Why does Jane Austen's spinsterhood bug us so much? Austen, who published six timelessly great novels between 1811 and 1818, never married and never exhibited much of a romantic life. Nevertheless, the film Becoming Jane, which opens today, spins a yarn about the young novelist's sexual awakening, suggesting that an early experience of being loved and left was the true source of her artistry.
Becoming Jane is hardly the first fantasy about Austen's romantic life. In 1924 Rudyard Kipling, better known for The Jungle Book, wrote a poem titled "Jane's Marriage" that imagines Austen's ascension to heaven, where she confesses to the angels that her one unfulfilled wish during life was for "Love." (Celestial matchmakers, the angels swiftly find her a suitable consort.) And at least one modern Austen fan has gallantly offered to wed Austen himself, as if meaning to belatedly right a historical wrong. "Ours will be a tryst for the ages!" film studies professor Richard A. Blake announced in his 1996 review of the film Emma, not stopping to wonder whether Austen would accept his proposal. Why are so many of Austen's admirers eager to demonstrate that, even though she never made it to the altar where she regularly deposited her heroines, she really was marriage material?
The romance at the center of Becoming Jane is between a 20-year-old Austen and a real historical figure, Tom Lefroy, an impassioned but impoverished Irish law student whom she met in the winter of 1795-96. Screenwriters Kevin Hood and Sarah Williams arrange for this star-crossed pair to get tantalizingly close to the marriage bed. The film's penultimate sequence envisions Austen and Lefroy headed in a stagecoach toward a clandestine wedding in Gretna Green, Scotland—the 18th-century equivalent of Las Vegas. But long before they reach the border, Jane remembers that Tom's family relies on him for financial support and realizes that their imprudent elopement would ruin his prospects. She renounces her chance for romantic happiness and returns home to her family. And she determines henceforth to live by her pen. Flash-forward a decade and a half: We see Jane in spinsterly middle-age reading Pride and Prejudice aloud to Tom's daughter.
Becoming Jane is based on a chapter in Jon Spence's 2003 critical biography, Becoming Jane Austen. In the book, Spence does identify Tom Lefroy as the love of Austen's life and her relationship with him as the origin of her genius. But he never suggests that there was an aborted elopement (much less subsequent reading sessions with any of Lefroy's children). And he is careful, as the filmmakers are not, to clarify that in speculating about Austen's romantic experience he is reading between the lines of the family records and of the three rather opaque Austen letters that are his principal sources.
Other scholars have been more skeptical than Spence about whether this pair were ever "a couple." They see a flirtation that terminated without fuss when Tom ended his visit to relations in the Hampshire countryside where Jane lived and returned to the London law courts. True, when well on in years, Tom is reported to have answered yes to the question "Were you ever in love with Jane Austen?" "With a boyish love," he said. But at that point the old man might have been eager to play up his connection with the famous writer.
Austen wrote letters to her sister Cassandra in January 1796 that report on her interactions with Tom and express delight in his company. But while making these reports she also seems to be observing herself from the outside—presenting herself, with a certain cool mockery, as a heroine in one of the sentimental novels that in her teenaged writing she loved to parody. "Imagine to yourself," she writes, "everything most profligate and shocking in the way of dancing and sitting down together." In a second letter, written six days later, she declares: The "Day is come on which I am to flirt my last with Tom Lefroy. … My tears flow as I write, at the melancholy idea." It's worth noting that these sentences are all but buried amid chitchat about the weather and housekeeping. In a third letter, written two years later, Jane describes being "too proud to make any enquiries" about Lefroy, but the letter refers more directly to Jane's fondness for "ragout veal" than to her fondness for Tom.