Spinoffs and Sequels
The Lost Memoirs of Jane Austen
By Syrie James.
Avon, 2008. 303 pages. Paperback. $13.95.
Mrs. Elton in America
By Diana Birchall.
Egerton, 2004. 210 pages. Paperback. $20.50.
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 novel.
Claire Denelle Cowart is an assistant professor at Southeastern Louisiana University, where she teaches courses on Jane Austen and film, detective fiction, Irish literature, and nineteenth century British literature.
JASNA News, vol. 24, no. 2, Summer 2008, p. 18