This tale is for those of us who “always wished there was a seventh novel.” The idea of a lost Jane Austen novel is, of course, intriguing, but James really makes the reader wait for it. When heroine #1,who finds the Austen letter (I did wonder how there could be no mention by Jane of Sanditon ten months before the end), catches up with her old friend Michelle, we learn more about her: her name (Samantha), her age (31), her home (Southern California) (7). I tried not to smart at the comment that she is “still single at thirty-one” (7). Her description of trying to make a career out of teaching English in the community colleges made me glad I hadn’t gone that route! (32)
The guy we hope becomes the hero of Samantha’s life (that doctor will have to disappear—maybe he could cheat or something?) says early on that he doesn’t understand how Austen “became such a phenomenon” (29). Our heroine will obviously have to show him what he has been missing, and in so doing, she experiences such an adventure: a handsome man, a huge Georgian library, a family history, and the missing manuscript! It’s almost too much!
Once we begin the story within a story, we meet our seventh Austen novel’s heroine, young Rebecca Stanhope, aka heroine #2. This Rebecca loves walking, “climbing over stiles” and such (a little too obvious a Lizzy Bennet?) (106). Her father, Mr. Stanhope, sounds a lot like Mr. Austen—divinity degree, two daughters, “excellent husband and father,” married a woman with some inheritance, tutors “schoolboys he took in as boarders” and thus supplements his daughters’ education (58-59). Jane is Rebecca, her own heroine, and the “obedient” Sarah is Cassandra. The “foundations of [Rebecca’s] carefully ordered life” are shaken when the girls are sent “to boarding school” (59). Funny: the father-daughter relationship is beautiful (Emma, Jane, me; Mr. Woodhouse, Rev. Austen, my dad), but this dad is obsessed with dirt the way Mr. Woodhouse is obsessed with health.
It seems like a happy la dee dah story (although I didn’t understand why Mr. Stanhope’s father’s money would gone to the second wife if the father had not altered the will. Wouldn’t it be the opposite? 58), and then, bam, one bad thing after another occurs to this sweet girl and her loving father. One of the ramifications of the bad news is the arrival of the new rector, whom we immediately see has special feelings for Rebecca. He buys her father’s book collection so she’ll have access to it, but of course she just thinks him “odious,” so we’re supposed to, too, for now (84).
Meanwhile, there’s another potential suitor—the one whom the heroine seriously considers. Dr. Watkins’ “air and address were unexceptionable, and his ease of manner reflected his education and good breeding” (so weren’t they exceptional?) (100). This doctor, too, is going to have to go, but it’s a greater challenge to figure out why. There’s also a new friend whose tone strikes us just the wrong way from the beginning (Miss Davenport, a wealthy orphan raised by her aunt, says it will be quieter at the aunt’s house than at the Morris’ “with all your children running about” 104. They’re not Miss Stanhope’s children anyway, but that’s rather rude from a friend! ) and a much more likeable version of Lady Catherine in the form of the aunt. She advises Rebecca about her apparel, scoffs at a doctor being considered a gentleman, comments on how many children women should have, and isn’t sure she should associate with their father since the rumor is he gambled away church money. Mrs. Harcourt “deliver[s] information” on “the minutiae of” the Miss Wabshaws’ lives, “from the ordering of meat, and the best time of year to plant potatoes, to the proper way to toast bread over the fire without singeing its corners” (151). This lady, though, to her credit, does listen to an intelligent young woman and even comments that an answer “surprises and delights” her (115). Rebecca’s friend is expected to marry Brook Mountague, a man who bores her, despite his wealth, good looks, and family connections. Her aunt has been planning the union much as Lady C planned Anne’s, so we, like Rebecca, have hope yet for Miss Davenport’s escape despite her often disconcerting behavior or disingenuousness.
There is a smart entr’acte, which provided both the reminder of what was happening in the framework story (I got so caught up in the new story I nearly lost track of the first!) and also the opportunity to say that, though the style of this novel “is certainly very similar,” it is also not “identical to,” say, Pride and Prejudice, which James has her heroine explain away with this being “Austen’s more youthful writing style” (128). (Maybe that answers my concern earlier about blatant foreshadowing when the text tells us, “on their last night . . . Rebecca . . . keenly felt her impending loss, knowing that it was the last time she would live there, as mistress of that house” 88).
