The Lost Memoirs of Jane Austen is a parallel fiction novel imagining an intense love affair for writer extraordinaire Jane Austen. Jane herself tells the story in journal format. This decision, smartly made and well rendered by the novel’s author, Syrie James, serves to propel the story along nicely. One is quickly engaged and easily taken with Jane’s voice. Ms. James has done an excellent job of mimicking Jane Austen’s writing style (no small task). She has additionally well-researched Jane’s life. The journal timeline is a history lesson in Jane Austen placement.
My first thoughts, upon reading the novel’s premise, were to wonder if Ms. James was brave or egocentric. I must say, after finishing the novel, that she was both. It’s a huge task to assume that one can mimic a voice so dearly loved and so distinct for it’s tone and wit. But, Ms. James does such a good job; I’ll bow to her bravery.
History has long wondered about Austen’s amazing ability to write the comedy of manners involved in courtship. And critics have long debated her compact “happily ever after” endings. This novel attempts to shed some light on both. In these tasks, Syrie James succeeds.
Where I find the novel flawed is in its neatly packed ‘Forrest Gumpish” hypotheses. The whole journal is a bit too cataloged. Many, many scenes are taken, almost verbatim, from Austen’s novels. I realize the writer’s attempt to add depth to Austen’s works, but all it did was pop my suspension of disbelief bubble to the point of my saying aloud, “Oh, C’mon!”
Another grumble concerns the novel reading like just that: a novel. It’s supposed to be a memoir. Most memoirs do not contain the amount of dialogue this one pretends. Most memoir writers do not exact pages of specific conversation. In repeating Austen’s voice and tone (well done, as previously stated) Ms. James uses Austen’s novel writing style, also full of witty dialogue exchanges, but not common of personal journals.
Still a final exception is that most journals do not go back in time. They usually stay in the present. A brief recounting of a particular instance might be included, but a huge, chapters long, recounting would not.
I suspect one of two things will happen with readers. They will either love or hate The Lost Memoirs of Jane Austen. Any story that supposes a romance for beloved Jane is bound to illicit strong reactions. Let me further explain:
It is my personal observation, from the many romance novels lining shelves in stores and libraries, that romance writing is alive and well. Ask a woman, “What do you read?” It is my experience to have never heard the reply, “romance novels.” Yet, someone is buying romance and her snotty stepsister: Chick-Lit. The library sale carts are lined with the stuff. My best friend, a used bookstore owner, has to donate piles of romance novels to Goodwill as she gets so many trade-ins. My own mother, a self-avowed man hater, read a romance novel every night of my youth (although I suspect she would deny this to her last breath).
It seems so much more intelligent to say one is a fan of Jane Austen. She’s a respected writer. Yet, isn’t romance a constant recurring theme in all of her novels? On the surface they look very like most modern Chick-Lit stories. Today’s modern romance/chick topics observe well-to-do ladies born into privileged circumstances, searching for the latest must-have items all the while keeping their eyes peeled for Mr. Big. It’s no surprise that a vast wealth of Austen inspired books and films have sprung to life.
Literary scholars will begin screaming the merits of Jane’s many contributions about now. They have cause to scream. Austen’s writing is no Harlequin Romance. Her observations of society are bitingly sarcastic and keenly observed. Her flowery speech hides a much deeper meaning. Anyone with English Lit 101 can begin to point out these ideas and the literary types can spend hours rightly effusing Austen’s gifts. Some have gone so far as to compare her to Shakespeare (Gasp! Harold Bloom is rolling in his grave … oops … brass studded, leather, Queen Anne chair about now).
However, the reader that enjoys the romance theme as the central, feel good, reason for watching Keira Knightly rush from (the poorly cast) Matthew Macfadyen’s side or the ladies with posters of Colin Firth (the quintessential Mr. Darcy) nailed inside their wardrobes (in case the need for an impromptu dance arises) will love The Lost Memoirs of Jane Austen.