Jane, you ignorant slut

I was a Jane Austen fan long before it became trendy to be a Jane Austen fan. I’ve read Pride & Prejudice at least 20 times, and read all the other books at least 5 or 6 times (except for Northanger Abbey, which I’ve just never liked very much). I’m not quite sure why I find her books so attractive. Certainly her dry, witty, perfectly balanced prose is a large part of the attraction. Every sentence is a pleasure. Her humor, too, the humor underlying the prose is also something that never stales, even with a ridiculous amount of repetition. In Sense & Sensibility, she handles in masterful comedic fashion the way in which Mr. Dashwood, who has just inherited his father’s estate, yields to his wife’s strong and greedy personality so as to convince himself he’s doing the right thing by leaving his stepmother and half sisters impoverished.

I also like the stable world Austen represents in her novels. It never was as bucolic as it seems, of course. Austen was writing at the start of the industrial revolution as factories were going up and women and children beginning their 12 hour days and the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars were raging — but there’s still this incredible sense of peace and place in her novels. It’s a perfect British world with charmingly stereotypical people moving daintily around in their lovely little or big houses all nice located in or near green English villages.

Beneath this serene surface, though, there is a lot of sordid stuff. In Sense & Sensibility, Willoughby is a cad who impregnated a young girl and then abandoned her to her death. In Pride & Prejudice, Wickham is a lying, unprincipled fortune hunter, who tried to snatch a rich girl away from her loving family. In Mansfield Park, the heroine’s cousins, who take her in as a charity case, clearly derive their money from slavery. The novel is also (and again), concerned with men and women who will take unprincipled steps for advantageous marriages. Ditto for Emma; ditto for Persuasion.

In her books, Austen doesn’t paint all her cads with the same dark brush. While Willoughby and Wickham are genuinely evil men, other young men are simply rather smarmy gold diggers. All, though, whether black in character or merely gray share one common attribute: they are dishonorable.

And when I really think about it, that last point is what it’s all about for me. I came to the novels for the joy of fine prose, humor and romance. I stick around because of their incredible integrity. Without exception, her heroines and their loves are intensely honorable people who do the right thing regardless of the personal cost. Not only that, they admire the virtue of honor in others. Indeed, Austen makes it very plain that the turning point in Elizabeth Bennett’s regard for Mr. Darcy isn’t his wealth or even the flattering fact that he offered for her: it’s the letter he writes her in which she can see that, while he may be somewhat rigid and pride, he is a man of incredible moral rectitude. It is that quality that attracts her. He is the antithesis of the morally loose and dishonest Wickham and Lydia Bennett. She can trust her future to this man.

The same principles hold true in the other Austen books. Go ahead. Reread Emma or Sense & Sensibility or Persuasion or Mansfield Park. You’ll see that, in each, the lead romantic characters are notable either because they have a sterling core of honor from start to finish or because they want to be honorable, and through the guidance of another, more mature and honorable character, they can achieve that moral goal.

Given the intense morality that underlies each of Austen’s books, I found the movie Becoming Jane quite a surprise. I mean, things went wrong for me in the very first scene, in which her mother complains about her father’s performance in bed, with the latter responding by crawling under the covers for a round of oral sex. Very not Austen-ish.

Still, that kind of sleazy approach could just be a way to hook a 21st Century audience that’s lost the whole concept of reticence. But no, the movie just kept falling from there. Anne Hathaway’s Jane, rather than being witting and composed, is shrewish, whiny and chronically sorry for herself. (If you read Persuasion, you know that Jane’s idea of how a spinster should comport herself is to be kind, gentle and helpful.) Movie Jane is not at all an attractive personality — and is far different from actual reminiscences of real Jane, personal memories that paint her as bright, sociable, and so warm and humorous as to be beloved by all of her relatives, including a series of young nieces and nephews. You don’t become so beloved by being a whiny shrew.

***PLOT SPOILERS BELOW. STOP NOW IF YOU’RE PLANNING ON SEEING THE MOVIE***

What’s really bad, though, isn’t the characterization Jane as a self-centered pain in the neck. What’s really bad is her supposed love interest, Tom Lefroy.

Lefroy is painted in the movie as an undisciplined, licentious, brawling, hard-drinker, lazy parasite. His only virtue is that he sends to his family some of the money he apparently cages off his unpleasant uncle. Jane, nevertheless, is utterly charmed by him, so much so that she rudely blows off the advances of a truly nice young man who wants to marry her.

This irrational love also has movie Jane reading the dirty novels Lefroy recommends, trying to see him bathing nude and, eventually, eloping with him. It’s only because she accidentally discovers that he helps support of his family, thanks to the fact that he channels his uncle’s money through to them, that she doesn’t get further in the elopement than the first coach stop. Movie Lefroy, incidentally, is perfectly ready to blow off his destitute family, just so he can marry Jane.

