Jane Austen’s First Love: A Novel, by Syrie James – A Review

Jane Austen's First Love by Syrie James (2014 )From the desk of Christina Boyd:

Everyone in my world knows of Jane Austen. Alas, I can speculate that there are those who might not recognize the name. If they look her up on Wikipedia they would learn that:

‘Biographical information concerning Jane Austen is “famously scarce”… Only some personal and family letters remain (by one estimate only 160 out of Austen’s 3,000 letters are extant), and her sister Cassandra (to whom most of the letters were originally addressed) burned “the greater part” of the ones she kept and censored those she did not destroy. Other letters were destroyed by the heirs of Admiral Francis Austen, Jane’s brother. Most of the biographical material produced for fifty years after Austen’s death was written by her relatives and reflects the family’s biases in favour of “good quiet Aunt Jane”.’

Further, they would learn that this masterful writer of the social commentary and romance had never married, little is known of her love-life, yet it has been widely speculated upon in some circles. It is not a secret however that in 1802, Miss Austen had accepted the marriage proposal from family friend, Harris Bigg-Wither, but by the morning had withdrawn her acceptance. There are also letters from Jane to Cassandra in 1795 when she was twenty years-old about a brief flirtation with a Mr. Tom Lefroy. Sadly, his family did not approve of the match. Neither had any money and Tom was sent away, later to marry an heiress. And yet for an author who wrote exclusively of what she knew in her own sphere, how could she write of love so well had she never fully experienced it?

“We went by Bifrons and I contemplated with a melancholy pleasure the abode of Him, on whom I once fondly doated.” Jane Austen in a letter to her sister Cassandra, 1796

And with that one line, bestselling author Syrie James again undertakes the great task of expanding upon known facts and giving us her latest historical re-imagining, Jane Austen’s First Love. Who was “Him”, this man who resided at Bifrons, upon whom she fondly doated? And what had he meant to her?

Told in the first person narrative, Jane Austen’s First Love opens with our heroine being reminded of that letter she had written to sister Cassandra in 1796, recalling a person she had not thought about in many years. She was but fifteen in 1791, the same year that her elder brother Edward became engaged to Miss Elizabeth Bridges. The Austens were invited by his fiancé’s family to partake in several summer festivities at their grand country estate of Goodnestone Park in Kent. As they neared their destination, the carriage had an accident—but they found a preserver in the handsome Edward Taylor, heir to the nearby estate Bifrons, and cousin to Edward Austen-Knight’s future in-laws.

I froze; I could not avert my gaze; Mr. Taylor’s handsome countenance was but a foot or two from mine, and his arrival, like a knight in shining armour, had been so unexpected, his eyes were so dark and sparkling, that for the space of a breath, I forgot where I was or that any action was required of me.” p 47

When they reach Goodnestone and meet the family, it becomes readily apparent that their future sisters-in-law are more impressed with themselves than the newly arrived, less than auspicious Austens. As the entertainments commence, Jane plays matchmaker (as well as casting director in a private theatrical the young people indulge in), and not unlike one of her beloved heroines, Emma Woodhouse, we soon learn how inept young Jane is for the role. ‘Were my actors to be properly paired, who could say where it might lead? In enacting their parts, true feelings might be kindled; a very real intimacy might well emerge! This was my hope.’ Still she admits, only to herself, that ‘perhaps indulgent, immodest, even slightly immoral’ she has hopes of playing opposite Edward Taylor.

Daily diversions throw her in the path of the worldly Edward Taylor, and impressionable Jane cannot help but be drawn in by his uncommon intelligence, sound mind and opinions, gusto for life, and his unaffected attentions towards herself – forever dividing her life into two categories: before she met Edward Taylor, and everything thereafter. ‘“They were lovely- but as to meaningful conversation, they had nothing to offer.” The look and smile he gave me indicated, without words, that our present discourse was far preferable to him than had been the other.’ Though as new house guests arrive, a rival for his affections becomes known in the comely, yet reserved Miss Charlotte Watkinson Paylor.

I had never heard of Edward Taylor before. And upon my first reading of Jane Austen’s First Love, I thought it a sweet bit of Austenesque pastiche with clever characters and wonderful smatterings and/or hints of some of Austen’s famous prose. Solid four, maybe 4 ½ stars. Yet, it was not until reading the Author’s Afterword that I learned that Edward Taylor was an actual person! And, from Syrie James’ extensive research, it is not a stretch to surmise that Edward Taylor was a guest at Goodnestone Park when the Austens were also in residence that summer of 1791. In addition, her research detailed what a remarkable young man Edward Taylor was—just the sort of man a young Miss Austen might fall in-love with! ‘That he was a real person, and that I had in my possession so many little-known facts about his life, was very exciting. A picture began to form in my mind as to how and when Edward Taylor and Jane Austen might have met as teenagers, and what their relationship might have been.’ So, of course, I had to read the whole novel again, with this new perspective! And much in the manner of the film, Becoming Jane, this second reading left me so very hopeful that maybe, just maybe, it happened that way, that our beloved Jane did experience a first love (and even heartache), which made me adore this story all the more.

