Few names elicit from women both wistful sighs as well as secret gratitude to be alive in this century as does Jane Austen. The 19th century English writer graced us with six classic novels: Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, Mansfield Park, Emma, Persuasion, and Northanger Abbey. These beloved tales mostly center on women in Jane's era trying to marry well—for their family's satisfaction, for much-needed financial security, and, wonderfully, often for love.
Coming from a family of modest means herself, Austen knew the pressure to marry well firsthand. Becoming Jane draws on what we know of Austen's life through her letters and writings, specifically her flirtations with a young lawyer named Tom Lefroy, and speculates on how this relationship may have unfolded and then shaped Jane's life and literary work.
When we first see Jane (Anne Hathaway), she's up before dawn and before the rest of her family, writing. When she finds a just-right turn of phrase, she sits at the piano to pound out her pleasure—waking her dozing but adoring family members. When we first meet Tom Lefroy (James McAvoy) a few scenes later, he's losing a boxing match, boozing it up with his buddies, and kissing on a woman I'm not altogether sure isn't a prostitute.
Our Good Girl and Bad Boy meet when Tom's uncle, a local judge who's providing Tom with lodging and employment, reprimands his party-boy nephew and sends him to live with other relatives (who happen to be close friends of the Austens) out in the country for the summer. This feels like a death sentence to city-boy Tom, who descends on Jane's peaceful, pastoral corner of England with a scowl and an attitude. Within hours of his arrival, he falls asleep while Jane reads one of her works to a gathering of friends and family, much to Jane's consternation.
Our pair meets next in the wooded English countryside. Bored Tom is taking a walk and randomly smacking the trees with his walking stick when he happens upon Jane, who's out for an afternoon stroll and giving the occasional trunk a gentle caress as she passes. They spar verbally there, and soon thereafter at a family picnic and at a local dance. Though they appear to be polar opposites, Jane and Tom seem to appreciate the intelligence and feistiness in each other—surely a refreshing change from the lusty women Tom's kept company with and the rich but boring men to whom Jane's parents try to marry her off.
Of course a romance develops amidst all the verbal jousting, but since neither Jane nor Tom is from a wealthy family, it's complicated. Tom is dependent on his wealthy but snobbish uncle, who looks at commoner Jane with disdain. Jane needs to marry well to help provide for her family and provide her the freedom to keep writing. And when she hasn't been hanging out with Tom, her parents have been nudging her toward a rich bachelor with the personality of a houseplant. Jane and Tom both want to marry for love, but feel trapped by a time and a culture in which marriage is much more about securing one's livelihood. The agonizing choices they must make between security and happiness, between self and family, between convention and conviction comprise the rest of the movie—and surely will ring familiar to any Austen fan.