Jane & Emma: review

Jane & Emma theatrical poster

I was at the 2019 Mormon History Association Conference earlier this month, and Friday night the program included a screening of the 2018 film Jane & Emma.

The movie is powerful, and I recommend it. But as is often the case, the film sometimes chooses art over accuracy.


Jane Elizabeth Manning was a real person. She and her family joined the Church in Connecticut. When they weren’t allowed on the boat at Buffalo, they were forced to walk the rest of the way to Nauvoo. Jane did have a young son, Sylvester, as a result of being raped by a white minister in Connecticut. Emma did ask Jane to consider becoming adopted to Emma and Joseph in the temple. After Joseph’s death, Jane married Isaac James.

These elements are all reflected in the film.

A thing film-makers like to do is create a “one day” arc, and so the film-makers created a fictional day in which Jane returns to Nauvoo and interacts with Emma Smith the day Joseph’s body is brought to Nauvoo. Unfortunately, many aspects of this day exist only as an medium to portray the film-makers’ artistic interpretation of two lives that were inter-twined in reality.

If anyone were to attempt a variant of this story again on either the stage or film, I could wish for a few tweaks:

  • Include the way the children loved Jane’s cookies. Sarah Holmes in particular mentions the cookies, as well as her memory of stealing the cookies and being chided at the 50 year reunion by the elderly Jane.
  • Clarify that Jane took over the washing chores Emily Partridge had performed before being sent away from the mansion house weeks before Jane’s arrival. The movie implies other young women got to sit around as pampered guests, which was not the case.
  • Highlight how the Lawrence sisters welcomed Jane and her entire family to share their room at the Mansion House.
  • Indicate why Jane chose to travel west with Brigham Young, despite the close bond she had with Emma.

I also like to reflect on the reason Jane couldn’t be sealed as daughter to Joseph and Emma in 1894 – it was because the practice of sealing people to non-family (e.g., Church leaders) had been ended just that year due to President Woodruff’s insistence of focusing on linking family members together. Thus the accommodation of sealing Jane as a servant to the Smiths, though utterly abhorrent to modern sensibilities, was not intended as a slight.

Despite my wishes that it could have been different, Jane and Emma is well worth watching!

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About Meg Stout

Meg Stout has been an active member of the Church of Jesus Christ (of Latter-day Saints) for decades. She lives in the DC area with her husband, Bryan, and several daughters. She is an engineer by vocation and a writer by avocation. Meg is the author of Reluctant Polygamist, laying out the possibility that Joseph taught the acceptability of plural marriage but that Emma was right to assert she had been Joseph's only true wife.

8 thoughts on “Jane & Emma: review

  1. I just saw it last week, and although I enjoyed the movie a lot, the fictional plotline did bother me a bit. Emma may well have wished to be alone with her dead, but that was never an option. Also, I couldn’t help noticing that the quilt block they’re sewing is much further advanced than it ought to be…but that’s so you can see what it’s going to look like, of course.

    I did like the film and will probably watch it again.

  2. I would remind folks that this movie came out during the week many of us were participating in a media fast. So renting or buying the film now helps repay the investment backers made. So long as films about Church-related stories are seen as money-losers, we won’t continue to be able to have films on Church-related stories.

  3. I couldn’t get into it, because it was so in -accurate. The girls all moved out that winter, Emma didn’t have to kick them out. Jane moved out because they moved back into their small homestead and didn’t need Jane’s help and had no room. I haven’t found a single statement of William Clayton accusing Emma of killing Joseph, before he’s even in the ground, I found that ridiculous. So many people saw his dead body before Emma did, again she wasn’t in the Nauvoo Mansion at this point and SHE cut his hair to give to people… I hated their portrayal of the other wives as being racist/snobs, they bonded with Jane and confided in her, I hate how bad they made the girls look and basically painting all of Nauvoo as racist.

  4. Hi Debster,

    When you say the girls “all moved out that winter,” it is true that the Partridge sisters had moved out of the Mansion House the September of 1843, while Jane arrived in approximately November of 1843. But Jane recounted that when she and her family arrived at the Mansion House, that they shared a room with two sisters, likely the Lawrence sisters. If you’ve seen the rooms in the Mansion House, that was a snug fit indeed.

