The amount of spin-off books about Jane Austen or based on Jane Austen’s fiction is testament to her enduring appeal hundreds of years after she was writing. I have also read Longbourn by Jo Baker which I can thoroughly recommend, a book which is about the servants in the household of the Bennetts, Elizabeth of Pride and Prejudice fame being one of the occupants.
What Syrie James does in her book is take the factual framework of Austen’s life and construct a story around it, padding it out with a romantic love story about Jane, very much in the narrative and plot style of her novels. The preface to the book outlines that Jane’s memoirs are discovered in a trunk in a cottage at Chawton, a conceit which creates the idea that the memoirs are indeed real. Chawton was the place that Jane’s brother gave to her mother and her sister to live in so it is plausible that manuscripts written by her could be found there.
And so, we are given the chance to read first-hand Jane Austen’s memoirs. How exciting to have a glimpse into the famous author’s life! Jane, at the start of the book, is living at Steventon in Hampshire, but when her father retires, they must all move to Bath, a conscious decision but one of which Jane is less than keen. She much prefers the countryside to the city life. Unfortunately, over time, Jane’s father also passes away, leaving them without any income of their own and therefore, without the means to support themselves.
As a result, Jane, her mother, her elder sister, Cassandra and a family friend called Martha are all dependent on the good will of Jane and Cassandra’s brothers and so live a peripatetic existence where they move from brother to brother depending on who has the means to support them all and whether or not they would prove useful to have around, to help with activities such as supporting their sisters-in-law with the upbringing of their children and helping to run the household.
It is Southampton though where the main action of the book takes place and this revolves around Jane’s meeting a man called Mr Frederick Ashford. He is handsome, wealthy and gallant; everything one could want in a gentleman of the time and what attracts Jane to him is that he is her intellectual equal who engages her in stimulating conversation both witty and intelligent. He is truly a man she could marry.
However, there is a hesitancy in his interaction with her which can only mean unforeseen complications that may hinder their being together, very much in a Austen-esque style. They leave each other’s company; they meet up again; they leave again – you know the deal. There is much wondering about how he may feel about her.
Those of you who have read Austen’s novels will know that the idea of marriage is very much at the forefront of her narrative. You will also recognise that she delights in poking fun at men who believe themselves to be the very pinnacle of gentlemanly suitors, the man that every woman must surely desire whilst Austen’s depiction invariably points them out to be boorish, overbearing and terminally boring. James suggests that this may have been something of which Austen had first hand experience.
In the novels, the idea of marriage for stability rather than love is one much touted and this is no different here in James’ novel as Jane, whilst being a spinster of some age, is still sought after as a desirable companion by many, her lively nature and accomplished manner being attractive to the man seeking a wife, especially in their later years. However, conscious though she is that marrying a man of means would mean that she would have a home for life as well as providing accommodation and support to her mother and widowed sister, she is is still not persuaded enough to demure and marry the men who would have her. The chance of marrying a man for love who is her equal is far more of a motivation than money.
There are lots of echoes of Jane Austen’s fiction here: parallels can especially be drawn between Persuasion, Pride and Prejudice and Emma and it does read in a similar way to an Austen novel. It is a romance, the obvious attraction and misunderstandings between Ashford and Jane being the crux of the novel – just as in all of Austen’s novels, you are willing that things will work out well for them and that they will end up happily married. Of course, if you know anything about Jane Austen’s life, you will know that she died unmarried so the end of the story is already revealed; however, this does nothing to detract from the getting there.
One thing that I did find a little irritating is the fact that Jane had letters from Mr Ashford which she declined to open, sending them back unread and I have to say that there were times when I actually said out loud, “For crying out loud, just read the bloody letter, you numpty!” which may not have been the response the author was intending for these moments. I understand the idea behind it, both from the viewpoint of establishing Jane’s character and also as a delaying device in the narrative or a means of building suspense in the fiction but it still did not stop me from being annoyed.
That said, I found this book very enjoyable. If you’re a fan of Jane Austen, then it is well worth a read as it is evocative of the time when Austen was writing and has the same atmosphere as her fiction along with the events like picnics in country landscapes and the settings like being invited for dinner or tea at someone’s house and visiting stately homes to be impressed by their grandeur. As said before, the romantic will-they won’t they? is there too with all the emotional upset and uncertainty that that causes and even if Jane Austen is not the thing that draws you to this book, it’s quite a good read with a well-paced plot, some twists and lively dialogue.
I can’t speak for Jane Austen but I approve.