Book chat: ‘Jane Austen’s First Love’ by Syrie James

Jane Austen's First LoveRomantic, wistful and richly engrossing, fans of the beloved Miss Austen will delight in Syrie James’ well-researched, evocative story of the summer Jane is believed to have first fallen in love.

For a month in 1791, 15-year-old Jane Austen is welcomed with her sister and brother to the vast, beautiful world of Goodnestone to celebrate the engagement of her brother, Edward, to Elizabeth Bridges, one of the young ladies of the estate. On their way to the celebration, their carriage meets with calamity — and Edward Taylor, a handsome and educated young man who lives nearby, comes to their rescue.

As their connection to the Bridges family brings them together, Jane and Edward pass many enjoyable weeks in each other’s company . . . much to the chagrin of the chaperones entrusted with making sure the reputations of both families remain unsullied. Though she knows a match between a wealthy heir and a reverend’s daughter is unlikely, their affection continues to grow — even as Jane meddles in the romances of those around her, causing disturbances and miscommunications.

Based on the scholarly belief that Jane did, in fact, meet one Edward Taylor through her brother — and snippets of letters in which she mentions both Him and Bifrons, Edward’s actual home — James has constructed a lively, entertaining tale of the man who may have stolen young Jane’s heart. With generous and creative nods to future characters (especially Emma Woodhouse, intrepid but misguided matchmaker), Jane Austen’s First Love is a treat for fans of the author and historical fiction alike.

The way Jane falls in love with Edward was sudden but believable — a feat not easily accomplished. As a young woman with little experience away from Steventon (and her mother’s grasp), Jane is enamored to be passing time as she chooses — and in the company of new, exciting, accomplished people. In addition to being handsome and well-traveled, Edward is adventurous and kind. Though a bit of a daredevil with a reputation to match, he has no trouble questioning the status quo: unique in a society that places propriety above all else.

Jane comes from different stock, of course. Visiting Goodnestone for her brother’s engagement celebration, she and Cassandra are under immense pressure to behave well and not present as “country folk.” At 15, Jane is too young to actually be “out” in society . . . but her mother relents for the special occasion, allowing her to participate in the many events and balls held in honor of two sets of soon-to-be newlyweds (the sister of Edward Austen’s intended is also to marry). This new independence delights Jane — but it comes at a cost.

The early feelings of love and affection blossoming between Jane and Edward Taylor — the nerves; the excitement; the desperation to see each other again — are familiar to all of us. Indeed, it’s tough to read Jane Austen’s First Love and not feel transported back to your own first brush with romance. James does a remarkable job of drawing us into the easy banter and camaraderie the two share . . . but of course, we know the ending of the story.

Is it a spoiler to talk of the fate of a famous author who passed nearly 200 years ago? Austen fans know that, for all her exquisite explorations of the human heart, Jane herself never did marry — nor did her sister, Cassandra, after losing a fiance as a young woman. Jane passed at age 41 and left an enormous legacy that still has us talking, speculating and daydreaming centuries later.

Knowing the end of her romance with Edward Taylor even before it began did nothing to harm it; in fact, James beautifully demonstrates how reasonable it was that Jane could have fallen in love . . . but how, in the end, first loves are not always forever loves. What could have been a bittersweet ending was, instead, satisfying and realistic.

I loved my time at Goodnestone — and any time spent in the company of dear Jane is always well spent. Syrie James does a remarkable job of returning us to Regency England in the company of “characters” that actually feel like friends, with a story that felt both familiar and fresh. Jane Austen’s First Love will be a welcome addition to the shelves of Janeites everywhere — and those interested in a good love story will rejoice in it, too.

4.5 out of 5

Pub: August 2014 • GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Paperback copy provided by publisher for review consideration


Advertisements

Act Regency right with ‘The Jane Austen Handbook’ (giveaway)

Jane Austen HandbookIn honor of our dear Jane Austen and Pride & Prejudice’s 200th (!) anniversary, I have a special giveaway from our friends at Quirk Books today: three copies of Margaret C. Sullivan’s The Jane Austen Handbook.

With advice as varied as “how to ensure a good yearly income; how to behave at a dinner party; how to ride sidesaddle; and how to indicate interest in a gentleman without seeming forward,” Sullivan’s fun collection “offers step-by-step instructions for proper comportment in the early 19th century. … Full of practical directions for navigating the travails of Regency life, this charming illustrated book also serves as a companion for present-day readers, explaining the English class system, currency, dress, and the nuances of graceful living.”

