The Lost Memoirs of Jane Austen

“It is a truth (I believe, universally acknowledged) that, with few exceptions the introduction of the hero in a love-story should never take place in the first chapter, but should, ideally, be deferred to the third; that a brief foundation should initially be laid, acquainting the reader with the principal persons, places, circumstances, and emotional content of the story, so as to allow a greater appreciation for the proceedings as they unfold.”

I have a more than casual acquaintance with Jane Austen’s love life, having written a research paper on it back in high school and also having watched the more recent “Becoming Jane.” I  genuinely enjoyed the latter, especially because I adore both Anne Hathaway and James McEvoy, but though based in assumed fact it seemed to take great liberties with Jane’s character. I cannot comment on the book, but Syrie James’ attempt to give her some romance in The Lost Memoirs of Jane Austen is in many ways superior.

The well-known rumor holds than Jane had a brief affair with a clergyman by the sea and expected a proposal but later learned that he had died. This volume, supposedly written by Jane close to her death, is the story of a passion that did not die at Lyme, but continued on and became far more important to her than she had ever expected.

As an actual memoir, the book is presented with scholarly accuracy and impeccable details like a family chart in the beginning (the large Austen brood has many similar names), and occasional footnotes to give insight. Syrie James has certainly done her research–into Jane’s writing, life, and setting. I’m not enough of an expert to comment on whether she captures Jane Austen’s tone, but she certainly writes in the Regency style very well and provides her fair share of wit, humor, and entertaining characters (like Isabella Churchill).

Mr. Ashford is certainly a hero worthy of Jane Austen. He is handsome, wealthy, kind, and every ounce her equal in terms of literacy and wit. Frankly I never understood the attraction to brooding Darcy, and would much rather swoon over Mr. Ashford. One quote I couldn’t ignore, though, on Jane’s desire to publish anonymously:

“It is one thing to write for one’s family and most intimate friends. But if this book were to have a more wide-spread audience, it would be an uncomfortable sensation to think that strangers knew my name and were making uninformed judgments about me.”

I’m not sure if this sentiment is based on one of Jane’s letters, which Mrs. James sometimes did, or entirely of her own creation. But it makes you wonder how Jane would really feel about all the mania surrounding her–not just the atrocitities being done to her works (P&P&Z…), but the speculation surrounding her personal life. I suspect she would be glad of the popularity but shocked at the publicity.

One of my favorite things about The Lost Memoirs of Jane Austen is that it fully develops Jane as a writer as well. Giving Jane inspiration for the things that later turn up in her novels is sheer brilliance on Ms. James’ part. I loved all the small similarities, everything from an afternoon in Lyme discussing literature to spending time at an abbey. Even character names will often be familiar to readers. The footnotes would sometimes point out major things and mention where they showed up in Jane’s work. On one level this bothered me, as I felt that those familiar with the novels would be able to spot them on their own and smile secretly; on the other hand, and real memoir would be similarly annotated, so I have to once again commend the completeness of the presentation. One of the biggest influences is that Jane is revising Sense and Sensibility during the time of this narrative. Though I know the story I have never read it, and now want to more than ever. Good thing it’s on my challenge list! She also has Jane praising contemporary books like Sir Charles Grandison and Margiana, which now I am tempted to look for.

A final note on the introductory quote: I checked the books I had handy, and indeed Mr. Tilney and Mr. Darcy do not appear until their respective third chapters. Mr. Knightley is on the scene immediately, but then again we do not recognize him as the hero until much later in the book. Ironically, though, chapter three brings the first mention of Frank Churchhill. Beyond this specific phenomenon, however, the quote also shows a general familiarity with the structure and content of Jane’s work that is evident even in this book.

Syrie James has been kind enough to answer questions about her books around the blogosphere, including at Jane Austen Today. It’s great insight into her research and writing. I can’t wait to look for The Secret Diaries of Charlotte Bronte.

This is my first book for the Everything Austen Challenge.

Published in: on August 18, 2009 at 10:44 am  Comments (3)  
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3 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. I’m so glad that you enjoyed this book. It is on my Everything Austen list too and now I can’t wait to read it!

  2. Stephanie–It’s definitely a treat. I hope you enjoy it, and thanks for giving me the impetus to read it with this challenge!

  3. […] The Lost Memoirs of Jane Austen, by Syrie James […]

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