I’m happy and excited to announce that my new novel, JANE AUSTEN’S FIRST LOVE from Berkley Trade, is on sale today everywhere that books are sold—at your local bookstore, in Trade Paperback on Amazon, for Kindle, and at Barnes and Noble.com! Hurray! (*Tosses confetti!*)
Please read on for an excerpt, a little history about the book, and details about my giveaway! I hope you’ll also join me at the stops along my Virtual Book Tour, where there will be lots of other chances to win.
JANE AUSTEN’S FIRST LOVE is the story of the summer of 1791, when the teenage Jane Austen met and fell in love with Edward Taylor—a very real, truly extraordinary young man. The idea for the book came to me when I re-read this sentence in a letter Jane Austen wrote to her sister Cassandra in September 1796, when Jane was twenty years old and visiting in Kent:
“We went by Bifrons, & I contemplated with a melancholy pleasure, the abode of Him, on whom I once fondly doated.”
Who, I wondered, was Jane talking about? I learned that the “Him” upon whom she “fondly doated” (ie. cherished and adored) was Edward Taylor, heir to Bifrons, a grand, ancestral estate in Kent. Jane Austen mentioned Edward Taylor in two other letters, always with the same degree of fondness, affectionately referring to his “beautiful dark eyes.”
I was intrigued by these enigmatic references to Edward Taylor, who had clearly captured a young Jane Austen’s heart! Biographers have been similarly tantalized, referring to him as “her old beau” and “the most shadowy of her possible early ‘suitors.’” Edward Taylor was “shadowy” for two hundred years because there wasn’t much information about him–until now.
After many months of research, I discovered a rare and invaluable resource that told me more about him: The Taylor Papers, the memoirs of Edward’s brother Lieutenant General Sir Herbert Taylor. They reveal Edward Taylor to be a member of a highly accomplished, extremely well-educated family who were all fluent in five languages and lived and traveled extensively abroad. The memoir also included this rare and little-seen portrait of Edward Taylor! When Jane Austen met Edward Taylor as a teenager, he’d already lived a fascinating life—it is no wonder she fell head over heels in love with him! He must have been very different from any other young man of her acquaintance.
I uncovered a wealth of additional new information about Edward Taylor, including the fact that he was a distant cousin of the Bridges family of Goodnestone Park (Elizabeth Bridges married Jane’s brother Edward Austen in 1791). It was thrilling to make these discoveries, and to know that Edward Taylor had held an important place in Jane Austen’s heart. I had such fun speculating as to how Edward and Jane met, and bringing their relationship to life over one very special summer!
I also had fun writing about Jane Austen and her mother. They were both highly intelligent, strong-willed women, and I could easily imagine the dramatics which might have existed between Mrs. Austen and a fifteen-year-old Jane. I based their relationship on mine with my own mother. We loved each other dearly, but she seemed to always be criticizing me–which only now do I realize was her way of trying to make me the best person I could be. I even included a couple of direct quotes from my mother which have stuck in my mind for decades (and now make me smile) — the opinion she voiced about my ambition to be a writer, and what she believed was important for a girl to do with her time. See if you can find them in the excerpt below!
