Though in the course of fifty years I have forgotten much, I have not forgotten that Aunt Jane was the delight of all her nephews and nieces. We did not think of her as being clever, still less as being famous: but we valued her as one always kind, sympathising and amusing. Her talents did not introduce her to the notice of other writers, or connect her with the literary world, or in any degree pierce through the obscurity of her domestic retirement. – James Austen-Leigh
I am having a love/dislike relationship with Miss Austen Regrets, to be aired on PBS’s Masterpiece Classic, February 3 at 9:00 PM EST. On the one hand it is such a relief to see Jane Austen depicted as a strong, intelligent, witty, independent, tough, and mature woman through the person of Olivia Williams. On the other hand, why clothe the film in regret and gloom? On the occasions when Olivia as Jane declares she is happy with the choices she’s made in life and with the men she’s rejected, you don’t believe her for a moment. There is such a somber atmosphere to this film, underscored by the music and the long silent moments when Jane stares into space, or sits by a pond, or looks out of a window, that one is left with a melancholy feeling despite the sparkling words.
These scenes belie Jane’s statements of content. This viewer, instead of watching a movie about a confident and talented woman, was somewhat surprised to watch a film about a middle-aged spinster who, though not necessarily unhappy, seems to constantly ask the question: “What if?’ In addition, although Jane was not known to be a great dresser, there is almost a quakerish feel to the film.
So why does this movie, written by a female, delve so deeply into the ‘what might have beens’? The film opens with Harris Bigg-Wither’s proposal, and Jane’s acceptance, then rejection of it. Her retraction was not only a faux pas as far as Society was concerned, but it was a foolhardy decision for her era. Women were expected to marry, and Jane blew her chance for economic security. Mr. Big-Withers had a comfortable income, and he could have provided for Jane, Cassandra, and Mrs. Austen. In the movie, Cassandra seems to influence Jane for changing her mind, but one gets the sense that Jane would have come to this decision regardless of her sister’s pressure. (As an aside, Greta Scacchi is miscast as Cassandra. She may be the right age to play the role, but she looks much older. Worse, she does not exert the big sister influence that I expect Cassandra to have over Jane, who in real life looked up to her.)
After this dramatic introduction, we meet Jane as an aunt and confidante of Fanny Knight, daughter of her brother, Edward Austen-Knight, a widower with eleven children. These early scenes with Jane and Fanny are lovely, full of fun and mischief, and the dialogue is scintillating. “Want to know the true reason I never found a husband?” says Jane, “I never found one worth giving up flirting for.”
The aunt and niece laugh and dance and snoop on the men after dinner under cover of darkness. Fanny solicits Jane’s opinion about her suitor, Mr. Plumtree.
“Fanny Plumtree,” Jane replies in mock horror, sending Fanny into giggles.
But then Jane gets serious, saying, “I would have you marry because I know you won’t be happy until you are. Single women have a dreadful propensity for being poor. And the best recipe for happiness is a large income.”
The dialogue sparkles with Jane’s wit and truisms culled from her writing, and if the film hadn’t taken such a gloom and doom approach to spinstershood, these lines would have sparkled more. Fanny did indeed go on to marry well three years after Jane’s death to Thomas Knatchbull, a widower with five children. As a young girl Fanny helped to raise her ten siblings, and she went on to have five children of her own. She is never portrayed in the film as a deep thinker, for all she can think of is marriage. In real life her journals bear this out. Fanny wrote copiously during her lifetime, but her dairies dealt with daily events, and she seldom wrote down her thoughts or deeper feelings.
Despite her enormous talent, Jane is human. According to the movie (and the letters on which it is based) Jane liked to dance, flirt, and drink wine, Perhaps she indulged in too much of the latter, and this draws the ire of Rev. Bridges (Hugh Bonneville), her former beau.
It seems the reverend proposed to Jane when they were both young. She rejected him, though it is obvious that the vicar, though married, still carries a torch for her. When Jane wonders what would have happened if she accepted his proposal, he casually answers: “You would have wound up as a vicar’s wife in Ramsgate.” Later on he professes to Jane that he would have allowed her to write, and taken care of a mother and sister. Again, the viewer is treated to another refrain of “What might have been.”
“I’d waited for news that you’d married,” he said.
“As every woman knows there’s a scarcity of men in general. And an even greater scarcity for any that are good for much,” was her tart reply.
“You can hide behind your clever words as much as you like,” he answers.
“Good, because my clever words will soon be the only thing that will put a roof over my head. Or over my mother’s. Or over my sister’s. I’m to be my own husband it seems.”
“I’d have put a roof over all your heads, and cherished you, dear Jane, ‘till death us do part.”
Jane’s outburst reveals the constant tension she is under. While her words and actions are those of an independent woman, she is a product of her times. She cannot go out and make a living. Worse, she must depend on the men in her life to act as her agents.
We meet Henry, Jane’s favorite brother, as he and Jane are strolling in London. He frets about Jane’s finances and her ability to support herself through book sales. Jane then explodes, saying, “Sense and Sensibility has brought me a 140 pounds. May I not be proud of that?”
I won’t review the entire film for you. Just suffice it to say that if I had been the director of this tale, I would have emphasized that single women do find fulfillment in pursuing their talents, in nurturing family relationships, and in being true to their vision. I wish the plot had dwelled more on the creative, talented side of Jane, instead of her constant worry for money. Aside from that, I was vastly relieved to hear Jane’s words spoken in such an intelligent manner and with such conviction by Olivia Williams. This movie almost makes up for the fairy tale that was Becoming Jane. Almost, but not quite.
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Note: I am off on vacation for a week, and will return to answer any queries you might have.