Miss Austen Regrets: An “Imagined” Biography

I am greatly pleased with your account of Fanny; I found her in the summer just what you describe, almost another sister; and could not have supposed that a niece would ever have been so much to me. She is quite after one’s own heart; give her my best love, and tell her that I always think of her with pleasure.
Jane Austen to Cassandra
October 7, 1808

The problem with biopics about Jane Austen is that there is so much that isn’t known for sure that at least part of the story will have to be fiction. In itself, that is not a problem, unless either the fiction is presented as truth or if the fiction is the kind of adolescent romantic twaddle that Jane Austen herself would have abhorred. Becoming Jane failed on both of those counts, and while Miss Austen Regrets does not succeed spectacularly, it is almost the Jane Austen biopic that many Janeites have hoped for.

Olivia Williams is excellent as Jane Austen approaching her fortieth birthday. Sharply intelligent, sarcastic and funny but still warm-hearted: yes, this is the woman who could have created Mary Crawford and Lucy Steele and Augusta Elton. What a joy to see Jane Austen not a pathetic lonely-heart spinster but a woman who had opportunities to marry but clear-sightedly chose to remain single and pursue a career. We see her take a shrewd interest in the business of authorship, switching publishers to one that will get her more exposure and work more closely with her, and taking full advantage of professional opportunities such as cultivating her brother’s physician’s relationship to the Price Regent.

It also was lovely to see Jane as part of a large family, the close relationship with Cassandra, the mutual support system with her brothers, and Mrs. Austen portrayed not as a Mrs. Bennet clone but as an intelligent if difficult woman whose younger daughter was a genius. The idea that Cassandra would have talked Jane out of marrying Harris Bigg-Wither has occurred to us as well, though many viewers took away the idea that Cassandra did so because she was afraid of being alone; our impression was that Cassandra did not want Jane to marry a man she did not love for her sake. (After all, if Jane had married for security, presumably Cassandra would have gone to live with Jane and her husband.)

Alas, the 90-minute running time (less after the cuts required by Masterpiece Classics) was not sufficient to develop the story or even many of the characters to our satisfaction. We know from Jane Austen’s letters that she enjoyed a glass of wine, but crawling around in the shrubbery three sheets to the wind was a bit much. Jane Austen sitting by the fire, inhibitions relaxed by a glass or two of something from the Godmersham cellars, and holding forth hilariously to Fanny on the gentleman present is much closer to our mental picture. And while we can fully appreciate a mature Jane being interested in an attractive, intelligent younger man who compliments her “darling children,” we think she would have maintained a firmer and more realistic perspective on such a relationship, and rejoiced in such a man showing interest in her favorite niece (and we think her letters bear us out).

We also have quibbles with some of the clothing. Jane Austen was mostly dressed in shapeless tunic-like dresses that were rather low-cut in daytime. And we said aloud a few too many times, “What the Ferrars does she have on her head?” The hats were just strange and she almost never was shown in the spinster’s cap that she adopted in her twenties. We do long for the days when costumers took fierce pride in historical correctness! When the clothes are not right, the knowledgeable viewer is distracted from the story. And we had regrets of our own that it couldn’t have been worked out somehow to shoot the film in Chawton, so familiar to so many Janeites, though we understand that the logistics involved would have been a tremendous hurdle for producers to overcome, especially for a television film.

Ultimately, the title of the film becomes almost a question instead of a statement: Did Miss Austen have regrets? And we are shown that any regrets she did have were not those the romantics could wish for: she yearned not for love, but for time. And while we could have wished for a little more from Miss Austen Regrets, after some of the overly-romanticized films related to Jane and her work that we have suffered through over the past couple of years, that in itself might be considered a triumph.

Miss Austen Regrets premiered on PBS on February 3, 2008. It has a runtime of 90 minutes, including an introduction from Gillian Anderson. Miss Austen Regrets is availble at our online giftshop. Click here.

Margaret C. Sullivan is a writer and the editrix of Austenblog.com. Her recent book, The Jane Austen Handbook: A Sensible Yet Elegant Guide to Her World can be found in our giftshop. She is also the author of, There Must be Murder, a continuation of Northanger Abbey.

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