Jane Austen is so hot these days, it seems unnecessary to even promote any book by, about or linked to her, but I must admit that this fictitious-yet-historical novel stands out from the modern “tributes” inspired by the Godmother of Chick Lit [if not the novel-as-we-know-it.] Being an admirer, I have enjoyed [most of] the updated film versions and remakes, but not so much the “literature” that has been produced by fans and wannabes. Obviously, I cannot read all the books, so I may have missed it, but as far as I know this is the first one that rewrites Jane’s life. In her voice, no less.
One of the great lamentations among Austen’s fans and scholars is of course, that she never knew love herself. I always wished that she had been paid more, considering how much others have made since from her creations. However, she did get compensation and recognition for her work during her lifetime, which was no small feat for women then, and she definitely opened some lovely shuttered windows for the rest of us. And, of course, I wish her a Mr. Darcy, too. With a healthy annual stipend. [As long as she still got to hang on to her career, natch.]
So, screenwriter Syrie James has taken on an enormous task- channel Austen and bring her back to life- and in The Lost Memoirs of Jane Austen she has pretty much done just that. I admit, I was skeptical; after all, Austen’s prose is recognizable as her own and in general, 21st century Americans cannot recreate the vernacular and tone of Regency England. Yet, many attempt it and most fail, whether they know it or not. To adopt a universally acclaimed novelist’s voice in order to tell her own story? Daunting, indeed. For some Austenites, it probably amounts to sacrilege.
Fortunately, James did her homework and manages to present Jane Austen, the character much as Jane Austen, the human might have been. She is not as self-absorbed as some of her own characters; she has the same humor and light cynical-yet-romantic tone that I so identified with in high school. And she is a writer.
Yes, she gets to be a romantic heroine, as well as the slightly unappreciated and completely dependent daughter/sister/female burden on society. The biographical element of this novel goes beyond the typical blurbs which present Ms. A as a spinster-doomed-to-write-romances. We follow her and her kindred spirit/sister Cassandra as they move about British social circles literally looking for their place in life. We are able to comprehend what it really was like for those women [and their fictional counterparts the Misses Bennetts, Emmas, etc] to be stuck with almost nothing in their lives except the potential suitors/marriages and of course gossip, gossip, gossip. We see Jane struggling with the mores and proprieties imposed on her [as I and many modern readers just know they would too]. And yes, we get to watch her fall madly in love with a man who “gets” her and appreciates her even with all her quirks. sigh…
The greatest part of the plot/history, though, for this reader at least, is the story of Jane Austen, author, who struggled with her creativity, desire to write and the gigantic brick walls she had to scale in order to succeed. Syrie James, the 21st century, award-winning screenwriter, wife and mother, knows that the real Jane was not the one-dimensional “authoress” who wiled away her days writing little stories while waiting for true love to come and find her. That Jane would never have been published in her lifetime. This Jane knows the mental strain of writer’s block as well as the overwhelming rush, which I term “writer’s flow,” that can equally strain the brain. She was born into a family of writers and blessed with an uncanny ability to satirize her society without isolating herself from it. She could write; she needed to write, so she did for her own satisfaction, primarily, but ultimately because it was her purpose in life, her contribution to this world. I honestly wept when she started writing again, reworking her original manuscript of Sense and Sensibility, overcoming her own self-doubts and inner critic. And when she finished, she had to face more fears:
My heart pounded with trepidation at the thought. I had devoted my entire heart, soul and mind to this work, and two or three years to its inception. What if it did not sell? What if all my efforts had, as in the past, been in vain?
Talk about a love story. We of course know the ending, but it’s the getting there that Ms. James relates so well for readers who may or may not be familiar with the history of Jane Austen. She introduces us to the real characters of Austen’s life, brothers, mother, various relatives and acquaintances, etc., who inspired the immortal characters of the novels. Aside from a slightly annoying trope involving “editor’s footnotes” James has done a superb job of entwining these characters, as well as the settings of certain scenes, in such a manner that it is hard to separate her version from Jane’s novels. Much of it is recorded biographical fact, but it is often hard to distinguish where the fictional elements blend in, which is why the love story works too.
And why not? The Jane that I admire had the nerve to choose not to marry someone she could not love, and surely, to love a man she could not marry. Whether or not it happened, James has created the possibility in an intelligent, historical romance novel. I do believe that Jane would approve.