by Sue Pomeroy
At the start of this year I had no idea I would be making a film about Jane Austen. The catalyst for embarking on this extraordinary journey has been this 200th anniversary year of the publication of Jane’s beloved Pride & Prejudice. I almost feel as if I have been pushed to leap to her defense.
It’s not as if Jane Austen’s work is ignored or overlooked – quite the contrary. It’s not that the delight in the Regency world she created has become almost an end in itself; the balls and promenades, the making of costumes and dancing until midnight is joyful fun and harms no-one. And the academic recognition of her individual genius has not overshadowed the novels themselves.
It just troubles me that the Jane Austen ‘brand’ is becoming almost a public ‘craze’, and Janeite projects are firing off in all directions like a giddy firework display. News of this bi-centenary has pulsated around the world, Regency balls and banquets have honoured her, Harper Collins have even commissioned contemporary authors to write new versions of her novels. Whatever next?
She has become ‘a worldwide industry’ to quote a spokesman at the Jane Austen’s House Museum. Amid all the hullabaloo a striking image cuts through it all for me. I hear a woman’s voice, like a heart-achingly touching piece of music, break through the noise and chatter.
I see a single woman, an unknown writer by the name of Jane Austen, writing alone in her modest cottage, persevering against all odds, -- the loss of her beloved home in Steventon, the untimely death of her father, the loss of any hopes she nurtured of a love filled marriage – and despite everything keeping her inspiration and her hope and her lively wit burning bright.
The growing love and enthusiasm for her work across the world is breathtaking, but amid all the adulation my heart goes out to a woman at her modest desk in a quiet English village, having the tenacity and courage to keep on writing, to keep on hoping, to keep on loving. And I am deeply touched by her uplifting inspiration as she pours her heart and soul into her novels.
She was in many ways a private person, her work written down quietly in the heart of her family with no fanfare and no great claims to fame. Jane never was at the centre of all the gaiety, the social whirl and the marriage merry-go-round she describes in her novels. She was an outsider.
She had connections to the life of wealth and opulence through a few of her friends and relatives. She was most certainly a player on that stage, but hers was a ‘cameo’ and not a leading role. The flirtation and ‘love affair’ with Tom Lefroy was cut short because of his expectations and her lowly standing in life, a poor country parson’s daughter.
Her life became more difficult when her family left the Steventon rectory and all their goods were sold to fund the move to Bath including Jane’s precious possessions, her piano and writing desk. The whole neighbourhood trooped around their house, viewing their belongings prior to the auction when it was all sold off. It must have been devastating.
A few years later, when her beloved father died suddenly, she and her mother and sister had to rely on the support of her brothers even to live. We might never have had the chance to read her novels had it not been for the generosity of her brother Edward who offered her sanctuary in a cottage in the grounds of his inherited estate in Chawton.
Jane Austen would have been expected to secure her personal and financial stability with a good marriage and had the opportunity to achieve that when Harris Bigg-Wither proposed to her. Instead she turned him down, and continued to write. In the context of her own time, writing six novels of the highest quality and establishing a new ‘social realism’ in literature was in itself a radical act.
Jane must have had such singleness of mind, such dedication to keep on writing. Many years later Virginia Woolf was to say that a woman needs an income and ‘a room of her own’ if she is to write fiction. Jane Austen, for most of her life, had neither.
From the age of twenty one when she wrote ‘First Impressions’ it was fifteen years before she saw a word of hers in print. I worry that we have lost sight of her individual journey to write those novels and aim to put the focus back on Jane herself, and the hope and dreams she nourished. To help redress the balance. That is the catalyst for making this film.
Some people may say that it was not such a significant achievement for Jane Austen as a woman to write and publish such exceptional novels – after all she had role models such as Fanny Burney, Madame de Stahl and Maria Edgeworth.
My response to that is to look at the Bronte sisters who more than thirty years later adopted male pseudonyms just to get published. Look at campaigners in our own time, like Caroline Criado Perez whose path unexpectedly criss-crossed with Jane Austen when the Bank of England bowed to pressure from her and 35,000 other campaigners to put a woman on the new £10 bank notes.
Criado-Perez approved of the Bank’s choice of Jane Austen: "She spent her time poking fun at the establishment. All her books are about how women are trapped and misrepresented. It is really sad that she was saying that 200 years ago and I am still having to say that today".
This decision by the Bank of England -- just over three months ago -- was enough for numerous threats, including violent acts, to be made against Criado-Perez and other women on Twitter from the day of the Bank of England's announcement in July. At this point Criado-Perez herself was receiving about 50 such threats hourly.
So, I ask, what was it like for Jane Austen over two hundred years ago to stand up and put her work into the public arena? Did it require courage and conviction? Did it draw on her deepest reserves of endurance and inspiration? To me it is self evident that it did.
Star names have already got behind the project and interviews filmed with David Bamber (the obsequious Rev’d Collins in the BBC adaptation of Pride & Prejudice), renowned composer Carl Davis (who wrote the wonderful theme music for the series) as well as actress Jean Boht who played a wonderfully daft Mrs Bennett in my original stage production.
In fact this whole process has been so inspirational that we are making a special short film about this bi-centenary featuring the great and the good who we have met along the way, including leading academics and even a surviving member of Jane’s own family. The Jane Austen 200th Anniversary Special film should be a fascinating insight into what Jane’s vision means to us now in 2013 and why her novels have such power to captivate us still. This film is available on the Fuschia Films website (below)
Alongside this, as part of my individual homage to Jane and her work, I want to balance the delight and celebration with an acknowledgement of the difficult path she trod. We plan to film dramatised episodes of her life next year, in preparation for the full length film - discussions are taking place with some of our best actors to star in the film. These filmed sequences will juxtapose with and inform the documentary footage we are currently filming and the widespread passion of modern readers for Jane and her work.
I feel it is vital to bring the focus back to Jane herself and remind ourselves of her story. We will be touching the heart of a woman, a funny, brilliant and private woman who poured her love and hope into her novels. It will be about Jane Austen, overcoming pride and prejudice.
Sue Pomeroy is currently making a new film about
Jane Austen’s life and work. To find out more about this new film, and to help make it happen please visit http://www.fuschiafilms.com/jane-austen-film-products-and-events/.
You might still catch the recent BBC Radio interviews at: BBC Bristol: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p01hyn76 1hr 17mins and 41secs into the programme
BBC Solent: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p01hvz05 1hr 16mins and 16 secs into the programme
BBC Hereford and Worcester: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p01j9mts 2hr 34mins and 45 secs into the programme
For more on Fuchsia Films see http://www.fuschiafilms.com/
For regular updates follow the project on twitter http://www.twitter.com/JaneAustenFilm and http://www.twitter.com/FuschiaFilmsLtd