Haven't we had enough Jane Austen already? Books based on the early 19th century British novelist's characters have become a cottage industry. Some authors have adapted her stories to the 21st century, while others have chosen to look at Austen's own life through a fictional lens.
Syrie James' "The Lost Memoirs of Jane Austen" is a novel based on the premise that Austen penned a journal detailing a secret love affair, a communion of mind and heart that promises such delightful and romantic possibilities until -- as readers who know anything about Austen's life will surmise -- ending forlornly. This novel begins with a foreword by a fictional Oxford University scholar who is publishing the first of Austen's supposedly discovered memoirs, leaving open the possibility, one supposes, for any number of potential future novels adhering to the same format.
To write for a contemporary audience in Austen's vernacular and frame of mind is tricky. Hard-core aficionados may be quick burrow into this narrative, to soak up any bits of the writer's life. For the more skeptical among us, James has set herself quite a task. How are we to accept as true that something written with anachronistic language and plot details has anything to say to us today?
The first two dozen or so pages produced groans in this reader's throat as characters quote poetry to each other and swoon and faint at inopportune moments. The narrator pens such lines as: " 'Indeed,' said I, struggling to contain my tears. 'I think he was quite insensible of his own state.' "
But something happens about 30 pages in. It's not a change in the plot, a character detail or even a shift in voice. Through humor, Jane comes alive. In a scene in which her mother bemoans Jane's spinster state and reiterates that it would be helpful financially -- to Jane, her sister Cassandra and their mother -- if were Jane to marry. "All is not lost," her mother tells her, reminding her that she still has her beauty, lovely hazel eyes and fine complexion.
"And all my teeth," Jane replies. "Why, at market I might fetch as high a price as one of [brother] Edward's best horses."
It's in this humor that we see the human elements amid the conventions and boundaries that so tightly circumscribed Austen's life. Before the reader is aware it's happening, the mannered style of the early pages begins to seem welcoming, the fictional dream takes over. Some details do threaten to waken the dreamer, such as when Jane meets Sir Walter Scott (credited with inventing the historical novel) and suggests that he abandon his poetic approach to "Waverley" in favor of prose. For English majors, this is a bit like watching scenes in "Forrest Gump" in which historical figures seem to appear willy-nilly. Other moments, though, serve to fill in real details of Austen's life, including her acceptance of a marriage proposal from the pompous Harris Bigg-Wither and her subsequent refusal of his offer. Thus, Austen's life, in this fictional treatment, becomes more accessible and real in a way that a purely biographical handling might not.
Most interesting is the way James creates a life story for Austen that illuminates how her themes and plots may have developed. As the love story with Ashford unfolds, for example, Jane is at work on "Sense and Sensibility" as well as "Pride and Prejudice." Thus, readers are given glimpses into how the actual happenings in a novelist's life may shape and dictate her work. Layered into James' narrative are scenes that appear in Austen's later works, including "Persuasion" and "Northanger Abbey" -- inside jokes for Austen fans and British lit majors.
Yes, at heart this is a romance, a tale in which the reader blindly pulls for the heroine and her dreams of love, hoping against history that Austen might yet enjoy the satisfactions of romance. Like watching a tear-jerker movie, the reader may feel suckered in even as she's glad to have done so. At the very least, James' novel offers a deeper understanding of what Austen's life might have been like -- and a taste of what's driving this literary craze.
Bernadette Murphy is author of "Zen and the Art of Knitting" and co-author of "The Tao Gals' Guide to Real Estate."
The Lost Memoirs of Jane Austen
Avon: 304 pp., $13.95 paper