It’s impossible to imagine the real Jane admiring someone like the movie Lefroy. He is a person utterly with decency, honor, or compassion. He’s a bounder, pure and simple.

One could argue that all of the Austen novels are Freudian vehicles in which Jane is trying to write a cad out of her heart. That is, with her constant emphasis that rigid honesty and honor matter, and that social con men are dangerous, she’s actually trying to distance herself from her own youthful passions. But why be so convoluted? Why not take Jane’s writings at face value? Her books and essays, coupled with what we know of a lively and happy family life in her father’s parsonage, tell us that she was a cheerful, humorous person, who hoped that, some day, someone handsome, rich and respectable would come along. When that didn’t happen, she turned her good energies to her family, friends and her writing, where she wrote, not about forbidden fantasies of sex and bad men, but about her true dream of not only doing the right things herself, but of finding someone equally committed to doing the right things.

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Comments

  1. says

    Women back then were also unlikely to read or if they were able to, to pursue fields other than the writing career. The times shows the goals that Austen pursued, for a woman portrayed as flighty and interested in passion could never have achieved the immortality or career Jane Austen did.

    She is not a Byron after all, in which the societal constructs aided and abetted.

    Also if you like honorable men and women, you have got to watch Serenity, Book.

    And Babylon 5: In the Beginning.

  2. underDeepCover says

    I agree that the opening scene of Mr. & Mrs. Austin struck me as forced raunchiness. However, the movie got on my good side when it speculated that Henry Fielding’s writing influenced Jane. (I don’t know what she read.) True, they found a passage of Tom Jones that was more explicit than most of that wonderful novel, and movie-Jane seemed to plow through it in an afternoon. But I give the writers credit for even mentioning Fielding.
    Also I appreciated the attention to the econonomic realities of the day: it was your duty to make a good marriage. ‘Well, YOU married for love’, movie-Jane says to her mother. ‘And now I’m digging my own potatoes!’ Mom, covered with mud and attacking the ground with a shovel replies.

  3. Mike Devx says

    Book,
    Thank you for the warning about the movie. I’ve always heard that Jane Austen’s books are comedies of manners with Victorian sensibilities. I’ve never read any of them, but your description of heroes and heroines acting with integrity means it’s time to read some of them.

    As to the movie… well, just add it to the growing evidence that Hollywood has become incapable of making a movie where the heroes and heroines act with integrity. I’m undecided whether they are deliberately perverting the book. I agree, it is clear that Jane Austen would be horrified to see what her name and her books have been attached to.

    I remember being stunned at the Jim Carrey Grinch movie. In the children’s book and in the delightful Christmas TV special, the complete, total goodness and Christian faith of the Whos in whoville reformed the Grinch, and upon his transformation, the Whos gladly accept him into their community, even in a place of honor, as the lost sheep who has come home. (There is no hint that they’d earlier rejected him; if anything he’d been a looming evil presence over their whole lives.)

    Then, we get to the movie. Whoville is a greedy, nasty, cynical place, and its people drove the poor little green thing out of the community into the wilds, and it is the Grinch and the child who reform these nasty, brutish Whoville people.

    Again, a deliberate perversion of the essential message? Or a helpless rewrite with their philosophical blinders on? (Keep in mind the Grinch perversion was done by Ron Howard; a decent man, by all accounts.)

    I have to note that source material that is terribly degrading does NOT receive such a transformation by Hollywood. ‘American Psycho’, as one example, is a movie that remains totally true to all aspects of its source material.

    I’m sure example after example such as this could be found. It would make a fine book or documentary exposing the Hollywood perversion of all such good works as Jane Austen’s books, the Grinch, and others.

    I can think of two major movies that did not pervert their source themes: The Lord of the Rings, and the Chronicles of Narnia. In each case, the directors (Peter Jackson and Andrew Adamson) were raised in New Zealand and apparently are unaffected by the debased Hollywood culture.

  4. says

    Gail and I went to see this movie — it is one HUGE anachronism, from beginning to end.

    But…..having said that, I’m not sure that the “dalliance” with the awful Irishman is such a terrible plot feature….

    Where DID Jane get the material for Pride and Prejudice, anyhow? I mean the stupid little sister who ran off to Scotland….. It’s not totally out of the realm of possibility that she was tempted, and even if not, it’s not a “sacrilege” (unless to Robert Avrech) for the screenwriter to imagine such a thing formed the basis for the novel. Which is what the movie very directly indicates.

    Anyhow, after that first scene, I was totally prepared for all the howlers that were flung at us, and by ignoring them was able to enjoy the movie. Beautiful filming, and a lovely relationship between the two sisters.

    Made us both VERY glad we live in the 21st century, and in the U.S. of A.

    Count your blessings.

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