Portrays Jane Austen’s life before she became a famous author and some experiences she may have had that influenced her writing. Stars Anne Hathaway as Jane Austen, James McAvoy (Mr. Tumnus in Chronicles of Narnia, and young Charles Xavier in the prequel X-Men movies) as Tom Lefroy. Julie Walters (Mrs. Weasley) is Mrs. Austen, opposite James Cromwell. Dame Maggie Smith (Professor McGonagall and Violet Crawley, Dowager Countess of Grantham, among her other roles) is Lady Gresham. Anna Maxwell Martin plays Jane’s older sister Cassandra, but the actress also portrays Elizabeth Darcy in the TV mini-series, Death Comes to Pemberley.
Jane spends the early morning hours writing and puzzling through the proper way to phrase a passage. When she figures it out, she rejoices by spiritedly playing the piano, quite early on a Sunday morning. Which her father comments on during the sermon, along with what a lady’s proper place is; at this time point, married with children and obeying her husband. After church, the Austen family visits Lady Gresham; her nephew is slightly captivated by Jane, which would be a boost to the Austen family for he will inherit well. Cassandra is engaged to be married to a young man bound for an expedition to the West Indies as chaplain. The Austens also have two boys, though one seems to be disabled of some sort, and they have their cousin visiting as well, a French comtess fleeing events in France.
In the bustling city of London, Tom Lefroy engages in boxing matches when not studying the law under his constraining uncle. He is friends with the elder Austen son, Henry, who is in the militia. Tom’s uncle wants him to learn to settle down; his sister, Tom’s mother, married for love and now lives in near poverty in Limerick with more mouths to feed than she can handle. So, Tom is sent to spend time with his country cousins, where he encounters Jane Austen. Their small community is delighted by her writing, but the higher educated Tom Lefroy sees areas where she can improve and truly be equal to the greats.
Jane is not terribly impressed with Mr. Lefroy upon first introduction. They end up dancing together at a ball, after Mr. Wisley (Lady Gresham’s nephew) trods on her toes. Tom quietly tells her, “I think that you, Miss Austen, consider yourself above the company…secretly.” That line has always stuck with me. It’s a bit like the theme of Pride and Prejudice; even those of lower means may feel pride; at least we’re better than someone else, or at least we don’t act a certain way. The two young people get to know each other through other encounters. Jane is good a cricket (and she and her cousin make to follow Tom and Henry when they go dashing off for a swim; at least, until the young men strip naked and the young ladies retreat). Tom and Jane meet accidentally in the Lefroy’s library (oh, to have a library like that!) and Tom offers Jane a book to widen her horizons (several re-watchings and age have pointed out the innuendo reading Tom gives).
Later, they discuss the book. Jane disapproves of the morality. She argues that a novel must show how the world truly is; good people do not always succeed and bad people prosper. “A novel should somehow reveal the true source of our actions.” Mrs. Austen personally hopes that Jane will settle down with Mr. Wisely, but Mr. Austen doesn’t want his daughter to sacrifice her happiness. By now, Jane is starting to look at Tom more favorably. Lady Gresham visits the Austens and Mr. Wisley strolls with Jane and proposes. She does not answer immediately, which draws her mother’s ire. Jane must marry well, there is no money for her. Yes, it is ideal to marry for “affection” (they don’t say love), but money is essential. Lack of money can wear away and ruin a marriage. Jane desires to live by her pen, but her mother doesn’t support that notion. Her father asks her to at least consider the proposal; it is likely to be her best offer.
Jane’s French cousin, the Comtess, has also developed affection for Henry Austen. She is more aware of the world and not hemmed in by conservative notions. Yes, Henry is younger and poorer than her, but they love each other, so what does it matter?
