The Lost Memoirs of Jane Austen by Syrie James

This book offers two premises similar to what fans of Jane have seen recently: first, it parallels Pride and Promiscuity, the supposed missing sex scenes from Austen’s novels, in that it claims to be writing of Jane’s that has only recently come to scholarly attention. Second, it parallels Becoming Jane, the movie starring James McAvoy and Anne Hathaway, in that it offers the missing “love story of Jane’s own life, explaining how she could come to know passion like that which she describes in her works.

James does a good job recapturing Austen’s voice. At one moment, in particular, following a formal description of a view Jane obviously would have scorned, James’ Jane responds, “But to these naysayers, I say pshaw.” The timing and the unexpected scorn of the line are flawless; James has beautifully captured the spunk we assume Jane had and simultaneously reflected Jane’s happiness in the moment and made us laugh. Jane blushes a lot in this memoir, and she is irritated with her tendency to crimson. (I have the same tendency and the same irritation, so I liked this on a personal level, but it also seemed to fit the character James creates.)

James also successfully tugs on our heartstrings for Jane. As we did when a similar tale unfolded on the silver screen, we cry again for Jane and for the injustice that her lack of fortune forced her to let the man she loved go—to seek richer women. What, we imagine, might her happiness have been, had she had more money?

On the other hand, what would all of our lives have been if she had? Notably poorer if the demands of marriage had taken her from her writing (though the lover here, a fictional Mr. Ashford, actually facilitates the publication of Sense and Sensibility and encourages Austen’s writing, so maybe she could have had both?). Long periods of Mr. Ashford’s absence enable Jane to focus on her work and to revise regularly—so much so that James hints at other memoirs, which will emerge soon. A married woman would likely have had little time for such record keeping.

That being said, if Jane had been given this manuscript, she might have made some changes. The footnotes, for instance, are a bit too basic for a reader quite familiar with Jane’s work. Much of the fun in reading the “sequels” is figuring out the connections, here, for instance, that Edward and his wife are models for the evil Dashwood couple, or that there will someday be a similar scene in Northanger Abbey to what we’re reading now. I know! I don’t need a footnote to tell me what is already obvious because I have read Austen’s work. That said, perhaps for a reader new to Austen, these footnotes are helpful rather than patronizing, and for all levels of readers, the family tree at the beginning is extremely useful in following which brother is doing what and whose kids are who. Many of our heroines’ names were names of Jane’s nieces and nephews. (Maybe that’s just a result of the seeming scarcity of British names, but I’ll imagine otherwise.)

Another problem results from a comment Jane supposedly makes to her friend Alethea that, with the exception of the model for Mr. Collins, she doesn’t use people in her own world as models for people in her fiction. But throughout the text the reader naturally connects the characters we are meeting to the characters in the novels (particularly Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice, which have the most parallels here), and James seems to support that linking. This inconsistency troubled me because it suggests Jane was unaware that she used people she knew to create people we would all come to know, though she demonstrates complete awareness of such in a few choice moments. Was the comment just to reassure her friend? In the scene in Lyme, a great rescue occurs just where, as James reminds us in a footnote, Louisa Musgrove fell. But if Jane came up with this idea from her own life experience, that would mean she had taken a moment that had deep romantic significance to her and twisted it into a fake romance in Persuasion—Louisa is irresponsible, and the feelings Anne observes are not real love. Why would Jane do that to her own precious encounter? Worse, why would she tell Alethea she wouldn’t do that?

There are many very fun connections in this “missing text.” There is much Mrs. Bennet in Mrs. Austen, and parallels between Jane and Elizabeth and Cassandra and Jane. At the same time, it is tempting to read the three women as versions of the Dashwood ladies, particularly after the death of the Reverend George Austen, when the Austen women are left to the mercy of their brothers. Jane’s lover, whose estate’s description and name are too close to Pemberley to be accidental, and who, like Darcy, has a little sister who plays the pianoforte very well, also functions as an Edward Ferrars, and even a Willoughby model. One of Jane’s tales employs a melding of the Jane Eyre attic with the general Northanger Abbey creepiness and A Winter’s Tale statue (was that combination deliberate?)—and she tells it on a picnic Mr. Ashford arranges, which suggests a parallel to Mr. Knightley in Emma. Jane meets a round clergyman who welcomes them to his “humble abode” before boasting of a large piece of furniture and an attentive neighbor with the initials (Lady) CD. Some of these clues are just too easy, but others pose a challenge, and either way, as long as there was no footnote to ruin it, this reader enjoyed James’ linking of a thorough knowledge of Austen’s canon with Austen’s life.

One of the best moments of this work comes shortly after Jane meets the wealthy man whose presence makes her heart race. Mr. Ashford asks Jane to assess her worth based on how many people would miss her if she were gone. The reader appreciates the meaningful set-up: though Mr. Ashford probably means Jane’s family and friends, we, the people who miss Jane, are innumerable, and the real hero is the man who recognizes value of character, rather than value of inheritance. If only that were enough to live on, Jane Austen might have lived a very different life—and so would might her faithful readers.

Published in: on May 5, 2010 at 5:08 pm  Comments (3)  

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3 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Thank you for your wonderful review of my novel. You have made some very insightful comments and observations. I wish we could sit together over a cup of tea and chat about the book!

    I’d love to hear your thoughts about my most recent novel, “The Secret Diaries of Charlotte Bronte.” Although I realize it is not a book inspired by Jane, it is inspired by another one of my favorite Janes– Jane Eyre!

    Please stop by website at My next book, “Dracula, My Love,” a romantic reinterpretation of Stoker’s classic, comes out July 20.

    All best,
    Syrie James

    • I’d be honored to have coffee with you, Ms. James, and I’m excited about your Dracula project, even as I try to stay away from vampire, etc lit mixed with Austen ;-). I have seen your Charlotte Bronte book in stores and eyed it eagerly; now I have an excuse to buy it for myself :-). Glad you enjoyed this review!

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