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The Complete Jane Austen "Miss Austen Regrets"

Masterpiece Classic

by Laurel Ann Nattress

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.

Comments

Thanks for an insightful and enticing review, Laurel Ann. I can't wait to see the film.

I think of Austen's ultimate refusal of Harris Bigg-Wither's proposal as a very brave choice. Though only Austen could know what truly went on in Austen's life, I cannot imagine that the author of Pride and Prejudice and Persuasion never loved. But unless someone unearths a cask of letters someday, a la "Possession," we will never know who that man (or men) was. What is more important to me is that she wrote the six novels that I will always treasure and re-read.

Wonderful dramatization of Jane's life; just finished reading her letters to sister Cassandra and niece Fanny. We recently stayed in this incredible Jane Austen Room at a Booklovers B and B in Maryland, then flew to England and saw her home in Hampshire where this show was filmed. Both were incredible experiences, bringing one so much closer to her and her world.

I seriously question one point in the film Miss Austen Regrets. The actress says that her loss of Tom LeFroy only bothered her for 5 minutes. I seriously beg to differ. If you look at all of her novels and are aware of LeFroy you can't help but believe the idea that all of her books are about their relationship. Overall, however, the film was entertaining. The problem is, thanks to Cassandra, we'll never know.

This is the 3rd of the 4 PBS movies that I caught. They are so wonderfully made that I must go back and read Austen's novels. Having read Isabel O'Hara's comments re Austen's house in Hampshire and the Booklovers B & B in Maryland, will look into those as well.
I think this site is great and will go back and read the comments about the other films and hope to purchase the movies eventually. Hope more people log on here and add their comments.

I have loved Ms. Austen since I was a teenager when I believed I had found the secret to true love in the chemistry between Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy. Watching the first half of "Ms. Austen Regrets" was like meeting a kindred soul. Jane's character was just as sassy and charming as I hoped it would be and wanted to emulate myself. Yet, as the film went on, it unveiled a darker side of Jane that I, regretably, also share. Many of us independent women in our mid-thirties, who are creatively accomplished and flirtatious, but economically stressed and cynical, are proof that even in the 21st century, Jane's reasons for regret remain applicable. Despite the comfort of commiseration and humor, the portrayal of Ms. Austen in this film makes me reconsider her heroic persona, as well as my own.

Laurel Ann,
Having watched the film last night, I can agree with much of your commentary here. You don't mention, however, my favorite moment of truth in the whole thing: when Rev. Bridges is asking Jane why she would not marry him (or anyone else for that matter). He says, "I would have let you write" and she says something to the effect of "I would have been too busy mothering." I have always felt sorry for Jane because her life fell so far short of the happy endings she gave to her heroines. But the truth is that without her poverty and her freedom from matrimony she would never have written the novels. She called them her children for a reason.

Who can know the true heart and mind of a writer apart from their novels? I applaud Gwyneth Hughes for producing a script that I believe will bring us as close to the true Ms. Austen as we'll ever get, and an applause to Jeremy Lovering for bringing it out. The casting was superb and I agree Olivia Williams shined in this role. This film I hope will not be used only as a conversation piece over Ms. Austen herself, but as way to draw out inner issues women face even in today's society.

I cannot be mad at Cassandra for burning the letters. Who knows that it was not a final wish from Jane? I believe the not-knowing inspires the imagination to wander, and that is quite possibly what Jane may have wanted.

Pride and Prejudice is my favorite novel, and I have re-read it (and all the other novels, except Northanger Abbery) practically every year for the past half century.

Although I appreciate PBS' presenting this series, and I hope it will encourage many to read Miss Austen; I have found the series to be a major disappointment, and not up to the level of previous adaptations of the novels.

When critics ask how Miss Austen could create a Mr. Darcy without knowing a Mr. Darcy, the answer seems rather simple. She shared the attributes of other great writers --a rare imagination, a deep understanding of human nature, acute perception, etc. Do we ask how Doestoevsky could describe a murderer's torments of conscience (Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment) without murdering someone himself? The question is ludicrous.

I have read all of the published letters of Jane and a great many books and scholarly articles about her. I was appalled at the liberties taken by the writer of the script of this program. I feel no need to glamorize Miss Austen as this writer has done. She is a literary genius and she is a beloved example of the power of "the life of the mind."

Last nights piece on Jane Austin gave me more insight into my favorite author.

Thank goodness that I taped the show to review an excellent statement made by Jane, to Fanny, as they watched the men playing cards...Jane references to not having to give up flirting until she meets a good man... Only Jane Austin.

I love Jane Austen, have read and reread all her books, and watched "Miss Austen Regrets" last night. One thing I am curious about is this, since her books are so popular are there royalties and are they paid to the descedants of the Austen family. Jane had no children of course, but her brother had a huge family and they were always in finacial trouble. Does anyone know the answer to this question?

