Bennett (The Perfect Visit, 2011), in his second work of historical fiction, explores Francis Rawdon-Hastings’ relationship to a young Jane Austen and her effect on him well after her death.
In a story that jumps back and forth between 1801 and 1823, Hastings—a real man known as Lord Moira from age 40 to his early 60s—was taken by two young, awe-inspiring women: Jane Austen and, later, the novel’s fictitious Vanessa Horwood. Austen, the budding British writer, and Horwood, a Canadian musician, share a certain likeness that Lord Moira cannot ignore. While Moira develops feelings for Horwood, her life becomes more entwined with Austen’s. As Moira attempts to mask his past flirtations with Austen, Horwood’s well-being is put at stake. Horwood, who is acquainted with Austen’s siblings, finds herself caught with a dark, secretive financial burden, a downfall of the Austen family that author Bennett embellishes for dramatic effect. With scholarly knowledge of Austen’s life and works, Bennett uses what little the world knows of Austen’s young life to his advantage and inserts some cleverly written pieces to the unfinished puzzle. Although unlikely, there’s a chance Moira and Austen may have shared an intimate connection during these years, and Bennett offers hypothetical explanations behind Austen’s earlier works and her mysterious personal life. Austen fans searching for another intriguing though debatable theory will find plenty to sift through here. Austen neophytes, however, will most likely need to conduct some additional research to appreciate this historical fiction that has hints of fan fiction. The cumbersome cast of characters, some real, some imagined, would be easier to digest with some previous knowledge of Austen’s life and works. Nevertheless, dialogue between characters is often captivating, and the book reads splendidly.
Engaging food for thought for Austen