Art Imitates Life, Life Imitates Art, or…

Neither. After reading Tomalin and Shields on the life of Jane Austen, I am inclined to draw that conclusion. The often sanguine outlook of Austen’s works is deceptive.  The seemingly jovial ending may lead some to assume they are reading the simplistic stories of a woman wrapped in romantic bliss all her life.

Reality is, that Austen could persevere, write and published is already an incredible achievement considering the confining social environment she was in. Instead of embracing the normative female role in comfort, she chose to trod the road less traveled to become a writer despite the gloomy prospect of poor spinsterhood,  enduring rejection even from her own mother. She wrote in secret and struggled in isolation. For a long period she battled depression. Upon her death, her beloved sister Cassandra could not attend her funeral because the presence of females at such events was not sanctioned, apparently for fear of any outbursts of emotion.

It is Austen’s imagination that empowers her to break free of her reality and to rise above her constraints. She has created her art from the palette of  the imaginary, as Tomalin has lucidly observed:

Hampshire is missing from the novels, and none of the Austens’ neighbours, exotic, wicked or merely amusing, makes recognizable appearance.  The world of her imagination was separate and distinct from the world she inhabited.

Austen’s contemporary, the renowned Gothic writer Ann Radcliffe, has attested that it is the imagination and not real-life experience which gives rise to story-telling. A scene in the movie Becoming Jane (2007) has vividly illustrated this point.

In the famous little book, The Educated Imagination, a must-read for any literature student, the late great Canadian literary critic Northrop Frye states that :

The world of literature is a world where there is no reality except that of the human imagination.

Austen has great proficiency in the language of imagination. In her novels, she has created a world that never was, but one that makes her readers yearn for. There is no Mr. Darcy in real life, or Elizabeth Bennet for that matter, but we could well use them as the ideal types to measure by, or, to strive for.

What about the satirist in Austen? How can the social critic be extracted from reality?  How can one write social commentaries devoid of real life input? Austen may have toiled in isolation for fear of social repercussion, she did not write in a vacuum.  While her art did not imitate her life, Austen had the chance to sharpen her observation from the very public sitting-room of her home and those of her relatives and friends, an opportunity that was conducive to her novel writing, as Virginia Woolf has pointed out.  Ever since her childhood, the Austen home was the hub of family readings and discussions.  Her brothers grew up to be men well versed in the fields of the military, clergy, and business.

In her ingenious way, by satirizing the things that ought not to be, Austen is bringing out the world that ought to be. In Frye’s words:

The fundamental job of the imagination in ordinary life, then, is to produce, out of the society we have to live in, a vision of the society we want to live in.

If art imitates life, it would be just a reproduction; if life imitates art, well… ours would be one very wacky world. But life could well be the reason for creating art, channeling our imagination to build a sublime vision of the ideal.

Visual: Starry Night by Vincent van Gogh

Update: This article has just been published in the Jane Austen Centre Online Magazine. Click here to go there for other interesting reads on Jane Austen and the Regency World.


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Austen Regrets Becoming Jane?

After watching last night’s Masterpiece Theatre’s “Miss Austen Regrets”, the fourth installment of The Complete Jane Austen, I feel that something is missing in the title:  a question mark. It should be “Miss Austen Regrets?”  Making it like a statement as it is, the movie rests on the presumption that Jane indeed has regrets before her untimely death at age 41. What would she have regretted?

Would Jane have regretted not marrying for money?  Would she have regretted not trading for a life of comfort in a loveless marriage as Mrs. Bigg-Wither?  Would she have regretted not being a vicar’s wife living with Rev. Bridges and not seeing herself strive to become the writer that she is now? Would Elizabeth Bennet have married Mr. Darcy if he had not gained her total respect and requited love, even though she could have been Mistress of beautiful Pemberley?  Fanny Knight would have regretted not getting married for marriage’s sake, as Jane had so incisively seen through her, but Jane herself?

While the movie Becoming Jane is a fantasy, where the imagination takes flight and the director can have a free hand, more or less, to bring to the screen a creative narrative of ‘what if’,  “Miss Austen Regrets”, on the other hand, is supposed to be a biopic based on facts, from Jane’s correspondences with her niece Fanny.  It is to present an interpretation of Jane’s unmarried predicament derived from what she says in these documents. I have not read these letters. For those who have, is the movie an accurate portrayal of Jane’s internal world?

