Sunday, November 04, 2007

No plain Jane

IN Creative Writing class last semester, one of my students was ribbed by her classmates for being a Janeite.

Unknown to them, I was pleased to come upon another member of the sisterhood. A Janeite is a keen follower of the early 19th century English writer Jane Austen.

Strictly speaking, my sister and I discovered Austen by way of Helen Fielding’s “Bridget Jones’s Diary,” the unabashed 2001 tribute to the tug and pull between Elizabeth Bennett and Mark Darcy, protagonists of Austen’s famous romance, “Pride and Prejudice.”

After my sister ferreted out a copy of the 1995 BBC TV serial, starring an “incandescent” (a favorite Austen praise) Jennifer Ehle as Elizabeth Bennett and brooding Colin Firth as Mark Darcy (a role he recreated in “Bridget Jones” and its sequel), the DVD set has crossed oceans from down under to be ensconced in our rack of frequently watched movies, much to the chagrin of my two sons who don’t think it is the height of suspense to watch damsels crumpling after the tragic reading of yet another note.

For there are undoubtedly readers—all husbands and sons, I hazard—that consider Jane Austen as a tireless spinster writing about tiresome romances, minus the bursting bodices.

Fortunately, the British film industry has not tired of this writer, hailed by some as only next in greatness to William Shakespeare. The 2007 movie, “Becoming Jane,” is cause for celebration among Janeites (and perhaps gloom, for long-suffering male members of their households).

Starring Anne Hathaway as a “pre-fame Jane Austen” and James McAvoy as Thomas Lefroy, the movie is a dramatization of an early flirtation between Austen and Lefroy, who, in real life, became a Lord High Justice of Ireland. Although their romance is nipped in the bud, Lefroy is portrayed as Austen’s inspiration for sketching the heroic outline of Mark Darcy.

“Becoming Jane” has met mixed reviews. The website Rotten Tomatoes has given it an approval rating of only 58 percent. Even if one refuses to nitpick about Hathaway’s British accent (an inevitable fate for American actors portraying English heroines, as Renee Zelwegger learned in the making of “Bridget Jones”), the movie is less than forthcoming about its plot’s speculations beyond proven facts.

For instance, the movie implies that Lefroy named his eldest daughter, Jane Christmas, after Austen. Scholars dispute this sentimentality as he could have very well named her after his mother-in-law, Lady Jane Paul. A private correspondence also cited by Wikipedia quotes Lefroy as referring to his affection for Austen as a “boyish love.”

Upon her death, though, Lefroy traveled from Ireland to England to pay his respects. He later bought at an auction a publisher’s rejection letter of “First Impression,” the original title of an early version of “Pride and Prejudice.”

“Becoming Jane” succeeds in stirring renewed interest in Austen. Like other literary figures who became popular, she, too, has her anti-Janeite following. Charlotte Bronte dismissed her as middle-brow: “She ruffles her reader by nothing vehement, disturbs him with nothing profound… What sees keenly, speaks aptly, moves flexibly, it suits her to study: but what throbs fast and full, though hidden, what the blood rushes through, what is the unseen seat of life and the sentient target of death—this Miss Austen ignores…”

Any library without a volume of Austen, declared Mark Twain, whetting the keen blade of his irony, was “a good library… Even if it contains no other book."

Yet, despite the confines her age and society placed on her potentials as a writer, Austen wrote six novels that continue to be read decades after her death at 41 from a complication of tuberculosis. Her nondescript start as a writer inspires anyone trying to make the writing matter. Aside from publishers’ rejections, she infamously misspelled one of her juvenile works, “Love and Freindship.”

With only 26 years of exposure to provincial society and intimate family life, Austen proved, as Hathaway declares so passionately in “Becoming Jane,” the towering power of the imagination, the one true thing that recommends any writer to readers of all persuasions. 09173226131

* Published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Nov. 4, 2007 issue

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