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Jane Austen’s First Love: A Novel, by Syrie James – A Review

jane austen's first love

jane-austens-first-love-by-syrie-james-2014-x-200Jane Austen’s First Love – A Review

From the desk of Christina Boyd:

Everyone in my world knows of Jane Austen. Alas, I can speculate that there are those who might not recognize the name. If they look her up on Wikipedia they would learn that:
‘Biographical information concerning Jane Austen is “famously scarce”… Only some personal and family letters remain (by one estimate only 160 out of Austen’s 3,000 letters are extant), and her sister Cassandra (to whom most of the letters were originally addressed) burned “the greater part” of the ones she kept and censored those she did not destroy. Other letters were destroyed by the heirs of Admiral Francis Austen, Jane’s brother. Most of the biographical material produced for fifty years after Austen’s death was written by her relatives and reflects the family’s biases in favour of “good quiet Aunt Jane”.’

Further, they would learn that this masterful writer of the social commentary and romance had never married, little is known of her love-life, yet it has been widely speculated upon in some circles. It is not a secret however that in 1802, Miss Austen had accepted the marriage proposal from family friend, Harris Bigg-Wither, but by the morning had withdrawn her acceptance. There are also letters from Jane to Cassandra in 1795 when she was twenty years-old about a brief flirtation with a Mr. Tom Lefroy. Sadly, his family did not approve of the match. Neither had any money and Tom was sent away, later to marry an heiress. And yet for an author who wrote exclusively of what she knew in her own sphere, how could she write of love so well had she never fully experienced it?

“We went by Bifrons and I contemplated with a melancholy pleasure the abode of Him, on whom I once fondly doated.” Jane Austen in a letter to her sister Cassandra, 1796

And with that one line, bestselling author Syrie James again undertakes the great task of expanding upon known facts and giving us her latest historical re-imagining, Jane Austen’s First Love. Who was “Him”, this man who resided at Bifrons, upon whom she fondly doated? And what had he meant to her?

Told in the first person narrative, Jane Austen’s First Love opens with our heroine being reminded of that letter she had written to sister Cassandra in 1796, recalling a person she had not thought about in many years. She was but fifteen in 1791, the same year that her elder brother Edward became engaged to Miss Elizabeth Bridges. The Austens were invited by his fiancé’s family to partake in several summer festivities at their grand country estate of Goodnestone Park in Kent. As they neared their destination, the carriage had an accident—but they found a preserver in the handsome Edward Taylor, heir to the nearby estate Bifrons, and cousin to Edward Austen-Knight’s future in-laws.

I froze; I could not avert my gaze; Mr. Taylor’s handsome countenance was but a foot or two from mine, and his arrival, like a knight in shining armour, had been so unexpected, his eyes were so dark and sparkling, that for the space of a breath, I forgot where I was or that any action was required of me.” p 47

When they reach Goodnestone and meet the family, it becomes readily apparent that their future sisters-in-law are more impressed with themselves than the newly arrived, less than auspicious Austens. As the entertainments commence, Jane plays matchmaker (as well as casting director in a private theatrical the young people indulge in), and not unlike one of her beloved heroines, Emma Woodhouse, we soon learn how inept young Jane is for the role. ‘Were my actors to be properly paired, who could say where it might lead? In enacting their parts, true feelings might be kindled; a very real intimacy might well emerge! This was my hope.’ Still she admits, only to herself, that ‘perhaps indulgent, immodest, even slightly immoral’ she has hopes of playing opposite Edward Taylor.

Daily diversions throw her in the path of the worldly Edward Taylor, and impressionable Jane cannot help but be drawn in by his uncommon intelligence, sound mind and opinions, gusto for life, and his unaffected attentions towards herself – forever dividing her life into two categories: before she met Edward Taylor, and everything thereafter. ‘“They were lovely- but as to meaningful conversation, they had nothing to offer.” The look and smile he gave me indicated, without words, that our present discourse was far preferable to him than had been the other.’ Though as new house guests arrive, a rival for his affections becomes known in the comely, yet reserved Miss Charlotte Watkinson Paylor.

