Sunday, 31 July 2011

The Lost Memoirs of Jane Austen by Syrie James

The premise for this novel is that Jane Austen kept a personal journal which was found in an Navy chest, bricked into the attic of her house at Chawton, a lovely idea, but one which sadly remains within the realms of fiction!
The story describes the time from when Austen's father decides to retire to Bath through to when Sense and Sensibility was published.  This covers the period sometimes described as the "missing years" when Jane is in her late twenties to early thirties.  There's no evidence of personal letters of this time and although she had completed first drafts of three novels, her writing seems to have gone quiet.  The premise the book takes is that her family (mainly Cassandra) destroy all evidence to protect the parties involved at that time from scandal.
After the death of their father, Jane and her sister Cassandra along with their mother are at the mercy of their brothers to provide a home for them; what follows is a unsettled and rather miserable time being shunted between houses, taking up child care and family duties.  To cheer her up, Jane is taken on a visit to Lyme by her brother Henry, where they meet Frederick Ashworth, the wealthy son of a baronet who owns the Pembroke estate in Derbyshire.  Although their time together is cut short and despite various misadventures and misunderstandings their relationship develops.  The Austen women are also offered the chance to live at Chawton, which becomes a happier and settled place for them all to live and allows Jane to take up her writing again.

Now I know that the purists will loathe this book and in some respects I can understand why.  It creates a romantic heroine from Austen and seems to buy into the idea that a spinster with no "love" experience could have possibly created the masterpieces that she did.  It jarred a little that many of the set pieces within Austen's novels e.g. Mr Collin's marriage proposal to Lizzie were flagrantly recreated throughout the book and it also draws very heavily upon her characters to create the fictional and padded out "real" people throughout.  I find it difficult to understand why it's necessary to give the impression that Austen didn't develop her own characterisations but lazily borrowed from people she met and knew and their conversations.
However, despite these reservations, I'll readily admit that once I got over my "issues", I admired the research that had clearly gone into this novel.  I should confess to enjoying the many "Austenesque" follow ups and differing points of view novels of varying quality that are out there as a bit of easy reading fun, so I read it in the manner I think Syrie James meant it to be approached - light entertainment.
The characterisation of Jane didn't offend me, and the relationship with Cassandra, although probably a bit too modern in tone, was fine.  Frederick Ashworth was suitably well mannered and highly connected to be the hero and love interest - a sort of amalgam of Darcy (with the big house!), Edward (for the romantic entanglements) and Mr Knightly (for being an all round good type, with a sense of humour!) which was just right for the book.
So if you're a pure Janite, you'll probably hate it, but for a bit of light fun, which is instantly forgettable - enjoy!