From the desk of Laurel Ann Nattress:
What do we know about Jane Austen’s love life? Very little. The information that survives is found in her personal letters and from family recollections. Apart from the one proposal by Harris Bigg-Wither, no other known romances or love affairs were documented. For someone who wrote so perceptively about love and romance, it stands to reason that she must have experienced a grand passion herself. This is an intriguing notion to fans, writers, and filmmakers. In Miss Austen Regrets screenwriter Gwyneth Hughes (Vanity Fair) bravely portrays the latter years of the famous literary figure as she reflects upon her romantic encounters, and life choices.
A Spurned Offer of Marriage
The story opens with Miss Austen’s favorite theme, marriage. However, this is not a scene in one of her novels, but the reality of her own life. In 1802 Jane (Olivia Williams) hastily accepts a marriage proposal from wealthy Harris Bigg-Wither (Samuel Roukin). After an uneasy night of reflection with her sister Cassandra (Greta Scacchi), she breaks the engagement and quickly departs for home. If she had married Mr. Bigg-Wither it would have meant financial security for her and her family. Jane stands behind her principles to only marry for love even though the consequences of her actions are not welcomed by her parents, or by society. Her departing statement to herself, “Dear God let me never regret this day.” This lament will echo throughout the film.
Agony Aunt Jane
Thirteen years later, maiden Aunt Jane is advising her niece Fanny Austen Knight (Imogen Poots), daughter of her elder brother Edward Austen Knight, on courtship and marriage. Fanny has a possible suitor in mind, a young and pious John Plumtre (Tom Hiddleston). She wants her aunt’s advice. Here we are presented with the resounding question that Austen’s remarkable heroines face: should one only marry for love? Jane thinks so and firmly warns her niece:
“Fanny, do anything but marry without affection.”
Addressing Fanny’s questions regarding love presents Jane with the reality of her own unmarried status. She is now forty, not a young girl, but not quite out of the marriage market. We see her at a family evening meeting Mr. Washington, a flattering admirer. Instinctively, the young girl in Jane kicks in as she thoroughly enjoys the evening of dancing, drinking, and flirting.
Flipping the Male Power Axis
Soon after, my favorite scene in the movie places Fanny and Jane outside of the manor house frolicking around the gardens at night and peering in a window at the gentlemen playing cards. Their conversation humorously analyses the marriageability of each of the men according to their wealth or physical charms, flipping the male power axis that women experience themselves. When they are discovered by Rev. Brooke Bridges (Hugh Bonneville), Fanny’s uncle and a former flirtation of Jane’s, she explains that her aunt was offering her moral guidance.
“In the shrubbery?” asks Rev. Bridges. Jane replies, “As good a place as any for leading a young lady astray”!
Wit as a Guardian Against Her Feelings
At this point in the movie the framework has been established by the screenwriter Gwyneth Hughes and director Jeremy Lovering. The loves or flirtations of Jane Austen’s life – Mr. Lefroy, Mr. Bigg-Wither, Rev. Papillon, Rev. Bridges, and Dr. Haden – all come and go adding insight, amusement, and a whiff of romance, but hardly developing into love affairs. The reasons for Jane’s unattached status are multilayered. In her usual witty fashion, guarding against her feelings, Jane makes a joke about it to her niece.
“Fanny, you have at last uncovered the true reason why I never chose a husband. I never found one worth giving up flirting for.”
Actress Olivia Williams shines in this difficult role. She makes Austen real, lively, sharp as tack, and as funny as one of her finest heroines, not that dour spinster envisioned in 19th century portraits. Huzzah! Imogen Poots shows great promise as young Fanny Austen Knight by deftly relaying her energy and edginess. Greta Scacchi as Cassandra Austen looks much older than the two years that spanned Jane and her sister’s ages. Her part is small, and her talent not applied to much beyond allowing us to really dislike her for burning her sister’s letters.
Two Suitors and One Horrid Mother
The two standout performances of Miss Austen’s suitors were Hugh Bonneville as Rev. Bridges, He is the most interesting of Jane’s lost loves played with sensitivity and reserved pathos. Jack Huston as the charming and smooth Dr. Charles Haden lights up the screen, and Jane’s interest. Phyllida Law as Mrs. Austen plays the disapproving mother so sourly that one is relieved not to live in her household.
Writing Instead of Marrying Without Love
I admire how the story succeeds in interweaving moments that parallel scenes or lines from Austen’s novels, or is it scenes or lines from her life that make it into her novels? Art imitating life, and it is believable. We see Jane represented honestly and with integrity as a strong woman who decided to write instead of marrying without love. Her choices would be against the norms of society, disappointing her family, and adding pressure and financial stress in her life. We feel her pain and understand her proclivity to enjoy a bit too much wine. In the end, she is resolved that she has lived the life that God chose for her. When she dies, tragically at age forty-one, we feel the incredible loss of a dear daughter, sister, aunt, and friend whose ultimate writing potential will never be known.
5 out of 5 Stars
- Miss Austen Regrets (2007)
- Studio: BBC
- Director: Jeremy Lovering
- Screenplay: Gwyneth Hughes
- Cast: Olivia Williams, Imogene Poots, Greta Scacchi, Hugh Bonneville, and Tom Hiddleston
- Length: 1 hour and 30 minutes
We viewed this movie on Amazon video with our subscription to BritBox. Austenprose is an Amazon affiliate. Images courtesy of BBC & PBS © 2007; text Laurel Ann Nattress © 2022, austenprose.com.
Hello Dear Readers,
Have you seen Miss Austen Regrets or other biopics of Jane Austen’s life? What do you think?
If you enjoy dramatic historical stories that entertain and enlighten, Austenprose highly recommends Miss Austen Regrets.
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Laurel Ann Nattress, editor