When we return to Rebecca, eager as Samantha to learn what happens next, we find a precursor to Mr. Collins in the form of Humphrey Spangle, “a diminutive, heavy looking widower . . . more than twice Rebecca’s age,” who pays the ladies excessive compliments on “their gowns and shoes, the style and colour of their hair, and their beauty” (139). He has some of the false modesty of Mrs. Elton as well (he’s installing, for instance, “a splendid fountain, if [he does] say so [him]self” 140). We meet Miss Davenport’s intended when he arrives on scene with the new rector we have been thinking must play some part in Rebecca’s happiness. Brook is loud and pushy, but Mr. Clifton is calm and polite—and not a gambler—at least by comparison. Interesting now to have two of the men (the doctor and the rector) we think might be right for Rebecca in the same room. Clifton looks at Rebecca, but she, like Elizabeth after her, does not interpret it correctly (I assumed I was since I had the advantage of knowing P and P).
The missing manuscript provides humor, mystery, and romance. There is a hilarious, contradictory speech of a man who says first that reading books is “a great, tedious expenditure of time” and then that he has “the finest library in the country” (147). There is a bit of a mystery as well since Mr. Stanhope’s money has disappeared, and it looks like Mr. Clifton was not told the full story (159). James’ Austen cues the discerning reader into the facts showing that Mr. Clifton is good, and Jack Watkins not. I knew it when the latter uses a teasing voice to mock his host to Rebecca, but everyone assumes he’s great, and people are predisposed against the more reticent Mr. Clifton (169). Miss Davenport has a locket with a mysterious lock of hair in it (191). I suspected Miss Davenport was not to be trusted, but it wasn’t until her letter, in which, in one sentence she says the tears “are spilling down” her cheeks as she contemplates being separated from Rebecca “perhaps for ever” and in the next, professing her real concern that her gown be properly washed and returned the next day, that I understood her to be the beginnings of Isabella Thorpe (215).
In case the reader missed the prototype idea, James has our heroine contemplate aloud the idea that perhaps they “might find other similarities between this story and her other books” (221). The discerning reader starts doing that from the start. The first marriage proposal includes a dig at her father—like Mr. Collins’—and a description of his house. Rebecca’s lines foreshadow Elizabeth’s: “every gentleman ought to be [charming, intelligent, and good-looking] if he possibly can” (185). When the two young ladies discuss a prospective suitor for Rebecca, neither mentions his name—as when Emma and Harriet discuss the man who came to the latter’s rescue. Could they be speaking here of different men? Ooh, a tense dance like Elizabeth’s with Darcy—he means well and has no idea she’s going to lash out as she does. The distant cousins could be like the Jennings! There are many echoes of Emma, particularly when Mr. Knightley returns to Highbury, having planned to propose to Emma, but Emma thinks he is planning to propose to someone else, so there is an awkward misunderstanding before the ultimate bliss. As in Emma, Mr. Woodhouse’s feelings need to be assessed right away, here, too, Mr. Stanhope’s view is central to the happiness of the young lovers. While shopping with her new hostess, Mrs. Newgate, Rebecca meets the sweet young woman we suspect will someday be her sister-in-law; this young lady is much more real than Miss Davenport, like Eleanor Tilney versus Isabella Thorpe.
The reader feels natural pride in Rebecca, who makes many good choices. (I admit I was frustrated with her for not telling her father the full truth about what she knows. For instance, the inn-keeper involved in the gambling scandal insists Mr. Stanhope is guilty, and Rebecca burns the letter without telling her father what was said. Later, she doesn’t she tell him the full truth about the doctor.) We see one proposal that might tempt a less wise heroine, but not our Rebecca, who may not understand why her instinct says no, but knows it does. Austen usually gives a lot more detail about a heroine’s first proposal than the letter, but her, the manuscript casually mentions that Rebecca “received a proposal . . . from a young, florid gentleman with whom she had danced only one set,” and of course she refuses him (256).
Amelia turns out to be worse than Isabella, and this heroine recognizes that “Amelia seemed disingenuous and a bit pretentious”—so much more easily than dear Catherine Morland :-). (247)
I appreciated the info about where all the original Austen works are—The Watsons (Bodleian), Sanditon (King’s College), the Juvenalia and Lady Susan (New York Morgan Library!), and of course the two cancelled chapters of Persuasion in the British Library (389-90). I appreciated Mr. Stanhope’s wise words: “What do we really need to be happy, other than the affection of our family, a few good friends, a comfortable home, food on the table, and a worthwhile occupation to fill our days?” (124) I appreciated, in fact, almost everything about this delightful tale within a delightful tale.