Why does Jane Austen’s spinsterhood bug us so much? Austen, who published six timelessly great novels between 1811 and 1818, never married and never exhibited much of a romantic life. Nevertheless, the film Becoming Jane, which opens today, spins a yarn about the young novelist’s sexual awakening, suggesting that an early experience of being loved and left was the true source of her artistry.
Becoming Jane is hardly the first fantasy about Austen’s romantic life. In 1924 Rudyard Kipling, better known for The Jungle Book, wrote a poem titled “Jane’s Marriage” that imagines Austen’s ascension to heaven, where she confesses to the angels that her one unfulfilled wish during life was for “Love.” (Celestial matchmakers, the angels swiftly find her a suitable consort.) And at least one modern Austen fan has gallantly offered to wed Austen himself, as if meaning to belatedly right a historical wrong. “Ours will be a tryst for the ages!” film studies professor Richard A. Blake announced in his 1996 review of the film Emma, not stopping to wonder whether Austen would accept his proposal. Why are so many of Austen’s admirers eager to demonstrate that, even though she never made it to the altar where she regularly deposited her heroines, she really was marriage material?
The romance at the center of Becoming Jane is between a 20-year-old Austen and a real historical figure, Tom Lefroy, an impassioned but impoverished Irish law student whom she met in the winter of 1795-96. Screenwriters Kevin Hood and Sarah Williams arrange for this star-crossed pair to get tantalizingly close to the marriage bed. The film’s penultimate sequence envisions Austen and Lefroy headed in a stagecoach toward a clandestine wedding in Gretna Green, Scotland—the 18th-century equivalent of Las Vegas. But long before they reach the border, Jane remembers that Tom’s family relies on him for financial support and realizes that their imprudent elopement would ruin his prospects. She renounces her chance for romantic happiness and returns home to her family. And she determines henceforth to live by her pen. Flash-forward a decade and a half: We see Jane in spinsterly middle-age reading Pride and Prejudice aloud to Tom’s daughter.
Becoming Jane is based on a chapter in Jon Spence’s 2003 critical biography, Becoming Jane Austen. In the book, Spence does identify Tom Lefroy as the love of Austen’s life and her relationship with him as the origin of her genius. But he never suggests that there was an aborted elopement (much less subsequent reading sessions with any of Lefroy’s children). And he is careful, as the filmmakers are not, to clarify that in speculating about Austen’s romantic experience he is reading between the lines of the family records and of the three rather opaque Austen letters that are his principal sources.
Other scholars have been more skeptical than Spence about whether this pair were ever “a couple.” They see a flirtation that terminated without fuss when Tom ended his visit to relations in the Hampshire countryside where Jane lived and returned to the London law courts. True, when well on in years, Tom is reported to have answered yes to the question “Were you ever in love with Jane Austen?” “With a boyish love,” he said. But at that point the old man might have been eager to play up his connection with the famous writer.
Austen wrote letters to her sister Cassandra in January 1796 that report on her interactions with Tom and express delight in his company. But while making these reports she also seems to be observing herself from the outside—presenting herself, with a certain cool mockery, as a heroine in one of the sentimental novels that in her teenaged writing she loved to parody. “Imagine to yourself,” she writes, “everything most profligate and shocking in the way of dancing and sitting down together.” In a second letter, written six days later, she declares: The “Day is come on which I am to flirt my last with Tom Lefroy. … My tears flow as I write, at the melancholy idea.” It’s worth noting that these sentences are all but buried amid chitchat about the weather and housekeeping. In a third letter, written two years later, Jane describes being “too proud to make any enquiries” about Lefroy, but the letter refers more directly to Jane’s fondness for “ragout veal” than to her fondness for Tom.
Spence was up against a familiar problem: Literary biographers who set out to establish how Austen’s novels arise from her personal experience have long been handicapped by the scarcity of source material. Nothing much ever happened to her. Austen’s first biographer, her nephew James Edward Austen-Leigh, began his 1870 book, discouragingly, with the claim “Of events her life was singularly barren” and neglected to mention even the marriage proposal—from a certain Harris Biggs-Wither—that she did receive and reject in 1802. It doesn’t help matters that Austen’s sister Cassandra destroyed many of the novelist’s letters: Whatever events did befall her are lost to us now.
In some ways, this apparent eventlessness has operated as a spur to the biographical imagination. Spence’s Becoming Jane Austen has a truly loopy forerunner in Constance Pilgrim’s 1971 Dear Jane, which took an Austen family legend about “Aunt Jane’s seaside romance of 1801” and ran with it. Pilgrim proposed that the mysterious admirer on whom those legends centered was a sea captain—and not just any sea captain, but rather the poet William Wordsworth’s brother John—who subsequently went down with his ship before he could return to England and whisk a waiting Jane to the altar. (It is true that John Wordsworth died at sea in 1805, but that is the only hard fact in Pilgrim’s wholly speculative story.)
Pilgrim’s biography reimagined Jane Austen as a version of Anne Elliot, the heroine of her novel Persuasion: Anne is romanced by a Capt. Wentworth, who eventually returns from the sea and weds her. The makers of Becoming Jane exhibit a parallel eagerness to think of Austen as Elizabeth Bennet, the heroine of Pride and Prejudice. The repartee in the film between Jane and Tom is frequently lifted from the novel’s dialogue. Like Darcy, Elizabeth’s frosty suitor, the film’s Tom is a snob who eventually learns better manners. Like Elizabeth, its Austen rebels against propriety and rambles around the countryside in muddy petticoats.
Why this fixation on imagining Austen as the heroine of one of her own stories? Austen wrote on many subjects: women’s lack of freedom, the injuries wrought by the 19th-century class system, literature’s falsification of life, the importance of manners, the virtues of independent thought. But, by and large, it is Austen the expert on courtship rites who dominates contemporary popular culture. It is this Austen who is emulated by authors of middlebrow women’s fiction, from Helen Fielding (who wrote Bridget Jones’s Diary) on. A few of the students who enroll in my Austen courses admit that they are there to trawl the books for dating tips. (So far, I have not put Jane Austen’s Little Advice Book, chock-full of Austen sound bites on love and marriage, on the syllabus.)
A lot of Austen fans seem to want what the characters in Karen Joy Fowler’s novel The Jane Austen Book Club got: “We’d let Austen into our lives, and now we were all either married or dating.” Austen fans in real life too seem to want Austen to guide them toward love. And this might be why, as Becoming Jane indicates, we have to imagine Austen as Elizabeth Bennet and grant her a Darcy of her own—even if in the end we take him away again. We can’t bear to think that her wisdom was not based on experience.