The Movie “Becoming Jane” and Hidden References to Austen’s Novels

By Regina Jeffers

Becoming Jane is an imaginative, romantic tale that captures Jane Austen’s spirit, while playing with the truth. Many of us who delve in Austen-inspired literature have written our own “what if” stories, but one must be able to suspend reality and accept the witty, enchanting romance as all good storytelling to truly enjoy this film. (I did. So, I’m not offering that point as a criticism – only as a warning for those unfamiliar with the film.) This film takes some well known facts from Austen’s life and spins them into an ingenious tale of lost love.

The film opens in the year 1795 and explores the feisty beginnings of an emerging 20-year-old writer, who wishes to live beyond what is expected of her – to actually marry for love. Anne Hathaway portrays Jane Austen, and James McAvoy plays the non-aristocratic Tom Lefroy, whose intellect and arrogance first raises young Jane’s ire and then captivates her heart. Juliann Jarrold, the film’s director says that “A couple of recent biographies have sort of honed in on this romance with Tom Lefroy, because it’s the older bios that tend to say she [Austen] didn’t have this romance; that somehow, out of her imagination, she was able to portray these amazing characters. Straight after [the alleged romance], she started writing First Impressions – and then Sense and Sensibility, and Northanger Abbey.” (BTW, do you not love the facial similarities between the real Tom Lefroy and James McAvoy in these two pictures?)

The film is known for taking the truth and making it a reality. For example, there is some evidence that Ann Radcliffe influenced Jane Austen; however, the film creates a meeting between the two. During this encounter, Radcliffe asks Austen of what she will write.
Radcliffe: Of what do you wish to write?
Jane:  The heart.
Radcliffe: Do you know it?
Jane: Not all of it.
Radcliffe: In time you will. If not…well, that situation is what imagination is for.
The film also provides us with plenty of “Jane” talk. For example, we hear part of the story/poem that Jane has created as a tribute to her sister Cassandra’s engagement.
“The boundaries of propriety were vigorously assaulted, as was only right, but not quite breached, as was also right. Nevertheless, she was not pleased.”
When others question Jane’s ambitions to become a novelist, she responds,
“Novels are poor insipid things, read by mere women, even, God forbid, written by women.”
But beyond the plot’s twists and turns, Becoming Jane playfully references Austen’s themes, characters, and story lines. So my question is how many such references can you name? Here are some (but not all) that I noted.
  • From Pride and Prejudice, we find…
  1. Jane’s character resembles a cross between the flirtatious Lydia Bennet, who loves to dance, and Elizabeth Bennet, whose verbal swordplay with Mr. Darcy is enticing. Mr. Warren is the klutzy clergyman whose proposal reminds us all of Mr. Collins. (He also is a bit like Mr. Elton in Emma.)
  2. Lady Gresham (Maggie Smith) is so Lady Catherine De Bourgh. She does not want Wisley to consider Jane as a mate, and I love the scene where she mentions “a little wilderness.”
  3. Lefroy’s character reminds of us the “worthless” activities of George Wickham early on in the film. Like Wickham, Lefroy studies law, but with not much success. Later he is very much Darcy in his judgment of “country” life.
  • From Sense and Sensibility, we find …
  1. Like Marianne Dashwood, Jane’s decisions are not based on “sense,” but on her “sensibility” (emotional response).
  2. Jane’s situation, if she does not marry Wisley, will be very much like the Dashwood sisters after losing their home.
  • From Northanger Abbey, we find …
  1. Jane plays cricket, very much as did Catherine Morland.
  2. Jane defends her desire to write novels.
  3. The scene in Uncle Benjamin’s house between Jane and Lefroy reminds one of the staircase scene between Henry Tilney and Catherine Morland.
  4. References to Ann Radcliffe’s (as well as other Gothic novels) are made in the novel. In the film, Jane visits Radcliffe.
  • From Mansfield Park, we find …
  1. Lady Gresham’s line to Jane about her duty to marry well reminds us of those spoken by Lady Bertram to Fanny Price.
  2. Lady Bertram spends her days with her pug dog, as does Countess Eliza, Jane’s cousin.
  • From Persuasion, we find …
  • Although she loves him, Jane breaks an engagement with Lefroy so that he has a chance for a better future. This is similar to what happens between Anne Elliot and Captain Wentworth.
  • In the novel, Anne meets Wentworth at a concert, where she must translate the opera for her cousin. She recognizes their love still exists, but she can say nothing. “How was the truth to reach him?” In the film, Jane meets Lefory many years after their separation at a concert. He has married and has a daughter named “Jane.”
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12 Responses to The Movie “Becoming Jane” and Hidden References to Austen’s Novels