Here are some nice things that others have said about JANE AUSTEN’S FIRST LOVE:
“Not only based on James’s extensive research on the enigmatic Edward Taylor, but so many of the personalities are real, and the dates and events astonishingly match, which make this masterwork feel like a real memoir…Readers will race to the conclusion, not only for the enjoyable writing, but with a faint hope of a blissful ending, one typical of an Austen novel. Highly recommended.” —Historical Novel Society
“Syrie James has woven a quite delightful romance—not only a touching record of a young girl’s first experience of love, but also a funny, eventful and entertaining comedy of Regency manners…As ever, James’s ear for dialogue is unfaltering, and her sympathy for her heroine whole-hearted. It all adds up to an unashamedly romantic package, presented with affection and respect.” —Jane Austen’s Regency World Magazine
“An exquisite portrait of a youthful, vibrant Jane, who at fifteen is eager to explore the possibility of romance while honing her writing craft. James knows Austen’s world like few others, her prose saturated with the period’s rhythm of speech and colorful descriptors that bring everyday existence in the early nineteenth century to vibrant, technicolor life on the page…I am SO intrigued by the possibility that a youthful Jane’s first brush with romance may have been with this Edward Taylor, heretofore completely unknown to me, and yet such a fascinating potential hero template!” —Book Talk & More
“James has a way of getting into Austen’s head and her style that is truly riveting…A realistic tale that could have been written by the revered author herself. James’s latest will charm Austen fans (and fans of James, too) as well as Austen unfamiliars…Romance fans will root for Jane all the way.” -EDITOR’S PICK, Library Journal
“Syrie James confirms her skills as brilliant story-teller and creator of lively pictures of Regency life. Well-researched historical novel as well as delightful summer read…The two young protagonists are so easy to love: smart, brave and witty teenage Jane–who is also the first-person narrator in the story–is enchanting, while devilishly handsome Edward Taylor is temptingly irresistibile. A fresh and engaging new story, which is a real feast for any Austen fan.” My Jane Austen Book Club
“A wonderful, charming and lively story of what might have been. James presents readers with an evocative and sweet romance that reads like Emma… This enchanting tale will have readers recalling their first love: the joy, the nervousness, and the sadness of parting. Simply a lovely novel!”—RT Book Reviews
“Magnificent! This early Austen adventure is truly unforgettable! 5 stars!”—Feathered Quill
“The story of Jane’s and Edward’s meeting and romance is very real – and oh so Austen. If you loved any of Jane Austen’s classic novels, then this is a must-read for you.” –Books for Her
“A second reading left me so very hopeful that maybe, just maybe, it happened that way, that our beloved Jane did experience a first love (and even heartache), which made me adore this story all the more. With a manifold of bestsellers behind her, Syrie James is an incomparable storyteller, turning obscure details from personal research into inspired, yet richly embellished, fictional narratives. Jane Austen’s First Love is a lively, romantic ‘what if’ that will make you laugh, as well as tug at your heart. 5 stars!” —Christina Boyd, Austenprose
And now, here’s that promised excerpt!
The summer of 1791 is so firmly fixed in my memory that I believe I can never forget it; every detail is as fresh and vivid as if it occurred only yesterday, and looking back, there are times when it seems as if my life never really began until that moment—the moment when I first met him.
It was a letter which instigated this fond remembrance—a letter I wrote to my sister Cassandra many years past, which she came upon the other day by happenstance. It was a cold morning in late November, and we had recently returned to our Bath apartment following a lovely, all too brief holiday at Lyme. I was setting the table for breakfast, when I observed my sister seated by the window in the drawing-room, deeply engrossed in reading. An open box of old correspondence lay at her feet.
“What are you reading, Cassandra?” inquired I.
“One of your old letters,” replied she, smiling. “I came upon this box while I was tidying the wardrobe, and could not prevent myself from taking a look inside.”
“My letters? Why do you keep those old things? Re-reading them can hardly prove to make lively entertainment of a morning.”
“Oh, but it does. You wrote this one in September 1796 when you were in Kent. Here you speak of a Miss Fletcher: She wore her purple muslin, which is pretty enough, though it does not become her complexion. There are two traits in her character which are pleasing; namely, she admires Camilla, and drinks no cream in her tea.” Cassandra laughed softly. “You are a most candid and amusing writer, Jane.”
“I am flattered that you think so, but I still say: what is the point of reading my old correspondence? It is full of nothing but useless details which can no longer be of interest to anybody.”
“I beg to differ. Reading them is a source of great pleasure for me, dearest.” Turning the letter over, she continued, “Look what you write here: We went by Bifrons and I contemplated with a melancholy pleasure the abode of him, on whom I once fondly doated.”
I paused, the spoon which I had been holding forgotten in my hand. That single sentence caught at my heart, of a sudden bringing back to mind a person, and a time and place, which I had not thought about in many years—and an attachment which I thought I had long since got over.
Cassandra looked at me, empathy in her eyes. “You are thinking about that summer, are you not?”
“How many years has it been?”
