The film begins by panning over the breath taking English country side and to a quaint country home. This is where the Rev. and Mrs. Austen live with their family. While everyone else is sound asleep, Jane is up writing. She then gets up and wakes the entire household by playing loudly on the piano. The noise startles both Robert and Cassandra. Cassandra is Jane's sister and Robert is her fiance. Both Robert and Cassandra run out of their own rooms to see what the noise is and Robert catches a glimpse of Cassandra in her night gown which prompts the latter to smile slyly and then rush back to her own room.
Mrs. Austen, who was trying to sleep, complains that Jane needs a husband. Rev. Austen, lying next to her, comments that because he has set an example of perfection, Jane can not be satisfied with anything less. The couple then playfully banter before rising for church.
Meanwhile, Tom Lefroy is in London. He is the nephew of a very prominent judge but enjoys sowing his wild oats. Tom spends a lot of his time boxing, drinking, and enjoying the company of prostitutes and mistresses. His family is very poor, but his stern uncle has taken him under his wing in hopes that Tom will prove to be a respectable lawyer one day. Tom is friends with Henry Austen, a recent Oxford graduate who will be returning home soon.
One day, Tom comes in late to court where his uncle is presiding. It is the last straw. His uncle speaks with him in private, saying that he is fed up with Tom. As punishment, he is sending Tom to the country side where Henry lives (as well as some other members of the Lefroy family.)
Back in the country, there is a small gathering to celebrate Henry's recent graduation and homecoming. The Austen's distant and widowed cousin Eliza is there. She is quite wealthy and extremely beautiful and catches Henry's eye even though she is older than he is.
The guests are the party beg Jane to do a reading. Apparently she is quite well known in their small community for her humorous writings. She happily stands up to read something dedicated to her sister and has barely begun when Tom strolls in - quite late. She is extremely annoyed and flustered, but continues reading. She is insulted when, while everyone else is laughing, Tom appears to be falling asleep. After she completes the reading, she overhears Tom commenting on her writing as being unremarkable and only so-so. (Very similar to the scene in Austen's Pride and Prejudice where Elizabeth hears Mr. Darcy commenting on her merely "tolerable" appearance.) Extremely upset, Jane tears up some of her writing and casts it into a fire.
Later, Tom goes out for a walk where he encounters Jane. They bicker about her writing, but sparks fly between them. Jane defends her writing, saying that he did not understand it because it was ironic. They part after a verbal sparring, but you can tell Tom is intrigued by her.
The chemistry continues to build when Jane performs far better than Tom anticipated in a cricket match. He is forever being surprised by her. Then one day, Jane accidentally encounters Tom in a friend's library. He tells her that if she is serious about writing, she needs to have her horizons ... widened. He seems to be trying to seduce her and the prospect of it flusters Jane, who finds herself only a breath apart from Tom's lips. He hands her a book though (I think it was called "The History of Tom Jones") and tells her to read it if she really wants to be a novelist.
Jane reads the book, which is rather scandalous. It depicts a woman's breasts and even has drawings of a topless women. She reads it anyway and when Tom asks her what she thought of it, she replies that she found it objectionable. However, she says it was not the characters or their lack of morality that she found it was unrealistic. Bad things happened to bad people in the book, she says, but that is not true to real life. In real life, Jane remarks, perfectly odious people (like Tom, she adds), succeed while good and noble people often fail. Jane says that a novel should reflect real life and real things. Once again, Tom is surprised by her and they develop of chemistry-fueled friendship.
This makes things slightly difficult for Jane because her mother is encouraging her to accept a courtship with a nice-looking and friendly (but very dull) Mr. Wisley. Wisley is rich and has a very protective and snooty aunt who controls him (much like Lady Catherine de Bourgh from P&P). His aunt requests that he and Jane take a walk in the "pretty bit of wilderness" near the house (something that Jane immediately writes down and later appears in P&P spoken by Lady Catherine.)
Jane doesn't want to take a private walk with Wisley, but she has no other choice. As expected, he takes the opportunity to propose. Jane says that she is honored by the sincerity of his proposal, but that she can not consider it since she does not feel affection for him. He is embarrassed but says wisely that he has found that shy affection has often blossomed into great love. He walks away, leaving the impression that there is far more to him than meets the eyes, but Jane can not help that she does not love him.
Jane's mother is outraged that Jane has not expected Wisley's proposal. She herself married for love and the family is now very poor. She doesn't want Jane to suffer the same fate. Jane disagrees though. She believes that even if she never marries, she can support herself with her writing. Jane's mother vehemently disagrees.
Later at a ball, Jane is searching for Tom but instead Wisley's aunt finds her. In a very condescending tone, the aunt says that Jane has no choice but to marry her nephew even if she is just a poor daughter of a no-name clergy man. Jane is insulted and leaves. She is asked to dance by Wisley and she sadly agrees, believing Tom is not in attendance. She looks depressed throughout the dance till Tom takes her hand. He has slipped into the French contra line dance when Jane wasn't looking. The way the dance is structured, people exchange partners occasionally. Wisley notices that Jane seems to have come alive in Tom's presence.
Later, Jane slips out to be by herself. Tom joins her and they share a private moment. He is leaving back for London the next day. Jane leans in to kiss Tom and Tom leans back, but she continues and kisses him soundly. They break apart breathlessly and Jane asks if she did it (the kiss) well. Tom replies most enthusiastically that she did it quite well. They hear people coming, so Tom pulls Jane off into the trees where they kiss. Tom then confesses his love for her and that he is hers forever.