  1. Dawn says:

    One of my favorite movies! Great post, thank you. And yes, excellent casting of Lefroy. One of the best scenes is towards the very end when older Jane finishes her reading and older Tom applauds and he’s looking at her with such wonderment and tenderness. Gets me every time.

    • When this movie first came out, my Advanced Placement English Composition class and I went together to see it. (Remember this was August so people thought we were some kind of church group.) Anyway, afterwards, the movie audience stayed to listen to me answer my students’ questions regarding the dramatic license taken in the film and the facts of Austen’s life that proved true.
      It’s funny because I had taught them that whenever it rains in a film that it’s a visual clue for something tragic to happen. So, when it was raining as the Austens sat down to supper with Maggie Smith’s character, they turned and said, “Who is going to die?” Immediately, Cassandra Austen receives news of her betrothed’s death. The other people in the theatre were entranced by my students’ intuitiveness.

  2. Gail Warner says:

    Awesome article, Regina and I would love to have seen the movie with you!

    • Gail, it was one of my fondest memories of teaching at Porter Ridge High. To think that 20 students would join their slightly eccentric teacher on a hot August day when no grade for a class was involved said things that school administrators never understand.

  3. Robin Helm says:

    I also enjoyed the movie, though her life was interesting enough that it was not necessary to blur those lines between reality and the movies.

    A similar thing happened to me in Ford’s Theatre. The tour guide gave us some incorrect information, and after he moved on, I told my students what actually happened, pointing out the particular places in the theatre as I talked. I noticed that several people from the tour had stopped to listen. I really don’t like it when people rewrite history. The museum under the theatre really stretched credulity.

    • I loved it when Lefroy calls his daughter “Jane.” Of course, I had to explain that his wife had a rich aunt by that name and likely the girl was named for her maternal relative rather than for Jane Austen. Of course, the average movie goer would not know that fact, and he would draw the conclusion that the girl was named for our “Jane.”

  4. Enjoy this very much, Regina!
    I went to see this movie prepared to be offended and annoyed, being something of a JA purist. But it surprised me, and it won me over. I appreciated the quality of the production and all the inside jokes. I do wish, however, that they had made it clear that the story is 90% fabrication. It would not have spoiled the movie, just made it clear for the uninitiated that it wasn’t intended as an accurate biography.

    • Hathaway stressed the “fabrication” in her promotional stints for the movie, but it might have been helpful to have something at the film’s beginning to warn the audience that this was a fictionalized biography.

  5. suzan says:

    Aw man, the rich aunt thing just burst my bubble too. smiles. Maybe he went along with it because of our jane. smiles. I like the movie (even with its inaccuracies). I like Anne Hathaway and I loved the casting as a whole in this. it makes me cry however every single time I watch it. Yes, I’m pathetic. But it still gets me. My husband bought it for me when I was very ill and so it has great sentimentality behind it for me as well. (He hardly ever does nice things like that for me) I loved the post.

    • Suzan, I cry too. When “Jane” is in the carriage returning home and looks out to see “Lefroy” watching her leave and when she discovers that the Leo Bill’s character of John Warren told Lefroy’s uncle about them, I tear up. I am a great Hathaway fan.

  6. SuzeJA says:

    I did see the movie once a couple of months ago. I did see some of characters from her movie but obviousely not as many as you did. I thought it a fun movie but I already new the ending. Great post

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