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.