Jane Austen in love . . . maybe
Nine months have passed since we learned the happy news that a cache of priceless books and manuscripts, including two Jane Austen letters, had been purchased by a consortium of public institutions in Britain, rather than dispersed into private hands.
And now those Austen letters -- #2 and #87 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence -- are on display through March 5 at Jane Austen’s House, as the centerpieces of mini-exhibitions entitled “Jane Austen in London” and, more alluringly, “Jane Austen in Love.”
Since letter #2 is the January 1796 missive in which Austen famously reports on the end of her brief dalliance with a recent arrival in the neighborhood -- “the Day is come on which I am to flirt my last with Tom Lefroy” – the opening of the exhibit last week unleashed a predictable string of silly headlines: “Jane Austen letter about her own ‘Mr Darcy’ ”! “Jane Austen letter may describe the real Mr. Darcy”! “Lawyer who may have been inspiration for Pride and Prejudice’s Mr. Darcy”! “The end of the affair with real-life Mr. Darcy”! and, most cringe-inducing of all, "Jane Austen's love letters to her real-life Mr. Darcy"!
I suppose we should count it a blessing that at least some of these headlines hedge their bets with a semi-cautious “may,” since there is exactly zero evidence that Austen’s portrait of Mr. Darcy was based on any specific individual -- including Tom Lefroy, the young Irishman with whom the twenty-year-old future novelist conducted a short flirtation over Christmas 1795. (The screenplay of the 2007 biopic Becoming Jane, which embroiders the known facts into an overwrought tale of thwarted passion, literary inspiration, and lifelong wistfulness, does not count as evidence.)
Jane Austen’s House is clearly of two minds about this whole Real-Mr.-Darcy business, and its effort to steer between the two extremes – Real-Mr.-Darcy is ridiculous; Real-Mr.-Darcy sells museum tickets – requires some contortions.
On the one hand, notes the text of the online version of the exhibit, Austen’s letter “does not sound genuinely disappointed”; on the other hand, Austen’s personality resembled that of “her much-loved heroine Elizabeth Bennet.” On the one hand, Lefroy, a penniless but sociable lawyer, bore little resemblance to the wealthy yet standoffish leisured landowner Mr. Darcy; on the other hand, the good-looking Lefroy “could easily be the hero of one of Jane’s novels.” On the one hand, a genuine Austen letter; on the other hand, the costumes that Anne Hathaway and James McAvoy wore in Becoming Jane.
Of course, Jane Austen’s House is not the first museum forced to sacrifice nuance on the altar of practicality – the electric bill must be paid somehow, especially after two years of intermittent COVID closures. Charlotte Lucas would have understood.