What if Jane Austen had written a memoir that was uncovered almost two hundred years after her death? Can you imagine the excitement among literary historians, Janeites, and the academic world in general? Unfortunately, no such event has happened, but Syrie James, author of The Lost Memoirs of Jane Austen has created a remarkable book, one that "could" have been Jane Austen's lost memoir. The book, with its lovely cover, is treated like the real thing, and comes with a foreword, footnotes, author's insights, and more. But it's not the extras that excited my interest: It is Ms. James' spot on research and writing style.
My sisters in arms, the Janeites on the James, know that when it comes to Jane fiction I expect the story to be written well, the dates to be accurate, and the "feel" of the piece to echo Jane's style of writing. We have had some spirited discussions on the topic this past year, with me often taking the lone position of wishing to discuss Jane's novels and characters only. So it is unusual for me to gush like an excited tweeny about a Jane spin-off. But there you have it.
According to the Memoir, Jane's true love was a Mr. Frederick Ashford, a man she meets in Lyme. At this juncture in her life, Jane lives in Southampton and has stopped writing. No letters exist from this period, and it is assumed that Cassandra destroyed them. Syrie James, curious about that silent period, said during an interview, "I was intrigued by the story that Jane's sister Cassandra confided to her niece: that the only man Jane ever truly loved, was an unnamed gentleman she once met at an unspecified seaside resort. This tantalizing anecdote is known as the mysterious "seaside romance." Everyone wonders: who was that man? What happened to him? I decided to invent him."
Unfortunately, Jane and her true love never marry. Mr. Ashford comes with a secret, one that makes sense for that era and which is revealed late in the book. Thus the ending is bittersweet, but it is uplifting at the same time. Jane emerges from the affair having experienced romantic love in a deep and mature way. In real life, the unnamed gentleman Jane purportedly loved died, but you will have to find out what happened to Mr. Ashford by reading the Memoir.
If you were wondering which book to read in front of a fire during a cold snap, or what gift to purchase for a fellow Janeite, this book is that perfect item. Syrie James' own words about her research and preparation sum up why I so highly recommend her novel:
I felt a great responsibility to remain true to Jane Austen's known history, and to accurately represent not only her, but her real-life friends and family members. It was a challenge to interweave my love story with the known dates, times, places and facts of Jane Austen's life. When I was finished, I hoped it would be difficult for even the most discerning Jane Austen scholar to determine where fact ended and fiction began.
My rating for the book: Three Regency fans.