Jane Austen’s First Love by Syrie James

This latest by Syrie James is narrated by James’ version of Jane Austen. Unlike the heroines of the novels, this text says clearly that our heroine’s “life never really began until . . . the moment when [she] first met” a man. She is 27 and reflecting on a love she had when she was 15. Jane argues against “discount[ing] . . . raw and overpowering feelings” of youth.

James clearly enjoys her irony, having Jane comment to sister Cassandra that Jane’s old letters are “full of nothing but useless details which can no longer be of interest to anybody” when, of course, we savor each one hundreds of years later. One letter recalls Jane’s going by “Bifrons” and contemplating “with a melancholy pleasure the abode of him, on whom [she] once fondly doated.” At age 15, Jane “dreamt of three things in life: doing something useful, writing something worthy, and falling in love”—we know she did the first two, and James’ story now has her do the third as well. Young Jane also really wants to be “out” already so she can dance and flirt with men, especially the “worthy young man” of her dreams who “is intelligent, thoughtful, kind, and accomplished, who shares [her] enthusiasm for literature and music and nature, with whom [she] can converse on any topic at length with spirit and debate—if he be good-looking, all the better.” We see here two important things: 1. The beginnings of the Austen heroes 2. Reasons why no one should say I demand too much from my men.

This is an especially fun read for someone who knows a bit about Austen’s life. We can better savor Mrs. Austen “flatter[ing herself] that [her] poetry is not entirely unreadable” and Jane comparing herself (albeit indirectly) to Shakespeare and to Mozart. Austen cries out to Cassandra that she “should dearly love to be useful somehow, to do something which might make a difference in the lives of others.” Oh, Jane, if only you knew! Though some links are weird for us—such as when Mr. Deedes comments on the “marvellous cathedral” (sic) in Hampshire, e.g. Winchester, the one in which Austen would someday be buried—others make us laugh—such as when Edward Taylor seems upset by an abridged History of England and wonders “just how brief” such a history can before “before it loses any meaning entirely!” It’s a good thing young Jane did not agree with him. I chuckled to hear young Jane praise the works of Fanny Burney, whose characters “possess both noble qualities and incurable defects,” knowing that Jane would far outstrip her idol. I felt reassured seeing Austen’s contemporaries struggle with Shakespeare. How much more impressive, then, is any modern success with his works!

The story gets going when Edward Austen sends a letter inviting the family to Kent for two weeks of celebrations of his recent engagement. Jane, Cassie, and Charles want so much to go, but their parents insist that “duty comes before pleasure,” and the Reverend Austen will still be teaching in June. When he hears his wife would like to go “to see where [Edward] lives” and to “meet the woman [Edward] is to marry, the Rev Austen graciously tells her to go and to take the children. She, however, says that their “Mansion of Learning cannot run without [her] here to manage it.” When Martha and Mary Lloyd offer to step in and help, it looks like Jane will get what she wants. Even Mrs. Austen’s objections to including Jane in some of the adult parties are overthrown by an intelligent family discussion prompted by Cassandra’s comment that being “held back” didn’t do her any good so maybe it would be better for Jane to have more experience “convers[ing] opening with strangers” before she actually comes out and is expected to do so with ease.

We can see the novels being formed throughout Jane’s experiences. One might expect a lot of Pride and Prejudice inspirations, given Jane and Cassandra’s much-talked of resemblance to Elizabeth and Jane Bennet. It is clear when the two retire to do their hair how similar Elizabeth is to Jane and Jane Bennet is to Cassandra. Both older sisters try to get their younger to be kind and slower to judge, and both younger trust their own judgment as infallible. Here, Jane says “it was plain to see who and what they all were upon [her] first introduction” to them. Cassandra, Jane comments, likes “everybody,” which is “perhaps [her] finest quality” and “one which [Jane] can never hope to emulate.” Like Elizabeth Bennet, Jane Austen has a natural inclination to be happy. When Edward Taylor picks Charlotte as his strawberry picking companion, for instance, Jane’s “heart ache[s] with hurt and jealousy,” but soon, when she is “enveloped by the sweet fragrance of ripe strawberries,” she becomes cheerful again. When Jane sees what her brother Edward is to inherit, she thinks, “to be master of Godmersham . . . would be truly something,” as Lizzy thinks of Pemberley. James may even be playing with the Greer Garson-Laurence Olivier P and P when she has Edward try to teach Jane archery, only to find she possesses “considerable skills on the archery range.” Edward admits the power of Jane’s “very fine eyes.”

