Friday, February 08, 2008

Miss Austen Regrets

There's so much to ponder about Miss Austen Regrets, a T.V. movie that recently debuted on PBS. What do women who never marry do with their lives, particularly if their talents are deemed inappropriate for women to display? And, more specific to this film, what regrets might a woman like Jane Austen have felt, a woman who wrote about love lost and found, but a woman who never married?

Jane Austen, who wrote six notable novels in her short life, died at age 41, some say of stomach cancer. As we watch the film, which traces Austen's last few years, we realize that most of her letters, the chronological tracings of her life, were destroyed by her own mother upon her daughter's death. And that it's impossible to know what really happened in her day-to-day routine, and especially what she was thinking when a beau might appear only to be sent packing.

We do know that she accepted a proposal of marriage, but recanted a day later. You have to wonder what internal argument took place.

And that's what Miss Austen Regrets tries to do: re-enact those moments for us in Austen's life, without hard evidence to show they actually really took place. Jane is surrounded by family at the old homestead, and is asked by her niece to help her judge a possible marriage proposal. This is the basis for the film's examination of Jane's own life.

The film has an epic feeling about it, wide, sweeping as we look at the brilliant English countryside with its old, stately mansions where families have lived for centuries. It's certainly a place at which we'd like to spend a few hours. But in the end, we realize it's a difficult life for a single woman, even those with a gift like Jane Austen's. Her very comfort is at the whim of Jane's brothers, who control the family's finances, and in those last few years, they are forced to sell off the cottage in which she wrote most of her novels. She's derided by her peers, who look past her writing to see a woman who flirts shamelessly, drinks among the men, and doesn't quite obey the law of the day to be demure and invisible in that world. This portrayal is quite intriguing.

It's a fascinating look. Much of this film may be considered fiction, but it's a plausible fiction, with sparkling dialogue and credible acting, particularly by actress Olivia Willams who plays Jane.

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