We are pretty sure that Miss Austen Regrets got fairly good reviews after its broadcast here in the U.S., if not absolutely enthusiastic embrace, perhaps. We liked its intelligence and wit, the presentation of Jane Austen as a businesswoman and not so much of a romantic, and Olivia Williams’ magnificent performance that captured Jane Austen’s intelligence and wit and sense of fun as well as a clear-minded view of her life. It is clearly the screenwriter’s interpretation of events, not all of which we agreed with, but overall we were pleased with it. However, the theme of the UK press coverage in anticipation of the Sunday broadcast is the same old “The tar-hearted dried-up spinsters of the Jane Austen Society won’t approve! Tsk Tsk!” We really detest the press sometimes.
ETA: We nearly forgot! Alert Janeite Kate wrote to tell us that the soundtrack for Miss Austen Regrets is available to download on iTunes, and will be available to purchase in shops on May 12.
The Daily Mail (not exactly a bastion of thoughtful journalism, we admit) leads the tsking.
An incorrigible flirt with a crush on a man half her age, a woman who scandalously reneges on the acceptance of a marriage proposal, and a reveller familiar with hangovers because of her penchant for wine.
The above depiction of Jane Austen has already sent shudders down the corsets of her fans worldwide, for this little-known side to the early 19th-century author is the subject of a new BBC costume drama, Miss Austen Regrets.
To make matters worse, when Jane died, aged 41, her sister Cassandra burned many of her letters – probably to spare the feelings of relatives and acquaintances who were the target of Jane’s barbs.
Actually, it’s more likely because they were letters to Cassandra and nobody else’s business. Slight difference. She didn’t burn the one with the dead baby joke, did she? Nope.
“People who think of Jane Austen as a little country mouse who was reserved around men will be shocked,” reveals Gwyneth Hughes, who wrote the script after painstakingly scouring Austen’s letters for revealing new insights into the author’s life.
Does anyone think that?
But Hughes is adamant. “Yes, she liked a drink,” she smiles. “When we showed the film in America, I got e-mails from the Jane Austen Society asking on what evidence we based the fact that Jane Austen had hangovers.
“So I found the quote from a letter which said: ‘I believe I drank too much wine last night; I know not else how to account for the shaking of my hand today.'”
Well, to extrapolate that to a hangover might be pushing it a bit. But no matter. (We are wondering about that “letter from the Jane Austen Society” as well.)
Another acquaintance, Reverend-Brook Bridges (played by Hugh Bonneville), is another potential husband.
“Jane mentions Bridges about half a dozen times in her letters – always affectionately and with a slight tinge of what might have been. There is a real sense of something between them, that he was a real contender, even if he never proposed,” says Hughes.
We’re not so sure about that, but it was okay in the movie.
But the third man in Austen’s life was half her age – and it was more like she had a girly, sexual crush on him. The object of her desire was the 20-year-old Dr Charles Haden (played by up-and-coming actor Jack Huston, who starred in Factory Girl).
Haden treats Jane’s sick brother and gets on very well with Jane until he is diverted by the charms of her niece Fanny.
“There was sex and passion on offer from Jane. She describes him as ‘something between a man and an angel’. We have these letters with incredibly smitten feelings about this young chap. She was like a teenager,” explains Hughes.
We still are of the opinion that Jane was more likely joking with Cassandra about Fanny’s crush on Mr. Haden–imitating her way of talking, perhaps. While we think that Jane was quite capable of being pleased by an attractive young man who said lovely things about her “darling children,” we also think she would have tempered any attraction with common sense. Though he does come on kind of strong in the film!
Moving on to another article in the Yorkshire Post, which had this interesting tidbit that we think must have been a misapprehension by the reporter.
“Then I remembered that I had read Claire Tomalin’s biography of Jane Austen a few years previously,
and had come across this amazing thing.
“The woman we all think of as the archetypal spinster wasn’t someone who had had no offers of marriage. She’d had an offer from an extremely eligible man who was wealthy and whom she had known all her life. He was a family friend, his sisters were her best friends, and his name was Harris Bigg.
“Had she married him she would have been rich, but she said yes one evening in December 1802, then got up the next morning and said no. Giving back-word was a shameful and appalling thing, so what happened during the intervening night, when she went off to bed, sharing a room with her sister, Cassandra?”
Tomalin had discovered this relatively little-known Austen fact through an account left by Jane’s 10-year-old niece, who witnessed the effects of this scandal on the family.
What? While we think well enough of Claire Tomalin’s biography of Jane Austen (though we usually recommend others), she was hardly the first to “discover” l’affaire Bigg-Withers. It was mentioned in Jane Austen, Her Life and Letters: A Family Record, which was published in 1913. We’re not sure if that is the first mention, but it certainly predates Tomalin. It also is mentioned in the wonderful biography by Elizabeth Jenkins, in our opinion the most readable of all Jane Austen biographies.
But at least Gwyneth Hughes admits she made most of it up–though she backs it up with evidence from the letters. As we already said, we don’t always agree with her interpretation, but Olivia Williams’ intelligently wonderful performance puts the film over the top for us. And we love this part:
“All the men in the story are real and all are mentioned in the letters – some very fully and others not. I took each one and imagined who he was and what kind of relationship they might have had.” To Hughes, the least interesting was Tom Lefroy, with whom Austen shared a teenage flirtation, a puppy love previously examined in the rather slight and unsatisfying feature film Being Jane.
Hee hee heeeeeeeee!
Reuters also has an article that covers most of the same ground, and the Times chats with Greta Scacchi about her portrayal of Cassandra Austen, though oddly they run a photo of Olivia Williams with the article, and they really don’t talk much about Miss Austen Regrets. The journalist seems more interesting in putting a “gotcha” on Ms. Scacchi and getting her to say something unguarded.
So UK Janeites, do stop in and let us know what you think of the film once you’ve seen it!