    I am not aware that Emma moved out of the Mansion House before Joseph’s death. Jane and her sister did move to Burlington, across the river in Iowa, before the final days leading to Joseph’s death. I don’t doubt you have a reason for your assertion, but I would like the citation that supports it.

    While Emma may have cut Joseph’s hair to present it to others, the lock of hair she wore in a locket for the rest of her life was presented to her by Dimick Huntington, a lock he snipped from Joseph’s hair during the February 1845 relocation of Joseph and Hyrum which Emma requested Dimick and three other trusted men perform to protect Joseph’s remains from becoming either defiled or used to support the succession claim of any of those claiming they were legitimate successors.

    Any film is insufficiently accurate for those who have “read the book” or otherwise are more familiar with history than the average person. But film is an art that allows story to permeate in a unique way.

  5. Joseph Smith was in so much debt he leased the Mansion House to Ebenezer Robinson in January of 1844, they only lived in it a few months; that is when Jane moved out and found work elsewhere, they weren’t running the hotel anymore.

    “The year 1844 was a difficult one for the Saints. For Jane, it began with a departure: when Ebenezer Robinson assumed management of the hotel portion of the Mansion House, she left to live with her mother.” https://history.churchofjesuschrist.org/article/jane-manning-james-life-sketch?lang=eng

    I know that Malissa said she’d moved back home and wasn’t living with the Smith’s when he died, the Lawrence sisters and Lucy walker… maybe they stayed… but the sisters never went on record as being their wives, although Jane stating they were, along with Emily… I kind of have to believe that, although one died and the other DID deny it… but she was living in California and was probably scared… I read Jane’s story online in full and enjoyed it a year ago and she went into how the “house was broken up” that winter- and how a lot of people had to move out.
    http://mormonhistoricsites.org/mansion-house/ (renting to Ebenezer Robinson)

  6. The subject of hair being given as gift, Emma is stated to have cut the hair and that it was then put into canes, possibly by someone else? Mary Fielding gave away hair cut from the three brothers who died in 1844, but technically she did give away his hair on her own doing:
    Hair was cut of Joseph’s hair when Emma moved his body, and it was put into canes and given as gifts to friends and family.

    “About seven months after Joseph and Hyrum had been buried under the Nauvoo house, Emma, Joseph’s widow, decided to have the bodies of her husband and his martyred brother moved to a more suitable spot. So late one night the bodies were unearthed and a lock of dark blond hair was cut from the Prophet’s head. Some of this hair was braided and added to the ivory handles of a few of the canes and then covered with round pieces of cut glass…”

    “In a journal entry dated Aug. 23, 1844, Woodruff writes about visiting Emma Smith and her letting him have a piece of oak for “a staff” taken from the coffin of the Prophet Joseph. She also let him have a pair of gloves and a cotton handkerchief which he used. He also visited Mary Fielding Smith, Hyrum’s wife, who gave him hair from Joseph, Hyrum, Samuel Smith, and Don Carlos Smith.”


  7. Hi Debster,

    Thank you for the reference that the household of the Mansion House was broken up. I would still be interesting in knowing whether that meant Joseph and family themselves moved out or whether it was just that all the folks they had living in the Mansion House (many or all rent-free under Joseph’s management) were asked to pay rent or leave.

    There’s a book they sell at the CoC bookstore in Nauvoo that talks about the various movements of the bodies (they were moved several times, not just in February 1845). This includes the account that Dimick was the one who cut the hair and gave it to Emma. But from Wilford Woodruff’s account, it seems other locks were cut when the brothers were newly deceased.

    Back to the Mansion House, Jane was working as cool and laundress. I wonder who Robinson hired to do that work at Jane’s departure.

  8. I honestly have no idea, one online source said he wasn’t charging them in the summer, but did in the fall, then had to have Robinson rent it out to get money, either way he didn’t have the heart to charge people according to Truman G. Madsen. Joseph had a lot of debt from a ship that sank early in the Nauvoo period and everyone else declared bankruptcy but him, for some reason, he thought he could pay it all off.

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