Sound like your type of tea and crumpets? I thought so. To enter, simply fill out this form by 12 p.m. on Tuesday, January 15. Three random winners will be selected and contacted for their mailing addresses by yours truly. Giveaway is open to U.S. entrants only, please (sorry, international friends). Comments have been closed to avoid confusion. Good luck!


Edit on 1/15: Out of 47 entries, the lucky winners are Anita, Donna and Alexandra — who will soon be strutting in Regency style! Ladies, I’ve emailed you.


Bookish thoughts on ‘North and South’

So. North and South.

Elizabeth Gaskell, you sly little minx. You’ve managed to completely evade my radar for years — and that includes a pretty substantial English education with a focus on British lit. Until Andi and Heather began talk of a readalong to tackle one of your more famous works, I was operating under the (incorrect) assumption that North and South was a U.S. Civil War-esque melodrama perhaps pitting brother against brother, father against son.

I guess that’s just my American-centric mindset.

Despite being a professed anglophile and lover of history, I can’t say I knew much — if anything — about England’s Industrial Revolution. I can feel you all readying tomatoes to chuck at me now, but I’m being honest — the only thing was a complete mystery to me. I feel like my best introduction to the whole “pastoral to industrial” transition in Great Britain came from watching the opening ceremonies of the 2012 Olympic Games in London.

And that’s what I kept thinking about while reading. How one peaceful, idyllic place — the English countryside — could be home to 19-year-old Margaret Hale for years, and how she would love and appreciate the quaint nature of her home. How different northern Milton would seem — Milton with its filthy air and unwashed workers, fat-cat mill owners and starving children. It would be like something out of a nightmare.

Good thing John Thornton was there.

The premise of Gaskell’s classic, penned in 1855, is this: Margaret, the fairly well-to-do daughter of a minister, is forced to move with her parents from tranquil Helstone to Milton, where Margaret’s father gains employment as a tutor. It’s Mr. Hale’s crisis of faith that removes their trio from the peaceful south to the smoke-clogged north, and a series of troubles begins to stymie her family.

Margaret doesn’t have much to do in Milton. She wanders around as her father takes on pupils and her mother’s health begins to fail, meeting with local workers and learning of their plights in Milton’s mills. She befriends an ill girl, tends to the sick and notices all the children “clemming” — starving to death, that is. People clem a lot in North and South. So much so that I had to Google the monkey out of that word, trying to figure out what the heck was happening to these poor townsfolk.

Mr. Thornton is an enigma to Margaret. As Marlborough Mills’ successful owner and self-made man, he’s part of the nouveau rich that rose to prominence during the Industrial Revolution. Having earned his wealth through determination and ingenuity, he has the respect of many in Milton — but Margaret herself is unmoved. (She thinks, anyway.) As she befriends locals and a worker’s strike looms, Margaret finds herself on both sides of the issue . . . and unsure which way to turn.

It’s been so long — too long — since I dove into a good classic. Knowing next to nothing about North and South worked in my favor during the weeks I spent with this book, and I enjoyed the challenge of deciphering the language and piecing together a portrait of Gaskell’s brooding characters. The mystery surrounding Margaret’s long-lost brother, Frederick, and a supposed mutiny in which he was a key player added a great deal of suspense to the plot. As the threads began to unravel, I was completely sucked in.

Though tragedy after tragedy cast a melancholy pall over the work, it was hard to deny the attraction between Thornton and Margaret. Their tête-à-têtes regarding business and philosophy were interesting, if not sparkling with the wit and humor of other British writers like Jane Austen. So many knowledgeable people have weighed in on the Gaskell vs. Austen debate, comparing and contrasting the authors, and I won’t pretend to have anything intelligent to add to the conversation . . . especially after reading just one of Gaskell’s works. Suffice it to say that I definitely did and could see similarities between the authors, though I have to hand Austen the blue ribbon for creating a more likable, frustrating and beguiling pair in Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet.

That’s not to say I didn’t like Margaret and Thornton — because I totally did. When Thornton professes a few things and Margaret has a few things to say back (sorry for being vague . . . just trying to avoid spoilers!), I wanted to pinch her haughty little face. Margaret is strong and capable, intelligent and keen, but she’s utterly blind to matters of the heart. That made her especially annoying as Thornton is basically awesome and all but throwing himself at her, albeit in a very Victorian way, and Margaret is too busy screwing things up with her brother and endlessly worrying to notice.

But oh, the push and pull! The tension! The will-they-or-won’t-they! It got me in the end, friends. It always does. Though I agree with others (including Trish) that the ending feels a bit abrupt, especially in light of all we had to endure to get there, I kind of liked the simplicity of it. The inevitable quality of giving in to one’s emotions. The sense of relief when we lay down our swords and just . . . let it be. And the humorous bit at the end? The sparring? I loved it.

