Becoming Jane

I was curious to read Jon Spence’s Becoming Jane Austen and picked up a copy a couple of years ago when I saw it in the bargain section of the university bookstore. As I will generally watch anything Austen, I have watched the movie of the same name. I was not especially impressed by it and much prefer “Miss Austen Regrets” as a dramatization (if speculative) of Austen’s life and times.

This is the second Austen biography that I have read, and I much say that it will not be my first choice is asked to recommend an Austen biography (that one goes to Claire Tomalin’s Jane Austen: A Life). Perhaps I’m reading too much into it, but it seems to me that Spence takes several liberties with the little that we do know about Austen. Firstly, I feel that this book should more rightly be titled Austens in Love as it seems to be mostly an account of the marriages (or lack thereof) of the members of he Austen family.

The movie “Becoming Jane” makes much of the relationship between Jane Austen and Tom LeFroy, as presented by Spence in this biography. Spence bases his exploration of Austen’s relationship with Tom LeFroy on comments made in Jane’s letters to Cassandra. There is little enough evidence to support or deny Spence’s claims regarding the extent of the relationship between these two, and I am not arguing that he is right or wrong in making such a claim, but I am not convinced by his conclusions regarding LeFroy’s influence on Austen’s works.

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Courtney and Jane

I gave in to the allure of the bargain bin and got myself copies of Laurie Viera Rigler’s Confessions of a Jane Austen Addict and  Rude Awakenings of a Jane Austen Addict.

Confessions and Rude Awakenings are more like companion novels than prequel/sequel, so each can be read independent of the other.  In Confessions, we meet Courtney Stone/Jane Mansfield, a modern LA girl who unwittingly finds herself transported into the body of an early 19th century country gentleman’s daughter. Suffering from a broken heart, Courtney indulged her woes with Jane Austen and vodka, a potent combination. When she finds herself 200 years in the past, in Jane’s body, she concludes that she is merely in the throes of a vivid dream–the result of a little too much Austen. A run-in with a country doctor’s scalpel soon dispels that notion and Courtney finds that she must come to terms with the less-than-glamourous aspects of life in Jane Austen’s England while making sense of the life that she has taken over.

But where is Jane Mansfield while Courtney stone is inhabiting her body? Rude Awakenings answers just that. When prim and proper Jane awakens in Courtney’s LA apartment and finds herself alone in the company of a strange gentleman, what is she to think? Like Courtney, Jane thinks herself asleep until she finds that her situation is no dream, and that she must come to terms with the disparity between 21st century Los Angeles and her quiet country life. Never mind that the life that she must now command is in a right state, Jane must learn to navigate the ins and outs of modern life and make sense of Courtney’s complicated love life.

This is a fun set of novels. Jane/Courtney remind me of a pair of Bridget Joneses with an Austen twist. I did, however, enjoy Confessions a bit more than Rude Awakenings. While both heroines must learn to inhabit their new bodies and societies, reading Jane’s highly detailed exploration of 21st century technology was not as entertaining as Courtney’s discovery of the less than genteel realities of 19th century living. I also found Jane(Courtney’s) friends, Anna and Paula, a bit irritating and much preferred Courtney(Jane’s) friend, Mary.  That said, I did enjoy Viera Rigler’s treatment of Jane’s burgeoning feminism and her desire to establish herself as an independent woman with a “competency”. So… I like Courtney’s story in Confessions, but I also like Jane’s feminist qualities in Rude Awakenings.

A secret desperate to be told

Do you mean to say, that if I believe in your story as you have told it, then it is as good as if it were true?

– from The Lost Memoirs of Jane Austen by Syrie James

What if Jane Austen’s long lost memoirs were waiting to be discovered, tucked away behind an attic wall at Chawton Manor House? What if Austen’s romantic heros were inspired by someone who was dear to her? That is the premise behind Syrie James’s beautifully written, fictional memoir. Carefully weaving together details from Austen’s letters and novels, as well as early biographical accounts of Austen’s life, James makes the reader believe that this tale of love found and lost really was written by Austen herself in the months leading up to her untimely death.

I’m in a bit behind on school work at the moment, so this review is shorter than most.

The Lost Memoirs was a truly engrossing read and made me yearn to re-read Sense and Sensibility after reading about Jane’s struggle to edit what would be her first published novel. I was eager to read this book after reading The Secret Diaries of Charlotte Brontë and I was just as pleased with James’s treatment of Austen’s memoirs as I was with Brontë’s diaries. Overall, a great tribute to the life of Jane Austen and a worthy addition to any collection of Austenesque works.