What Becoming Jane gets wrong about Jane Austen's love life.

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Aug. 3 2007 2:51 PM

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Why are we so obsessed with Jane Austen's love life?

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Spence was up against a familiar problem: Literary biographers who set out to establish how Austen's novels arise from her personal experience have long been handicapped by the scarcity of source material. Nothing much ever happened to her. Austen's first biographer, her nephew James Edward Austen-Leigh, began his 1870 book, discouragingly, with the claim "Of events her life was singularly barren" and neglected to mention even the marriage proposal—from a certain Harris Biggs-Wither—that she did receive and reject in 1802. It doesn't help matters that Austen's sister Cassandra destroyed many of the novelist's letters: Whatever events did befall her are lost to us now.

In some ways, this apparent eventlessness has operated as a spur to the biographical imagination. Spence's Becoming Jane Austen has a truly loopy forerunner in Constance Pilgrim's 1971 Dear Jane, which took an Austen family legend about "Aunt Jane's seaside romance of 1801" and ran with it. Pilgrim proposed that the mysterious admirer on whom those legends centered was a sea captain—and not just any sea captain, but rather the poet William Wordsworth's brother John—who subsequently went down with his ship before he could return to England and whisk a waiting Jane to the altar. (It is true that John Wordsworth died at sea in 1805, but that is the only hard fact in Pilgrim's wholly speculative story.)

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Pilgrim's biography reimagined Jane Austen as a version of Anne Elliot, the heroine of her novel Persuasion: Anne is romanced by a Capt. Wentworth, who eventually returns from the sea and weds her. The makers of Becoming Jane exhibit a parallel eagerness to think of Austen as Elizabeth Bennet, the heroine of Pride and Prejudice. The repartee in the film between Jane and Tom is frequently lifted from the novel's dialogue. Like Darcy, Elizabeth's frosty suitor, the film's Tom is a snob who eventually learns better manners. Like Elizabeth, its Austen rebels against propriety and rambles around the countryside in muddy petticoats.

Why this fixation on imagining Austen as the heroine of one of her own stories? Austen wrote on many subjects: women's lack of freedom, the injuries wrought by the 19th-century class system, literature's falsification of life, the importance of manners, the virtues of independent thought. But, by and large, it is Austen the expert on courtship rites who dominates contemporary popular culture. It is this Austen who is emulated by authors of middlebrow women's fiction, from Helen Fielding (who wrote Bridget Jones's Diary) on. A few of the students who enroll in my Austen courses admit that they are there to trawl the books for dating tips. (So far, I have not put Jane Austen's Little Advice Book, chock-full of Austen sound bites on love and marriage, on the syllabus.)

A lot of Austen fans seem to want what the characters in Karen Joy Fowler's novel The Jane Austen Book Club got: "We'd let Austen into our lives, and now we were all either married or dating." Austen fans in real life too seem to want Austen to guide them toward love. And this might be why, as Becoming Jane indicates, we have to imagine Austen as Elizabeth Bennet and grant her a Darcy of her own—even if in the end we take him away again. We can't bear to think that her wisdom was not based on experience.

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