Even towards the end of the movie, and her life, suffering illness and facing her mother’s scornful accusation, Jane adamantly replies she wouldn’t have sold her soul for wealth. What she has gained she succinctly answered Cassandra in one word, “Freedom”. If she has had any regrets, it would be a life too short to continue the little success she has achieved as a writer, of not earning enough money to support her mother and sister with her writing. In summing up, she feels she has walked the path that God has intended for her.

The title and premise of the film has painted the work with a dark and somber overtone, and Gillian Anderson’s introduction looks like a ghastly announcement of death toll. But the funny thing is: I totally enjoyed it last night!  I was drawn to the movie’s engrossing scenes and intelligent dialogues, its beautiful cinematography and capricious camera work, the fast-paced story and the excellent editing embellished with a powerful score.

Olivia Williams and Imogen Poots as Aunt Jane and niece Fanny make an interesting pair, great contrast in character, and aptly playing out the embedded irony: the idealistic, unmarried Aunt giving practical advice on courtship to her young niece. The blurring of sarcasm and realism also makes the script ever more lively and intriguing.  There may be a miscast in Cassandra, depicting her more like a mother than a sister two years older, but overall the cast is effective in telling the story with depth.

All in all, the movie has succeeded in portraying the complexity of characters and choices Jane has encountered in her short life. It may have come to a different conclusion as some viewers would like to see, but it has presented an aesthetically pleasing and enjoyable work.

And for me, Jane has chosen the road less travelled, and that has made all the difference…

 

~ ~ ~ Ripples

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For a comprehensive review of “Miss Austen Regrets” written by Laurel Ann of Austenprose, go to PBS site “Remotely Connected”.

Ms. Place has also posted an interesting review, with lots of pics from the movie, at Jane Austen’s World.

Becoming Jane (2007)

I’ve delayed watching this movie till now.  I wanted to avoid all that hype about Jane Austen.  Even as a JA fan, I’ve hesitated jumping on the Austen bandwagon of what I suspect to be mere commercialism.  Well, after a few months waiting for the dust to settle, I went into a second-run movie theatre this crisp October day with very little expectation, and was pleasantly surprised…I thoroughly enjoyed the movie!

Becoming Jane

As I mentioned in my reply to a visitor who had left a comment on my WWAW post, like many of life’s simple pleasures, a movie does not have to be ‘deep’ to be enjoyable.  However, simplicity does not mean superficiality.  Becoming Jane is heart-felt story-telling.  It has many witty renderings especially carved out for Austen readers, like the mirror images reminiscent of Pride and Prejudice.  The first part of the movie moves along breezily with its humour; but it is the sombreness in the latter part that makes the story so poignant.

Based on the recorded short-lived courtship between Austen and a young lawyer named Tom Lefroy, the backdrop of the movie has its historical accuracy:  the Austen family, Jane’s close relationship with her sister Cassandra, the inequitable social environment wherein Jane as a female, had to write anonymously, and the torment that one had to face having to choose between marrying to survive and marrying for love, and suffer the social disgrace and financial ruins resulting from it.

Other than the basic background, the movie never intends to be a serious, historically grounded account.  It is pure fiction, and as one of the contemporaries of Jane Austen the Gothic writer Ann Radcliffe says in the movie,  it is the imagination, and not real-life experience, that gives rise to story-telling.  From this spirit evolves the beautiful story of Becoming Jane, purely imaginary, idealistic, noble, and yet painfully poignant.  The movie leads us ever so subtly to realize the bitter taste of love over the sweetness of romance.

The simple script will not work if not for the great acting, or understated acting rather, of all its cast members.  Anne Hathaway has once again robbed the Brits of a coveted role, yes, an American playing one of the best-loved British authors (The other one I’m thinking of is Renée Zellweger playing Bridget Jones). James McAvoy is comparable in his charm as Tom Lefroy.  The supporting roles are all played by excellent veterans like Maggie Smith, Julie Walters, Ian Richardson, and James Cromwell.  Anna Maxwell Martin as Cassandra provides immeasurable support to Hathaway.  I was deeply affected by her lead role as Esther Summerson in the BBC production of Bleak House (2005).  Here once again she has demonstrated that her acting is superb.

I have enjoyed the cinematography, the costume, the music, and yes, even the disheartened twist at the end.  I came out of the movie theatre contented.   So what if the story is pure speculation.  Sometimes it takes the imaginary to lead us to look more directly at love, life, and the choices we make.   Maybe that’s why we are always drawn to stories, fiction … and movies.

~~~3 Ripples