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BBC Masterpiece Classic’s Miss Austen Regrets

Woe to anyone whose recorder missed the first minutes of the film; that person has paid dearly for choosing to watch the Super Bowl instead. In those first minutes we see Jane’s giddy acceptance of Harris Bigg’s hand in marriage and then Jane and Cassandra’s hasty retreat the next morning. In the carriage Jane silently prays, “Tell me I have done the right thing. Tell me I was right to change my mind. Dear God, let me never regret this day.” What follows is a skillful depiction of the answer to this prayer.

Regret, by nature, is a messy, uncertain, confusing mixture of self-justification and self-recrimination that passes judgment on past faults, acts, losses, and decisions made under pressure and without the knowledge of future consequences. As Jane says, “If we could only see into the future and know in advance if our choices will turn out to be wise.” Jane’s feelings toward her own choices resurface as her niece Fanny seeks her marriage advice. Her feelings are compounded when she again sees the Rev. “Brook” Bridges, Fanny’s uncle and an old friend and suitor, who, though long married, has never forgotten Jane. He assures her he would have supported her writing. She assures him the demands of a family would have made that impossible. She sees the possibility of love come and go when her new friend, her brother Henry’s doctor, pays attention to her, and then to Fanny (from an age standpoint, a more prudent choice). Jane’s past choices slap her in the face as her mother castigates her for choosing “principle,” marrying for love, over the means of assuring the security of her sister and mother.

In the end, when Jane is losing ground to terminal illness, Jane reassures Cassandra, “All any one of these men might have done is make me ‘quite happy.’ “Quite happy’ is not enough. ‘Quite happy’ is not the ending I want to write for my story. And quite poor is the absolute limit! The only regret I have about not marrying Harris Bigg is that I’m going to die, and I’m going to leave you and mother with nothing.” . . .

Cassandra says, “I made you refuse him.”. . .

Jane replies, “You made me see the choice for what it was.” . . . “Because of me you chose loneliness and poverty.” . . . “Because of you I chose freedom.”. . . “I didn’t do it for you, Jane.”. . . “I know.” . . . “I’m so ashamed!” . . . “Cassie, everything I am, and everything I have achieved, I owe to you. To the life we have made here, to the love that we have together. And the life I have is what I needed. It’s what God intended for me. I’m so much happier than I thought to be. So much happier than I deserve to be.” . . .

This fierce bond between Jane and Cassandra convinces us her words are true.

I found the casting dead on (including a family likeness between Olivia Williams’ Jane and Greta Scacchi’s Cassandra), the acting first rate, the dialog excellent (with direct Austen quotes integrated seamlessly), the plot intriguing, and the conclusion satisfying.

Were I to pick one highlight of the piece, Were I to pick one highlight of the piece, Olivia Williams is it! She carries off Jane’s contradictions with compelling grace—from the arch and witty indefatigable dancer who would do anything to escape afternoon calls, to the romantic pragmatist who would rather name a dozen characters than even one baby. In fact, I would love to see Olivia Williams bring her energy, intelligence, and sense of fun to the role of Jane in films of Stephanie Barron’s Jane Austen mysteries.

My only regret is that blighting previews might have kept away viewers prone to enjoy the film as much as I did.

--Lori Davis, Letter from Chicago, Spring 2008