I did the mental calculation. “Twelve and a half years.”
She carefully refolded the letter. “They say that memories fade in time—but where particular people and events are concerned, I have not found that to be the case.”
I knew that she was thinking of Tom, her own lost love, who had tragically died so many years before. Our eyes caught and held across the room.
“Nor have I.”
She came to me, removed the spoon from my hand, and set it on the table; then she took me in her embrace. “You are older and wiser now, Jane. But it is only natural that you should think of him. I know what he meant to you.”
So saying, she kissed my cheek, handed me the letter, and left the room.
I sank into the nearest chair, immediately opening and scanning the letter until I found the phrase which was of such interest to me. Then I held the missive to my chest, as a hundred memories came flooding back.
At that point of my life when this history occurs, I had attained my fifteenth year. I was young, I know it; but does age matter? Did Juliet, not fourteen, love her Romeo any less? What of Pyramus and Thisbe’s burning passion? Ought we to discount their raw and overpowering feelings, simply because of their youthful age? I think not. When he was near, at times my heart did not beat to its regular rhythm; in so many ways, I thought he was my perfect match.
To my mind, particularly when one took into account my education and the manner in which I was raised, I was, at fifteen, a grown-up person in every way; indeed, I felt as mature and worldly as my sister, who was three years my senior. I was not beautiful, like Cassandra; my hair was far too curly, and neither fashionably light nor dark, but a shade of brown somewhere in between; even so, I received compliments on my hazel eyes and clear complexion, and was often told that I bore a strong resemblance to my father and my six brothers, who I believed to be handsome.
I lived in the house where I was born, Steventon Rectory, in the county of Hampshire. Although not grand or elegant by any means, it was a dwelling worthy of a scholar and a gentleman and had provided me with all the comforts and joys of a happy childhood. It offered more accommodation than many parsonage houses, making it possible for my father to augment his income as rector by taking in boarding pupils—as such, my sister and I had the benefit of growing up in a house of rowdy boys and being educated at their side. Since Cassandra had finished her studies, and all my brothers were grown and gone except Charles (the youngest, at nearly twelve), the size of the school was much depleted; yet Papa gave it no less attention than before.
We had a lovely garden and a big old barn, where for years my brothers and sister and I had enjoyed holding home theatricals. I had done very little travelling outside of Hampshire, other than two brief intervals away at school, and one family excursion to east Kent to visit my elderly great-uncle at Sevenoaks. I was anxious to see the world.
I had been taking dancing lessons since I was a child and loved nothing more than the idea of a ball; but an idea was all it had been, for as much as I perceived myself to be an adult, my mother still forbade me from attending the assemblies at Basingstoke. This was the greatest cross I bore at the time, for I dreamt of three things in life: doing something useful, writing something worthy, and falling in love—and how could I ever fall in love if I had to wait nearly two years before Mamma would allow me to come out?
On Thursday morning, the 18th of March, 1791, I was in my dressing-room, a smallish chamber which communicated with my bedroom and had been especially fitted up for my sister and me. I adored every inch of that room, from the chocolate brown carpet, blue wallpaper, and comforting fireplace, to the painted bookshelves and cheerful striped curtains, for it was a place of quiet and refuge, where I could write in privacy and peace.
I was seated at the small table between the windows, above which hung a looking-glass and our Tonbridge-ware work-boxes, thoroughly engaged in composing a little play I had entitled The Visit, and was just considering the next line to be spoken, when I heard the tread of footsteps on the stairs and my mother’s voice ringing out:
“Jane! Jane! Come down! You are needed!”
“I am writing, Mamma!” I doubted very much that my reply would hold much weight with her, and sadly this proved to be the case.
My mother entered the room and stopped beside me, shaking her head and clicking her tongue. “Look at you, bent over that table like an interrogation point—do sit up straight, Jane!”
Like myself, my mother was of middle height, and spare and thin; I never understood her personal assertion that she had never been handsome, for with her bright gray eyes, her aristocratic face and nose, and her shiny dark hair (which had retained its colour, although she was two-and-fifty) I thought her attractive. Although at times her behaviour mortified and infuriated me, I loved her dutifully, for she was a clever, honourable woman who worked hard to manage our busy household. However, to my everlasting distress, although she doted on her other children, she seemed to have singled me out as the one with whom to persistently find fault.