North and South was interesting, educational, emotional and atmospheric. Though it took me a little while to get used to the language and invested in the story, I did — and really enjoyed chatting with other readers throughout the readalong. I doubt I would have gotten around to this book without Heather and Andi’s encouragement, so three cheers for book blogging!

And um, yes — I’ve already purchased the BBC mini-series “North and South” on DVD for my viewing pleasure. I’ve seen enough “RICHARD ARMITAGE OMG! ASDFG@ERY72!!!!” sentiments to convince me that 2004 rendition is a must-watch, so everyone look out. . . I’ll likely have a new literary crush in no time!



One Jane for each day


I’m back on my Jane Austen kick. And I partially blame “Downton Abbey.”

Okay, the pair aren’t obviously connected on the surface — but it’s hard to deny that “Downton”‘s British charm evokes the class differences, family dynamics and romantic entanglements of Austen’s work set 100 years earlier. Spence got me season one of the popular TV show for my birthday last week, and we’ve already plowed our way through half the discs. It’s like salty, delicious Pringles; since I popped, I can’t stop. (Y’all were totally right — it’s awesome.)

My sister got me the journal above — Jane-A-Day, a journal that asks diarists to reflect upon 365 different Austen quotes each day for a five-year stretch. The idea is to see how your thoughts and reflections change in that half-decade, which is pretty cool. I’ve stumbled across similar projects and, since I gave up journaling a few years back, this seems like a good alternative to the long, rambling and exhaustive posts I used to write before bed.

I don’t know why I stopped. I guess because I began dividing so much of my writing time between my column and this blog. After discussing life’s events in two other mediums, my enthusiasm — and desire — to recap some things for a third time in my personal journal just sort of evaporated. It started to feel like work. Plus, my journals saw me through some emotionally difficult times in my life — bad break-ups; growing pains. Once I was finally happy and in a good place, it wasn’t the catharsis it used to be. I guess I’d moved on.

Sometimes I miss it, though. My life can feel very interior. Despite the fact that I “put myself out there” in a variety of ways, mostly through a computer, I tend to keep many of my worries to myself. It doesn’t seem useful or productive to bother others with my nonsense. And in the old days, my journal — that dear, nonjudgmental friend — would have been my confidante. I’ve changed so much over the years.

Maybe my Jane-A-Day can be a good in-between.


Book review: ‘Compulsively Mr. Darcy’ by Nina Benneton

Doctor Elizabeth Bennet is used to dealing with ill, poverty-stricken patients in Vietnam, where she divides her time between treating the sick and helping her sister, Jane, at a nearby orphanage. But she’s not accustomed to dealing with handsome, bristly men like William Darcy bossing her around as she tries to do her job — especially when that job means treating his best friend, Charles, as the pair arrive far from home.

Getting off on the wrong foot, Elizabeth’s unpleasant opinion of William is pretty steadfast. Her disinterest doesn’t really matter, though; she’s convinced Charles and William are actually a clandestine couple (!) wanting to adopt a child, so it doesn’t matter that he’s ridiculously good-looking. And chivalrous. And actually very kindhearted. As the two get to know one another, inexperienced-in-love Elizabeth sees Darcy in a new light . . .

Nina Benneton’s Compulsively Mr. Darcy is a unique contribution to the expansive world of Jane Austen fiction, though I can’t say I was bowled over by this imagining. Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy, our favorite couple, are transported from Regency England to modern-day Vietnam, where Elizabeth’s job as a physician keeps her from dating much. She doesn’t expect to fall for Darcy, especially as her first meeting with him goes so poorly, but Austen fanatics know there can only be one outcome for this tale of — ahem — pride and prejudice.

First, the good: I liked how Benneton translated Darcy’s steadfast nature and strict attention to detail into an obsessive-compulsive disorder. It makes sense, really, and wasn’t overdone. Readers aren’t subjected to Darcy washing his hands under burning-hot water 45 times a day or checking and re-checking locks. We’re aware of his OCD, of course, but Benneton used a light touch to portray that very human, fallible part of Darcy’s nature. I dug it.

The setting was amazing, too — I mean, how many novels have I read set in Vietnam? None, actually. The very British Darcy was an interesting contrast to Elizabeth, an earthy and low-maintenance American, and I could see how they balanced each other. While Darcy was pacing around, dealing with quirky relatives and a high-powered job, Elizabeth was helping her Korean patients and trying to ignore her attraction to Darcy. It was amusing.