With a manifold of bestsellers behind her, Syrie James is an incomparable storyteller, turning obscure details from personal research into inspired, yet richly embellished, fictional narratives. Jane Austen’s First Love is a lively, romantic “what if” that will make you laugh, as well as tug at your heart. I must recommend you ‘give a loose to your fancy, indulge your imagination in every possible flight,’ and add Syrie James’ latest work to your Summer Reading List.

5 out of 5 Regency Stars

At Goodnestone Park painting by Annmarie Thomas

Enter a chance to win the original painting “At Goodnestone Park”

by Annmarie Thomas inspired by the novel Jane Austen’s First Love

Jane Austen’s First Love: A Novel, by Syrie James
Berkley Trade (August 5th, 2014), 400 pages
Trade paperback ISBN: 978-0425271353
Digital eBook ASIN: B00G3L7VES

Cover image courtesy of Berkley Trade © 2014; text Christina Boyd, 2014,Austenprose.com

Disclosure of Material Connection: We received one review copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. We only review or recommend products we have read or used and believe will be a good match for our readers. We are disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

That Summer: A Novel, by Lauren Willig – A Review

From the desk of Christina Boyd:That Summer, by Lauren Willig (2014 )

After a successful divergence from her Napoleonic spy romances of the Pink Carnation series with the post-Edwardian The Ashford Affair, New York Times bestselling author Lauren Willig again embarks on another stand-alone narrative. Entangling one generation with the past is Willig’s trademark, and That Summer is of modern day Julia Conley as well as her ancestors in 1849.

In 2009, motherless Julia inherits an old family house in England from a great Aunt Regina Ashe, a woman she cannot even recall. One of the recently unemployed in the recession, she travels from New York City to Herne Hill, a district south of London, to view her inheritance and unload it as quickly as possible. Upon arrival, she meets her exceedingly obliging and maybe even presumptuous cousin, Natalie, who eagerly volunteers to help sort the old mansion and later even brings along the fine Nicholas Dorrington, if somewhat taciturn antiques dealer, to value the lot. Although they jest concerning hidden treasures, Julia cannot but wonder if in fact there might be some sort of riches her relations hope to unearth beneath the years of dust, dank oddments and papers. But what she had not expected was to exhume memories of her childhood.

Julia’s hand was on the knob of the door before she realized that she had retreated, step by step, ready to duck out and shut the door. She laughed shakily. Great. Metaphor made action. Her English professors in college would have loved that. Shut the door and shut the door. Just like she had been shutting the door all these years. Julia’s knuckles were white against the old brass doorknob. This was insane. Insane. What was she so afraid of? What was she so afraid of remembering? Maybe she was just afraid she would miss her. Her mother.” (87)

In 1849, Imogene Grantham has been married to the much older Arthur, collector of antiquities and artifacts, for nearly a decade. And though she naively thought she was marrying for love, it was not long before she realized she was to be just another showpiece to adorn his home. Oddly, Arthur’s late wife’s sister, a Miss Jane Cooper, a bitter and suspicious woman, continues to manage the house. A lonely life to be sure, with Imogene’s only pleasure deriving from the adoration of Evie, her step-daughter. When three pre-Raphaelite artists come to admire Grantham’s collection, an unsuspecting Imogene is observed by the reticent Gavin Thorne.

Nor was Mrs. Grantham in Augustus’s style. He liked pink and white society beauties. If Miss Cooper was a Rembrandt sketch of a purse-lipped Dutch housewife and Miss Evangeline Grantham a Dresden shepherdess, all pink and white, and yellow curls, Mrs. Grantham was something else, entirely. In the candlelight she was ebony and ivory, the dark waves of her hair accentuating the strong bones of her face.” (59-60)

Nevertheless, Imogene was all too aware of the attentions Mr. Augustus Fotheringay-Vaughn bestowed upon the 16 year old Evangeline. (Vaughn? Vaughn! Surely not the “spawn of Vaughn”—from Willig’s The Pink Carnation series? Oh, heaven help the artless heiress.)