“Jane, put down your pen and come downstairs; we have work to do.”
“What kind of work?”
“I told you at breakfast! We still have all those shirts to make for Charles, and two new pairs of breeches, and who knows how many handkerchiefs. Cassandra and I have been working all morning, and with only two pairs of hands, it is slow going.”
My brother Charles was a cheerful, sweet-tempered, affectionate boy, who had chosen to follow in my brother Frank’s footsteps, and was to start at the Naval Academy at Portsmouth a few months hence. We had been sewing his new clothes for months, and although I was very happy to assist in the occupation, I saw no reason to interrupt my writing at that precise moment for such a task.
“Mamma: Charles is not going away until July. We have plenty of time.”
“The time will fly by, Jane. Even if we sew every day between now and July, we will be lucky if we finish it all before he leaves.”
“May I come down in an hour, Mamma? I am right in the middle of the most amazing scene: eight people are crowded into a tiny drawing-room which only has chairs for six. Two large persons will be obliged to sit on the laps of others—only imagine the hilarity which will ensue!”
“That can wait, Jane; this cannot.”
“But, Mamma! I have the whole dialogue in my head. If I stop now, I will forget! Did Shakespeare’s mother interrupt his efforts with a pen? Did Mozart’s father oblige him to sew gowns for his sister?”
My mother raised her eyes heavenward. “I know how much you enjoy your writing, Jane. Lord knows, we all love a good laugh now and then, and if any one understands the pleasures of composition, it is I—I flatter myself that my poetry is not entirely unreadable—but it is only a hobby, Jane: an amusement for the family. We are neither of us Mozart nor Shakespeare.”
I could not argue with that assessment. The short stories and plays I had written were only fluff and nonsense which I composed to amuse myself and my family. When it came to literary talent, that honour belonged to my brothers James and Henry, who had demonstrated their brilliance by editing a newspaper while at Oxford.
“I write because I cannot help it,” said I.
“I understand; but that does not make it important. What is important is that you improve and perfect your needlework skills, Jane, for they will be of infinite value when you have a family of your own one day.”
I turned in my chair to face her. “How do you know I will have a family one day?” We had always been allowed—nay, encouraged—to speak frankly within the confines of our family; outside the home, it was a different matter. Perhaps this was to my detriment, for I often spoke without sufficient consideration, regardless of the setting; but my mother and father said they wished to know what was on our minds. “That will only happen if I marry, which requires that I meet an eligible gentleman—which seems highly unlikely given that you will never allow me to attend a real ball!”
She sighed. “We have been over this too many times to count, Jane. You may come out when you are seventeen, just as your sister did. Your father and I do not wish you to enter society or marry at too early an age.”
“Dancing does not necessarily lead to matrimony.”
“No, but dancing facilitates the means by which one might meet her life’s partner, and is one of several, certain steps towards falling in love. I met your father at a ball.”
“I know; but Cassandra has been out more than a year already, and she is not in love, nor even close to engaged. No doubt we shall both be required to attend many balls before we each find our perfect match. What is the harm in me starting early? Cassandra and I have done everything together since the moment of my birth; our progress in everything we have learnt has always been the same. Cannot you forget our age difference in this one, particular matter?”
“No, I cannot. Now go wash your hands—your fingers are all black—and come downstairs at once.” So saying, she quit the room.
With a deep sigh, I returned my aborted manuscript to my writing-box, washed my hands at the basin, and joined my mother and sister in the sitting-room. I threaded my needle and worked beside them in silence, struggling to keep the conversation between the characters in my play alive in my mind; but my mother’s and sister’s chatter, and the sounds of my father’s Latin lesson issuing from the adjoining parlour, forbade it.
After two hours thus employed, I felt I could sit still no longer. Glancing out the rectory window, I observed that the sun had made a bright appearance, and there was nary a cloud in the sky. After a frigid and dreary winter, the last dusting of snow had at last melted away, and the fields beyond, covered in a sparkling frost, beckoned to me. “Mamma, I have finished the long seam on this sleeve, and made good progress on the cuff. May I stop working now and take a walk?”
