SYDNEY, Australia — Jane Austen wrote some of English literature's most enduring romances, but she never enjoyed a passionate love affair of her own. Or did she?

SYDNEY, Australia — Jane Austen wrote some of English literature's most enduring romances, but she never enjoyed a passionate love affair of her own. Or did she?

A new film and biography suggest the young writer of "Pride and Prejudice" and "Sense and Sensibility" was not the solitary genius long imagined by historians but a free spirit whose imagination was fed by a passionate, ill-fated courtship.

The theory, presented by historian Jon Spence in his book "Becoming Jane Austen," has been loosely adapted into a film starring Anne Hathaway and Maggie Smith, one of seven Austen-inspired movies and television miniseries due for release this year.

Audiences remain entranced by Austen's tales of love and loss, desire and disappointment, despite their seemingly outdated focus on the intricate courtship rituals of early 19th century Britain.

But was Austen's ability to tap into these universal themes a product of her rich imagination or was she inspired by her own unfulfilled longing?

Spence, like many historians before him, has attempted to answer the question by examining letters Austen wrote during the winter of 1795-96 to her sister, Cassandra, who was staying with her fiancDe's family in Berkshire.

The young writer confided of her attraction to Tom Lefroy, the nephew of a neighbor visiting Austen's hometown of Steventon, Hampshire.

Both were 20 years old and penniless, but the attraction was instantaneous.

"Imagine to yourself every thing most profligate and shocking in the way of dancing and sitting down together," Austen wrote of her behavior with Lefroy at a series of parties and family gatherings.

In another letter, Austen writes with giddy anticipation about an impending ball thrown by Lefroy's aunt.

"I look forward with great impatience" to the party, she wrote, "as I rather expect to receive an offer from my friend in the course of the evening."

A marriage proposal? The prospect is never confirmed in the letters, but Spence believes Austen was anticipating it.

The couple separated soon afterward — Lefroy to Hampshire to begin his law studies in London, where he lived with his great uncle and benefactor, Benjamin Langlois, and Austen to Kent with her two brothers.

Conventional thinking has been that this was the end of their relationship, a brief and innocent fling, and that they never saw each other again.But detective work by Spence convinced him there was more to it, and raised the tantalizing prospect of a real-life tale of romance frustrated by the mores of the time that would be worthy of an Austen novel.

During a stop in London on her way to Kent, Austen wrote a terse, vaguely worded letter to her sister addressed from "Cork Street," promising to reveal all about her relationship with Lefroy at their next meeting.

On a hunch, Spence checked the historical records and found that Lefroy's great-uncle lived on Cork Street. Delving further, Spence discovered there were no inns or lodgings at that time on Cork Street, a short lane with few houses.

Spence concedes there is no proof Austen lodged with Lefroy, but says it would have been a "strange coincidence" for the pair to be staying on the same street at the same time.

Most likely, Spence believes Austen traveled there with the understanding that her future with Lefroy depended on the approval of his elderly patron.

"How much was overtly stated, it's impossible to speculate on that. But I don't believe Jane Austen would have gone there without a reason," Spence told The Associated Press during a recent interview at his Sydney home.

Lefroy was the eldest son of 10 children, with heavy responsibilities to marry well and provide income and security for his siblings. He would have needed the approval of his great-uncle to continue the romance with Austen, a clergyman's daughter with no family fortune.

Spence believes Austen was buoyed by the London meeting.

The two years that followed were one of Austen's most creative periods, when she finished the initial drafts of two of her most popular novels, "Pride and Prejudice" and "Sense and Sensibility."

"The energetic intensity of 'Pride and Prejudice' attests to the effect that falling in love had on Jane Austen," Spence writes. "It was her unique way of thinking about Tom Lefroy and of celebrating her delight at being in love — and at being loved."

During this time, Austen waited for Lefroy to re-ignite their courtship — but he never did.

Spence is the first scholar to speculate on the meaning of Austen's visit to Cork Street, and to suppose that she and Lefroy entertained thoughts of marriage that were swept away by a disapproving relation.

But Spence is not alone in believing that Austen's brief romance with Lefroy informed her creative spirit.

Jonathan Halperin, author of the 1995 biography "The Life of Jane Austen," believes the Lefroy connection colored much of Austen's writing, in both feeling and form.

"The relationship, though inevitably innocent, was devastating for Jane Austen, and as she grew older she came to see that it had been her one chance for married happiness," Halperin said in an e-mail.

"The foolishness of happiness delayed in case something better should come along is the central focus of 'Persuasion,' written as Jane Austen was dying."

Though they do not doubt the depth of Austen's feelings for Lefroy, some Austen scholars have rejected the suggestion that Austen's novels were based explicitly on her own experiences.

Marsha Huff, the president of the Jane Austen Society of North America, said the strength of Austen's novels lies in her ironic observations of the human psychology and the "elegant structure" of her novels.'

"A romantic attachment at the age of 20 must have influenced Austen," Huff said. "However, she had begun writing long before she met Lefroy and would have been a great writer had they never met."

Even Spence cautions against assigning too much weight to the love affair.

"I don't think this means Jane Austen didn't have any imagination, on the contrary," he told the AP. But "I think Jane Austen tried to come to grips with things in her writing."

The film, "Becoming Jane," opened in Britain and Australia in March. It is due for release in the United States in August.