At first, anyway. For all Benneton’s assertions that Elizabeth is an intelligent, independent woman — a doctor, for cryin’ out loud — she becomes a complete idiot around (and about) Darcy. I know what you’re thinking: when we fall in love for the first time, as Elizabeth does, what woman doesn’t temporarily lose her common sense? And I would agree with you, friends. We often do become morons. But not in the obvious, ridiculous ways Elizabeth does. I was riding the Compulsively Mr. Darcy train until she began griping to Jane, her sweet sister, about how Darcy didn’t want to sleep with her after “seriously dating for days.” Yes: days. Virginal Elizabeth, so nervous and apprehensive about sex after some weird incident in her youth, can’t understand why the serious, analytical Darcy doesn’t want to hop into the sack immediately.

And okay, this is romance. I get it. But it just didn’t jive with me — it felt too forced, too unreal. I’m no prude, but I had a hard time taking Elizabeth seriously after she made so many awkward moves. To me, her behavior just wasn’t realistic — and I couldn’t relate to her much after she went so stark-raving crazy. The decisions she makes after they’ve been “dating” (mind you, he’s only in Vietnam temporarily — on a half-“vacation”) for mere days seemed ridiculous.

But was this book entertaining? Yes. I read it quickly, enjoying Benneton’s modern interpretation of Darcy and Elizabeth’s quirks. Nothing here rocked my world, but it was a pleasant diversion and an interesting addition to the Austen fiction canon. The familiar cast is well represented, including George Wickham (the cad!) and the annoying Bill Collins, and I liked finding their cameos in the fast-paced plot.

While cheesy lines akin to “My love, you are the very air I breathe” prompted eye-rolling, Compulsively Mr. Darcy is still a reasonably fun novel that may appeal to die-hard Austen fans wanting to reconnect with our favorite couple in a different place and time. Would I recommend it? Not over many other Pride and Prejudice-inspired books I’ve read, especially Pemberley Ranch by Jack Caldwell. But give it a try for something a little different.


3 out of 5!

ISBN: 1402262493 ♥ GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Review copy provided by publisher in exchange for my honest review

Did Jane Austen make her do it? Chatting with editor Laurel Ann Nattress

It’s finally time! After a month of time spent in the wild, Jane Austen Made Me Do It — and talented editor Laurel Ann Nattress — are stopping by write meg! today. I’m pleased to welcome Laurel Ann and thank her for stopping by — and answering some of my most pressing questions.

Let’s take it away . . .


____


Hi Megan, thanks again for hosting me at Write Meg during my Grand Tour of the blogosphere in celebration of the release of my new Austen-inspired anthology, Jane Austen Made Me Do It.


Meg: Laurel Ann, we “met” years ago and bonded through our mutual love of Jane Austen. Your blog Austenprose has been a big inspiration to me, and I love your focus on Austen’s writing – and the many contemporary spin-offs her books have stimulated. When you’re reading an Austen-inspired work, what elevates it from just a decent read to an amazing one? What qualities make a book unforgettable?

“I have read a few Austenesque books in my day. Am I jaded? Hope not. I usually know by the end of the third chapter if it has wings: a fresh concept skillfully rendered, Austen allusions or her characters reverently portrayed and humor in the form of wit and irony, please. I know. It’s a tall order. I’m fastidious.”

I wrote that on my blog in 2010. I have not changed my mind. Even though my reading taste has evolved since the early years of the Austenesque boom (after the 1995 A&E/BBC miniseries of Pride and Prejudice) my standards have remained the same.

I read my first Jane Austen-inspired sequel in 1999. It was Marjorie Fasman’s The Diary of Henry Fitzwilliam Darcy. I loved it. It motivated me to read just about everything in print up to that point and to continue reading anything new published in the genre to date. I have not read everything, mind you, but I do try to visit them all.

So what elevates an Austenesque book from decent to unforgettable? For most readers it is what books they have already read to compare against the next one, and personal taste. This might sound like a cop-out, but we are what we have read. Some people love the highly romantic aspects of the genre; others the historical details. I enjoy an Austenesque book for the same reasons that I admire Austen’s writing — her acerbic humor and astute characterizations. If an author uses those qualities successfully, it really grabs my attention. Overall, a great novel needs to take me on an emotional journey, teach me about human relationships and myself. Since these qualities are subjective, what I like, might not please someone else.

“Only a novel… in short, only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour are conveyed to the world in the best chosen language.” – Northanger Abbey


Meg: Your new anthology Jane Austen Made Me Do It debuted in October and features short stories from many fabulous authors, including Laurie Viera Rigler and Adriana Trigiani. It’s so wonderful to see book lovers making the leap from blogger to author/editor. What was the most rewarding part of the editing process for you? And the most challenging?

