Her novels have been adapted countless times at the movies and theater. But Jane Austen’s own life story? Less so. But if you’re interested in a visual experience, check out these silver- and small-screen offerings.
The “biggest” of the bunch, this 2007 film stars Anne Hathaway as the young Jane, who rescinded her engagement to Harris Bigg-Wither a day after accepting his proposal. James McAvoy plays Tom Lefroy, the Irish gentleman with whom she supposedly fell madly in love — there’s some debate over exactly how close Jane Austen and Lefroy were since there are only a few mentions of him in her letters, though we do know Cassandra destroyed many of them. It’s stronger on romance than satire, speculation than fact. Available on Netflix with a subscription and for rental on other platforms (Amazon, ITunes, Vudu).
‘Miss Austen Regrets’
This 2008 BBC TV movie focuses on Jane (played by Olivia Williams, who incidentally played Jane Fairfax in the 1996 BBC version of “Emma”) later in life, as she nears 40, and her endeavors to help her niece Fanny Knight secure a husband. Other Austen adaptation alumni appear, including Hugh Bonneville, Phyllida Law, Greta Scacchi, Pip Torrens and Jack Huston. Tom Hiddleston (Loki of Marvel’s superhero movies) also appears as Fanny’s love interest. Available on Amazon Prime.
‘The Real Jane Austen’
This documentary — narrated by Caroline Bingley herself: Anna Chancellor, a grand-niece of Jane Austen — tells us about Austen through readings and reenactments by notable British actors, including Phyllis Logan (“Downton Abbey”), Jack Davenport (“Pirates of the Caribbean”) and Wendy Craig (“The Worst Witch”). It’s not officially available for streaming or on DVD, although someone has kindly uploaded it to YouTube.
‘Jane Austen’s Life’ and ‘Austen Country: The Life & Times of Jane Austen’
Both these documentaries take you on a journey through the locations and landscapes relevant to Jane Austen and her works. A bit dated in style, they often make use of Austen’s own words, from her novels and letters, to augment the videos of Steventon, Lyme Regis, Chawton, Bath and more. Both available on Amazon Prime.
Jane Austen truly lived in interesting times — for her and the world around her. As you read Austen’s letters and Claire Tomalin’s Austen biography for the 2020 Jane Austen Summer Program, keep these years in mind.
Fall is just on the horizon and it’s time to start thinking about the 2020 Jane Austen Summer Program. Next June — that’s June 18-21, if you want to mark your calendars now — we’ll explore the theme “Jane Austen’s World,” including war, fashion, letters and the literary debates of her time.
Each year since 2013, we’ve explored one of Austen’s novels at JASP. This year will be a bit different: We’ll be reading the fourth edition of “Jane Austen’s Letters,” edited by Deirdre Le Faye, and Claire Tomalin’s excellent biography, “Jane Austen: A Life.”
Why these books? JASP co-founder Inger Brodey says: “Often readers think that they get a feeling for Austen the author from the general tone of Austen the narrator in her various novels. Yet, for anyone interested in Austen the author and woman herself, the best access we have to her life is through the letters that she wrote and through excellent biographies, like Claire Tomalin’s.”
Brodey continues: “In our JASPs, we like to incorporate aspects of material history and culture, and this year’s topic is a natural culmination of that aspect of our programming. We will have several of our favorite historians back with us, including fashion historian Samantha Bullat and penmanship historian Benjamin Bartgis, as well as new faces, such as Robert Morrison, author of the new and exciting book “The Regency Years,” and Janine Barchas, the brilliant mind behind the “Will & Jane” exhibit at the Folger Theatre [in Washington, D.C., in 2016] and the [online exhibit] “What Jane Saw.” Brodey added that JASP is looking to build on last year’s successful creative writing workshop, which was hosted by Randall Kenan and “Unmarriageable” author Soniah Kamal.
We asked Brodey what JASP attendees should be thinking about as they read Austen’s letters and Tomalin’s biography. She underscored their connections to the novels and historical events. “I find it useful to print out and keep referencing a chronology of historical events and also the timeline for writing the novels,” she said. “Then when Austen is inquiring about hedgerows in a letter at the time she was writing ‘Mansfield Park,’ for example, it is more meaningful when you can think about why she wanted to know.”
Brodey had one last tip for readers: “Look for … her advice to other aspiring authors. That’s one of the few times we hear her talk (fairly) directly about her art.”
JASP is pleased to introduce two new writers to the blog:
Robin Floyd is an educator at Wake County Public Schools who makes various fiber arts and enjoys learning about history and literature. She lives in Raleigh with her husband and two children.
Zeina Makky is a newspaper designer turned web developer, living and working in the D.C. area. Besides Jane Austen, Zeina’s passions include calligraphy, pop culture and chocolate.