Lady Gresham holds a ball (I love the music) and Jane dances with Mr. Wisley again, though Tom joins partway through. Anyone watching can see the difference in Jane between Wisley and Lefroy; she smiles when she sees Tom and can barely take her eyes off of him. Lady Gresham deigns to speak to Jane. Against her own better judgment [oh, there are times that Lady Gresham is reminiscent of Countess Grantham, though Downton Abbey is a few years off], she implores Jane to accept her nephew; Lady Gresham feels that Jane is beneath Wisley, but she is the one that her nephew desires. Outside, as Jane ponders all of this, Tom meets her. Such a romantic meeting; I seriously want my future potential fiancé to propose to me saying: “I am yours, heart and soul,” because I simply melt at that statement. Jane kisses Tom, wanting to have gotten a kiss right just once in her life. He begs her to marry him instead, but he has to persuade his uncle.
So, the couple concoct a plan. Jane, her brother Henry, and cousin Eliza will visit Cassandra on the coast, but stop in London, where Lefroy will host them. The uncle is impressed with the Comtess, but not Jane. Nevertheless, Tom takes Jane to meet Mrs. Radcliffe, a married woman to a man with some money, who makes her own living by writing Gothic novels (played by Helen McCrory, another Harry Potter alum, she portrayed Narcissa Malfoy). Mrs. Radcliffe cautions Jane that society frowns upon a wife who has a mind of her own. That evening, Jane begins drafting First Impressions (the first draft of Pride and Prejudice). Tom speaks with his uncle the following morning, but a letter has arrived prior; the contents of which we do not hear for certain, but they do not speak favorably of Miss Austen and Tom’s uncle denies Tom’s wish to marry Jane. They part brokenhearted; Tom relies on his uncle for money and cannot go against him.
Soon, all the Austens are back home and again at Lady Gresham’s home. Word is delivered that Cassandra’s fiancé has died. Jane and their mother attempt to comfort her that evening. Cassandra cheers a little watching her younger sister write and Jane summarizes her idea for Pride and Prejudice; two sisters, better than their means, eventually make happy marriages. Sadly, Tom is back in town for a brief visit, and is engaged. Jane in turns accept Wisley’s proposal, though walks away after giving the gentleman the news. In the woods, Tom comes upon Jane and her brother George. The couple shares a passionate kiss and plan to run away. Cassandra tries to talk her sister out of it, but gives in.
The two lovebirds’ carriage gets stuck on the way, necessitating Tom removing his coat, which holds a pouch of letters. Due to be his wife, Jane reads one, discovering it is from Tom’s mother, thanking him for the money to support his family. Things begin to clarify for Jane. Once the carriage has stopped for a short break, she tells Tom she found the letter and cannot be the ruin of him. She returns home, only to be greeted by Henry’s more dour friend, John, who has known Jane for years, and he too proposes. She of course rejects him, “are there no other women in Hampshire!” then realizes that he wrote the letter destroying her hopes of marrying Tom. She makes to strike him and he shrinks away.
Mrs. Austen is simply pleased that Jane returned home. Lady Gresham on the other hand refuses to be near the Austens in public, for they are tainted with suspicion. Wisley, having grown a bit of a backbone, defies his aunt’s wishes and speaks to Jane. They part as friends; he would rather not marry simply for his money. He seems to support Jane’s intention to write, as she cannot seem to marry even for affection, much less without. He inquires, “will all your stories have happy endings?” “My characters, after a little bit of trouble, will have all they desire.”
Henry and Eliza marry and are seen together, with Jane years later at a concert. Afterwards, they catch sight of a familiar figure and Henry returns with Tom Lefroy, and a young girl, his daughter Jane. Young Jane is a great admirer of Miss Austen and precociously asks for a reading. Henry explains that Jane does not read in public in order to remain anonymous. But Jane relents, for her new friend. Tom looks on; it seems he still loves Jane Austen as well.
Jane Austen is not my favorite author, though she may be my favorite classic author. But I do what I have read of her. This gives us a glimpse at the woman behind the beloved stories and shows that she may not be so different from her characters. I see so many echoes of this tale in Pride and Prejudice. This film did make me fall in love with James McAvoy a little; I love how passionately he speaks to Jane. As already stated, I swoon at his proposal. It is a movie I like to watch around Valentine’s Day.
Next Time: Pride and Prejudice (the 2005 film with Keira Knightley. I know the mini-series with Colin Firth is well regarded, but it is longer. I feel the film is easier viewing)