We must allow for difference of taste…the more I know of the world, the more am I convinced that I shall never see a man whom I can really love. I require so much! Marianne Dashwood, Sense & Sensibility, Chapter 3
The name of Jane Austen may be the most recognizable British literary figure in modern culture, even though others will contend that the bard, William Shakespeare deserves that honor. Regardless of the debate, her work is highly respected by many academics, and adored by the public. For two hundred years, her plots and characters have been discussed and thoroughly examined, but her private life has remained her own, stored away in her remaining personal correspondence and family memoirs.
I am always amused with those little bio blurbs about her life in the front of most paperback editions of her novels. This is a good example of the average fare.
Jane Austen was born at Steventon, Hampshire, in 1775, the daughter of a clergyman. At the age of nine she was sent to school at Reading with her elder sister Cassandra, who was her lifelong friend and confidante, but she was largely taught by her father. She began to write for recreation while still in her teens. In 1801 the family moved to Bath, the scene of so many episodes in her books and, after the death of her father in 1805, to Southampton and then to the village of Chawton, near Alton in Hampshire. Here she lived uneventfully until May 1817, when the family moved to Winchester seeking skilled medical attention for her ill-health, but she died two months later. She is buried in Winchester Cathedral.
This does the job neatly and quickly, but you know that there has to be much more to a person who was capable of writing with such wit and perception than the “uneventful” life described in this short biography. It makes her sound so staid and boring, but as anyone who has had the pleasure of reading her letters or a good biography of her life like Claire Tomalin’s, Jane Austen: A Life (1997), can tell you there was so much more to celebrate in addition to her talent as a writer.
Exploring a famous, quiet life is the challenge of the highly anticipated new biopic, Miss Austen Regrets, airing this Sunday on PBS at 9:00 pm. One of the most interesting facets of creating a believable historical biography is inspired casting. I think that the producers Anne Pivcevic and Jamie Laurenson have made some excellent and unusual choices.
Olivia Williams: (Sixth Sense, Rushmore), stars as Jane Austen at age 39, who despite family disappointment and continued pressure, is comfortable with her unmarried status; preferring to write than scour the countryside for possible beaus. She soon learns that like her famous heroine Emma Woodhouse, matchmaking can bring trouble as she advises her niece Fanny Austen-Knight on courtship and marriage.
Greta Scacchi: (Daniel Deronda, Emma), plays Cassandra Austen, Jane’s older sister, confidant, and best friend. Cassandra’s influence on her sister will have a profound impact on many events in their lives, good and bad. Scacchi has a small role for such a talented actress, but her scenes are played with the sensitivity and reserve of a dear sister who is a bit too protective and influential on Jane Austen’s life.
Hugh Bonneville: (Lost in Austen, Mansfield Park), plays former suitor Rev. Brooks Bridges. Smitten with Jane Austen as a young man, but unsuccessful in his bid for her affections, he still carries a torch acting as a reminder to her throughout the film of yet another lost opportunity. Some of the best scenes in the film are between Rev. Brooks and Jane Austen as they touch on the loss of their affection.
Imogen Poots: plays Fanny Austen-Knight, twenty year old niece to Jane Austen who is eager for her aunt’s advice on courtship and love, thinking that she is an authority since all of her heroines marry happily in her novels. Her character has a definite edge to it, and one can see resentment brewing in the future. In her later years, she said unkind things about her maiden aunts, Jane and Cassandra after their deaths.
Phyllida Law: (Miss Potter, Emma), plays Mrs. Austen, the disgruntled and judgmental widowed mother of Cassandra and Jane Austen, whose brood of children seem to constantly disappoint her. Watch for her comment about loving her children more than her husband. Ouch! She came from aristocratic stock, and may have been bitter about marrying below her station in life.
Jack Huston: (Factory Girl, Spartacus), plays Doctor Charles Haden, the intelligent and dashing admirer introduced to Jane Austen by the chance illness of her brother Henry Austen while she was visiting in London. He is the catalyst to an invitation to the Palace to see the Prince Regent’s librarian. She is very fond of him and he is a serious flirtation until her niece shows up to add competition, spoiling her triumph.
Harry Gostelow: (Foyle’s War, Shakespeare in Love), plays Rev. Charles Papillion, vicar of Chawton, who Jane Austen makes a running joke of in her family letters as the man who at any moment might propose to her, saving her honor! Jane delights in taunting the unmarried minister after service with the pious reasons why a minister should marry. He reminded me of Mr. Collins in Pride and Prejudice. He couldn’t say much in defense!
Miss Austen Regrets is a co-production of WGBH/BBC and is making its premiere on US television on Sunday, February 03, at 9:00 pm. Be sure to mark your calendars and set you watches. Of all the productions airing in The Complete Jane Austen series, it will certainly garner more interest and conversation.