Syrie James graciously agreed to an interview about her fabulous book, The Lost Memoirs of Jane Austen, and her thoughts about writing and the enormous amount of research that was required before she even began her novel about Jane. Here then is the interview, and some photos that Syrie sent of herself in front of Chawton Cottage and with her own Mr. Ashford at a Regency ball – her husband Bill!
Syrie: I first read Pride and Prejudice and Emma in college, and I really enjoyed them. Few novels can match Pride and Prejudice for pure brilliance of plot, pacing, characterization and dialog. No matter how many times you read that book, you can’t put it down! I also loved Emma, with its delightfully misguided heroine, hilarious supporting characters, and comedy-of-errors plot.
It wasn’t until 1995, however, that Jane Austen appeared full-force on my radar. That was the year that three films that brought her books vividly to life: Emma Thompson and Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility, the BBC version of Pride and Prejudice with Colin Firth, and a wonderful adaptation of Persuasion with Amanda Root and Ciaran Hinds. When you put Jane Austen on the screen, something magical happens! The same year, Clueless came out—a modernization of Emma— and the next year there were two fabulous screen adaptations of Emma. Overnight, Jane Austen seemed to be everywhere. I adored those films, and I became obsessed with All Things Austen.
I read the rest of her books, and especially loved Persuasion. Anne Elliott and Captain Wentworth are beautifully drawn characters, and exhibit great depth of feeling. Because Jane wrote it as a mature woman, when she was reflecting on loss and regret, it provides a wonderful counterpoint to her earlier views of life and romance.
I became an admirer of Jane Austen’s work for many reasons. She was a brilliant craftsman; her novels are beautifully structured gems. She wrote with a wonderful sense of irony and humor, and a great understanding of character, and she wrote about real people in recognizable circumstances. Her characters all wrestle with familiar social and emotional problems that we still confront on a daily basis: difficulties with family relationships, money (or the lack of it), and the struggle to live within society’s rules. All of her main characters go on a voyage of self-discovery; they all learn something important about themselves by the end of the book. Her books always leave me satisfied: the good are rewarded, the bad punished, and the lovers united. Most importantly, she wrote about what people risk when they fall in love, and what it can cost—a topic anyone can relate to, at any time.
Your book, The Lost Memoirs of Jane Austen, is so meticulously researched. I am curious. Were you a Jane scholar before you began to write the book, or did you come up with the idea of writing the book first, which then led you to do the research? Would you be willing to share one story about your research, and an interesting tidbit you uncovered that surprised you?
Syrie: I came up with the idea a number of years ago, right after watching Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice for the umpteenth time, followed by a screening of Shakespeare in Love. I remember thinking: what about a love story for Jane Austen? Why hasn’t anyone done that? At that point, I knew next to nothing about Jane Austen’s life. I started reading every Jane Austen biography I could find. Her life story, as portrayed by historians, left me unsatisfied. I found it hard to believe that this brilliant woman, who gave the world such wonderful and romantic stories, never fell in love herself.
Wasn’t it possible, I thought, that Jane Austen had a secret love affair? What if she recorded the entire experience in a journal, that had never been found? I was also intrigued by the idea of Jane Austen’s genesis as a writer. According to her sister, Austen wrote early drafts of Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice in her twenties; how much, I wondered, did those manuscripts change when she revised them years later for publication? What part did real life events play in the development of her stories?
I spent an enormous amount of time researching and developing my story before I felt ready to write it. It was important to me to stay true to every known fact of her life, and to present an entirely plausible story, just as Jane herself might have told it. As I conducted my research into Jane Austen’s life and work, a lot of things surprised me.
For one thing, I was struck by how beautifully written, well-planned and structured Jane Austen’s novels are. The first time you read them, you enjoy the story, you laugh at the comic characters and you root for the lovers to be united. On a second read, you begin to notice how cleverly the story is plotted and how real and consistent the characters are. You appreciate the character arcs: the way the heroine (and hero, in most cases) grow and change during the story, as they learn the lesson they’re meant to learn.
I was surprised to see how few descriptions of people, places, and clothing Jane Austen included in her books—it’s almost all left to the imagination. In her letters to her sister, however, Jane expounded on these subjects; she wrote often and in great detail about clothing and hats, and the price of fabric and lace and trimmings, even though she was on a very small budget—but there’s almost nothing about it in her novels. Perhaps she didn’t include these details because she was writing for a contemporary audience, and didn’t think it was necessary… or maybe she was simply more interested in focusing on character and dialog! Most locations in her novels are imaginary and hastily depicted. Two places that she did spend a great deal of time describing are Lyme Regis and Pemberley. We know that Jane Austen visited Lyme Regis herself several times, and loved it; I reasoned, therefore, that she had also been to “Pemberley”—and so I included it as an important locale in my novel.
I was surprised to learn that Jane Austen never went to school… except for a year when she was seven and went away to boarding school with Cassandra, where they both became ill and nearly died. It was relatively unusual for a girl to go away to school then, but for a writer of Jane Austen’s brilliance and skill, it somehow came as a surprise to learn that she’d never been formally educated by anyone other than her father.
I was also amazed at how prolific she was. Jane Austen wrote or rewrote 6 books in 7 years when she moved to Chawton. Apparently it only took her a little over a year to write Emma and a year to write Persuasion (even though she was ill at that time.) I consider this to be remarkable in an era when books were written with a quill and ink, and you had to copy over the entire manuscript before submission. I could never write that fast!
Syrie: I try to write every day, from 10 AM to 4 or 5 PM. I don’t have to wait until inspiration strikes; I love what I do, and I’m always inspired! If I feel that I’m not ready to write a particular part of a novel, I’ve found it means that I haven’t done enough research. I go back to reading, studying, note-taking, and rethinking my outline and the characters’ motivations. When the story becomes clear again, I plunge back in.
One thing that struck me is how well you were able to write as Jane, keeping her voice, yet managing to communicate with today’s audience. At the beginning that task must have seemed daunting. How did you prepare to write in another author’s voice?
Syrie: In order for this novel to be perceived as Jane Austen’s memoirs, I knew that I had to not only sound as much like her as possible, but to create a story that was Jane Austen through and through, peopled with her unique roster of characters, and filled with her wit and sense of irony. To “get into character,” I read dozens of Jane Austen biographies, and I researched her era extensively. I reread her novels, over and over again. I read all her juvenilia and unfinished works. I studied her letters in minute detail. I watched all her movies, some many times over. I even took English Regency Country Dance lessons! Eventually, I felt I understood who she was, and her voice (and the voices of her characters) seemed to come naturally to me.
Hollywood has called, and wants to make a movie of your book. Which actors and actresses would be at the top of your list to play Jane and Frederick Ashford?
Syrie: I’d love to see Naomi Watts, Frances O’Connor, or Kate Winslet as Jane, Christian Bale as Frederick Ashford, and Emma Thompson as Cassandra!
- Visit Syrie James’s website here.
- Click on the Avon website here.
- And click here to browse inside the The Lost Memoirs of Jane Austen.