The Complete Jane Austen "Miss Austen Regrets"
It takes spirit and resolve to write a biopic on the life of Jane Austen. In the face of her incredible talent and renown, it takes pure pluck to write a review of a movie about it.
Miss Austen Regrets is a new film that bravely portrays the latter years of famous literary figure Jane Austen. Born the daughter of an English Anglican minister in 1775, she died in 1817 at age forty-one, unmarried, unexalted, and poor; her clever mind and acerbic wit left us with six completed novels acclaimed by many to be literary perfection.
I hope that Jane Austen's most beloved character, Lizzy Bennet, can send some strength and quick wit my way in support. She would know exactly what to say, and keep us all laughing in the bargain. But I must not confuse characters in a novel with real life; and that is the point that Jane Austen expresses early in the film to her niece Fanny Austen Knight. "My darling girl. The only way to get a Mr. Darcy is to make him up."
Well, that just popped a big balloon for many of us! Mr. Darcy only a figment of Jane Austen's imagination? Half of the world just collectively gasped in disbelief. No!
Facing the reality of Austen's life on screen can be a bit uncomfortable to many Janeites after last summer's controversial biopic Becoming Jane. Shudder. Advance publicity on Miss Austen Regrets made no wild statements of her supposed love life. That was a relief. It only alluded to her "lost loves," which may be taken either way. Regardless, I confess to still being a bit nervous.
Traditional views on Jane Austen's love life vary, and little evidence still exists today to support much of a story. What we do know survives from her personal letters and family recollections of a quiet 18th century life, shrouded in privacy and decorum. With the exception of the one known proposal by Harris Bigg-Wither, no other known romances or love affairs were documented beyond the healthy flirtations at which she excelled.
We may never know the complete truth. Sadly, much of Jane Austen's personal correspondence, that could have supplied more intimate details, was destroyed after her death by her sister Cassandra. The possibility of more evidence may exist. From what we do know, the compelling question surrounding Jane Austen's life is how an individual with little personal experience of romance and love could write with such insight and perception about the nature of the human heart? Who indeed?
This mystery has never been answered to my satisfaction. Was the screenwriter Gwyneth Hughes also inspired by this enigma? She certainly presents a convincing explanation that happily succeeds on many levels through thorough research, respect, and honesty. No screen biographer has ever been challenged with a more scrutinized and speculated upon life. I fear that no other screen biography may have to bear more criticism of a writer's interpretation of such a sensitive subject.
The story opens with Miss Austen's favorite theme, marriage. However this is not a scene in one of her novels, but the reality of her own life. In 1802 she (Olivia Williams) hastily accepts the marriage proposal of wealthy Harris Bigg-Wither (Samuel Roukin), and after an uneasy night of reflection with her sister Cassandra (Greta Scacchi), breaks the engagement and quickly departs for home. If she had married Mr. Bigg-Wither it would have meant financial security for her and her family. But Jane stands on her principle of only marrying for love, even though the consequences of her actions are not welcomed by her parents or by society. Her departing statement to herself, "Dear God let me never regret this day," will echo throughout the film.
Thirteen years later, maiden Aunt Jane is advising her niece Fanny Austen Knight (Imogen Poots), daughter of her elder brother Edward Austen Knight, on courtship and marriage. Fanny has a possible suitor in mind, a young and pious John Plumtre (Tom Hiddleston), and wants her aunt's advice. Here we are presented with the resounding question. Like Jane Austen's famous heroines, should one only marry for love? Jane thinks so and warns, "Fanny, do anything but marry without affection."
Addressing Fanny's questions regarding love presents Jane with the reality of her own unmarried status. She is now forty, not a young girl, but not quite out of the marriage market. We see her at the family evening meeting a flattering admirer Mr. Washington, and the young girl still alive in Jane Austen kicks in, as she thoroughly enjoys the evening, dancing, drinking and flirting.
Soon after, my favorite scene in the movie places Fanny and Jane outside of the manor house frolicking around the gardens and peering in a window at the gentlemen playing cards. Their conversation humorously analyses the marriageability of each of the men according to their assets or physical charms. When they are discovered by Fanny's uncle, a former flirtation of Jane's, Rev. Brook Bridges (Hugh Bonneville), Fanny explains that her aunt was offering her moral guidance. "In the shrubbery?" asks Rev. Bridges. Jane replies, "As good a place as any for leading a young lady astray"
At this point in the movie the narrative and framework have been established by the screenwriter Gwyneth Hughes and director Jeremy Lovering. The loves or flirtations of Jane Austen's life - Mr. Lefroy, Mr. Bigg-Wither, Rev. Papillon, Rev. Bridges, and Dr. Haden - all come and go adding insight, amusement and a whiff of romance, but hardly developing into love affairs. The reasons for unattached status are multilayered but in her usual casual fashion Jane makes a joke of it to her niece. "Fanny, you have at last uncovered the true reason why I never chose a husband. I never found one worth giving up flirting for."
Actress Olivia Williams shines in this difficult role. She makes Austen approachable, lively, sharp as tack and as funny as one of her finest heroines; not that dour spinster envisioned in 19th century portraits. Hurrah! Imogen Poots shows great promise as young Fanny Austen Knight, relaying her energy and edginess deftly. Hugh Bonneville as Rev. Bridges is the most interesting of Jane's lost loves, played with sensitivity and reserved pathos. Greta Scacchi as Cassandra Austen looks far older than the two years that spanned Jane and Cassandra's ages. Her part is small, and her talent not applied too much beyond allowing us to really dislike her for burning her sister's letters. Phyllida Law as Mrs. Austen plays the disapproving mother so sourly that one is relieved not to live in her household.
I admire how the story succeeds in interweaving moments that parallel scenes or lines from Jane Austen's novels, or is it scenes or lines from her life that make it into her novels? Art imitating life and it is believable. We see Jane represented honestly and with integrity as a strong woman who made a decision to write instead of marrying without love. Her choices would be against the norms of society, disappointing her family and adding pressure and financial stress in her life. How could anyone not regret the outcome of such adversity? We feel her pain and understand her proclivity to enjoy a bit too much wine. In the end, she is resolved that she has lived the life that God chose for her. When she dies tragically at age forty-one, we feel the incredible loss of a dear daughter, sister, aunt and friend, whose ultimate writing potential will never be known.