroy may have seen him as going too far and sent him on his way before he hurt her young friend. That’s probably all there was to the tale. His “boyish love” years later was most likely a bit of a crush looking back on his memories. We want to make much of this instance when there may have been nothing there. Also in 1795, based on her letters, Jane was working on Sense & Sensibility, not Pride & Prejudice, so the author using the second novel as a basis for her love affair is a little bit…awkward.

Thomas LeFroy (1798) after his marriage

Revisionist History Part 2

For this posting on Revisionist History, I thought I’ve focus on an area that most people don’t think about much, which is the area of biographical films (or biopics for short). Now, biopics are good for introducing famous or interesting people to a wider audience, but they are also notorious for glossing over the bad parts or nasty parts of a person’s life and even changing facts to create a more palatable film. In a way, this is a bit of revisionist history because people will use films as 100% facts, not realizing that like other films, there are things that are made up in them. So, I thought it might be nice to look at some examples of this just to be a different change of place.

General Custer (courtesy of USF.edu)

Any biopic about General Custer is going to be problematic because his widow, wanting to to make her dead husband into a hero, wrote a biography on him after his death which turned him into the hero from which all film interpretations are based upon. Only one film (Little Big Man) comes close to showing him as a jerk and idiot, so it’s closer to truth. There are a lot of films in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s that glorify this man and they are laughable in many aspects. Custer was a Confederate soldier that was notorious for disobeying orders. He was ordered to NOT engage the Native Americans. He did anyway and is responsible for one of the greatest losses of human life outside of the Civil War in the 19th Century. So, always be aware of any film that portrays him as a good guy because historically, he wasn’t. It’s important to be aware of men such as Custer who are idolized to this day from the false biography his wife had written and published. It’s amazing the damage a false narrative can still cause after over a hundred years. She purposefully revised history and people not only bought it, no one wanted to believe anyone who was stating the truth!

Andrew Jackson (Courtesy of thehermitage.com)

The few times this President has been portrayed on screen, no mention of the Trail of Tears is brought up and he never swears. Jackson was known for swearing up a storm. He was racist. misogynistic, and from all accounts, an premier asshole. I would love it if we started doing more honest portrayals of our Presidents in films or even in Theatre pieces because people need to be aware of the good and the bad. People are not aware Jackson was behind the Trail of Tears because it’s not taught in schools or it’s just not common knowledge. It should be though. For some reason, there has been a deliberate push to lessen the damage Jackson inflicted on this country and to build him up a a hero when he was not a hero in any sense of the word.

Queen Christina of Sweden (Public Domain Image)

This monarch’s story has been fictionalized only a few times, which is sad (though she has a few plays and an opera) because she is so interesting! Raised to be King, she had female and male lovers, abdicated, lived her life in exile, patron of the arts, never married. I’ve only seen two films on her (and there are so many on Queen Victoria and Queen Elizabeth I). It’s hard to say if these two films are very fictionalized because from all historical accounts, she was bisexual and did travel to Rome (one film has her sleeping with a member of the Vatican). So, am I am saying is it’s possible. I also don’t know a lot about her as there’s not many biographies on her. I’m sure some liberties were taken on both films (that’s a given) but the true and accurate things that would seem pure fiction, were not. So, I included this because sometimes real life is stranger than fiction!

Biblical based films are always a little hard to judge. When they are taken from stories from the Bible, you can judge them for things like historical accuracy and if they adhered to the Bible story. A lot of the older films (pre-1980s) aren’t too accurate, but they were dealing with things like the Hayes code which prohibited certain body parts (like belly buttons) from being shown and didn’t allow certain words (even from the Bible, which is funny considering the Hayes Code was a Catholic run organization) from being said. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy some of those lavish productions for the over the top costumes and sets, but they do a lot of adding in of love stories and characters that aren’t in the original source material to turn it into a workable film.

JRR Tolkien (Courtesy of the Tolkien Estate)

Now, a Tolkien Biopic is shortly coming out and the Tolkien Estate hjas stated that they did not authorize the film and do not approve of this film. Where does this leave us? Tolkien did publish letters (I have a copy) which gives insight into him as a writer and a person. There are a few biographies on his as well as biographies on people he knew such as CS Lewis. Of course, there are going to be some liberties taken with it and some things are going to be left out. I don’t expect this is going to be a film that is going to be 100% accurate. If it’s 80% accurate, I will be satisfied. It’s sad that the family were not involved and don’t approve. So it’s a film that I will most likely wait to see when my library has a copy.

David Bowie (Courtesy of the Bowie Estate)

This brings us to another issue. There is also a film coming out about David Bowie that is also not authorized by Bowie’s family. Because it is not authorized, there will be none of Bowie’s music involved and it will take a lot of liberties of the man’s life and career. There is no authorized David Bowie biography available, so this film will be pure speculation plus any interviews that are out there. This is what I would call pure revisionist history in terms of a biopic whereas the Tolkien film has resources such as Tolkien’s letters that author himself published during his own lifetime plus many authorized biographies of the author and the men he knew an worked with. That gives his film a more accurate feeling to it than this one will have.

The point I am trying to make is this: some biopics (especially the older ones) are not at all accurate and yet people will believe them as being 100% true. Remember that during the early 20th Century, film studios were trying to make money and most films were shot in as little as 4 to 6 weeks, not months like they are now. Historical accuracy wasn’t as high as a priority as entertainment value. It’s only more recently that it’s been more of a need to be both accurate and entertaining. Though there are always people put there that do films that are completely revisionist history (and they tend to be full of conspiracy theories, which is how you spot them easily). And also because there are so many biographies in terms of films, TV specials, and even books set to come out in the near future I felt it was a good idea to do this little posting on this now instead of later.