As Julia discovers a pre-Raphaelite painting concealed behind a false wall in an armoire—and as she and Nick sift through the house for more clues as to authenticity, why the piece was secreted away, and why the likeness between the woman in this Tristan and Isolde scene to that of the formal yet forlorn portrait prominently displayed in the drawing room—a developing magnetism between the two cannot be denied. Still, Nick is an art dealer and Natalie, who seems to have her eyes on Nick, puts Julia on her guard.

Lauren Willig has painted lush, colorful characters and layered historical details, touches of mystery and romance with a deft brush that made me yearn for more. A masterful work of art, That Summer is sure to become this summer’s Must Read in women’s fiction.

5 out of 5 Stars

That Summer: A Novel, by Lauren Willig
St. Martin’s Press (2014)
Hardcover (352) pages
ISBN: 978-1250014504

Cover image courtesy of St. Martin’s Press © 2014; text Christina Boyd © 2014, Austenprose.com

Disclosure of Material Connection: We received one review copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. We only review or recommend products we have read or used and believe will be a good match for our readers. We are disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

The Secret Betrothal: A Pride and Prejudice Alternate Path, by Jan Hahn – A Review

From the desk of Christina Boyd:   The Secret Betrothal by Jan Hahn (2014)

Marriage in Regency times was the rock that built Society’s foundation. Not only was it the most important step in a young woman’s life, the union could advance her family’s social standing and wealth. Throughout Jane Austen’s novels we are shown the maneuverings of families to obtain advantageous alliances for their children, so when we see the secret engagements in Emma and Sense and Sensibility, and their outcome, we know the risk and scandal that can ensue. With this in mind, I am both curious and uneasy by author Jan Hahn’s choice of The Secret Betrothal as a title of her new novel. Furthermore, in this reimagining of Pride and Prejudice, she has boldly chosen to explore what would happen if Elizabeth Bennet entered into one herself! Whatever would possess our favorite Austen heroine to take this risk—and what would Mr. Darcy do to save her from such a folly?

For reasons I shan’t give away here, Elizabeth must keep this betrothal a secret and when she was told she could tell no one, not even her beloved sister, Jane:

“…she felt a chill crawl up her back….Although he lacked fortune, it was due to no failing on his part, and he had the promise of an adequate future awaiting him. But the possibility of waiting two years provoked a sigh from deep within her. He had warned Elizabeth that they must avoid paying close attention to each other when in public so as not to raise talk among the gossips of Meryton. Being a sensible woman, Elizabeth knew that was necessary as talk of matches and mating was primary among Hertfordshire society. Still, it did not set well with her.”  (63)

A chance meeting at Rosings Park, Fitzwilliam Darcy and Elizabeth re-new their acquaintance and he comes to find out soon after his unpropitious declaration of love that she is already engaged. Secretly engaged! But he cannot comprehend why such an intelligent and fine a creature as Elizabeth would allow herself to enter into such an agreement. (Me either. Why, Elizabeth? Why? But of course, that frustration is what we are designed to feel.) Through a comedy of errors, the two are thrown together once again to aid the inhabitants of both Hunsford Parsonage and Rosing Park who have all taken ill after partaking in Lady Catherine’s apothecary’s prescribed tonic, helping Elizabeth change her former prejudices against Darcy. Meanwhile, as the weeks pass and Elizabeth receives scant letters from her secret amour, but continues to hear troubling news regarding his behavior from her youngest sisters, Elizabeth further questions her predicament. Not long afterward, Darcy’s physician suggests Mrs. Charlotte Collins might best recover at the seaside, so off to Lady Catherine’s Brighton home they go. There at Waverly, the story really heats up with some very sweet, romantic scenes along the ocean’s edge.

“Why did I not recognize Mr. Darcy’s true character earlier, long before I pledged myself to the one man he could never forgive?” At that moment, Elizabeth realized she truly loved him. She loved Mr. Darcy, and it was too late.

She rose to her knees and leaned out the window, allowing the wind to softly drift through her nightgown, causing her hair to blow from her face. How she yearned to reach him, to tell him how greatly she regretted all that happened!

Unexpectedly, the figure on the beach ceased his pacing. Accented by the moon’s brightness, Elizabeth could see him turn to cast his gaze toward Waverly. She became aware that most likely he could see her outline, that the candle behind her must be illuminating her figure in the window. He did not move but stood absolutely still, staring at her. Neither of them moved until a sudden gust blew through the window and quenched the candle. Now there was darkness.

Elizabeth watched the figure walk out of the light, and although she kept her vigil at the window for some time, he did not return.” (215)

(I declare, I was most inelegantly chewing my nails at this point.)

