Sunday, January 13, 2013

What I've Read This Week

What I've Read This Week . . .

The Lost Memoirs of Jane Austen by Syrie James -- Austenesque Historical Fiction

Buried in the wall at Chawton Manor House lies a trunk full of papers that once belonged to Jane Austen. The papers prove to be a secret memoir, composed by the author in the last decade and a half of her life. The memoir sheds light on a rumored seaside romance hinted at by Cassandra Austen. In the memoir, Jane sets out to show how a spinster writer of romances could draw upon her own feelings and experiences to create memorable characters and plot lines. On holiday to Lyme with her brother Henry, Jane nearly falls off the Cobb and is rescued by a handsome gentleman, Mr. Frederick Ashford, heir to a baronetcy and a grand estate in Derbyshire. Ashford happens to be traveling in company with Henry's old school friend Mr. Churchill and his wife. Cheerful, friendly Mr. Churchill is happy to renew the acquaintance and socialize with the Austens while in Lyme. In Mr. Ashford, Jane finds a true companion of the mind and possibly the only man she could ever love. When Mr. Ashford leaves Lyme suddenly, never to be heard from again, Jane is naturally sad, but her life is filled with preparing to move from Southampton to Chawton. Then, an unexpected meeting with old friends brings Jane into the company of Mr. Ashford once again and she discovers a grand passion. Ashford believes in Jane as a writer and encourages her to take up her pen once again and even aim for publication. The course of true love n'er did run smooth though and Jane's romance with Mr. Ashford is no exception. After several years of loving and losing each other, Jane has a very difficult decision to make. The people she meets on her emotional journey and her feelings towards men shape her novels into the stories we know and love. While I like the idea of Jane Austen having a passionate romance, I really did not like how Syrie James copied the dialogue and situations from the major 6 novels verbatim to claim that "real life" events shaped Jane Austen's writing. I wish that Syrie had come up with her own similar but not identical situations to place her Jane in. The voice does not sound like Jane Austen, except when dialogue is copied from her novels. The romance is sweet but Syrie James's Jane Austen overreacts and turns into a silly teenager and then a bitter woman, thus giving proof to the stereotype of a man-hating spinster. I didn't hate the book, there were some nice moments between Jane and Ashford and Jane and her family, but I just didn't love it. I can see great potential in the story line but the plot just lacked credibility and originality. (The story is told in Stephanie Barron's Jane Austen mysteries as well.)  It reads too much like unoriginal fan fiction and I'm not a huge fan of "fan fiction." 

The Missing Manuscript of Jane Austen by Syrie James -- Austenesque Fiction

While vacationing in Oxford, while her doctor boyfriend attends a conference, Samantha McDonough pops into an old bookshop and purchases an eighteenth century book of poetry. Being a special collections librarian, Samantha knows the book itself is nothing much out of the ordinary for the period, but what she finds inside is a real treasure. Hidden inside the uncut pages of the book is a letter referencing a missing manuscript at an estate in Devonshire called Greenbriar. Sam is convinced the letter is from Jane Austen and is determined to prove it and find the missing manuscript. Her search leads her from Oxford to Devonshire where she encounters Anthony Whitaker, the present owner of Greenbriar, preparing to sell his crumbling family estate. Sam convinces Anthony to search for the missing manuscript. He agrees, thinking it might be fun and if the manuscript is found and authenticated, it might bring him the money he needs. Together they embark on a search and find what appears to be a lost Jane Austen novel.

 The novel, titled The Stanhopes, follows the journey of Rebecca Stanhope, the lovely daughter of a country clergyman who is accused of stealing money from the parish and cast out into the cruel world. Mr. Stanhope's job is given to Philip Clifton, the nephew of the wealthy patron Sir Montague. Philip tries to reassure Rebecca that change can be a good thing, but she resents him for stealing her father's job and for some cruel comments he made about her singing when they were children. Rebecca's journey takes her and her father off to visit her sister in the village of Medford where they encounter a dashing young doctor, Dr. Jack Watkins, the wealthy Mrs. Penelope Harcourt, her spoiled niece Amelia Davenport, the odious Mr. Spangle and a host of other quirky characters. Rebecca's stay in Medford is not long, but long enough for her to discover the pleasantness of a large village and long enough to maybe have lost her heart. She enters Bath society and is befriended by Philip Carmichael's sister and even encounters Philip, who is determined to solve the mystery of the missing money. By the end of the novel, Rebecca discovers some surprising truths about herself and what she wants out of life.

 Back in present day, Sam and Anthony form a connection over their search, but Samantha loves Stephen and has a good steady job back in Los Angeles. Then Sam and Anthony disagree over his plans for the manuscript and it seems like Sam's amazing discovery was all for nothing. Samantha does a lot of soul searching and discovers like Rebecca, change can be a good thing.

This is a very long book! The story begins and ends in present day with Jane Austen's full length novel in the middle. I liked the mystery plot searching for the missing manuscript and felt it was discovered way too quickly. Having a novel in the middle of the novel felt weird and only occasionally does the story return to Samantha and only for a few brief pages.  The Stanhopes starts off slow and doesn't sound at all like Jane Austen. It's supposed to be a transition in between her juvenilia and her polished published works, which explains the simplistic writing style. It lacks much of Jane Austen's trademark wit and beautiful phrasing. The novel picks up a bit towards the end of the first volumes and gets much better in the second volume. The characters and some of the situations will be instantly recognizable to any Janeite. Samantha recognized prototypes of several famous characters and I identified others. That is the downfall of the story because the characters are so well known, the story becomes predictable. I was interested in the missing money and I think it took too long for someone to investigate what really happened. Then I couldn't put the story down until I found out how Rebecca found her happily ever after. I adore the hero! Move over Mr. Darcy because ladies will like Rebecca's love interest just as much, if not more. My favorite character was Mr. Spangle. He is partly Mr. Collins and partly a new character. I can't believe Jane Austen didn't actually include him in one of her final novels! The other secondary characters seem to come from Cranford, Wives and Daughters, Jane Austen's finished and unfinished novels and any other English country village novel. They were mostly two-dimensional. I also liked Mrs. Harcourt, who I think later becomes a character in Sandition. With a lot more polishing, this really could have been an early draft of a Jane Austen novel.

Finally, when the novel picks up with Samantha and Anthony it rushes through a few months of time. would have made the modern story a little longer and tightened Jane Austen's story, at least summarizing the exposition. The story, written as is, feels juvenile and the writing simplistic. I was very interested in the contemporary story at first, until I discovered that the story was too rushed to be fully developed. Because of the rushed storytelling, I didn't feel a connection to the characters at all. Samantha tells the reader what she's feeling and doesn't let us discover it for ourselves.I liked that Samantha is a special collections librarian. I disliked that she didn't have a MLS but then that was explained in the plot and it made some sense but I know from experience you really can't get a job as a librarian without an MLS (MLIS). It's also clear that the author is not actually a special collections librarian. She knows the job description and how 18th century books were bound, but not so much what they actually feel like, smell like and look like. It would have been a good opportunity to educate the public a bit on identifying the condition of an old book but I suppose it's not necessary to the story. 

I think Jane Austen neophytes will love this novel and the chance to read just one more Jane Austen book. Dedicated Janeites may find the writing trite and the character cliched but I recommend sticking with The Stanhopes until the end. You won't be disappointed. You may skip the framework if you desire.  

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