I had never heard of Edward Taylor before. And upon my first reading of Jane Austen’s First Love, I thought it a sweet bit of Austenesque pastiche with clever characters and wonderful smatterings and/or hints of some of Austen’s famous prose. Solid four, maybe 4 ½ stars. Yet, it was not until reading the Author’s Afterword that I learned that Edward Taylor was an actual person! And, from Syrie James’ extensive research, it is not a stretch to surmise that Edward Taylor was a guest at Goodnestone Park when the Austens were also in residence that summer of 1791. In addition, her research detailed what a remarkable young man Edward Taylor was—just the sort of man a young Miss Austen might fall in-love with! ‘That he was a real person, and that I had in my possession so many little-known facts about his life, was very exciting. A picture began to form in my mind as to how and when Edward Taylor and Jane Austen might have met as teenagers, and what their relationship might have been.’ So, of course, I had to read the whole novel again, with this new perspective! And much in the manner of the film, Becoming Jane, this second reading left me so very hopeful that maybe, just maybe, it happened that way, that our beloved Jane did experience a first love (and even heartache), which made me adore this story all the more.

With a manifold of bestsellers behind her, Syrie James is an incomparable storyteller, turning obscure details from personal research into inspired, yet richly embellished, fictional narratives. Jane Austen’s First Love is a lively, romantic “what if” that will make you laugh, as well as tug at your heart. I must recommend you ‘give a loose to your fancy, indulge your imagination in every possible flight,’ and add Syrie James’ latest work, Jane Austen’s First Love, to your Reading List.

Berkley Trade (August 5th, 2014), 400 pages
Trade paperback ISBN: 978-0425271353
Digital eBook ASIN: B00G3L7VES


Christina Boyd wears many hats as editor at Meryton Press, social media specialist, book publicist at hybrid publisher, Booktrope, book reviewer at Austenprose.com, and  as a ceramicist for the Made in Washington stores under her own banner Stir Crazy Mama’s Artworks. She lives in the wilds of the Pacific Northwest (not five miles from the Canadian border) with her dear Mr. B, two busy teenagers and a retriever named Bibi.  After reading The Six major Jane Austen works, her thirst for more could not be slaked, despite discovering on-line fan fiction, purchasing all the movie adaptations, attending Jane Austen Society of North America Annual General Meetings and becoming a life member of JASNA. Visiting Jane Austen’s England remains on Christina’s bucket list.

Follow Christina on Facebook as Christina Angel Boyd and on Twitter as @xtnaboyd.

This review originally appeared on Austenprose.com and is used here with permission.
Cover image courtesy of Berkley Trade © 2014; text Christina Boyd, 2014,Austenprose.com

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Longbourn: A Novel, by Jo Baker

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Longbourn: A Novel, by Jo Baker

Review by Syrie James

What was happening below stairs in Pride and Prejudice? Who were the ghostly figures that kept both the storyline and the Bennet household going behind the scenes? That is the premise of Jo Baker’s engrossing novel Longbourn, which takes Jane Austen’s famous work, turns it upside down, and shakes out a fully realized and utterly convincing tale of life and romance among the servants.

Although Longbourn begins slightly before Pride and Prejudice and continues beyond Austen’s ending, for the most part it matches the action of that novel, focusing almost exclusively on the domestic staff. The protagonist is the young, pretty, feisty, overworked housemaid Sarah, an orphan who turns to books for escape from the menial daily duties which repel and exhaust her.

At first, reading about her duties repelled me as well, and I yearned to go back to the nice, clean world of Pride and Prejudice, where young ladies in pretty gowns dance at balls and engage in clever conversation with handsome gentlemen in frock coats and breeches. Longbourn reminds us that our perception of that world is highly idealized, and that the Bennets, the Bingleys, and the Darcys enjoyed a lifestyle which depended entirely on the hard work of people whose lives were anything but pretty:

Sarah lifted his chamber pot out from underneath the bed, and carried it out, her head turned aside so as to not confront its contents too closely. This, she reflected, as she crossed the rainy yard, and strode out to the necessary house, and slopped the pot’s contents down the hole, this was her duty, and she could find no satisfaction in it, and found it strange that anybody might think a person could. She rinsed the post out at the pump and left it to freshen in the rain. If this was her duty, then she wanted someone else’s. (p. 115)

The book offers an unflinching look at the unpleasant physical realities of life in the early nineteenth century, from chilblains and lice to hauling water on freezing mornings, polishing floors, scrubbing food-encrusted dishes, laundering filthy clothing, washing rags soaked with menstrual blood, and even the sight of Elizabeth Bennet’s underarm hair. Did I want to read about such things? Not really! But Sarah’s spirited nature and her fierce desire for a more fulfilling existence immediately endear her to us, and make us eager to learn more. She yearns to be appreciated by the people she serves, yet remains invisible to anyone other than the exacting housekeeper Mrs. Hill.

