From the desk of Katie Patchell:
Who was Jane Austen’s seaside gentleman, the man she had fallen in love with at Sidmouth, who tragically died soon after their end-of-vacation parting? Readers and fans of Jane Austen have pondered this question for decades, without there being any definite answer. Jane’s surviving letters remain silent on the issue, and any information about the man’s name and the details of his relationship with Jane has been forever hidden from the public through Cassandra’s choice to destroy much of her sister’s (most likely, more personal) letters. All readers can do is imagine: just who was the seaside gentleman? How did he meet the witty, brilliant, outspoken young woman who became one of literature’s greatest authors? And how deeply did Jane fall in love with him? Carolyn V. Murray answers these questions—as well as many others—in her fascinating 2015 debut, Jane by the Sea: Jane Austen’s Love Story.
Opening in 1787, the precocious twelve-year-old Jane Austen sneaks into the classroom of her father’s all boys’ boarding school and entertains the students with a comedy of murder and mayhem. Despite her mother’s horrified declarations of family shame and the state of her irritated bowels, Jane is irrepressible, already looking forward to the prospect of an event which promises much more material for new stories: “A ball,” I announced. “For though I have never been to one, I hear there is much opportunity for treachery and pandemonium.” It would be some years before I could test the truth of that statement. (5)
Flash forward eight years, and Jane, now twenty-one, is preparing for a ball. Soon after entering the grand hall filled with dancing couples and beautiful music she meets the young, attractive, and very charming Mr. Lefroy. “Tom’s smile was a dizzying ray of sunshine. ““Miss Austen, are you engaged for the next two dances?” ” And so it began.” (15)
Jane is blissfully in love with him and believes her feelings to be returned…until he breaks her heart. Months pass while Jane accustoms herself to spinsterhood, especially once she realizes that many men prefer wealth and charm instead of a sharp wit and small income. Jane’s relatively calm spinsterhood remains unshaken…until Lieutenant Barnes arrives on the scene, and against all odds, refuses to be warned off by Jane’s verbal barbs.
“I was obliged to acknowledge that few could withstand the barrage of bad manners I had thrown in his path. And he had passed all tests. “That would be to little purpose, for you never take offense…despite my best efforts.”
This confession made us both smile.
“You take great enjoyment in laughing at your fellow man,” he observed.
“I will not deny it. But I hope I never ridicule what is wise or good.”
“And do you laugh at yourself?”
“When I am not busy laughing at others.”
“And when is that?” he inquired skeptically.
I thought for a moment. “Tuesdays.” (105-106)
When dislike fades and love takes its place, Jane discovers that maybe everyone—including her characters—deserves a second chance.
In Jane by the Sea, Carolyn Murray touches on each part of Jane Austen’s life with delicacy, showing one of the most fascinating renditions of Jane that I’ve ever encountered—headstrong and brave, funny, sometimes impatient, unkind, and unsure of herself, creative, and perceptive. I especially enjoyed the author’s interpretation of Jane’s relationship with her family and the seaside gentleman: her close bond with Cassandra and Frank, tense moments with her mother, and kinship with her father. Jane and Lieutenant Barnes were so well suited for each other, and the romance was on par with that of the heroes and heroines in Austen’s novels. While I’ll spoil this review enough to say that no, Jane by the Sea stays true to how events played out in Jane Austen’s life, I’ll also go further and give potential readers hope: just as in Jane’s novels, Jane by the Sea has a happy ending.
I wasn’t surprised to discover on finishing this book and reading the author’s bio that although this was Carolyn Murray’s debut, she’s already written screenplays. The characters leapt off the page and into my imagination, and the dialogue and action were easy to picture. As befits Jane Austen’s life, novels, and personality, Jane by the Sea has plenty of comedic moments and witty dialogue (including Jane’s rewrites of scenes and characters from the early versions of Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice depending on her mood). Murray’s attention to details and obvious respect of Jane Austen as a woman and author only added to the novel’s already fine qualities with its honest yet beautiful account of “what could have been” in this part of Jane Austen’s life. I couldn’t recommend Jane by the Sea highly enough for anyone who loves her novels or who wants to discover the mystery, joy, laughter, and bittersweet moments of Jane Austen’s own “what could have been.”
5 out of 5 Stars
Jane by the Sea: Jane Austen’s Love Story, by Carolyn V. Murray
Sandcastle Press (2015)
Trade paperback & eBook (208) pages
Cover image courtesy of Sandcastle Press © 2015; text Katie Patchell © 2015, Austenprose.com
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