Thursday, March 26, 2009

Review: The Lost Years of Jane Austen by Barbara Ker Wilson

I have a weakness for all things Jane Austen so when I saw this novel purporting to fill in the missing time in our knowledge of Austen, I snapped it up. Wilson imagines that Austen traveled with her aunt and uncle Leigh Perrot to Australia during this gap of time, drawing a well done portrait of the penal colony in the beginning of the 1800's. Starting with Aunt Jane Leigh Perrot being arrested and falsely accused of stealing lace (based on a true incident in which Mrs. Leigh Perrot spent some months in jail before being brought to trial and exonerated), Wilson imagines that Austen's uncle, an amateur lepidopterist, fixates on the idea of the strange and wonderful natural life in the Antipodes should his wife be inexplicably found guilty and transported. Meanwhile, Austen herself is in Bath with her family and falls in love with every expectation of marriage. But a letter telling her of Elliott Fordwick's untimely demise ends these happy imaginings and it takes Jane a considerable amount of time to stop grieving. With her future completely changed from all expectation, Jane jumps at the chance to accompany her aunt and uncle on the trip to Australia about which her uncle has never quite relinquished hope of taking. Many are the characters introduced in the book before and during the journey as well as once the Leigh Perrots and niece Jane arrive in Sydney; some are historic figures and some are fictional. And despite the billing on the jacket copy of the book, this is not a book about hushing up a failed romance that Austen had while Down Under. It is a well done, interesting, and unusually imagined guess at what Jane Austen could have been doing during the years there was such a dearth of letters to her sister Cassandra.

I was impressed by how well Wilson managed to invoke the language of the time, something so many post-Austen writers fail to do. I enjoyed her characterizations and the way she set up little clues for careful readers to explain things that later found themselves in Austen's actual works. She widened the focus beyond just Austen herself, fleshing out the Leigh Perrots quite extensively, which helped to give the novel a bit more heft and while that generally worked, I felt it did go on just a bit too long, given the dearth of things to do in the colony for a gently reared young lady. But the budding society in Parramatta and Sydney were well described and interesting, especially the details about the former convicts. Overall, a satisfying read that will probably appeal to most Jane-ites, despite the seeming incongruity of Austen in Australia.

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