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I have just finished watching ‘Becoming Jane’ and after having put it off since the day it was released, I now feel that it was both a shame for me to wait so long, and yet perfectly timed. While I am sorry at having missed how wonderful it is for three years, I could not have watched it as well as appreciated it as I did now if I had not waited.
From the very first time I read Pride and Prejudice, there has been no doubt in my mind that should I ever have met this lady, we would have got along quite as well as any two young women in the 18th Century did. Many others who love her books as I do probably think the same and the benefit of being a famous, well-loved author posthumously is that there is quite enough of her to go around.
But perhaps there are fewer amongst her readership who can relate quite to the sensibility of her choices in life. She fell violently in love (it is to be assumed) once in her life, was proposed to once in her life, rejected the one proposal and then died single at the age of 41. No doubt the movie romanticizes all these issues (and condenses them into the same time period of her life, rather than over the years they actually took place over) and we come out seeing a Jane whose writing reflected a deep sorrow within and a need to write happy endings for all her characters, as if to compensate for her own sad ones.
Before I watched the movie, I always thought of her as being a woman who able to appreciate affection, but who also understood that the place of such feelings was in the heart. And that the heart must always take second place to the sensibility of the mind. Jane Austen to me seemed to be a woman who was able to observe others succumb to the fripperies that a besotted spirit can inspire and be amused, but not envy them in the least. She epitomized the ability to be humoured without bitterness, because she understood the value of a relationship founded on good opinion, respect and a true – stable – love (who can read about Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy without wanting what they had?) whilst also being able to understand that the majority of people in the world only had a shadow of this kind of a union.
Her books are filled with ‘normal’ people, which perhaps make those she does respect stand out even more. The dignity and respect – values she emphasizes in all her books – that her heroines command are only enhanced when placed against the backdrop she has created for them.
I’m not sure yet how much of the movie is true to her story, considering how little is really know about her personal thoughts and how much of her character is simply implication and educated guessing on the part of literary historians. But I wonder if she would have been able to write the Elizabeth she did if she had not truly found herself attached to someone so completely herself.
In history Tom Lefroy is quoted much later in his life to have said of his feelings for Jane that "It was boyish love" and yet he named his eldest daughter after her. What struck me though is that while Lefroy went on to marry and have children, Jane never married after those two winter months spent in his company. In truth, how much is the difference in the feelings of a man as compared to those of a woman…
Jane wrote many years after this to her niece advising her not to ever accept a man’s proposal without feeling any affection for him, and it is to be inferred from this that she herself was never able to find another man not only quite as agreeable as Lefroy, but that she was not able to even muster affection for another person in her lifetime.
In Persuasion Jane writes of the longevity of emotion in men and women. Anne Elliot has perhaps not the spirited independence of Jane herself, but I’m inclined to think that she was a reflection of that inner self that Jane kept hidden from most people. That sense of sorrow at having given a man her heart so completely that none other compared to him, and yet not being able to have been as incomparable to him in return.
And perhaps in the words of Capt. Frederick Wentworth when he writes to Anne: ..Dare not say that man forgets sooner than woman, that his love has an earlier death. I have loved none but you. Unjust I may have been, weak and resentful I have been, but never inconstant." Perhaps in these words, she put forth the hopes she had of receiving just such a missive, even if it was – as for Anne and Capt Wentworth – "eight and a half years" after the initial heartbreak. Perhaps in writing this, she was proclaiming the strength of her own true affection to forgive weakness, resentfulness and even unjustness – if only there was the slightest sign of constancy, however belated.
Lefroy must have read her books and while I don’t know what kind of man he was, I’m pretty certain he was an idiot.
I also believe Jane spread herself out amongst her heroines – the likeable ones as well as the unlikeable ones. After all, it is only Jane who could come up with a heroine as insipid as Fanny in Mansfield Park and get away with giving her honour and a marriage with a man who could find it in himself to love such a timid, spineless creature – whilst keeping readers happy.
After watching the movie – despite the inferences it has – and having felt this way myself for the past few months, I can now almost sense her need to make everyone happy, no matter what their character or their situation in life. Which is why her heroines are so varied and yet each finds somewhere to belong, to be wanted and special, finds someone who appreciates her and most importantly someone who is so true to her that he never leaves her side. She gives to each heroine what she herself never had and in mending their broken hearts and fulfilling their hopes, she may have found a temporary balm for her own sorrow. For common sense is appropriate in handling every situation in life, but it is unfortunately of little use when it comes to reasoning with the heart.
I think Jane must have realised that no matter how you represent men and women in stories, in real life they are very different. It is almost as if she seeks to bring out the goodness in human nature even as she laughs at it. Despite being so disappointed herself, she allowed herself to dream for others and to give hope to others. I find that admirable and sincere. Lefroy did not deserve her attachment, but then she herself says that men often gain the affections of women far better than they deserve. It is the lucky man who realises this and shows his gratitude as he should.
As I wrote my first book, I often thought of Jane Austen. I want to capture the idiosyncrasies of society and to highlight the warm spots of humanity shining out amongst its dull and dank populace, to find hope where there is none, to seek out the extraordinary amongst the perfectly ordinary, to bring adventure out of routine and to write as many, if not more books, as she did.
There are some things however that I did not wish to share with Ms. Austen. I did not want her situation in life or her environment (in which women, and worse women who wrote, were such an anomaly), her short life or her illness, her broken heart or her disillusionment, her loneliness or her waiting. And I fear some of these I have no choice in.
So perhaps, I can do one more thing that she did – and wish that if I must have a share in some of this, that no one else should. In the movie, Lefroy says to Jane "What value would there be in life if we are not together?" Whether he said these words in real life or not, she lived them I believe in a better sense than he did. She gave value to the life of all her characters by making sure she ended every story with them being together.
I wish that for every one of you who reads this, and those who don’t as well. That you should someday hear someone say those words to you, mean them and live them truly. That you should – because you are worth it – add value to someone’s life and they to yours, that this value should be mutually acknowledged, appreciated and shared, and that no amount of Pride, Prejudice or Persuasion should stand in the way of your constancy to each other.