Thursday, October 14, 2010

The Lost Memoirs of Jane Austen by Syrie James

lost memoirs

The fact that Jane Austen never married apparently bothers a lot of people.  How could a woman who wrote about love so perceptively, who is still making readers fall in love with her characters centuries after the fact, have never loved herself?  But more importantly, if Jane Austen never loved, that means her novels were total fantasy.  We don't want to believe they are fantasy; we want to believe they were based in truth, and our own Mr. Darcy or Elizabeth Bennett (depending on your preferences) really is out there. 

This seems to be the impetus behind several retellings of Austen's life, including the movie Becoming Jane, which I only wish I could forget!  The Lost Memoirs of Jane Austen is very similar to Becoming Jane, unfortunately--not because it proposes that Tom Lefroy was Austen's true lost love, but in the way it completely white-washes Jane Austen herself and presents a very unconvincing and really rather lame romance.

I had high hopes for this book at the beginning.  The language is very Austen-esque and the author has clearly done her research on Jane Austen's life.  It starts off with Jane having to move from her life-long home in Hertfordshire to Bath with her parents.  Then her father dies, so she and her sister and her mother have to move again and rely on the charity of her family.  Eventually, she meets Mr. Ashford, who is a future baronet and very nice, and who likes to read novels!  And not just any novels, but the same girly novels Jane likes reading.  HOW WEIRD.

This book is very odd, because it seems to assume the reader knows nothing about Jane Austen or her books.  To give it an air of "authenticity," there are scholarly footnotes along the lines of, "Jane's near tumble from these steps... may have inspired Louisa Musgrove's treacherous fall from the Cobb in Jane Austen's Persuasion," or, "Jane Austen included an almost identical speech in Mansfield Park...".  No kidding!  I figured that out all on my own, and I haven't even read Mansfield Park.  Also, being passingly familiar with the Regency era through romance novels, I do know what a reticule and landau are and don't need to be told about it in the footnotes, thanks.

Even when not pointing them out with insipid footnoting, there are numerous other references here to Austen's novels.  In fact, there isn't a single character or scene in this book that doesn't come out of an Austen novel.  At one point Austen writes, "Little did I know that I was to meet Mr. Ashford again, and soon, in the most unexpected of circumstances."  I found myself thinking, "This is a Regency novel, honey; there are only so many ways for you two to meet!" (And in case you were wondering, yes, it was at a dinner party.)

I'm not against either faux scholarly footnotes or borrowing scenes and characters straight out of other books.  I really enjoyed the footnotes in Little Vampire Women, for example, and I loved how characters from Pride & Prejudice were used in Lost In Austen.  In both of those cases, however, the authors were very creative in the way they adapted the original writings to a new storyline.  It's not enough to just mash together the characters and plot--you have to put your own spin on it, or else what's the point of anyone reading it?  With Lost Memoirs, the way James referenced other Austen books was so literal there were absolutely zero surprises in the novel.

As for the character of Jane Austen herself, I have the same criticism of her in this book that I did in Becoming Jane:  she's not snarky enough to be Jane Austen.  Austen wasn't only smart, she was sharp as a knife: she could assess a person's character and then cut them to pieces at ten paces.  The only thing that kept her from doing so was a sympathy for human foibles.  "For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbors, and laugh at them in our turn?" as Mr. Bennett says.  Austen was fascinated by people and what made them tick; she understood their silly eccentricities even as she made fun of them.  I didn't see any of that fascination or wit in this book.  There is one scene where Jane Austen tries to be clever, but it is reheheheally lame.

Finally, the romance is so stupid as to be incidental, and did not help to further the cause of true love, to say the least.  Ashford is very much like Edward from Sense and Sensibility, only more boring (if that is possible).  It's impossible to buy into him as a real character, and the conclusion of their "romance" left me cold.  If that is what we're supposed to believe Austen experienced in the romance department, then she truly did draw on her imagination for her love stories!

As you've probably guessed, I do not recommend this book.  If you don't know a single solitary thing about Jane Austen or her books, you might be surprised by this novel--but then why would you pick this book up?  The cover, however, is very pretty.

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