The links are broader than just Jane and Cassandra. Mrs. Austen says that dancing “is one of several, certain steps towards falling in love.” When Edward is going to escort the other young people to the family home of his “lady love,” the narrator says “To Goodnestone, therefore, we were to go.” Like Mrs. Bennet but more positive, Mrs. Watkinson Payler says her “nieces and nephews are so handsome and amiable” in one breath and in the next says she “could form no opinion of them” the last time she saw them. Mrs. Austen gets another Mrs. Bennet line as she observes Cassandra being wooed by Thomas Payler. “Oh! I knew how it would be, were we to come to Kent!” she says, as Mrs. Bennet says about Jane’s beauty. Perhaps Sir Brook is a model of sorts for Mr. Bennet. While we agree with him on nearly every situation that arises, his manner of disagreeing with his wife cannot be considered acceptable. There is a hilarious Mrs. Bennet/Miss Bates moment when Mrs. Austen says Jane has left her “speechless” but then goes on a rant about Jane’s behavior.

Lady Catherine gets a lot of help on this trip from the people Jane encounters. One snobbish girl faults a home with a parlour whose “windows face full west,” and Lady Catherine is born. Lady Bridges is a little too forthright, commenting, for instance, on the fact that Cassandra’s “slippers and stockings are a sight.” She foreshadows Lady Catherine when she rudely inquires where the girls” maid is, and when told they dress themselves, responding: “Indeed? Well, that will not do at Goodnestone.” Mrs. Fielding prefigures Lady Catherine when she comments how “skilled” she would have been at music “had [she] ever the opportunity to learn.” Mrs. Watkinson Payler also provides material, having “designs on” the man Jane wants “for her daughter.” Even Fanny sounds like Lady Catherine, boasting of her theatrical talents by saying, if she had “ever been in a real production, [she] should have been given the leading part every time.”

Emma figures prominently as well, particularly in Jane’s failed attempts as a matchmaker. The Goodnestone “annual strawberry-picking party” could easily inspire Mr. Knightley’s at Donwell. Just when it looks like the Austen chaise is stuck, as Emma’s is, two obvious “sons of gentlemen” appear, one “so good-looking as to make it difficult to look away.” The handsome one (Frank Churchill?) is accompanied by his more “ruddy” faced cousin (precursor to Colonel Fitzwilliam, perhaps). Mrs. Watkinson Payler praises everything from the “lovely day for an al-fresco party” to the “long row of tables and chairs,” much as someday Miss Bates will. Jane “manage[s] to elude” her walking companions “by feigning an improperly-tied shoe-lace,” as Emma someday will to encourage Harriet and Mr. Elton. No wonder Jane will grow up to call Emma someone she likes: in many ways, especially during the play, she IS Emma, “gently manoeuvring a few” people into “making them aware of their real feelings.” Jane really misjudges—both the play and the real-life lovers. Perhaps that is why both Emma and Lovers’ Vows must be brought down in the novels. Like Emma, Jane misreads a man’s admiration for a picture (Emma’s artistry, not Harriet’s form!). As Jane says, her “first impressions were all completely wrong.”

The handsome rescuer is Edward Taylor—and Jane says that Edward “was, and always had been, one of [her] favourite names”, and his cousin, clearly interested in Cassandra, is Thomas Watkinson Payler, Esquire. Jane and Edward immediately establish a teasing banter, and when Edward says they will escort the Austen children to their destination, we have hope he likes our Jane, too. Jane and Edward discuss their fathers, each of whom is “a clergyman, a scholar, and an agriculturist,” but Jane’s “scrambles every day to earn his living.” She says she “quite admire[s]” her father, which I found touching.

