interview: Syrie James on Jane Austen’s First Love

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JANE AUSTEN’S FIRST LOVE by Syrie James is available for purchase today, August 5, 2014! My review has been posted on GoodReads and will be featured on tomorrow. Author Syrie James has kindly answered some questions about her latest novel below.

janeaustensfirstloveYour Jane derives her fiction from the world around her. Do you feel that the author actually borrowed heavily from her life experiences?

In Jane Austen’s First Love, Jane does attempt a bit of Emma-like matchmaking, and towards the end of the book, she is inspired to write a short story loosely based on a pair of competitive and contentious sisters she meets. However, I don’t mean to imply that Austen derived all her fiction from the world around her. The novel itself is about something entirely different—it’s about Jane’s emotional and intellectual awakening as she tries to discover her purpose in the world and feels the first stirrings of young love, an experience that will forever after shape her views regarding love and marriage.

Jane Austen, the mature author, was a highly imaginative and brilliant craftsman. She admittedly only wrote about what she knew, repeatedly advising her literary-minded niece and nephew not to venture into unfamiliar territory in their writing, lest they inadvertently make an inaccurate representation. By definition, this implies that Jane borrowed from her own life experiences in her own work—just as every writer does, I think, in some way. But any “borrowing” she may have done always served to set the scene, providing a necessary realism and depth to her clever characters and original plots and themes.

Besides Jane and Edward Taylor, which character(s) did you most enjoy writing?

I particularly enjoyed writing Mrs. Austen. Jane didn’t have the easiest relationship with her mother. They were both highly intelligent, strong-willed women—and I could easily imagine the dramatics that might have existed between Mrs. Austen and a fifteen-year-old Jane. I thought of my own mother, who I loved dearly and struggled to please, even though she seemed to always be criticizing me—and I gave that relationship to Jane her mother. I did include one tender scene between mother and daughter, to reflect the love that I’m sure lay beneath the surface. Mrs. Austen was also a known hypochondriac (which my mother most emphatically was not), and it was great fun to portray that.

What prompted you to use A Midsummer Night’s Dream as the chosen play? Were you familiar with it previously? (My brother played the character of Bottom in his High School drama class…)

Edward Taylor’s birthday is June 24, which is Midsummer’s Day—a fact I considered a little gift, since in my novel, Jane is in Kent on that very day. It meant I could include his birthday as well as a grand Midsummer’s Eve celebration, with all kinds of time-honored rituals. When choosing a play for the young people to put on, what could be more exciting and appropriate than to perform A Midsummer Night’s Dream on Midsummer’s Eve itself? Shakespeare’s popular play has just the right number of parts for the people in my book, and even more importantly, the plot and characterization of the play beautifully reflect the characters, storyline, and themes of my novel. For example, in Jane’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, she plays Puck, a fairy who uses magic to manipulate the love lives of two couples, and ends up misaligning everybody—just as Jane does herself in the story.

In your Acknowledgement, you describe your travels and tours of Jane Austen’s world. Do you feel it made a great impact on your research and writing, or was the story already fashioned in your mind beforehand?

I’m sure that being in Jane’s native country and seeing the places she lived and visited had a significant impact on the world I wrote about. I’m very fortunate that I was given a private tour of the house and grounds at Goodnestone Park in Kent, ancestral home of the Bridges family, where most of the novel takes place. However, the story for Jane Austen’s First Love came before that visit, entirely from a combination of intensive research and imagination. I began with the desire to explore and bring to life Jane Austen’s relationship with Edward Taylor, a young man she met in Kent as a teenager, and of whom she was admittedly very fond. The story took further shape when I learned that in 1791, shortly after Jane’s brother Edward Austen announced his engagement to Elizabeth Bridges, two of Elizabeth’s sisters also became engaged. It seemed a most unusual circumstance in one family for three daughters to become engaged almost simultaneously—and it couldn’t be a coincidence that Jane Austen wrote her comedic short story, “The Three Sisters,” at the very same time. How fun it would be, I thought, to combine these elements into one novel—and to give Jane the opportunity to do a little matchmaking!

Thank you for writing a detailed Afterword, which I find very important when mixing fact and fiction. This story is about Jane Austen’s first love. Can you briefly tell us about any later relationships she had?

When she was twenty years old, Jane had a brief crush on Thomas Lefroy, a handsome law student from Dublin who was visiting his aunt, Mrs. Lefroy, a friend and neighbour of Jane’s. Tom was quickly sent back to Ireland, his family determined that he would land a wealthy wife. Mrs. Lefroy tried unsuccessfully to get Jane interested in the Reverend Samuel Blackall, a man who Jane called “noisy perfection,” and who preferred his women “to be of a silent turn and rather ignorant.” Years later, Cassandra claims that Jane met a charming, unnamed gentleman at a seaside place who she thought likely to win her sister’s love, but soon after they learned that he had died. At age twenty-seven, Jane received an offer of marriage from Harris Bigg-Wither, a shy, moody, stuttering, wealthy family friend who was six years her junior; she accepted him, only to famously recant the next morning, on the grounds that she didn’t love him.

Throughout her twenties, the Reverend Edward Bridges (fifth son of Sir Brook Bridges of Goodnestone Park) was kind and attentive to Jane, and it appears that he intended to propose; but Jane, seeing him only as a dear friend, gently ended the discussion before it could go further. Jane’s deepest and most meaningful romantic relationship (I like to believe) was with Mr. Frederick Ashford, the dashing gentleman she met in her early thirties, who won her heart and influenced her return to writing—a relationship detailed in my novel The Lost Memoirs of Jane Austen. Was Mr. Ashford real? I leave that to the reader to decide. In the meantime, Edward Taylor, Jane Austen’s first love, was indisputably real. I was thrilled, in my research, to discover a wealth of information about Edward Taylor not previously known to Austen biographers, which greatly adds to our understanding of him, and to why Jane fell in love with him. I hope people enjoy reading the book as much I enjoyed writing it!