Spinoffs and Sequels
The Lost Memoirs of Jane Austen
By Syrie James.
Avon, 2008. 303 pages.
Mrs. Elton in America
By Diana Birchall.
Egerton, 2004. 210 pages.
Reviewed by Claire Denelle Cowart.
In The Lost Memoirs of Jane Austen,
Syrie James invents a suppressed
account of a love affair in Jane Austen’s
life, one that ends in disappointment
rather than in marriage. Similar territory
has been explored by a number of other
writers with varying degrees of success.
James’s book begins promisingly. She
writes a first-person narrative in Austen’s
voice, using a pleasing style that fits the
time period and echoes Austen’s own
style without sounding forced or imitative.
The characters of Jane Austen and
her family members are believable and
sympathetic, and James integrates
known details of Jane Austen’s life
smoothly into the story line.
This tale begins with Jane, her sister
Cassandra, and their mother living in
Southampton after the death of Austen’s
father. When Jane and her brother Henry
travel to Lyme for a brief getaway, the
romantic element in the novel is introduced.
Austen is known to have enjoyed
visiting Lyme, which she used as a setting
for part of Persuasion. In this novel
Jane meets a Mr. Ashford, who seems
at first to be a perfect love interest for
her. Predictably, obstacles develop to
hinder the relationship from progressing.
Mr. Ashford is mysteriously called
away and doesn’t contact Jane. When
he finally comes to Southampton, further
complications are revealed. At this
point the novel becomes too crowded
with references to Austen’s own work.
Mr. Ashford in particular exhibits the
qualities of at least three of Austen’s
male characters. Like Mr. Darcy from
Pride and Prejudice, he owns a great
mansion and has a younger sister for
whom he feels responsible. In addition,
Ashford has the amiability of Edward
Ferrars from Sense and Sensibility, the
novel which James has Austen writing
during the course of this book. Ashford
also has some of Ferrars’s secrets. His
subsequent behavior and the complications
of the plot go on to suggest
Willoughby, the deceitful love interest
for Marianne in Sense and Sensibility.
The idea that one man could have
inspired so many characters of different
types and that one episode could have
inspired multiple plots is difficult to
accept. The middle portion of James’s
novel also contains an episode based on
the supposed original of Mr. Collins
from Pride and Prejudice. When these
elements are augmented by dialogue
based on words spoken by Austen’s own
characters, it sometimes seems that
James has simply rewritten Austen’s
novels with the author as a character.
Fortunately, James ultimately returns to
her own plot and provides an original
and satisfying ending to The Lost
Memoirs of Jane Austen.
Diana Birchall has set herself an
extremely difficult task in Mrs. Elton in
America, which is actually a collection
of three shorter works: “The Courtship
of Mrs. Elton,” “In Defense of Mrs.
Elton,” and “Mrs. Elton in America.”
The book began when Birchall wrote
one of the sections for the members of
the Austen-L and Janeite listservs.
Birchall provides an alternate interpretation
of Mrs. Elton’s annoying behavior
in Emma, pointing out that arriving in
the village of Highbury as a newlywed
might well have led Mrs. Elton to
overdo her efforts to be liked and valued.
Birchall is also correct that Emma
Woodhouse, the main character of
Austen’s novel and one of Mrs. Elton’s
chief critics, is herself flawed. These are
not new insights. Austen herself
famously commented that in Emma she
had created a heroine whom no one but
herself would like. On the other hand,
she also gave Emma positive qualities that do inspire a favorable response
from readers. Emma meddles in other
people’s lives, but when she errs, she
seems genuinely sorry and attempts to
make amends. The same cannot be said
of Mrs. Elton, who never shows the
slightest sensitivity to the feelings of
others. Birchall stays true to this element
of Augusta Elton’s character so that
“Mrs. E.” remains ultimately unlikable.
In the title section of her book, Birchall
may be attempting to create some sympathy
for her character by sending Mrs.
Elton to the American frontier and subjecting
her to a staggeringly unlucky and
unbelievable series of events. While
Austen’s Mrs. Elton probably would
have developed the resourcefulness
Birchall describes during these adventures,
Austen never would have forced
one of her characters to watch her husband
being scalped and her child being
murdered. This book reads more like The Perils of Pauline than an Austen