A worthy attempt to augment Jane Austen’s love life.
Austen’s short life is well documented by her surviving letters—except for the period 1809 through 1812, which preceded publication of her first novel, Sense and Sensibility. James re-imagines this time in the form of a “lost memoir” discovered in an attic chest, along with a gold-and-ruby ring. The “missing years” are emotionally and financially fraught for Jane. There’s her first marriage proposal, from boorish, stammering Harris, the son and heir to the Bigg-Wither country estate. She accepts, seeing a means of procuring her mother’s and sisters’ security, but reneges the next day. Upon her father’s death, Jane and the other distaff Austens must vacate their family home. The women, dependent on male relatives, now exist on the fringes of genteel respectability. While traveling with her brother Henry, Jane meets Frederick Ashford, son of a baronet and heir to a huge fortune, with a stately home to match. Jane and winsome 34-year-old Frederick share a love of literature, a proclivity for intellectual discourse and a sense of humor. Dare she hope that he finds her enthralling despite her limited wardrobe, relatively plain face and age verging on intractable spinsterhood—32? She dares. He’s called away suddenly, but the two meet again for a three-week idyll of diffident courtship. He’s on the verge of a declaration when meddlesome friends interrupt. Later, Jane learns, to her horror, that Frederick is engaged to a 17-year-old heiress, Isabella. Why did he allow Jane to cherish false hopes? She staunchly refuses his letters. Finally, Frederick confronts Jane at a London society party and reveals that his engagement was parentally dictated. There’s hope—Isabella wants out. Suspense builds, and it’s a tribute to the world James creates that readers will anxiously root for Jane to find true love and wealth even though we know it never happened.
Deserves front-runner status in the saturated field of Austen fan-fiction and film.