THE LOST MEMOIRS OF JANE AUSTEN by Syrie James boasts a classic set-up: a hidden trunk discovered in the attics of Chawton House Library is found to contain a ring and a batch of manuscript booklets that read like memoirs and journals. The first chapter sets the scene well: Jane confesses why she writes these memoirs, then relates the occasion of her well-known swoon after Mama Austen announces their removal from Steventon upon Papa Austen’s retirement. When you read these few pages in the bookstore, or online, you want this novel. Once home, you begin at the beginning, with the Editor’s Foreword.
James’ “editor,” Mary I. Jesse, Ph.D., of Oxford University’s English Department and President of the (ficticious) Jane Austen Foundation, stretches credulity from the start. Nothing here sounds to come from the pen of an academic. Especially problematic is the section dealing with scholarly endorsement of the find. “[T]he numerous documents stored inside…have been formally authenticated as being the work of Jane Austen herself. Although only one of the manuscripts [presumably this memoir] has as yet been fully reviewed…” (2). On the previous page Dr. Jesse reported that “workmen recently employed to repair the roof” discovered the chest (1). Authentication presumes scholars debating and confirming the handwriting, the paper, the contents. A recent discovery producing near-immediate publication … that just does not tally. [For a true ‘discovery’ well explained, read about the Boswell papers in Peter Martin’s introduction to his A Life of Boswell.]
For a memoir “written” by the great Austen, there is an overabundance of description and self-explanation in place of action and character study. James’ scene visuals read like stage-settings, and, worse, she reduces characters to block recitations of age, looks, manners; this style pales quickly:
“Imagine the scene, if you will: eight of us gathered in the parlour, perched on the sofa and an assortment of chairs. Henry, looking smart in his light brown full-dress coat, sat reading the newspaper. My mother, Cassandra, Martha and Frank … were occupied by knotting fringe onto some curtains. Mary held her baby… I sat at my little mahogany writing desk…composing a letter.” (25)
“it was late autumn, and many of the trees were leafless and bare, the ride through the green park, forested with oaks, beeches and lush, verdant cedars was a delight to the eye, culminating in the regal presentation of the large, square, stone Tudor manor house itself, with its spacious brick-walled garden.” (60)
Mr Austen (father): “At four-and-seventy years of age, George Austen was still quite spry, with a shock of fine white hair, bright, intelligent eyes, a sweet, benevolent smile, and a grand sense of humour” (13)
Mrs Austen (mother): “of middling height, spare and thin, with handsome grey eyes, dark hair that still retained its colour, and an aristocratic nose (of which she was quite proud…). Although a quick-witted woman of sparkle and spirit, she suffered from a variety of maladies” (26)
Cassandra Austen: “the beauty of the family; with her pale complexion, lovely dark eyes, high-arched nose, and sweet smile” (33)
Alethea Bigg: “the youngest sister at five-and-twenty… A vibrant, pleasant, cheerful person. Alethea took interest in every one and every thing about her” (60)
Catherine Bigg: “at seven-and-twenty, was but a few months older than [Jane Austen]. She possessed a calm, serene nature, much like Cassandra, and her long, thin face, although not considered beautiful, was enhanced by intelligent eyes, engaging manners and a warm smile” (61)
Lovelace Bigg-Wither: “A genial widower of one-and-sixty, the squire was a large, broad-shouldered man with a fringe of downy white hair that framed a red, jowled face, and a squat, stubby nose, giving him … a rather aristocratic look, as if a horse had sat upon a very fine face” (62)
Can you tell Syrie James makes a living writing plays and scripts? Better off to have had a “cast of characters” list at the beginning to get it over and done with.
Several blunders that made it into print are quite surprising:
• Dr. Jesse – presented as an authority, an “Austen scholar” – in a footnote informs, “The height of the London season was a three-month whirlwind of parties, balls and sporting events, which typically began after Easter and continued until August 12, which signalled the end of Parliament and the opening of grouse season.” (244) The parliamentary session held from January to Easter generated balls, concerts, plays etc. in Austen’s day. Even Wikipedia’s contributor(s) correctly recognize this. James’ “London season” explains events of today.
• “sister Catherine [Bigg], who had been married the previous October, was quite content in her newly betrothed state.” (169) Betrothed means engaged; one ceases being betrothed once one marries.
• Jane Austen would know how to spell her own niece’s name: Caroline not Carolyn (correct only on p. 165); Elizabeth Heathcote is alternately spelled Heathcoate
• Jane laments the absence of letters from Ashford when in Austen’s era this correspondence would have been highly improper – see Mansfield Park, in which Fanny awaits news of her beloved via his SISTER (Miss Bingley was put to the same use by Jane Bennet in Pride and Prejudice).
• A postman knocks at the door of Chawton Cottage to welcome the new inhabitants and give them their mail. (229-230) Chawton, in 1809, had home mail delivery? And remember, recipients paid postage unless letters had been franked; this “postman” turns away without collecting any money.
Most purchasers will fancy this book because its subject matter concerns Jane Austen. Yet Jane comes across as clothing obsessed (costume lists fit for a wardrobe mistress) and Ashford possessed. Ideas of marriage dog her five minutes after she mets Ashford. Due to family affairs, the lovers part à la Becoming Jane (only the potential groom has been replaced, Frederick Ashford for the real-yet-ficticious Tom Lefroy). So Austen once again is reduced to the role of Romance heroine. She deserved better.
One reviewer is quoted on the inside cover: “Syrie James’s Memoir made me want to pull out all my Jane Austen novels and read them again.” That is the best advice that can be given.
two leaky inkwells.