Things change when a handsome new footman seemingly appears out of nowhere and is employed by Mr. Bennet. Sarah isn’t sure what to make of James Smith at first, and is both worried and intrigued by his mysterious past. Although her head is momentarily turned by Mr. Bingley’s rakish footman Ptolemy, there is never any doubt about who the real hero is—and what a divine hero he is. James Smith may be dirt poor and hiding secrets, but he is smart, thoughtful, hard-working, and gentle, a committed abolitionist, a great reader, a lover of horses, and a gentleman; and he is always on the lookout to protect our heroine.

The characters from Pride and Prejudice are only shadowy figures in this novel, and not always presented in a favorable light; there is nothing much to like about Elizabeth Bennet as seen through Sarah’s eyes. The gentlemen seem larger than life to her, as in this moment when she opens the door to admit Mr. Darcy and Colonel Fitzwilliam:

A blur of rich colours—one green velvet coat, one blue—and the soft creak of good leather, and a scent off them like pine sap and fine candlewax and wool. She watched their glossy boots scatter her tea leaves across the wooden floor. The two gentlemen were so smooth, and so big, and of such substance; it was as though they belonged to a different order of creation entirely, and moved in a separate element, and were as different as angels. (p. 198)

Baker has a way of using an unexpected word here and there which I quite liked, as in her description of rain that “bounced off the flagstones, bumbled down the gutters, juddered out of the down-spouts.” Some of the gaps and allusions in Pride and Prejudice are filled in: Mr. Bingley’s inherited wealth is based on the sugar, tobacco, and slave trades; we become aware of the vicious realities of slavery; and army officers are not merely flirtatious objects in red coats; here, they are subject to brutal acts and shipped overseas to fight in horrific conditions. While these are all very worthy subjects, I had trouble with the section of the book that covers a character’s experiences in the Napoleonic War. It was overly long and violent, spent too much time away from the main story, and it didn’t seem to fit with the tone of the rest of the novel.

The narrative in Longbourn shifts between third person perspectives, usually from Sarah’s point of view, but occasionally from others such as Polly, the innocent scullery maid (tempting prey for a particularly fiendish Wickham), Mrs. Hill (who harbors her own secrets and deep disappointments), and our hero James Smith. Unlike Austen, Baker gives us a taste of the passion we crave to read about between our romantic protagonists:

Here was James, now, with his hand wrapped around her arm, and his touch and his closeness and his voice pitched low and urgent, and it all seemed to matter, and it was all doing strange and pleasant things to her. She felt herself softening, and easing, like a cat luxuriating in a fire’s glow. And there was just now, just this one moment, when she teetered on the brink between the world she’d always known and the world beyond, and if she did not act now, then she would never know. 

She caught him, as it were, on the hop. Her lips colliding with his, surprising him; he swayed a little back, against the arm she’d reached around him. Her lips were soft and warm and clumsy, and her small body pressed hard against his. It was too much to resist. He slid his arms around her narrow waist, and pulled her to him, and let himself be kissed. (p. 154)

Tension builds as an unexpected turn of events separates the young lovers, and Sarah is forced to deal with James’s problematical past and the Bennets’s endless demands. There is a great twist to the story, and although I saw it coming early on, it was handled in a touching manner. I found the plot sequence involving Sarah at the end of the book to be rushed and implausible. I hope it’s not a spoiler to say that you will get your happy ending; however, the scene was so brief as to be unsatisfying, with only a single line of dialogue. Jane Austen often similarly glosses over her lovers’ climactic moments, and it’s one of the few faults I have with her writing. When you spend an entire book invested in these characters (especially when they’ve been apart for such a long time), you look forward to a romantic climax that plays out and stirs the emotions. I was dying to hear Sarah and James voice their feelings aloud to each other, and disappointed that they didn’t.

These quibbles aside, I found Longbourn to be a fascinating novel with unforgettable characters who I truly cared about. I will never read Pride and Prejudice or any novel about the “upper classes” in the same way again.

  • Paperback: 448 pages
  • RRP: £7.99
  • Publisher: Black Swan (1 Jan 2014)
  • Language: Unknown
  • ISBN-10: 0552779512
  • ISBN-13: 978-0552779517

Syrie JamesAuthorPhoto2012Syrie James is the bestselling author of the critically acclaimed novels The Missing Manuscript of Jane Austen, The Lost Memoirs of Jane Austen, The Secret Diaries of Charlotte Brontë, Dracula My Love, Forbidden, Nocturne, Songbird, and Propositions. Her next novel, Jane Austen’s First Love, which brings to life the untold story of Jane’s romantic relationship as a teenager with Edward Taylor, is due out from Berkley on August 5, 2014. Follow Syrie on twitter, visit her on FaceBook, and learn more about her and her books at syriejames.com.

This review originally appeared on Austenprose.com. It is used here with permission.