Syrie James’s first novel The Lost Memoirs of Jane Austen is the story of Jane Austen’s passion for Frederick Ashford and its subsequent influence over her novels. At the novel’s outset, Jane’s father has died, leaving Jane, Cassandra, and their mother in desperate circumstances. Shuffled from brother to brother and feeling rootless, Jane feels the lack of Virginia Woolf’s recommended room of one’s own. Jane’s brother Henry suggests a trip to Lyme, where she nearly falls from the steps on the Cobb, just like Louisa Musgrove, and is caught by her Frederick. The two fall in love as quickly as Elinor Dashwood and Edward Ferrars, or perhaps Marianne Dashwood and John Willoughby. Of course, any cursory student of Jane’s life knows how the story must end—Jane Austen may be one of the most famous “spinsters” in history—I hate to use that word, but in Austen’s time, remaining unmarried was difficult for women, and Jane herself suffered for it. However, knowing the end won’t keep readers from being easily drawn into their story.
Jane Austen fans will probably be of two minds about this book: 1) they will enjoy the references to Austen’s novels and feel the excitement that goes with catching each reference; 2) they won’t like Syrie James’s invention regarding Jane’s life. Put me firmly in the first camp. I don’t care how accurate the novel is, I enjoyed it from start to finish. I loved the allusions to Jane Austen’s books, and I was swept away into the story. James has done her research and has recreated what we do know of Jane Austen’s life in loving detail. One thing Syrie James will make you wonder about is the contents of those letters Cassandra edited and destroyed.
I pictured Frederick Ashford as Greg Wise, and if they ever make a movie, I do hope he plays Ashford. He is every bit as charming as any one of Jane Austen’s heroes—Austen fans will recognize just about all of them in Frederick Ashford. Jane Austen comes across exactly as one would imagine based on her writing and what we know of her. And she remains a historical personage with whom I would love to have a cup of tea.
I enjoyed Syrie James’s second novel, The Secret Diaries of Charlotte Brontë, but I think I like this novel even better. Something about the character of Jane Austen and her circle is captured more crisply. They feel more real than the Brontë sisters. And as much as I loved The Secret Diaries of Charlotte Brontë, it is high praise to say I enjoyed this novel even more.
I read The Lost Memoirs of Jane Austen for the Everything Austen Challenge II. Four down, two more to go! May I truly finish Mansfield Park this time. However, first I will be finishing Dracula, My Love, also by Syrie James, for the R.I.P. Challenge, and Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson in honor of Banned Books Week.