Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Book Review: The Lost Memoirs of Jane Austen

Our own dear Jane Austen died far, far too young, at the age of 41, leaving behind only 6 completed novels, a handful of other partial novels, juvenilia, and letters. Shortly before she herself died, Jane's beloved sister Cassandra burned an undetermined number of Jane's letters and cut portions out of many others. We will never find out what was in those letters.

But what if we could find out more about Jane's life? What if we could read about the great love of her life? That is what Syrie James has done in her novel The Lost Memoirs of Jane Austen.

According to the "Editor's Forward," written by Mary I. Jesse, of Oxford University, President of the Jane Austen Literary Foundation, an old chest was recently found, walled up at Chawton Manor House. Inside the chest were manuscripts, written in a lady's hand. These manuscripts are the memoirs of Jane Austen.

The memoirs contained in this volume cover a period of years from about 1800-1817. Jane wrote her story because (pgs. 7-8 in the ARC & as exerpted on the website):

there may, I think, be speculation when I am gone. People may read what I have written, and wonder: how could this spinster, this woman who, to all appearances, never even courted—who never felt that wondrous connection of mind and spirit between a man and woman, which, inspired by friendship and affection, blooms into something deeper—how could she have had the temerity to write about the revered institutions of love and courtship, having never experienced them herself?

To those few friends and relations who, upon learning of my authorship, have dared to pose a similar question (although, I must admit, in a rather more genteel turn of phrase), I have given the self-same reply: "Is it not conceivable that an active mind and an observant eye and ear, combined with a vivid imagination, might produce a literary work of some merit and amusement, which may, in turn, evoke sentiments and feelings which resemble life itself?"

There is much truth in this observation.
Indeed. And fortunately for the readers, Syrie James is very good at observation. The Lost Memoirs of Jane Austen begins with Jane's life after she had to leave her beloved home at Steventon and move, with her father, mother, and sister Cassandra to Bath. Five years later Jane's father dies and the women are left without much income. They make extended stays with Jane's brothers and with family friends, but Jane is never settled enough to continue her writing.

On one occasion, while visiting Lyme with her brother Henry, she meets a gentleman who is everything one could ever hope for in a man. His name is Mr. Frederick Ashford. He's handsome, intelligent, charming, friendly, and, really, Jane's soulmate. They plan a picnic with Henry and another couple, but Mr. Ashford is, most unfortunately, called away. Over a year passes before she sees him again. The connection is still there. Jane and Mr. Ashford eventually embark on a lovely relationship, but their will their happiness be complete?

We all know that Jane Austen never married, but she did leave us with six fabulous novels. Apart from the love story, most of The Lost Memoirs of Jane Austen concerns Jane's attempts to reform her earlier stories into the novels that we all know and love today. It couldn't have been easy to maintain one's writing while moving from place to place. Fortunately, Jane's brother Edward gave his mother and sisters a cottage he owned, Chawton Cottage and eventually Jane was able to publish a novel, Sense and Sensibility.

Syrie James made an extensive study of Jane's life & times, novels & letters, and her research shows. It must have been a challenge to stay within the framework of what we know of Jane's life and create the love story, but she did it.

James also made use of Jane's ideas and quotes by creating situations, conversations, characters, and experiences that could feasibly have been Jane's inspiration. It was fun to notice lines similar to beloved ones from any of the novels or to recognize certain people in the people she met in this story. Very clever!

I honestly adored this book and even, for a time, forgot that Jane does not marry Mr. Ashford. He is almost even better than Mr. Darcy (shocking, I know!) because he and Jane have that true, deep connection from the start, without the pride or prejudice. I was very sad to reach the end and know they were never together. I truly wish Jane could married happily, though, as they all say, if she had married, perhaps she never would have written her novels. That would have been a crime against humanity.

I highly recommend The Lost Memoirs of Jane Austen. It was absolutely fabulous. There were lots of little touches that made it special, including "Editor" Mary I. Jesse's footnotes every so often. I already knew much of the information, but readers unfamiliar with the time period would have been very glad to have them. James also included a map of England, with places Jane Austen spent time in highlighted, and an Austen Family Tree, which I referred to throughout the story with great interest. After Jane's "text" ends, there is an "Editor's Afterward" which continues the magic a little longer. Following that, the publisher included an "A+ Author Insights, Extras, & More . . ." This includes a note from the author, Syrie James; a comprehensive list of Jane Austen's works; a chronology of Jane's life; a Q&A with Syrie James (You can read a longer one at her website); Quotations from Jane's works (including some that were used in this novel); and Book Club/Study Guide Questions. You will find lots more interesting items at SyrieJames.com (including a contest).

I hope you will go to your local bookstore or Amazon.com and purchase The Lost Memoirs of Jane Austen. It was an excellent read and I couldn't put it down. If you read it, do let us know what you thought!

Book Information: The Lost Memoirs of Jane Austen by Syrie James (Avon A; ISBN: 0061341428; $13.95; 352 pages; paperback)

2 comments:

Aj said...

Sounds like a very good read!

Lady Jane said...

It was! Go join the contest!