I’ve mentioned before (see review of Mrs. Darcy’s Dilemma) that I am no lover of sequels; yet these past few months have brought many to my bedside table and the pile is slowly being depleted (in an effort to be somewhat prepared for the October JASNA AGM)…Syrie James’ The Lost Memoirs of Jane Austen was a most enjoyable task in this journey of mine. My co-blogger, Janeite Kelly, and I don’t see eye to eye on this book (see her review ), and I just needed to say a few words from the other side of the inkwell…
The Lost Memoirs should head its own category of “Fictionalizing Jane Austen’s Life.” Like Becoming Jane, James also gives us a fictional tale of Jane’s lost love, this time, not her girlish love of Tom LeFroy, but her mature love, the “mystery man” that Jane met at the seaside as per Cassandra’s brief mention to her niece Caroline, and hence we have a lovely piece of romantic fluff, giving the reader along the way all sorts of references from Austen’s letters and a storyline that harkens back to the novels (and alas! sometimes even footnoted for your edification!) and the many biographies.
James’ knowledge shines throughout- she obviously knows her Austen- she says herself in the Author’s Note, that despite all her efforts to suggest this is the real “lost memoir” of Austen, indeed it is not- only a fiction derived from her Austen-obsessed imagination. All of us who read and study Austen have always wanted the Jane who wrote such brilliant love stories to have had that experience herself. Cassandra’s grand conflagration and excising much in those letters that survived, created a literary future for her sister of so much speculation and theory- certainly, we believe, everything that was destroyed would answer all our questions…
So James has done for us, as she says herself, much like the gift we were given in Shakespeare in Love – a tiny glimpse into the author’s life that indeed explains almost EVERYTHING that comes after. She creates the story of that mystery man and names him Frederick Ashford; we meet him (appropriately in the third chapter) saving Austen from a fall off the infamous steps at the Cobb in Lyme Regis…. we are thus swept into Persuasion with names and incident (and Frederick is, of course, in a DARK BLUE coat, not the dreaded “light” coat of Tom LeFroy…) We hear Austen in this first person narrative speaking the words as they appear in her letters and novels (this reader does question if there is anything original here!). We see characters appear with names similar to her fictions: Mrs. Jenkins (Mrs. Jennings in S&S); Charles Churchill (Emma), married to Maria (MP, though she behaves like Mary in Persuasion and then slips into Isabella-mode from NA); Charles’s sister Isabella Churchill (from NA who falls for the scoundrel Wellington [a.k.a. Captain Tilney, but who morphs into Willoughby from S&S])…have I lost you yet?? there is plenty more…. Ashford’s home in Derbyshire is called Pembroke Hall, and the almost exact scene is played out as Lizzy in P&P visiting Pemberley; Mr, Morton is Mr. Collins right down to the bizarre marriage proposal…the list goes on, this constant weaving of fact and fiction- the family history; life in Bath, Southampton and lastly Chawton; Austen’s writing habits; publishing history; the Bigg-Wither proposal; her niece’s request for help with her writing; Austen’s love of nature and walking (rhapsodizing about a tree as Fanny does in MP); her reading of Udolpho in two days “my hair standing on end the whole time” (Henry in NA); her views on novel-reading (the letters and NA); Austen’s own obsession with fashion and “trimmings” — all are blended together seamlessly.
But this is the story of Jane and Frederick, their meeting, falling in love and how that changes their lives (no spoilers here!)… James gives us the story of Sense & Sensibility, as it may have occurred in Austen’s own life and Austen’s subsequent re-writing of the novel. It all falls into place…if you have wondered why Austen wrote nothing in her Bath years, why there are such gaps in correspondence, James creates for us a delightful fiction and a love interest who is part Darcy, part Edward Ferrars, part Wentworth (“you pierce my soul”), a bit of Colonel Brandon (he is soooo old…) and Knightley all rolled into one perfect fellow…who could want for more?
If you are not a certified “Janeite,” you will find this a fine romance; but if you know Austen like James does (i.e you can recite verbatim and by page number everything she ever said or wrote!), then you will marvel at this confection filled with so many facts, so much speculation, and so much of Austen’s fiction…you will have a fun time reading it and seeing all this together in one place! I offer only one caveat: by creating this grand illusion (“if I believe in your story as you have told it, then it is as good as if it were true?”), James conjures up a fine tale, but there is nothing of Austen’s turn of phrase, or humor or characterization that keeps us returning again and again to her writings, just a sort of pale carbon copy, a re-telling of all, mashed together in a fictional blender… but I shook this off and stepped back a bit and just offer high marks to Syrie James for bringing Austen into our life; this book is like the movie adaptations that are so far from the original source, but we like them all the same, and it might just send you scurrying back to your bookshelves for another Austen re-read!
3 full inkwells…(out of 4)