Desperately in love, Tom decides to make his case to his very stern and un-romantic uncle who believes love leads to poverty. Tom, Jane, Henry, and Eliza all make a visit to Tom's uncle's home in London. His uncle is excited to see Eliza because she is nobility through her late husband, but he mostly ignores Jane. That night, Henry and Eliza discreetly share a room but Tom and Jane must settle for a very breathless goodnight. During this trip, Jane begins writing "First Impressions," the original title of her book "Pride and Prejudice."
The next morning, Tom is preparing to ask his uncle for his consent to marry Jane. (His uncle gives him an allowance so Tom is completely dependent upon him.) Unfortunately, someone has sent a letter to his uncle portraying Jane as a husband hunter. Tom says he wanted his uncle to meet Jane for himself but his uncle is horrified and outraged. Jane is saddened but she believes she and Tom can still find a way to marry. Unfortunately, Tom doesn't have the courage to leave his uncle. Jane tearfully leaves with Eliza and Henry.
(At this point, events might be slightly out of order. Sorry!) Once home, Jane resigns herself to her fate and decides to marry Wisley. She is upset with herself because deep down, she feels like she is betraying her convictions by marrying for money instead of affection. During a dinner with Wisley and his aunt, the family receives a disturbing letter. Cassandra's fiance who briefly left for an overseas trip to the Indies, has died of yellow fever.
Jane is distraught. Her and her sister have both fared badly with love. It seems that no one will ever have a happy ending. Jane continues writing "First Impressions," something her sister Cassandra enjoys hearing about as well. She asks, "How does it begin?"
"Badly," Jane replies.
"It gets worse."
But you can tell that Jane wants all the characters she invents to be luckier in love than she has been. Things take another disappointing turn when Jane learns from Henry and Eliza that Tom is back from London and that he is engaged.
A short time later, Jane is on a walk with her brother George, who is deaf. He only has a small part in the film, but we know enough to know that Jane can communicate with him through sign language and they enjoy walks together. While they are walking, Tom appears. Even though the George is deaf, he can tell that the two of them are in love. Tom is attempting to explain himself to Jane when he breaks down and kisses her, telling her he cannot live this lie. They decide to forsake everything else and elope.
Eloping means that they can never return to England, they will be poverty stricken, and Jane will probably find it difficult to write. Cassandra, the only one who knows what Jane is planning, explains this to Jane. But Jane asks if she would be willing to elope with Robert if it meant she could have him back. Cassandra understands and lets Jane go.
Jane and Tom are thrilled and excited, but while they are on the coach, the wheel becomes stuck. Tom needs to help the coachmen, so he hands Jane his coat to hold while he helps. Jane notices a letter in his coat pocket. It is from his family. They are thanking him for the money he has been sending. Apparently, Tom was getting an allowance from his uncle and sending money back to his family to feed them. The letter expresses gratitude and they exclaim that they do not know what they would do without him. Jane realizes that Tom's entire family is depending on him and if they elope, he will no longer be able to provide for them.
Jane tries to keep the new knowledge to herself, but her conscience gets the better of her and she asks Tom about his family. He is dismissive of her worries because he believes he can find a way to make money for them all anyway. Jane knows better though. She knows that they will probably have children too and there will be no way for Tom to provide for everyone. She believes that if she marries him, the guilt she feels will gradually erode their love. She tells Tom goodbye and leaves on a coach going in the opposite direction with Tom's face fading into the distance.
Jane arrives back at home where everyone is looking for her. A young man who studies at the church with her father (John Warren) says that he will marry Jane and that he has been in love with her for a long time. Jane realizes he is the one who sent the letter to Tom's uncle. Jane can not believe that love could have failed her and her sister so much.
The family welcomes Jane back with open arms. One Sunday morning they walk to attend church together when a carriage pulls up along side them. It is Wisley and his aunt, who says she will not attend church since Jane is going to be there and she embarrassed by their family. Jane's family stands behind her and Wisley admires Jane's independence. He suddenly gets out of the carriage and asserts himself to his aunt, who is shocked.
Wisley and Jane take a walk and Jane apologizes to him for her actions. He accepts her apology and says he believes he could love her but that he is prideful enough to want love in return. They agree to part as friends. He asks about what she will do and Jane says she will support herself through her writing. He asks if her characters will have happy endings. Jane says that, after a little trouble, her characters will have all they desire. He remarks that it is a "truth universally acknowledged" and Jane absorbs that statement (it later appears as the first line of P&P).
Time flashes forward several years. A group of people are listening to an opera. The camera pans over the crowd and we see Eliza and Henry who have been married for a long time now. A much older Jane is seated with them. After the opera, a young teen girl approaches Jane as if she is a celebrity and exclaims how much she loves the book Pride & Prejudice. Henry quickly steps in and says that Jane is trying to remain anonymous. Jane then catches sight of Tom in the distance but he disappears. Henry goes after him, much to Jane's embarrassment. Jane and Eliza are talking when Henry brings back Tom who has a young girl on his arm.
Tom says that he would like to introduce Jane Austen's biggest fan to her, his daughter. Jane is polite but when the girl pleads with her to do a public reading, Jane says that she can't because she is trying to remain anonymous. Tom's daughter objects, but Tom silences her saying, "Jane!"
Tom has named his daughter Jane, after the one woman he loved. This is disconcerting to Jane, who immediately realizes why Tom named his daughter after her. She then concedes to do a reading. During the reading, you can see Tom toying with the wedding ring on his finger as he longingly watches his daughter and Jane read.
The screen fades to black and writing appears on the screen, informing us that neither Jane or Cassandra ever married and Tom truly named his eldest daughter Jane.