Mansfield Park, Northanger Abbey, and Sense and Sensibility also receive inspiration on this trip. James combines Emma and Mansfield Park in having Jane suggest the young people put on a play, thus giving her “the opportunity to do that small amount of directing” of the would-be lovers for their own benefit. Jane is also apparently “quite an accomplished actress” in home theatricals. The theater curtain comes from the Austens’ “of green baize at Steventon.” Frederick is the source for poor, ridiculous Rushworth. He remembers being in a play once, having “six speeches,” wearing “a red coat and a green hat,” and being praised by his mother. Mr. Cage introduces doubt in their endeavor when he says he isn’t “certain that a private theatrical is a proper endeavour for gentlemen and ladies.” In this version, Austen is in favor of plays in homes, which is an interesting choice since I’m pretty sure we’re supposed to agree with Edmund and Fanny in MP that the behavior is unacceptable. It seems, however, that Mr. Cage objects more on the lines that their play won’t be very good than on anything else. When Jane suggests Shakespeare, he says they may not be “up to taking on a work as complex” as that. Jane practices on Mr. Payler her future Northanger Abbey narrator speech about novels “displaying, in the best-chosen language, the greatest powers of the human mind.” Jane does not take to Edward’s fiancée, observing from first impressions that Elizabeth reveals her “self-awareness of her own beauty” but that her charm does “not appear to reach great depths.” This insincerity could easily prefigure the likes of Isabella Thorpe or Lucy Steele. Sir Brook copes with his wife’s incessant chatter by “bur[ying]” his nose “in his newspaper,” like Mr. Palmer. Mrs. Austen gets ill a lot on the journey, with everything from “a violent headache” to some sickness that requires her “to take bitters whenever [they] changed horses.” She could be a prototype for Mrs. Bennet or for one of the Sanditon ladies. Austen concludes early on, and will later share in Northanger Abbey, that if a young lady “has the misfortune of knowing anything, [she] should conceal it as well as she can.” Fanny prefigures Mary Crawford, commenting to Jane that “money is the best reason . . . for marrying, and one of the best recipes for happiness.” Jane may get the Marianne Dashwood and Willoughby and Miss Grey plotline from Fanny losing Lord Rampling to “the daughter of a duke” and never speaking to Fanny again.

As for Persuasion, Jane is quite stubborn, and she is the foolish, headstrong Louisa here, walking a high wall, and lifting her skirts to do so (thus turning Cassandra’s cheeks “very pink”), just to prove herself to the new boy. Cassandra disciplines her soundly later by making her imagine what would have happened to Cassandra “had [Jane] been hurt.” Her brother Charles demonstrates similar stubbornness with a stunt in a tree, and she demonstrates it again with hot coals. In preparation for the big ball, Jane is almost annoyingly stubborn: griping repeatedly about not being permitted powdered hair on the night of the big ball. When a maid tells her that even the children “have been powderin’ their hair” since age ten, Jane’s frustration increases. Her appeals to her mother, however, strike just the right note with the right audience: Mrs. Austen is annoyed by Lady Bridges, whom she has “sized up” just as Jane had upon her own arrival as having “her nose so high up in the air, it is a wonder” she doesn’t fall down. Powder it is! But then, since the man she likes is not a pretentious fool, he may not respond as she had intended. She learns, however, that this kind of tenacity without regard to how behavior affects other people is not what she wants for herself—in her own character or in a man.

Jane also has just the sensibility we would imagine. Jane’s belief that “where true love reigns, . . . anything is possible” is certainly what enables marriages in the novels. With Edward, Jane is exposed to thinking she probably, to some degree, already shares, such as “the only route to happiness is to follow our own hearts.” Since we suspect Edward doesn’t follow his (we know the end, just not how we get there), we wonder at this point what goes awry. When Edward Taylor shows off a second time by climbing a tree whose height makes Jane nervous and makes Mr. Cage cry out “it is far too dangerous,” I suddenly realized that another woman might not be Jane’s obstacle here. I also understood why she makes Louisa seem so irresponsible and thoughtless about what she was risking in Persuasion. Edward gives no thought to whom he might influence, and I suddenly found him unattractive and unworthy of our Jane. She feels that way, too, yet when he apologizes and challenges her to write a story she thinks is “worthy,” she feels she cannot “ignore” the “new, personal challenge” he has issued her. Why not?

