By Joan Oliver
March 18, 1974 12:00 PM

Who is Jane Cornell and why are people talking about her? She’s the witty, gritty, not-plain-at-all heroine of a poignantly funny novel Jane.

Author Dee Wells—otherwise Lady Ayer, wife of Sir Alfred, Oxford’s renowned Wykeham Professor of Logic—is celebrating her 45th birthday next week. That’s not all she has to celebrate. Producer Joseph (Darling and Sunday, Bloody Sunday) Janni has just bought the movie rights to her book, and reports have it that some of Hollywood’s glittering names—including Barbra Streisand and Shirley MacLaine—would love to be billed above the title.

The role is a plum. Jane is an American film critic who lives a decidedly liberated-chic life in a London loft, adroitly juggling love affairs with a British lord, a black American lawyer and a burglar who drops through the skylight into her bed. Inevitably, Jane becomes pregnant, and her delicate balancing act falls apart.

Dee originally envisioned Jane as a screenplay. A film freak—she says she misspent most of her New Bedford, Mass. youth in a theater seat—Dee half jokingly told a director friend, “I’ll write you a movie.” But the movie-script form wasn’t as easy as she’d expected, even for a woman who has spent 20 years in England as a journalist and broadcaster and whose conversation is so spontaneously amusing it would tempt a scriptwriter to swallow cyanide out of sheer envy. Jane emerged as a novel.

The book opens with the stuff that Dee Wells is best at. In a transatlantic phone call, Jane and her equally facile friend Angela play verbal shuttlecock even though it’s 5 a.m. London time and Jane is in bed with her Wednesday lover. “I can hear them,” Dee says of her characters, though she gives scant attention to physical appearances. “I’m very lazy; why think up all that detail?”

Dee Wells’s own physical appearance belies her sophistication. She dresses like a suburban housewife in turtlenecks and suede, her chestnut hair is unstyled, and she’s the type who gets mascara in her eyes when she tries to apply it. “But I go on feeling 18,” she says.

In a voice that still hints of her New England origins, Dee confesses, “I’m considered very American in England. What they call ‘aggressive.’ ” Dee’s personality colors her characters: “Mustn’t be aggressive, Angie,” warns Jane. “It’s not done here.”

One Englishman who seems not to mind Dee’s forthright manner is her second husband, philosopher Sir Alfred—or Freddie. He is nearly 20 years older than Dee, but “he’s very young and gay and funny and likes to dance and go to Marx Brothers movies,” she says, summing up why their 14-year marriage has worked. “Our lives mesh nicely. I do the mass stuff; I can put things simply in small words. He does the high-class stuff.”

Although critics in the U.S. have been full of praise, some British hackles rose on reading Dee’s shots at their class system. “The British are not the least puritanical,” she purrs, “but they’re terribly hypocritical.”