I enjoyed the way last night's presentation wove in quotes from her novels as well as those attributed to her. I only wonder at why those filming refuse to hold the camera steady - perhaps they think it breaks up formality? I can't say I care for the camera work in Miss Austen Regrets or the other recently aired adaptations.

Overall enjoyable. Would have preferred the background music less and spoken word more intelligible.
Very uncomfortable with last scene where Fanny spies on the sisters, the insinuation of lesbism/incest between the sisters...... is this why Cassandra burned some but not all Jane's letters?
Poor Cassandra to live another 28 years alone.
Thank you for Ms. Natress' review made for understanding what I couldn't hear.

"Miss Austen Regrets" lingers in my head -- I think because it gave a real depth of feeling to Jane's character -- of a longing for love, a void, a loneliness, a truly romantic nature, and a true artistic need to create, combined with her financial straights -- all this has the making for a complex character -- and I think the screenwriter did a very admirable job. My favorite Austen book is "Persuasion" -- and perhaps the screenwriter used the character of Anne Elliot as an inspiration for Jane's character -- an Anne Elliott whose Capt. Wentworth never showed up, or showed up married -- because when I think of it -- Jane Austen was such a romantic and creative force -- and to be without her Capt Wentworth, her Darcy -- what sadness and longing must she have held. I think the Jane Austen protrayed in "Miss Austen Regrets" makes this apparent, it makes her real.

Love the production. Just went on-line to purchase a book of the Jane Austen's letters that survived.

Like Marianne, I've been disappointed, but I love having the chance to mull over adaptations of Austen's novels, even when they don't measure up. I agree emphatically with the criticism of liberties taken with the books and the facts known about Austen's life. From the first 10 minutes of Northanger Abbey it was clear the effort to "modernize" would diminish the quality of the original.

I, too, had a hard time hearing, especially the low-voiced exchanges between Jane and Fanny. PBS must learn that many of us are aging. Their failure to balance sound levels will lead to rebellion among many members (and donors).

Finally, and I hesitate to say this, I was not charmed by this portrayal of Jane. She seemed only sometimes clever and witty, other times rather sour. The undercurrent of desperation, cynicism, lonely regret - none of these fit the real Jane.

I am happy and relieved to say that I really liked "Miss Austen Regrets." Remember in The Jane Austen Book Club where Karen Joy Fowler writes that everyone has their own private Austen? I thought Gwyneth Hughes' Jane was wonderful. I loved her use of Fanny in the film- she has Fanny try throughout the film to make the life of love and happiness Austen wrote about real in her own life, all the while trying to understand what made Austen choose to find those things without a husband and children herself. I particularly loved the end of the story, when Fanny so desperately tries to salvage the only keys left to that mystery, Austen's letters to Cassandra. Fanny may be young and innocent, but she is also wise and has a striving heart. I thought she was a bit of a homage to all the readers who have searched for so many of the same things in Austen's work in the last two hundred years. Like others, I would certainly have loved to have given Cassandra a good shake or two.

Barbara, I read the closeness between Cassandra and Jane differently, and maybe the way I saw it could bring some comfort to you - I thought Cassandra tried to keep Jane from marrying because she had buried her dearest hope for her own marriage with her fiance, and desperately wanted Jane's companionship and closeness to fill her need for family and adult (platonic) intimacy. Both women shared the intimacy created when two women who love each other share their identies as social anomalies - unmarried women. I really read it as only a sisterly love, though a close one. I loved that Fanny stood on the outside, wishing, like I do, that she could understand her aunt's soul the way only Cassandra could. All symbolic reason notwithstanding, I liked it that Cassandra was portrayed in the fishwife's outfit, with a bit of selfishness to her. Guess I'll never get over the letter-burning.

I really did like this. To me, this film was well worth the time. Thank you PBS.

Eleanora

I read all of Austen's novels ten years ago, after I retired from teaching. I thoroughly enjoyed them then and the films have led me to review with pleasure each one before the show airs.

I like the PBS films but regret two things: All but Pride and Prejudice are too short by far and the volume of the music is overwhelming. This last is obviously a greater fault than the producers grasp.

Thanks for a great series getting me through the winter.

John Seifert

I agree that the music was too loud in Jane Austen Regrets and I had a hard time hearing the dialogue. I'd like to comment, too, that so far, some of the adpatations have seemed a bit dark and brooding, a bit more like the Bronte sisters than Jane Austen, for my taste. You can't see the characters on screen and it's as if everything happens at night or on a cloudy day. I think the appeal of Jane's novels is that some of that reality of the present day was filtered out. It does seem to fit a bit more in the Jane Austen Regrets show though. I think she created a world in her novels where a woman like herself could be appreciated and successful, unlike the world in which she lived. I would have liked to see more of that contrast brought out in the latest show.

