Pride and Provocation

Austen (Anne Hathaway) is taken with Tom Lefroy (James McAvoy).
Austen (Anne Hathaway) is taken with Tom Lefroy (James McAvoy). "The idea that Tom Lefroy sparked Jane's brilliance is totally foolish," says one scholar. (By Colm Hogan -- Miramax Films)

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By Monica Hesse
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 29, 2007

Call it the return of romance or just a love of Empire waistlines, but it seems you could make anything Jane Austen wrote -- a captioned doodle? a grocery list? a penmanship exercise? -- into a box office smash. All six of her novels have become feature films or miniseries; in January a "Masterpiece Theatre" project will introduce new adaptations of four; and Friday brings yet another Austen-related work to the screen.

This time, it's personal.

"Becoming Jane," starring Anne Hathaway, is a romantic dramedy based on the life of the author herself. To which fans might say: Holy Mr. Darcy's wet smock! And to which Jane Austen scholars are saying: Uh-oh.

Jan Fergus teaches a course titled "Jane Austen and Popular Culture in the 21st Century" at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa. She's written two Austen biographies. But will Friday find Fergus at the multiplex? Not likely: "I would not be able to sit through what looks like a tissue of fabrications and nonsense."

Why the fuss, you ask?

The main drama in "Becoming Jane" -- loosely based on Jon Spence's 2003 biography, "Becoming Jane Austen" -- comes from her secret-wet-kisses, let's-run-away-together romance with Tom Lefroy (played by a devilishly dishy James McAvoy). It's all very be-still-my-beating-heart. And though we hate the idea of the truth getting in the way of a good chest-heaving historical chick flick, here are the scant facts:

True, a 20-year-old Austen did flirt with a law student named Tom Lefroy when he visited in 1795. But the most dirt we have on the pair is that they danced at three Christmas balls before he went back to school and that Austen was "too proud" to ask his aunt about him two years later.

In fact, the author's life is short on provable facts all around. She died (unmarried) of an illness (undiagnosed) at 41. Her sister, Cassandra, destroyed most of her letters. Her only authenticated portrait is a rough sketch done by Cassandra, who was not an artist.

Being a Jane devotee is thus an ascetic pleasure. It means both gleefully analyzing the 200-year-old ephemera that remains and getting one's knickers in a twist when other fans don't agree with your theories. Very few authors have fans who refer to themselves with ga-ga diminutives of the writer's first name: Austen scholars are called Janeites (by themselves-- not even by mocking Hemingway profs).

And so it is a truth Hollywood-ily accepted that a film director who decides to make a Jane Austen love story could be in some very deep trouble.

"It was very . . . daunting," says director Julian Jarrold diplomatically. "Austen fans can be quite passionate. We had various communiques with the Jane Austen Society. They were afraid we would dumb her down or turn her into a chick-lit writer."

But Jarrold didn't let the wrath of the Janeites dissuade him. The filmmaker was propelled by a desire to see Jane find love -- something her fans can sympathize with, too (more on that later).


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