I haven’t been watching a whole lot of TV or movies lately (other than the Pixar favorites that my 3-year-old watches on seemingly endless repeat), but a few nights ago my husband agreed to watch “Becoming Jane” with me on Netflix. It’s an embellished biopic about Jane Austen, a semi-fictional story of her life and romances based on limited historical data, imagining how real people might have inspired her most famous characters.
A lot of it was very well done: the scenery, the dresses, Anne Hathaway as Jane herself and James McAvoy as the romantic hero, Tom LeFroy. Good chemistry, witty repartee, social commentary, and ridiculous relatives abound–as they should in any Austen-inspired work.
One major flaw ruined the movie for me, though, because the whole plot turned on something entirely false to Austen’s morals. In the movie, Jane and Tom fall in love but are unable to wed because Tom is entirely financially dependent on his uncle, who will not consent to Tom’s engagement to a penniless writer of no family. And here’s where the writers got it wrong: Tom suggests an elopement, which would entail leaving behind all their family, friends, income, and connections–and Jane not only accepts but actually packs her bag and leaves with him, turning back home only after discovering that Tom’s income from his uncle supported not only himself but Tom’s mother and siblings back in Ireland. If the rich uncle disowned Tom after an elopement, Tom’s family would starve. This revelation weighs on Jane’s heart enough that she gives up her chance at love, leaves him on the road and lives out her days a solitary spinster–and, of course, a hugely successful author.
A good story, perhaps, but that is not how a real Jane Austen story goes.
Austen believed in a real weight of one’s moral reputation. Virtue, once lost, could not entirely be regained, and virtue included not only individual honor but also duty to one’s family name, duty and care for to one’s relations, and a financial prudence that could combine affection and reason to arrive at a suitable course of action.
It’s weird–that sounds so cold to us nowadays. We want to throw caution to the wind, cry passionately that love conquers all, and end romances by sailing off into the sunset and the great unknown. But that wasn’t Jane Austen’s world.
The only men in her books who elope or have extra-marital relationships are the bad guys–charming but selfish, totally blind to their responsibility to women and society. Once an Austen heroine learns of such behavior, it is always decried as unqualified villainy. The women in these relationships are either unlucky ingenues who are taken advantage of by the sweet-talking cads, or Lydia Bennett–who is portrayed as the height of selfishness, foolishness, and materialism. Jane Austen subtly criticized many of society’s ills, but Lydia’s fall from grace through an elopement at the end of Pride and Prejudice is not such a lampooning. It is a real tragedy. Lydia has a total disregard for her own virtue, her family’s reputation, and how she will practically manage a household as Mrs. Willoughby.
There is a modern temptation to brush off Lydia’s plotline as laughable–Lydia does eventually marry Willoughby, and Elizabeth and Jane are still able to land their rich husbands despite their sister’s shame, so the only real “harm” is shock at Lydia’s behavior. And our modern culture thinks that society’s shock and judgement isn’t much of a reason to refrain from anything. Who cares what other people think as long as both parties consent and are happy(ish) together? Society’s stuffy old moral codes are just another chain that prevents us from reaching true freedom and self-fulfillment!
Which is what the writers for Becoming Jane, thought, too. How beautiful, to have Jane give up everything for love, to run away with Tom LeFroy! How romantic, how passionate, how inspiring! Break those chains of a moralizing society and write your own story, Jane! Claim your freedom! But of course, she didn’t really marry in real life, so the planned elopement won’t work out… but because of a charitable sacrifice for Tom’s family, not for some horribly stuffy and self-righteous reason like virtue or prudence. Those are just words for repression and oppression.
Our society’s favorite idol is freedom. Any moral code that makes unqualified demands is seen as tyranny–and so all moral codes have been pushed into the zone of personal opinion. But Jane Austen and others who follow a system of virtue ethics know that recognizing a real system of right and wrong based on God’s law, also means that following those rules doesn’t limit our freedom at all. God designed us, and so following Him and His laws allows us to grow more fully into our true selves, the people we are meant to be. Sin is what makes us slaves–slaves to our own emotions and addictions. Virtue is a path to freedom, not to slavery.
Jane Austen’s literary heroes and heroines always grow in virtue and self-knowledge, even through the pain and doubt and despair of their troubled plotlines, and only after they have exhibited self-mastery and virtuous resolutions are they presented with the freedom and rest of a happy ending.
Jane Austen was never a Lydia Bennett. Presented with an offer of marriage only through an elopement, forcing her to abandon her family, her reputation, and all future prospects of society’s approval, she would have had an easy answer: No thanks. And none of her masculine heroes would have offered such a thing in the first place.