Jane Austen meets Mr. Right in Hemingway’s (Maximum Brainpower: Challenging the Brain for Health and Wisdom, 2013, etc.) debut work of historical fiction.
Hemingway picks up the thread of Austen’s life in August 1802, when Jane and her sister Cassandra are residing with their parents in Bath, England. After Jane hops into a hot air balloon with the impetuous and handsome Ashton Dennis, the resulting scandal forces Jane and Cassandra into the countryside of their birth. Though Jane is forbidden to see Ashton, the ban is eventually lifted, and Ashton proposes marriage. Jane, shocked by his passionate declarations and dismayed by his immaturity, refuses to marry him. Ashton takes to the sea and heads to the West Indies as part of an expedition, where he is eventually ensnared in the war between England and France. As Jane and Ashton communicate via letters in the years following his departure, Jane comes to respect Ashton’s insights and growing maturity. In fact, their letters become increasingly personal and set the stage for a deeper relationship. The narrative covers a formative period for the historical Jane Austen, encompassing her one known engagement, her first book sale, and the sudden death of her father. Hemingway adheres to the basic chronology of Austen’s life, and the details surrounding her family, writing, and travels are all accurately represented. Historical persons figure into the plot, and Hemingway uses Austen’s own words at times. For instance, in one of her real letters to Ashton, Jane muses on the art of writing, confiding that “too often I am not at all in a humor for writing; I must write on till I am.” Hemingway infuses history with fiction when he explores an intriguing what if: what if Austen, who penned so many classic love stories, found her own romantic match? Ashton Dennis fits right into the Austen universe, while this Jane remains true to life, an intelligent and determined young woman. The writing is Austen-ian, and Hemingway has a talent for witty banter and wry observations that would make Elizabeth Bennet proud.
An enjoyable first novel in an imaginative, well-researched series.