Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Book review: Jane Austen's First Love by Syrie James

As you can guess from the title, this gently and lovingly told novel imagines young Jane Austen’s first experience with romance, but I would have picked it up for the setting alone. An invitation to spend the summer of 1791 amid fine company at a grand manor in the English countryside was hard to resist.

Fifteen-year-old Jane adores her siblings, including sister Cassandra and brother Edward – who had the good fortune to be adopted by wealthy relatives, and whose upcoming marriage to Elizabeth Bridges, a baronet’s daughter, will serve him well socially. In June, several family groups gather to celebrate their engagement, as well as that of Elizabeth’s sister Fanny. Goodnestone Park in Kent, the ancestral home of the Bridges family, is the center of all the festivities, which include balls, a strawberry-picking excursion, and other distracting pastimes.

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).

1 comment:

  1. A novelist trying to put words into the mouth of a genius is always a come-down. I wish more of Austen's own letters (and novels!) existed instead.