Jane Austen. Fact: born December 16, 1775; died July 18, 1817 at age 41. Fact: never married. Fact: wrote six complete novels, including a few unfinished works, and juvenilia. Fact: lived out her life in a quiet Chawton Cottage with her older, spinster sister Cassandra and aging mother. Also known is that not long before her own death, Cassandra burned much of Jane’s private correspondence and even cut out entire passages of the letters saved, driving many discussions as to why? Many Jane Austen biographies abound and mention her brief flirtation with Tom Lefroy at the age of 19, and even her short-lived engagement to Harris Bigg-Wither, heir of Manydown Park, where over night she retracted her acceptance of his hand. But nothing from the author herself. Nothing as rich as a personal journal. What a literary triumph that would be to discover such a one! Surely, a writer with transparent understanding of romance, great love and human nature would have had her own back story to mine such rich characters, conversations and scenarios as found in Pride & Prejudice, Persuasion, et al. Surely, such a mind would have experienced first-hand what it is to be in-love! Author Syrie James undertakes this venture of speculation in her novel, The Lost Memoirs of Jane Austen.
In this fictional work, the story opens with an Editor’s Forward, written by a Mary I. Jesse, of Oxford University, President of the Jane Austen Literary Foundation, stating that manuscripts written in Jane Austen’s own hand were recently discovered in a chest that had been walled up at Chawton Manor House. These memoirs begin with Jane and Cassandra moving to Bath in 1801 with their parents, until Mr. Austen dies four years later, leaving the women barely solvent. During these years they make extended stays with their Austen brothers and are quite dependent on their kindness. On one particular occasion while visiting Lyme with her brother Henry, Jane meets the handsome, rich and amiable Mr. Frederick Ashford. As devoted Janeites will clearly perceive the language, phrasing and situations found in Austen’s masterpieces, we would also easily recognize many of her male protagonists’ characteristics in this fine gentleman. One example while strolling the Cobb, Jane loses her footing and would have fallen to her death on the hard pavement below if not for the quick actions by Mr. Ashford. A few moments later after this prophetic initial meeting, Jane attempts to properly thank him, Ashford declares
‘ No thanks are necessary.’
‘Indeed they are. Reaching out as you did, you might have lost your footing and come to harm yourself.’
‘Had that been the case, I would have given my life – or limb – in a worthy cause.’
‘Do you mean to imply that it was worth risking your life, to save mine?’
‘A bold statement, on such a short acquaintance.’
‘In what way bold?’
‘You are a gentleman and the heir to a title and, apparently, a vast estate. Whereas I am a woman with no fortune and of very little consequence.’
‘If first impressions are to be believed, Miss Austen’ he began.
‘Never trust your first impressions, Mr. Ashford. They are invariably wrong.’
‘Mine are invariably right. And they lead me to this conclusion: that you, Miss Austen, are a woman of greater fortune and consequence than I.’
‘On what grounds do you base this claim?’
‘On these grounds: if you were to have perished just now, how many people would have missed you?’
‘How many people?’
‘I would like to think my mother, my sister, my friend Martha, and my six brothers would miss me. My brothers’ wives, my nieces and nephews, who number more than a dozen, and perhaps several dear old friends.’
‘Whereas I have only my friend and one younger sister to regret my passing.’
‘No wife, then?’
‘No. So you see, although I may be rich in property, you are rich in family, and therefore the far more wealthy and important of us.’
I laughed. ‘If wealth were based on your principle, Mr. Ashford, the entire class system of England would fall apart at the seams.’ Chapter 3
Although knowing from the beginning that this was entirely a tale of fancy, and knowing in my head that Jane never married, the story filled my heart with an impossible hope. Moreover, I was surprised when I found myself weeping when the happy event never came to be.
Syrie James has extensively researched Austen’s life and Regency times blending what we know as fact with the mysterious lore created by the gaps unknown to her public, creating a beautiful, fictional what if. The footnotes, maps and Austen family tree as well as the chronology of her life were delightful reference bonuses. Also included is a Q & A with the author, Quotations from Austen’s works and letters, and even Book Club/Reading Group Study Guide discussion points.
Although this novel is a work of fiction, I read it through wishing all along that it were not. Like many, I would like to imagine this brilliant, opinionated, witty woman had met the great love of her life and that she did in fact experience some of the magic she so keenly wrote of. Syrie James successfully creates a world of Jane Austen we can only wonder. “…but for my part, if a book is well written, I always find it too short.” (The Juvenilia of Jane Austen) With such sage words I can only echo that The Lost Memoirs of Jane Austen is indeed entirely too short!
5 out of 5 Stars
The Lost Memoirs of Jane Austen, by Syrie James
Trade paperback (352)
Cover image courtesy of HarperCollins © 2007; text Christina Boyd © 2010, Austenprose.com