Jane Austen’s novels have been continuously in print since 1833. This lasting popularity, however, and Austen’s subsequent enshrinement in the canon of English literature, fail to account for the sudden burst of public attention anything and everything relating to the author has received of late.
Syrie James, author of The Lost Memoirs of Jane Austen, has a theory she believes might explain the phenomenon that Austen has become during the last several years. James speculates that recent films of the novels, specifically the 1995 version of Sense and Sensibility starring Emma Thompson and the 2005 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice with Keira Knightley, sparked this firestorm of interest. “At that point,” James said in a recent phone interview, “the world and I became Jane Austen fanatics.”
But why the sudden flurry of films? According to James, the answer is simple: Our culture is as obsessed with romantic love as ever, and Austen wrote the most compelling, the most lastingly relevant, and the most delightfully funny romances ever penned.
James was prompted to write her own book by the paradox, which has bothered fans and critics alike, of Austen’s apparent lack of a romance of her own-aside from a temporary flirtation featured in 2007’s Becoming Jane in which Anne Hathaway plays Austen. The idea of a secret romance in Austen’s life was suggested by missing letters to her sister Cassandra, and a somewhat mysterious two years about which historians know little.
Presented as a manuscript found in a walled-up attic, James’s The Lost Memoirs engagingly portrays what might have occurred had Austen met the perfect man. While the fact that Austen loses her lover will shock no one-after all, James can’t change the historical facts we do know-the novel is suspenseful and filled with surprises. The Lost Memoirs is one of the best additions to the current spate of books featuring Jane Austen in one way or another.
Another new book that aims to capture some of Austen’s elusive literary style is Patrice Hannon’s Dear Jane Austen: A Heroine’s Guide to Life and Love. While Hannon’s book, like James’s, contains frequent allusions to Austen’s novels and even incorporates some passages from them, it also attempts to further illuminate Austen’s mindset and opinions. A variety of writers have chosen to write sequels to Pride and Prejudice, but Hannon and James take a different approach. “I’ve never been personally interested in continuing stories about her characters-I was just interested in her,” James said-an attitude Hannon apparently shares.
Other novelists have their own take on what Jane Austen means to her readers. Karen Joy Fowler’s novel The Jane Austen Book Club, and the recent film of the same name, uses Austen’s plots as parallels for the lives of modern protagonists. The popularity of The Jane Austen Book Club speaks to James’s theory that Austen’s lasting appeal has to do with “people [in Austen’s novels] experiencing problems that we still encounter.”
All three of these novelists-James, Hannon, and Fowler-have attempted to get at who Jane Austen was, and how the author herself, rather than her characters, continues to influence contemporary readers. James, however, is the only one of the three to invent events in Austen’s life, and to provide what, for many fans, might be their only opportunity to see Austen experience love. Despite its fictional aspect, The Lost Memoirs is a safe read for true Austen aficionados; aside from what’s imagined during the two years, all the events mentioned are factual. The book has even received a nomination from Jane Austen’s Regency World Awards in Bath, England.
Other readers, of course, will quibble with the invention of a romance for Austen. But, as James said, “In the end, it’s fun, it’s fiction, it’s meant to give a few hours of pleasure. In my heart, I like to believe it happened.” And that, ultimately, is the mark of a good novel. No doubt Jane Austen would agree.
Syrie James will appear at Chaucer’s Books on Sunday, April 13, at 3 p.m. to sign copies of her book. For more information, call 682-6787 or visit chaucers.booksense.com.