Thursday 7 August 2014

Jane Austen’s First Love by Syrie James

Book Cover - Jane Austen's First Love by Syrie James
I had never read anything by this author before, though I know she has written stories focusing on the lives of authors such as Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte, rather than their works. In the latest book by Syrie James the focus is on Jane Austen, aged fifteen.

One of Jane Austen’s brothers caught the eye of a rich relative and his wife, the Knights. As the Knights didn’t have any children, they took on Edward Austen as if he was their son and he became heir to their estate. This sounds odd to us, but in those days this wasn’t that unusual an occurrence. It would have been a wonderful opportunity for Edward to move in a higher level of society, and would have helped assure the safety of his siblings, as Jane’s father was a clergyman, and so when he died, his income would largely die too. In this story, told from Jane’s point of view, we travel to the summer that Jane was fifteen. Her brother Edward becomes engaged and the whole Austen family is invited to Kent to meet Edward’s prospective in-laws, the family of Sir Brook Bridges, which sounds like a made up name, but he really was called that!

Jane, her older sister Cassandra, twelve year old brother Charles and their mother set off to journey first to the Knights, where Mrs Austen is so affected by the travelling, that she stays there while the younger Austens go ahead to the Bridges’ house. Unfortunately, the carriage has a mishap and topples over into deep mud. Fortunately, there are some rescuers on hand – Mr Edward Taylor, seventeen year old heir to the nearby Bifrons estate and cousin to the Bridges. Jane immediately feels very attracted to the exciting and reckless Mr Taylor, and she looks forward to getting to know him better. There will be good opportunity to do this, as he, and his cousins the Paylers are invited to the Bridges’ home for all their events. One of the Payler brothers seems to be interested in Cassandra, but his sister, Charlotte, only has eyes for Edward Taylor, so Jane has a rival for his affections.

Edward Austen’s betrothed, Miss Elizabeth Bridges is one of a large family. Jane and her family also get to know Elizabeth’s siblings, including the sisters closest in age to her.  Fanny, the eldest sister, got engaged hot on the heels of her sister and is upfront about her practical, bordering on mercenary, reasons for marriage. Sophia, the sister next in age to Elizabeth has similar interests to Mr Cage, Fanny’s betrothed, which leads Jane to wonder whether he has chosen the wrong sister to marry...

This was an interesting glimpse at the type of events and entertainment that took place at house parties in the late 1700s. There are a number of nods to Austen’s works, which of course were nearly all still unwritten at this point in her life, both in the events occurring and the verbiage used – there is even a ‘fine eyes’ reference, plus things like this wonderful quote from Northanger Abbey:
“It seems that a young lady, if she has the misfortune of knowing anything should conceal it as well as she can.”
Due to the bad weather the young people decide to put on a play, which is one of the things that happen in Mansfield Park, although thankfully the play chosen is less scandalous than ‘Lover’s Vows’. One character’s comments on his role this really reminded me of the blockish Mr Rushworth. Also, Jane’s pride in her matchmaking skills also reminded me of another matchmaker – a Miss Woodhouse who had more confidence in her abilities than was deserved!

As we all know, Cassandra burnt a lot of Jane’s letters after Jane’s death, and the Austen family were careful how they presented Jane’s image, but if you’ve ever read any of the letters that remain you can see (although you’d assume it from her novels anyway) that Jane Austen was an avid watcher of people and their relationships, delighting in the absurd and quick to judge – Elizabeth Bennet didn’t get those qualities from nowhere! There were a number of comments and thoughts made by Jane in this that I thought seemed to be in her voice or reflect views that, to my understanding, she held, such as her view that one shouldn’t marry without affection:
“To conceive of living forever with a person one could neither respect nor admire! It seemed to me a crime against morality and humanity.”
However, at other times the voice didn’t ring true for me – it was little things, such as when Edward Taylor was introduced his appearance was described in some detail, which is not something I'd usually associate with Austen's usual way of writing, as she usually describes people quite sparingly, although I accept that she may have used a different style writing for herself than she would have done in a novel. Some of the word usage seemed a bit too modern as well, such as the repeated use of the words fiancé and fiancée, which date from after Austen’s lifetime.

One thing I wasn’t sure about was the depiction of Jane’s character. She’s only fifteen in this story but sometimes she really is quite foolhardy and lacking in propriety which doesn’t really tie in with my view of her. Some of her behaviour had a shade of the ‘Lydia Bennet’ to it, and from how she judges Lydia in Pride & Prejudice I don’t see her as being that type of person at that age. I also felt a little melancholy reading this story. It isn’t a melancholy story, any more than any other story which looks back at a person’s youth, but knowing things that happened later in Austen’s life meant that you had some idea of how the story would end. Actually, the end was more uplifting than I was expecting, bearing this in mind. I liked what Jane learned about herself during her stay, and the encouragement she took from the stay towards pursuing her writing goals.
“For the first time, I felt that I had a direction: a path or plan which might lead to me improving my skills as a writer. I determined from that moment forth to follow it.”
A touch I enjoyed was that during Jane’s stay she even writes a story that you can read in her juvenilia. I don’t know whether this story was really inspired by her stay in Kent or whether it’s part of the fiction of this book. The blurb says that this book is inspired by real events and there is a section right at the end which helpfully makes clear which parts are known and which parts imagined. Overall, I would say that this is something unusual in the world of Austen-inspired fiction, and it's worth a read. I certainly enjoyed it!

4 star read

*My thanks to the publishers, Penguin Group for allowing me to have an e-arc copy of this book from the publishers, via Netgalley, for my honest review.

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