Biographical films that meddle with the lives of historical figures and bend the facts to promote their agenda seem to get this little ball of rage rolling inside me. At the same time, I love a good historical film. I am not immune to enjoying historical inaccuracy. A movie like Amadeus (1984) for example, adapted from Peter Shaffer’s 1979 play of the same name, puts a person like me on ice, as it were. On one hand, it’s a phenomenal production in every sense. On the other, the script is a total fabrication and thanks to it, Salieri will probably always be thought of by every body who takes biopics to be factual, as the murderer of Mozart. Which is really unfair if you happen to be Salieri; and which leads me again¹ and unequivocally for the last time, to Becoming Jane. God, that title is so syrupy it makes me queasy.
It is true that Jane Austen and Tom Lefroy had a short but animated flirtation, that they were very much attracted to one another, and that Lefroy then disappeared. A very brief non-mention of him in one of her letters three years after their acquaintance ceased shows that a romantic interest in that quarter had existed but there is nothing to suggest a grand love. (I’m pretty sure ‘non-mention’ isn’t passable as a word but I think it describes Austen’s allusional style of letter writing better than, well, allusion. Caveat: allusional is also not a word kids.) In his old age Lefroy told his nephew that he had had ‘a boyish love’ for ‘the writer Jane Austen’ but I can’t help but wonder that if she had not become famous by the time this remark was made, would he have even remembered the short flirtation of their long distant youth?
I call it shabby indeed (that’s right, indentations) to build these few scratchings of a month long flirtation into le grand passion and declare that it was a talented writer’s greatest influence. Austen’s influences were clearly drawn from the world around her, for her books are full of lives, the way of people and the way of the world, not just courtships. Those lives are diverse too and not often romantic: glimpses into the never ending workload of servants, the grubby port dwelling Prices, Harriet Smith and Eliza Williams of dubious and undesirable birth, Eliza Barton in a spunging-house², Mrs Smith in poverty and crippled, Dick Musgrove, a troublesome half-wit son, the grasping, offensive, stupid John Thorpe and a long list of gamblers, seducers and idiots. Her works feature sailors and soldiers at war, allusions to political unrest, ambition of every nature and moral ambiguity. If love isn’t the sole feature of her books, how can it reasonably be called her sole influence?
If an ado really had to be made about her (non-existant) love life, which I cannot consider as necessary or desirable, Austen was disappointed likewise by Mr Holder of Ashe House as well as Tom Lefroy. Austen had evidentially expected a proposal from Holder, had even written of her disappointment to her sister, of their being ten minutes alone together in the same room and yet her not receiving any declaration – always quick with a joke, this one. Austen appears to have had at least three serious suitors, two of whom she received definite proposals from, and denied, but it has been, more realistically in my opinion, speculated that if Austen ever had strong feelings for anyone, it was for a third, and very shadowy personage, the Nameless Clergyman. In the summer of 1801 the Austens holidayed in Devonshire and formed a friendship with two brothers; a physician and a clergyman. Austen and the clergyman fell in love, apparently to the happiness and approval of all parties. The brothers intended to visit the Austens soon after the holiday was over, and the two factions even planned out a trip together for the following year. To quote from John Halperin³:
It was fully expected by the Austen family that at the first opportunity the clergyman would offer marriage, and that Jane would accept….Instead of an early reunion with her would-be fiancé Jane Austen, according to Cassandra, received soon after from his brother notice of his death
Anybody who has become friendly with someone while on holiday, promised to keep in touch, and then never contacted them again, will know that such friendships do spring up and fizzle out in life, and that sometimes, rather than inflict hurt, a person will lie to get out of an acquaintance or obligation. But the possibility of lying about a brother’s death however, even to get out of a reconsidered and cooled attachment, seems too extreme to be probable. But it is possible and we can’t reject the possibility of this notice being untrue. Almost all of Austen’s letters from this time, like so many others, were censored and cut up and burned by Cassandra Austen after her sister’s death and no further mention of the clergyman, his brother or their name can be found.
This censorship by Cassandra Austen not only took place to preserve her sister’s reputation, or image rather, as a contented, dutiful and sedate woman but also to protect the privacy of others yet living. This white-washed image was gobbled up whole by a society nursing a conservative backlash that would soon fully unleash itself during the reign of Victoria, and distorts every Austen biography or memoir for decades to follow. But it’s this very censorship, that Cassandra did not practice in the case of Lefroy or Holder or other suitors, that suggests that here there were real feelings and existing delicacies to be hurt by exposure to the public. What it comes down to is speculation nonetheless, and a little too much to call something biographic.
If a filmmaker were bent on producing an Austen love biopic (heaven forfend against another), this tender history of a dead lover would seem far more likely material or at least be enough to discredit the notion of one young and immature man straight of college having an influence over the work of Austen for the rest of her life. Lefroy, I don’t doubt, was focused on because, as he later became the Chief Justice of Ireland, there was plenty of information about his life to flesh him out and he happened to utter that claim to immortal association, of having had a ‘boyish love’ for her. The question of why a studio would make such a film can have at least two answers, and probably more. A feminist take would suggest that society isn’t on board with the idea of a bold, intelligent woman becoming one of the greatest authors in the canon of English Literature simply because she was brilliant, and must attribute the greatness of her work to the male muse. Certainly sexuality is a factor but I believe a purely feminist take is too simplistic. A similarly cynical reason may be the most obvious: that thanks to the popularity of the screen adaptations of Austen’s novels, a love biopic about the writer herself, demanding too a laying down of the Carriages and Corsets draw card, ever popular with the free spending female audience, is going to bring in buckets of cash, whether accurate or not.
²Spunging-house: a place of temporary confinement for debtors, kept by a bailiff, where debtors were sponged of all money they had on themselves, before being transferred to debtor’s prison (Wikionary)
³ Jane Austen’s Lovers by John Halperin in Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, Vol. 25, No. 4, Nineteenth Century. (Autumn, 1985), pp. 719-736