My Writing Life: What Sparked “The Lost Memoirs of Jane Austen”?

The Lost Memoirs of Jane Austen by Syrie James - cover imageHello dear readers! In preparation for the redesign of my new website, I have been revisiting my novels. Stay tuned. Over the coming months, I will be sharing stories about their creation. First up is a novel close to my heart, The Lost Memoirs of Jane Austen.

My writing inspirations have often come from unexpected places. Such was the case for The Lost Memoirs of Jane Austen. Who would have thought that re-watching two of my favorite films, Shakespeare in Love and Emma Thompson’s version of Sense and Sensibility would trigger my desire to create a story around a mysterious romance by the seaside that changed Austen’s life — and her journey to become a published author?

I have admired Jane Austen’s writing since reading Pride and Prejudice in college. Later, I discovered biographies detailing her family and writing life in Hampshire. Like many scholars and Jane Austen fans, I was haunted by how she could possibly have written such insightful novels about love and courtship, unless she had experienced a love affair of her own? I asked myself: what about a love story for Jane Austen?

Austen’s first biographer, her nephew James-Edward Austen Leigh, portrayed Jane Austen as a genteel spinster of great talent and immense charm. However, perhaps to make his beloved aunt more acceptable to a Victorian audience, he said that “of events her life was singularly barren; few changes and no great crisis ever broke the smooth current of its course.”

Steventon Rectory, Hampshire, where Jane Austen was born and lived through age 25

Steventon Rectory, Hampshire, where Jane Austen was born and lived through age 25

This simply isn’t true. Jane suffered many hardships and crises. At age 25, when she was in a creative frenzy with the first drafts of three manuscripts under her belt, she was torn away from Steventon Rectory, the only home she had ever known, and thrust into the marriage market at Bath. A few years later, she lost her father and one of her dearest friends, Mrs. Anne Lefroy, within a month of each other. Mr. Austen’s death left Jane, her sister Cassandra, and their mother in a precarious position, homeless and nearly penniless. With nowhere to write, Jane’s pen went virtually silent for more than eight years.

Jane Austen had several admirers as a young woman, and suffered at least two romantic heartbreaks that we know of. At age twenty, she seems to have been infatuated with a young Irishman named Tom Lefroy, but his family sent him away because she had no money. Then there is Cassandra’s mysterious story about Jane’s seaside romance with an unspecified gentleman—reportedly the only man whom Jane ever truly loved—and who apparently died. Who was he?

On re-reading Jane Austen’s letters, I noticed a two-year gap from January 1809 through April 1811, where personal letters were either non-existent or missing. Those two years immediately preceded the publication of Jane Austen’s first novel, Sense and Sensibility—when Jane was in her early thirties but stalled in her writing career. I couldn’t help but wonder: what happened during those missing years?

Cassandra Austen's portrait of Jane Austen at the seaside

Cassandra Austen’s portrait of Jane Austen at the seaside

Cassandra, shortly before she died, burnt most of Jane’s letters and cut out portions of those she saved, no doubt to protect Jane’s privacy. What if, I thought, Jane had had a secret love affair during those two years, with a man she met at the seaside—a relationship so passionate, and so intense, that it allowed her to write about emotions that she had, allegedly, never felt? What if he did not die, but there was another, legitimate reason as to why they did not/could not marry—and Cassandra conspired with Jane to keep that relationship a secret?

In The Lost Memoirs of Jane Austen, Jane Austen records, in her own private journal, her grand romance with Mr. Ashford, a man whom I hope you’ll feel is Jane’s equal in intellect and temperament and worthy of her admiration; a man who may have subtly influenced her life and her return to writing, but did not take away from her fiercely independent spirit. As their relationship unfolds, we witness Jane’s struggle to write Sense and Sensibility, and one explanation as to how her first novel came to be published. The story is full of drama, suspense, heartache, lovers separated by circumstance, the demands of family and society, and deep dark secrets.

I wrote The Lost Memoirs of Jane Austen from Jane Austen’s point of view—a most challenging endeavor! I’m humbled and gratified that it went on to become an international and USA Today bestseller, and that so many readers and critics have enjoyed it. News Review said, “I read it thinking all the while that it was a newly discovered memoir by the famous writer,” and Jane Austen’s Regency World Magazine generously praised its “Austenian voice” and called it “a thoughtful, immensely touching romance that does justice to its subject.”

 

Readers, have you read The Lost Memoirs of Jane Austen? If so, I’d love to hear your thoughts. If you have not yet read it, I do hope you will enjoy it!

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