In The Secret Betrothal, award winning author Jan Hahn explores the heights and depths of a secret engagement and takes us on a frustrating, breathless, sentient and oh, so satisfying ride. I love all Jan Hahn’s previous works and have been anticipating her latest offering for months. This was worth the wait! Originally published on-line as a shorter story called “The Engagement”, this published work has undergone a thorough concept edit, tightening the story and expanding where the on-line story lacked. As always, Hahn writes excellent romance, but I did not relish that Elizabeth and Darcy did not take the straightforward approach to solving their quandary. But then that would have been a totally different story, and a bit of angst in Austenesque fiction is most deliciously, tantalizing. The Secret Betrothal felt authentic enough to Austen & Regency times. I am a sucker for happily-ever-afters. Fans of Jan Hahn will surely inhale this book, and those new to her work should add this to their to-be-read list—sooner than later.

5 out of 5 Regency Stars

The Secret Betrothal: A Pride and Prejudice Alternate Path, by Jan Hahn
Meryton Press (2014)
Trade paperback (324)
ISBN: 978-1936009329

Cover image courtesy of Meryton Press © 2014; text Christina Boyd © 2014, Austenprose.com

Happy Birthday Mr. Darcy: Austen Addicts Vol. 5, by Victoria Connelly – A Review

Happy Birthday Mr Darcy by Victoria Connelly 2013 x 200From the desk of Christina Boyd:

The Austen Addicts series has evolved through the years into a guilty pleasure for me. Happy Birthday Mr. Darcy is Victoria Connelly’s fifth installment in this contemporary romance series loosely inspired by Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. The novella reunites us with her original characters from the first in the series, Weekend with Mr. Darcy, and opens a week prior to when Warwick Lawton (Austenesque author who writes under the female nom de plume, Lorna Warwick) is to pledge his troth to his Austen scholar/fiancé, Katherine Roberts.

Katherine is enchanted with the Regency themed wedding plans, her antique Russian engagement ring, and her empire-styled gown. She had never seen anything so beautiful. Well, not since Matthew Macfadyen had strode across the dawn meadow in the 2005 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. She really didn’t feel worthy of such a dress and it felt like a terrible extravagance to have something so lovely for just one day. Though passionately in-love with her fiancé, not unlike many brides, doubts about the marriage state and how her life is to change loom overhead right up until the wedding hour.

A colorful cast of characters with nods to Austen’s own characters, including Warwick’s marriage-cynic of a sister and his handsome, jovial best man, add to the wedding festivities. Dame Pamela, a favorite from Weekend with Mr. Darcy, opens her manor home to host the wedding and quips these two Janeites are marrying the same year that Pride and Prejudice celebrates its two-hundredth birth. “Mr. Darcy is doing well for his age,” Dame Pamela said with a little chuckle. “Pleasing women for two centuries is no mean feat!”

It was autumn of 2011 when I first discovered Victoria Connelly. I was in high dudgeon as it was the weekend of the Jane Austen Society of North America (JASNA) Annual General Meeting (AGM) in Fort Worth, Texas and I would be missing the festivities. Austenprose blog mistress Laurel Ann Nattress had left me with a copy of A Weekend with Mr. Darcy, the first in the Austen Addicts series, as some consolation; I could not help but commiserate with Kitty Bennet when her sister Lydia left her home at Longbourn for her adventure at Brighton! Although not the thrill of attending an AGM Regency ball, Connelly’s first in her Austen Addicts series was a balm to my battered spirits. Since then, the Austen Addicts’ series continued: Dreaming of Mr. Darcy, Mr. Darcy Forever, and then the novella, Christmas with Mr. Darcy.

There are no big surprises in Happy Birthday Mr. Darcy. But I must agree with the sage Mr. Knightley from Emma: “Surprises are foolish things.” However, despite being a harmless bit of Austen pastiche, this little darling of a book was but a light, nibble of meringue that left me wanting more.

4 out of 5 Stars

Happy Birthday Mr. Darcy: Austen Addicts Vol. 5, by Victoria Connelly
Cuthland Press (2013)
Trade paperback (118) pages
ISBN: 978-0956986672

Cover image courtesy of Cuthland Press © 2013; text Christina Boyd © 2014, Austenprose.com

Undressing Mr. Darcy, by Karen Doornebos – A Review

The Pride Prejudice Bicentenary Challenge (2013)This is our twelfth and final selection for The Pride and Prejudice Bicentenary Challenge 2013, our year-long blog event honoring Jane Austen’s second published novel. Please follow the link above to read all the details of this reading and viewing challenge. Sign up’s are now closed but you can read the reviews and comment through 31 December 2013.