Thanks Meg! I am indeed the poster girl for following your bliss! I had no idea that blogging would culminate into a book deal, but it did. That was never my original plan, but sometimes magic just happens. All of my planets and stars were aligned on one amazing day in January 2010 and my book was set into motion.

Working with the twenty-four authors was the most amazing part of the process. They were hand selected by me and my editor because we greatly admired their writing. When their stories started arriving months later, it was like Christmas in my email inbox for about two weeks. Seeing what they had created was so exciting. The variety of genres and inspirational basis was far beyond what I had anticipated. From Regency to contemporary, comedy to romance, mystery to paranormal, it is all there. Quite a selection of Austen confections.

One of the most challenging aspects of the editing process was the Jane Austen Made Me Do It Short Story Contest. Since Jane Austen was so committed to her craft, I thought that it would honor her ideals by leaving a spot open in the anthology for a debut voice. The contest was open to previously unpublished authors and was held online last January. We expected about twenty stories and were blown over when eighty-eight arrived, including your wonderful story Megan, “Spinning White Hair Gold.” Readers narrowed down the list to the Top Ten finalists, and then my editor and I chose the Grand Prize winner. That was a very difficult decision. I greatly admired many of the stories and wanted to include them all, but only one could be selected. Ultimately, we unanimously agreed on “The Love Letter,” by Brenna Aubrey. It was a fantastic contribution and I hope that readers enjoy it also.  


Meg: If you could create an all-star Austen cast for a new production of Pride and Prejudice, who would you love to see in each role?

Wow, a fantasy Austen team for P&P, right? Okay, here goes:

Richard Armitage as Mr. Darcy; Gemma Arterton as Elizabeth Bennet; Emma Watson as Jane Bingley; Hugh Laurie as Mr. Bennet; Joanna Lumley as Mrs. Bennet; Emily Blunt as Caroline Blingley; Laurence Fox as Mr. Wickham; Harriet Walter as Lady Catherine de Bourgh and Charlotte Rampling as Aunt Gardiner. One can dream, can’t one? 


Meg: For an Austen newcomer, which novel would you recommend reading first? Which has inspired you the most on a personal level?

Pride and Prejudice is a great choice for the first Jane Austen book read. It is her most famous and there are so many movie adaptations out there that a new reader is bound to have heard of it or seen one and be familiar with the story. P&P inspired me to love Austen and the unique world that she created. I have read all of her novels, her minor works and letters and I gravitate toward each for different reasons. Some people greatly admire her heroes and heroines: Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy, Anne Elliot and Captain Wentworth and Elinor Dashwood and Edward Ferrars. I am drawn to her secondary characters: Henry and Mary Crawford, Caroline Bingley, Mary Musgrove, Lady Catherine de Bourgh. I enjoy how she develops the darker side of human nature. It challenges me and makes me think.


Meg: What do you hope readers will glean from Jane Austen Made Me Do It? What has its publication meant to you?

I hope that readers will feel uplifted, inspired and in awe that Jane Austen has left such an indelible mark on literature, and then want to read her novels. Jane Austen Made Me Do It is a tribute to her brilliance. She has been delighting readers and inspiring writers for two centuries. I hope that my anthology both honors her and entertains.

The publication of JAMMDI is personal triumph for me. As a single woman of a certain age, it has shown me that we all deserve a “season of second chances.” It’s never too late.

Thanks Meg, for your great questions. It is always a pleasure to visit Write Meg, and I have so enjoyed following your writing career. I am all anticipation of your first novel. I will be the first to wave its flag!

Cheers, Laurel Ann

Editor bio:
A life-long acolyte of Jane Austen, Laurel Ann Nattress is the author/editor of Austenprose.com a blog devoted to the oeuvre of her favorite author and the many books and movies that she has inspired. She is a life member of the Jane Austen Society of North America, a regular contributor to the PBS blog Remotely Connected and the Jane Austen Centre online magazine. An expatriate of southern California, Laurel Ann lives in a country cottage near Snohomish, Washington. Visit Laurel Ann at her blogs Austenprose.com and JaneAustenMadeMeDoIt.com, on Twitter as @Austenprose, and on Facebook as Laurel Ann Nattress.


Jane Austen Made Me Do It: Original Stories Inspired by Literature’s Most Astute Observer of the Human Heart, edited by Laurel Ann Nattress

Ballantine Books • ISBN: 978-0345524966


Giveaway of Jane Austen
Made Me Do It

Congrats to Elaine, the randomly-selected winner of a copy of Jane Austen Made Me Do It! Elaine, I’ll be contacting you shortly.