Thanks for the lovely review, Laurel Ann. I feel so protective of Jane, I think I'm going to have to watch it a couple more times to know what I really think. I think I liked it, but I imagine Jane to be kinder and warmer.

Like Laurie Viera Rigler, I think Jane's refusal of Harris was brave. I actually think Jane's parents believed in marrying for love -- they certainly did, it seems, as did Jane's brothers. I'm sure there was conflict in the family, though. (How could there not be?)

I'm loving all the Jane hoopla. ;-)

The comment from the movie that stands out most in my memory is when Jane, knowing she is ill, states she has still so many stories to tell and novels to write. It broke my heart to hear Olivia Williams as Jane say this, for it rang true.

I love the mystery surrounding Jane's life. I think not knowing exactly what she did or thought makes us examine her work more closely. We look to her novels for insight, not the tawdry details of her life. We might rail against Cassandra for burning those letters, and yet she shifted the focus to where it should be: Jane's beautiful words.

I have no idea how true-to-life this is to Jane Austen--who does?--but I LOVE the interpretation. Far too often Austen is thought of (by very stupid people who can't be bothered to think otherwise) as some sort of very proper tea-drinking sweet and romantic Victorian-type lady, rather like Miss Marple.

This is THE Jane we know; sharpish, witty, and much too clever for the people around her; but also kind and loving. A genuis who has to live by the world's petty rules, chafes at all that nonsense and yet recognizes that it is her lot. She KNOWS she's good. Why shouldn't she admit it?

I cried real tears when she began the path to death. All those books unwritten! All those characters never to be known and loved! And all those brothers (and her sister) living til their 802 and 90s! So unfair! So unjust!

I have been terribly disappointed in the new productions of "Persuasion" and "Mandsfield Park." I was tolerably impressed with "Northanger Abby" (primarily because of the Mr. Tilney. THIS production, in some small ways, makes up for those other travesties. An screenplay worthy of Jane's story and an actress worthy to play our Jane.

Excellent script and acting for "Regrets." I found this characterization of Jane to be plausible on an intellectual and emotional level, even if historical liberties were taken. This is by far the best of the new series.
I agree with the production comments - why the shaky handheld camera work, the muddy lighting? This seems true of all of these episodes so far. And if they felt the Ciaran Hinds "Persuasion" was too obscure, why didn't they make a less obscure one to replace it?

I agree the music was loud and the dialogue too soft in spots but overall this has been the best show so far in my opinion. I was talking to a friend who thought Jane was a bit of whiner but I didn't think so.
I'm not a fan of handheld camera work either and look forward to P & P next week, as I know I won't be seasick at the end.

Just a thought: There is a fair bit of murmuring in all the Jane Austen adaptations in this PBS series so far, and I have enjoyed them far better with the subtitles on.

One more thing to add-after having an intervention from friends about a straying husband, I must agree the only way one can only find a man like Mr. Darcy thanks to her invention. :)

Just watched Miss Austen Regrets. Read your review and appreciate your insights. I too agree that our beloved Jane Austen had to have experienced love and all it encompasses to truly write about it. She writes with a voice of one familiar with all the ups and downs of love. While not my favorite the acting was amazing and one can not but feel deep respect for the convictions of Austen. It truly would have been a privilege to know her.

Well I loved it. I bought the DVD and watched it again and again. After the disappointing dramas recently (Mansfield Park, and don't even get me started on "Becoming Jane") I wasn't expecting anything much from this at all. But it turned out to the best Austen related drama I've seen for a long time.

Olivia Williams' Jane Austen, in what was surely the performance of her life, is brilliant, witty, frighteningly clever - and caustic. Just what anyone who's read the letters will come to expect. Indeed, the only people who can object to this portrait are those who've never read them, or are the sentimental admirers of the old school, the followers of "gentle Jane", or as Henry James put it, "I, my, your, everyone's dear Aunt Jane."

Wonderful. If I have one complaint, it's too short. I could have happily watched another couple of hours without fatigue. Well, actually a couple of niggles here and there, I'm not sure she was quite as publicly feted and I'm sure she didn't welcome it, and as to Cassandra dissuading her from marrying Harris Bigg, well I'm sure she could have decided that one for herself. On the whole though I was delighted.

Just caught it on TV.
Great review and a very good film with excellent acting from the four women and Hugh Bonneville. My favourite line was Dr Haden "your sentimental novels" Jane "sentimental?" Dr Haden "well perhaps not Lizzie only decides she likes Darcy after she see his big house".
I liked the Book Club film and the Anne Hathaway Jane and I chortled all the way through "Lost in Austen".

So the question the film raises - would you have Jane rich and safe and married to Mr Bigg or would you rather have the Novels.

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