From the desk of Christina Boyd: 

With a title like Undressing Mr. Darcy, author Karen Doornebos’ new release is sure to turn a few heads this holiday season. “Sex sells, even to smart, liberated women, and Mr. Darcy was the smart girl’s pinup boy.” p. 7 And like the novel’s heroine, a master PR rep who has turned tweeting into an #artform, Doornebos has carefully crafted another contemporary romance novel about an ambitious, highly energized, very modern woman who meets a charming Mr. Darcy re-enactor, sure to draw the attention of Janeites and romance readers alike.

When Vanessa Roberts, PR extraordinaire with the perpetually-present smartphone and ever-ready clever social media tweet or posting, takes on a pro-bono job as a favor for her elderly Jane Austen loving aunt, little does she expect promoting the English author of, My Year as Mr. Darcy, to turn her organized world topsy-turvy. When she finally meets Julian Chancellor, who has capitalized on his good looks “as he gives a little historical background on his Regency-era clothing as he proceeds to take it off –down to his drawers” at his book signings, she finds she too, like the throngs of Darcy fans in the audience, is caught by his artful allurements.

When she realizes his incentive for writing his book is to raise money to support the restoration of his ancestral home, coupled with his charm and gentlemen-like behavior, she can’t help herself but start to fantasize what a fling, nay relationship, with him might be like. As they all attend the Jane Austen Society North America (JASNA) Annual General Meeting (AGM) in Chicago, while surrounded by Austen lovers fully immersed in the hubbub, Vanessa is busy promoting her author, “Want to tie the knot with Mr. Darcy? He’s in Cravat Tying 101 right now.#JASNAagm #UndressingMrDarcy #OrDressingMrDarcy?” p. 71 Surprisingly amongst all the bonnets and lace, she discovers she might be open to the possibilities of something more to life than constantly being plugged in.

It felt as if some of his Austen quotes were speaking directly to her at times, and it occurred to her that it might be time that she gave the author another chance. Perhaps her aunt had been on to something all these years. Was there something beyond the happily ever after stories and the demure portrait of a woman in a white ruffled cap that popped in Vanessa’s head every time ‘Jane Austen’ was mentioned?” p. 36

Undressing Mr. Darcy by Karen Doornebos (2013)As Julian’s clothes come off, the heat turns up. But it’s not just his fine person that captivates her; his endearing friendship with her beloved aunt coupled with his affection and knowledge of all things Austen soon bewitch her body and soul. “‘The conversion has begun. It’s in your blood. Resistance is futile.’ He looked into her eyes and took a step backward. ‘You’re becoming an Austen fan.‘” p. 9

But like in life, ever dry spell has its flood. And for the lonesome, loveless Vanessa, soon after meeting Julian she meets a handsome, amiable pirate! Turns out HeroCon is happening simultaneously at the same Chicago hotel. Is Chase MacClane a rogue of the highest order or is he the hero in disguise?

Two Austen events later, Vanessa finds herself in England for the celebrated ten day Jane Austen Festival in Bath. As soon as the plane lands, the consummate media maven posts, “‘Here I am once more in this Scene of Dissipation & vice, and I begin already to find my Morals corrupted.’ Could a girl ask for more? All sorts of sordid things happen in London.” p. 209 But all may not be how it appears. Later as she scampers about London and Bath on a wild, Austen-inspired scavenger hunt, she questions the authenticity of her relationship with Julian, her friendship with Chase, her aunt’s imminent Alzheimer’s diagnosis, and what she is going to do about any of it. “She laughed at her own folly. Folly? Had she ever used that word before? Why did she palpably feel Jane Austen’s presence across the room, near the trio, with folded arms and laughing at her?” p. 214 Doornebos’s storytelling had me biting my bottom lip until the very last, guessing who, if anyone, our fair heroine might choose!

Karen Doornebos, the author of Definitely Not Mr. Darcy, has certainly delivered me good tidings of comfort and joy this holiday season with this latest offering. Because of her concise research of Austen, in concert with the believable dialogue and madcap romantic antics, I am compelled to tweet: “@xtnaboyd Undressing Mr. Darcy is the #perfectstockingstuffer for Austen & Darcy lovers everywhere- regardless who are naughty or nice!”

5 out of 5 Stars 

Undressing Mr. Darcy, by Karen Doornebos
Berkley Trade (2013)
Trade paperback (368) pages
ISBN: 978-0425261392

Cover image courtesy of Berkley Trade © 2013; text Christina Boyd © 2013, Austenprose.com