Jane, who hasn’t yet “come out” into society (but who has her family's permission to socialize with others within this small group), can’t help but be awed by Edward Taylor, the Bridges’ handsome neighbor. Although he’s only a year older, Mr. Taylor has a wide range of life experiences and has hobnobbed with European nobility. Most of Jane’s knowledge of the wider world comes from book-learning, but her powers of observation are sharp even as a sheltered teenager.
The scenarios that play out at Goodnestone are the author’s invention, though James has ensured that her characters’ backgrounds and personalities reflect the historical evidence. Jane’s growing affections for Edward in the novel are based on a few sentences in letters the author wrote to her sister, referring to Edward Taylor as a man with “beautiful dark eyes” upon whom she “had once fondly doated.”
Her irrepressible and impetuous wit is well evident in James’s writing, which follows Jane at a critical juncture in her young life, a time when she learns for herself not to rely on outer appearances. Beyond the sweet romance, some deeper issues are touched upon, such as the importance of individuality, the serious meaning behind silly fashion trends, and the inner struggle between ambitions that are achievable and those that aren’t.
Although I found the scenes involving the young people’s amateur theatrics to be too drawn out, I enjoyed this lighthearted excursion into a beloved author’s enigmatic past. It’s especially recommended for fans of Austen-themed fiction and country house sagas.
Jane Austen's First Love was published by Berkley in September (trade paperback, $16.00/Can$18.00, 384pp).