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How Jane Austen's doomed love affair with Irish barrister inspired her greatest novels

Arifa Akbar
Friday 03 March 2006 01:00 GMT

The love life of Jane Austen, the 19th-century novelist known for her wry, observational comedies, has become the stuff of fiction in a film that explores the young writer's summer romance with an Irishman.

Becoming Jane focuses on a "life-changing romance during one summer in the life of the young Jane Austen".

Austen was 20 years old when she met the brilliant and roguish, Tom Lefroy, who she found instantly attractive.

Her romantic adventures with the dashing Mr Lefroy, at a turning point in her literary career, is said to have inspired her to write novels and helped create her male romantic heroes such as Mr Darcy.

After the recent Hollywood success of Pride and Prejudice, starring Kiera Knightley, as well as past successes of works such as Emma in 1996, which starred Gwyneth Paltrow, film producers found there was a great "untold story" in Austen's own life.

The film, which will star Anne Hathaway, who featured in Ang Lee's Brokeback Mountain, as well as James McAvoy, Maggie Smith and Julie Walters, is based on the book, Becoming Jane Austen, written by Jon Spence, who is a historical consultant on the set of the film. It will be distributed by Miramax in America.

Austen's love affair with the then-penniless Irish barrister was doomed because he was not financially solvent and her family would not have consented to the union. Austen never married after their liaison ended.

Douglas Rae, who co-produced the film, which is due to start shooting in Ireland and Hampshire in March, said the love affair between the writer and barrister was as passionate as any scenario from her works of romantic fiction.

"All her books have been made into films recently and yet nobody has tackled her own story which in a way is just as exciting as any of her books.

"He was the big love of her life, her first and her only love. It was a love of great desire and passion and she was at an age when most girls got married. If she could not marry him, she was not going to marry anyone.

"It was tragic circumstances because when she met him, he had nothing at all, and she came from a parson's family who wanted her to marry someone who could look after her. It was a Romeo and Juliet situation. He was unlike Darcy from Pride and Prejudice, he was not repressed or aristocratic. He was energetic and romantic," he said.

Rae added that it was Tom Lefroy who inspired her to become a professional writer.

"He told her she had a talent. I think he gave her the courage to follow her mind and heart into writing. Although she did not find herself in a marriage with him, it was the love affair that can be credited with inspiring her to become a writer," he said.

On 15 January 1796, when she was 20, Austen wrote a letter to her sister, Cassandra, which described her feelings for the doomed love affair with Mr Lefroy. It read: "At length the day is come on which I am to flirt my last with Tom Lefroy, and when you receive this it will be over. My tears flow at the melancholy idea."

Many years later, after he had become Chief Justice of Ireland, he confessed to his nephew that he had had a "boyish love" for the writer.

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