Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Review: The Missing Manuscript of Jane Austen by Syrie James

I do love stories where previously undiscovered manuscripts come to light. Because I know my own bookshelves backwards and forwards (and have moved them and unpacked them many times), I know them too well to ever think for a minute that there could be some hidden gem lurking there waiting to be shown to the world. But I don't imagine everyone with bookshelves, especially those in old, inherited homes, is as hands on with their books and particular about their organization as to know everything that sits on those shelves. And the possibilities of attics? Well, that's just beyond exciting when I think in terms of some masterpiece tucked away in a trunk or a crevice. And if the newly found manuscript was written by Jane Austen? Well, that would just be icing on the cake. It would appear that I am not the only one who thinks a find like this is exciting to think about and rife with wondrous potential because Syrie James' novel, The Missing Manuscript of Jane Austen, relies on just such a plot.

Samantha McDonough is a university librarian who once studied English Literature at Oxford but had to leave before earning her PhD to return to the US and care for her very ill mother.  She jumps at the chance to return to England when her doctor boyfriend attends a conference there.  Taking time to revisit her beloved Oxford, she makes a fantastical discovery when she purchases a two hundred year old book of poetry in a used bookshop.  Tucked in the uncut pages is an unfinished and unsigned letter that Samantha recognizes as written in Jane Austen's inimitable style.  She is thrilled by her find and certain of its authorship but even more intriguing is the letter's reference to a manuscript regrettably lost and never found at Greenbriar in Devonshire.  She can hardly believe that there could be an undiscovered Jane Austen manuscript tucked away in this country estate and barely containing her excitement, she does what any serious Austenite would do; she travels to Devonshire to meet with the owner of Greenbriar and try to convince him to allow her to search for the missing manuscript.

When she arrives in Devonshire at Greenbriar, she meets Anthony Whitaker, who has newly inherited the crumbling Georgian pile from his father.  He intends to sell the rundown home because the financial burden is just too great and he is initially dismissive of Sam's quest.  But after a little time to consider it, he agrees that he will in fact help her search and their careful looking turns up evidence in a guest book that Jane Austen and her family did in fact visit Greenbriar.  This confirmation makes Sam more convinced that the manuscript exists and she and Anthony do quickly find the manuscript.  Once it is discovered, the question of what to do with this almost priceless literary treasure looms large with Sam having one idea and Anthony another.  As they read The Stanhopes chapter by chapter, they also get to know one another a bit better, discovering a real connection with each other which is threatened not only by the existence of Sam's boyfriend but also by their completely opposing views on how to handle the manuscript's future.

The novel within a novel works here, engaging the reader as much in the Stanhopes' lives as in Samantha and Anthony's.  In fact, there might be a bit more unpredictability in the imagined "transitional" Austen novel than in the modern-set portions of the book.  James has captured the spirit of Austen beautifully if not exactly the language in this charming homage to Austen's works, themes, and readers.  She does a good job of mimicking the basis plot structure, the character types, and the occasional social digs that are so characteristic to Austen's works in her created manuscript of The Stanhopes.  And her modern day hero and heroine find themselves at odds in a way that Austen would easily recognize as well.  Money still drives the world today, much as it did in Austen's time and although it isn't the only component of happiness, it certainly does make a difference.  The end would have been more satisfying if there had been more depth to it but since it wraps up just as it should, it is still pleasing enough.  Overall a delightful read, it makes me want to go digging about in old manor homes in England looking for just this sort of tale.

Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy of the book for review.

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