I found this reliance on Edward Taylor troubling because it seemed to suggest that her impetus to write her best stuff came from a man. Later, when he advises Jane to “read all [she] can, and then write, write, write!” she says that she feels, “for the first time” that she has “a direction.” Prior to this encounter, Jane viewed her stories as “silly, romantic nonsense.” Older Jane says that Edward Taylor helped her “to view the world a bit differently,” challenged her “to try things” she “might never otherwise have attempted,” and taught her to believe in herself. Many people assume Austen must have loved deeply to write the stories she did. James has Jane say that this relationship taught her “about the human mind and heart,” “about what motivates people to marry,” and about “what really matters when two people are falling in love.” I’m not sure I’m comfortable with the implication that Austen didn’t imagine these things without live models. In fact, that leads to the more encompassing problem that, much as I enjoyed reading all these details from the novels I knew had not yet been written, all these details suggest James is giving Austen a lot less credit for sheer invention than Austen may deserve.

Also sobering are reminders of what life was like for the Austen family and for people of her time. Austen’s mom knows every dress each of her daughters owns; when they plan for their trip to Kent, she creates ways to “fresh them up” since new gowns are unaffordable. Two wealthy sisters quarrel aloud over who will have more material goods when she marries—Fanny, with her “new carriage and four, and ever so many gowns, and family jewels which are worth a fortune,” or Elizabeth, who will marry a man “heir to numerous properties at Godmersham and Chawton”—which would be tacky, period but is worse than tacky in front of one of the future husband’s families. When the young people are short a few cricket players, and both Jane and Cassandra had played “since [they] were little girls,” they don’t offer to play, assuming “such conduct very immodest and unbefitting a young lady.” Also tough: “men and women of no relation may not write to each other.”

Even in this delightful text, which reminds us what we love about Jane and what we appreciate about our own times, there are occasional language misuses: “After spending several days with Martha . . . my mother’s anxieties were soon tamed.” The mother, not the anxieties, spends days with Martha. Jane comments that letters were exchanged “between (her brother Edward, Mr. Knight, Lady Bridges, and [her] mother and father.” Between is for two parties. There are, however, many lovely lines that make up for the few errors, lines such as this one: after they speak of his mother’s untimely death, Jane and Edward walk together, and as they approach Cassandra and Thomas, “Edward Taylor found his smile again.” And this one: When they are preparing to choose a play, Edward says of Shakespearean language that “with practice, the rhythm of the words will become second nature,” and speakers “will find it thrilling to enunciate it as it rolls off [their] tongue[s].” Exactly!

Ultimately, James’ Jane makes two important, character-defining decisions, one a choice for action and for a choice for thought, that place her sense of self above her love for Edward Taylor. The reason Jane cannot see him again on this trip is her brother wants her to take responsibility for her mistaken judgment. When Mrs. Austen lets her choose, Jane chooses to rectify her wrong and pursue other people’s happiness—instead of her own. Jane comes to realize however, that, though she loves Edward, they are not really “right for each other.” Fortunately for us, Jane is right for us, and Syrie James is right for this beautiful story imagining what might have happened the summer Edward Austen got engaged.

Published in: on September 21, 2014 at 6:42 pm  Comments (2)  

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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. This is delightful!

  2. Very thoughtful and enjoyable review Natasha! Reading it reminded me of many of my happy discoveries during the course of Jane Austen’s First Love.

    It does not bother me when author draws from real life experiences for their plots and characters. I believe that even Austen did this. One example that comes to mind is in Mansfield Park when Fanny Price’s sailor brother gave her an amber cross. Jane’s sailor brother Charles did the same for Jane and her sister. Thanks again, LA

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