Please help us welcome today bestselling author Syrie James. She is joining us for a two-day book launch party in celebration of the debut of her new Austen-inspired novel, The Missing Manuscript of Jane Austen.
I am so thrilled for the release of this new book. I was given the opportunity to read an early manuscript last winter and I must share that I was so impressed and excited about it that it was very difficult to keep the details a secret. It is structured as a novel within a novel—one of my favorite formats for fiction—revealing a contemporary story framing an historical novel. Samantha McDonough, a young American scholar is set on a quest to an ancient grand manor house in Devonshire to find the missing manuscript and meets the present owner Anthony Whitaker, who is at first reluctant to assist in her search until he realizes the possible financial gain. When they discover the missing manuscript they read it together, and so do we—a charming premise tying an historical novel together with a contemporary plot. The amazing thing about this book is that it was inspired by Jane Austen’s own short outline, A Plan of a Novel, a parody in which she comically describes characters and plot for a possible novel that was never written, or was it?
Our guest of honor today is the author herself, Syrie James, who will share insights with us on The Missing Manuscript of Jane Austen. Welcome Syrie.
Like many of Jane Austen’s fans across the globe, the first time I read all her books, I finished the sixth one and said, “Is that it? Only six?” To continue feeding my Jane addiction, I read her juvenilia, her shorter works, her unfinished works, and all her preserved letters. Then I went back to the beginning and read her novels all over again. It still wasn’t enough. If only, I thought, she’d written a seventh novel!
Five years ago, I was at the JASNA AGM (Jane Austen Society of North America Annual General Meeting) in Chicago. It was my first time at a Jane Austen conference—a truly wonderful immersion experience that I like to call “Jane Austen heaven.” My novel The Lost Memoirs of Jane Austenhad been published the year before. I was nearly finished writing my Brontë book. I had researched both novels like crazy, felt like a walking Austen and Brontë encyclopedia, and was pondering what to write next.
While walking down Michigan Avenue, a title suddenly downloaded into my head: The Missing Manuscript of Jane Austen. I felt a sudden tingle, a momentous feeling of excitement and impending change. I thought: what a great a title! What if Jane did write a manuscript that somehow went missing? As far as the world knows, she only wrote six full-length novels. Could I write the seventh? I knew it would be a Herculean task, just as surely as I knew that I was supposed to do it.
I pondered the idea for a while, seeking a storyline that would be truly “Jane.” One day, while perusing her minor works, I re-read a little piece Austen wrote a year before she died: Plan of a Novel. It’s a comedic outline for a book about a beautiful, accomplished heroine and her clergyman father, who’s driven from his curacy by a heartless man, forcing them to go forth on all sorts of adventures. Plan of a Novel pokes fun at the overly dramatic books of the time. Jane even added footnotes attributing various story elements to ‘hints’ or suggestions from well-meaning friends and relatives. I’d always thought it was hilarious.
An idea occurred to me: What if Jane’s Plan of a Novel wasn’t just a bit of silliness she dashed off as a parody? What if she wrote it in a mood of wit and wistfulness, making fun of a manuscript she’d written years earlier, but had lost and half-forgotten?
That’s how The Missing Manuscript of Jane Austen was born. I was excited. I could write a novel based on an outline for a book that Jane Austen had written herself! Plan of a Novel is, on a cursory reading, very silly indeed; but I envisioned a way to delve beneath the surface and make it work on a serious level—as a story with characters we would care about—a tale with heart and meaning in true Jane Austen style.
I wrote an outline for the book, but was soon distracted by other projects. Several years went by. I wrote other novels. During this time, I continued to steep myself in Austen literature and lore until I felt that I knew her world, her work, and her life inside and out, well enough to attempt to write the Austen book that had been simmering in my brain. By now, I’d come up with a new approach that I thought would be even more interesting: to make it a novel with a novel, wrapping a modern day story around the missing manuscript, so that I could show the impact that find would have on their lives.
I developed the main characters in the Austen manuscript (all of whom remain nameless in Plan of a Novel) as per Austen’s description. My heroine, Rebecca Stanhope, is the daughter of a clergyman; she is beautiful, highly accomplished, plays the piano forte and harp, and sings “in the first stile.” Rebecca’s father, the Reverend William Stanhope, is (as in Austen’s Plan) an excellent man and a model parish priest. I gave him enough flaws to give the story some edge and mystery, and set it in motion.
I kept the best story elements of Jane Austen’s (very short) outline and tweaked others. Austen wrote that wherever the heroine goes, “somebody falls in love with her, and she receives repeated offers of marriage” and she is compelled to “support herself and her father by her talents.” These were fun scenes to write.
I created the rest of the characters and story on my own, following the path I believed Austen would have tread. Since Jane Austen often reused character names from her juvenilia in her mature novels, I did the same. I titled it The Stanhopes since most of her early titles were based on the names of her characters.
After I finished The Stanhopes, I wrote the modern day story around it. It was challenging to write the Austen part of the novel, but equally challenging to write Samantha and Anthony’s story—it took three drafts to get it right. Fortunately, Laurel Ann Nattress read an early draft and suggested ways to give the modern day story more edge and meaning—advice that was so brilliant and invaluable, I created a character based on her and put her into the book! J My editor, Jackie Cantor, also provided very insightful and helpful feedback. The whole book was a labor of love and a tribute to Jane. I hope readers enjoy the result!
Syrie James is the bestselling author of eight critically acclaimed novels, including The Missing Manuscript of Jane Austen, The Lost Memoirs of Jane Austen, The Secret Diaries of Charlotte Brontë, Dracula My Love, Nocturne, Forbidden, and The Harrison Duet: Songbird and Propositions. Her books have been translated into eighteen foreign languages. In addition to her work as a novelist, Syrie is a screenwriter, a member of the Writers Guild of America, RWA, and a life member of the Jane Austen Society of North America. Syrie lives with her family in Los Angeles, California. Connect with her on her website, facebook, and Twitter.
The Missing Manuscript of Jane Austen, by Syrie James
Berkley Trade (2012)
Trade paperback (432) pages
© 2012 Laurel Ann Nattress & Syrie James, Austenprose