Writer best known for his book 'Becoming Jane Austen' about the great novelist's romance with a young Irishman
Published 17/07/2011 | 05:00
JON Spence, who has died aged 65, was the author of Becoming Jane Austen, a biographical account of Austen's life that formed the basis of the hit film Becoming Jane (2007) starring Anne Hathaway and James McAvoy.
It was, according to the Daily Telegraph, "without a doubt, the first Jane Austen film ever to require the services of 20 prostitutes, two pickpockets, one dead cock and some necromancers" (they all appeared in a country fair scene).
Spence's book, which was published in 2003, was based on a careful analysis of Jane Austen's brief encounter with Tom Lefroy, an impoverished Irish law student whom she met during the Christmas season of 1795. "Imagine to yourself every thing most profligate and shocking in the way of dancing and sitting down together," the 20-year-old wrote to her sister Cassandra of her behaviour with Lefroy at a dance.
Spence went on to check the records of when the two were in London the following August and discovered that Jane sent a letter to Cassandra from Cork Street at the time that Lefroy's great uncle lived in the same street. There were no boarding houses or hotels in Cork Street at the time, leading him to the hypothesis that she stayed with Lefroy's relation. "I don't believe Jane Austen would have gone there without a reason," he once said, adding that in the following months she had the energy, sparkle and wit to finish the first drafts of Pride & Prejudice and Sense & Sensibility.
For whatever reason, the friendship never developed any further. Six years later Austen would accept, then reject, a proposal of marriage from Harris Bigg-Wither; Lefroy went on to become Lord Chief Justice of Ireland, marry and have children, the eldest of whom he named Jane. When asked, towards the end of his life (he died in 1869, aged 93), if he had been in love with Jane Austen, Lefroy replied that he had, "but it was a boyish love".
Unlike the film, Spence did not suggest an aborted elopement to Gretna Green; he was also careful to discriminate between what was fact, based on three letters that Jane Austen wrote to Cassandra, and what was mere speculation.
Spence was hardly the first author to extrapolate a romantic interest from the few shreds of evidence and the letters that were not destroyed by Cassandra. In 1924 Rudyard Kipling wrote Jane's Marriage, a poem that imagines the author's confessions to the angels in heaven that her one unfulfilled wish was for love.
Although the film earned some disapproval from other Austen scholars, it was lapped up by the legion of Janeites on both sides of the Atlantic. Spence, who advised the producers on names and dates (but whose advice was not always observed), declared himself broadly satisfied.
"I don't think it's a great movie, but I enjoyed it," he once said, "and it brings a much needed breath of fresh air to Jane Austen."
Jon Spence was born on July 30, 1945, and grew up in Camilla, a tiny town of 5,300 souls in the southern state of Georgia. "It's not a very long road from Camilla to Austenland," he once said. "I felt I had done an apprenticeship in a country village." He studied and later taught at the University of Georgia in Atlanta.
He took a PhD on Jane Austen at King's College, London, and developed a career as a literary critic, teaching at Doshisha University in Kyoto, Japan, as well as in Saudi Arabia, before retiring to Sydney, Australia.
Spence also wrote A Century of Wills from the Jane Austen Family, 1705-1806, a look how families and money collided over several generations, and Jane Austen's Brother Abroad: The Grand Tour Journals of Edward Austen.
Jon Spence, who died on June 20, was briefly married many years ago. He had recently separated from his long-term male partner.