Deborah Yaffe

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That sinking feeling

By Deborah Yaffe, Aug 20 2015 01:00PM

“Jane Austen fans rejoice,” commands the Hollywood business website The Tracking Board. “Voltage Pictures is moving forward with a new romantic comedy based on the life of the prolific author.”


Well, I’m a Jane Austen fan, and I’m not rejoicing. And not merely because I’m still trying to figure out how Austen, who completed only six novels, could be called prolific.


No, that sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach is occasioned by the news that "Jane by the Sea" is going to intercut scenes from Austen’s life “with developing scenes from her in-progress novels as she writes them, to better dramatize what influenced them and how they came to be.” Special emphasis, natch, on “the loves of the author’s life, and how those experiences shaped her writing.”


The movie is apparently based on a recently published Austen spinoff novel of the same title, by Carolyn V. Murray. I haven’t read it. It may be fabulous.


But my heart always sinks when I read about efforts to link Austen’s life to specific scenes in her work, or to trace her inspiration back to Tragic Unhappiness in Love.


I’m inherently suspicious of biographical explanations, because the inconvenient truth is that we don’t know all that much about a) Austen’s life, or b) Austen’s writing process. It’s fine to speculate about whether this or that Austen friend or relative was the model for this or that (usually unpleasant) character. I enjoy literary parlor games as much as the next book nerd. But I like my speculation to be clearly labeled as such, not dressed up as biographical fact.


And I’m deeply irritated by the assumption that we can attribute Austen’s artistic genius to romantic disappointment. Need I point out that male authors, even those with notoriously troubled love lives, never get this Poor Little Spinster treatment? We seem to have no difficulty understanding, and respecting, a compulsion to create when it emanates from a male imagination. But when it comes to Jane Austen, it’s all about the guy she had a crush on in 1795. (By which time she had been writing furiously for about eight years. But never mind.)


What harm can one little movie do, you may ask? Well, let us turn to this recent Huffington Post story, which claims that “Jane Austen fell for a man named Tom Lefroy but when his family prevented the match she channelled her heartbreak into writing the book that became Pride and Prejudice.” You’d never guess from this breezy statement of alleged fact that the intensity of the original crush, the extent of the heartbreak and the validity of the literary inspiration are all hotly contested, and that in any case the whole story is extrapolated from little more than a few sentences in Jane Austen’s letters.


Since the author of the HuffPo piece seems to be under the impression that Austen was a Victorian, it’s a fair guess that she’s no Janeite, and probably hasn’t read Jon Spence’s Becoming Jane Austen, the scholarly book that posited the debatable Lefroy thesis. It seems far more likely that her information comes from 2007's "Becoming Jane," the truly terrible Anne Hathaway movie based on Spence’s theory.


I detest this movie, and not only because of its overwrought portrayal of the love affair (“Jane. . . I cannot live this lie!”). What really annoys me are the scenes in which Austen’s acquaintances spout famous Austen lines -- while, presumably, young Jane surreptitiously presses the Record button on her Regency cellphone. See, it’s easy to write dialogue like Jane Austen’s! Just take dictation!


The danger is that these silly Austen biopics will persuade the Austen-ignorant public of something deeply false: that Jane Austen was nothing special -- just a heartbroken young girl who started writing stories with gel pen in her spiral notebook after her boyfriend dumped her. Sorry, all you heartbroken young girls out there. It takes a lot more than that to be Jane Austen.


4 comments
Aug 20 2015 07:46PM by A. Marie

Three hearty huzzahs for everything you've just said. This one sounds as if it may be even worse than Becoming Jane. (And I'm still puzzling over the "prolific" description, too.)

Aug 21 2015 12:39AM by dyaffe

Thanks, Marie! We'll keep the faith, even if no one else does.

Aug 23 2015 06:30PM by Nora (Lady Smatter)

The title "Jane by the Sea" made me think of the romantic story even less well documented than Austen's flirtation with Tom Lefroy- the late-in-life reminiscence by niece Caroline Austen that Cassandra once mentioned a charming young man they met at the seaside, who seemed to have formed an attachment to Jane- but then died soon after their meeting. It's so tantalizing to try to imagine what might have been, but I groan every time I see this kind of biographical 'explanation' for Austen's writing for all the reasons you mention!

Aug 24 2015 12:21AM by dyaffe

From the Amazon squib, it seems that the book on which the film is based does deal, at least in part, with the (possibly apocryphal) seaside romance. But, as I said, I haven't read the book, so I don't know how far the author goes with all that. Sigh. I'd much rather spend my time talking about the novels, but I guess it's hard to make drama out of a person with a quill pen sitting at a table thinking.

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