“You wish to go out in this weather?” She was incredulous.
“The post will not deliver itself. Someone has to go to Deane and fetch it,” replied I lightly, adding to my sister, “Would you like to join me?”
“I would, very much,” answered Cassandra, lowering her work. My sister, a prudent, well judging young woman, was generally less demonstrative of feeling than I—a characteristic which I struggled in vain to emulate. She was also my dearest friend in the world; I valued her advice and counsel above anybody else’s, and loved her more than life itself.
“Well! I, too, am ready to do something else for a while,” mused my mother, putting her work in her bag, “but to go out? The roads and fields are all covered in frost. You will catch your death of cold!”
“It is nought but a light frost, Mamma,” countered I.
“There is nothing worse than a light frost, for it will soon melt away, and then you are forced to walk over wet ground. I had a childhood friend whose death was occasioned by nothing more—she walked out one morning in April after a hard rain, and her feet got wet through—she never changed her shoes when she came home—and that was the end of her! Have you any notion how many people have died in consequence of catching cold? There is not a disorder in the world except the smallpox which does not spring from it!”
“Mamma,” said Cassandra gently, “you are very right to be concerned, but I do not think there is any danger of the frost melting away today. The fields are still quite frozen.”
“We have walked for miles over fields far frostier than this,” added I. “We have been stuck inside such a long time this winter. I am dying to get out.”
My mother stood, and said, “Well, I can see there is no point trying to talk sense into either of you. If you catch cold, it will not be my fault. But see to it that you put on your boots, change your shoes the minute you get back home, and then it is back to sewing for the three of us.”
Cassandra and I donned all the essential accoutrements, and as we were about to leave the house, my mother cried, “Jane! That shawl will never be warm enough! Take it off and fetch your cloak! Why cannot you be more sensible, like your sister?”
Exasperated, I ran back upstairs and did as bidden.
As we stepped outside, I savoured the taste of the crisp, winter air and the refreshing bite of the breeze against my cheeks. “Is not it glorious to be outside? It is cold, but not too cold. Sunny, but not too bright.”
Cassandra agreed. “It is the perfect day in every way.”
“Yes—well—nearly perfect.” As we struck out along our usual short cut—the well-travelled path carved across the half-frozen field in the direction of Deane Gate Inn, where the mail was delivered—I could not help but sigh. “Cassandra: why is Mamma so harsh where I am concerned? She is ever so sweet to you, yet constantly finds imperfection in me.”
“I think it is because she admires you more, Jane.”
“Admires me more? That makes no sense!”
“It does. You are ever so much brighter than I am, Jane.”
“That is not true.”
“The point cannot be argued. It is not in my nature to invent clever and witty stories, and relate them aloud in such a manner as to have the entire family laughing into stitches. Mamma perceives how very clever you are; so naturally, she expects more from you.”
“That is kind of you to say, but I fear it is not so. I know you all indulge me only because you love me. Mamma insists that my writing is not important. It is expert needlework, she said, which is to be the hallmark of my future.”
“Every woman needs to be skilled at needlework, Jane; but regardless of what Mamma says, she knows you are capable of far more than that; I feel certain of it.”
“If that is true—what do you think she expects of me?”
“I do not know,” replied she, troubled. “It is possible that even she does not know.”
“How confusing this is! How I wish I could oblige her! How I wish I could do more, Cassandra; more than darning stockings and making shirts and writing nonsense for no ears other than our own. Nothing of interest ever happens to me. I should dearly love to be useful somehow, to do something which might make a difference in the lives of others—but what that might be is a mystery to me.”
Thank you for reading. I hope you enjoyed the excerpt! Would you like to know more about me and my books? Here’s my bio.
I have nine published novels that have been translated into eighteen languages, including The Missing Manuscript of Jane Austen, The Lost Memoirs of Jane Austen, The Secret Diaries of Charlotte Bronte, and Dracula, My Love. I’m a member of the Writer’s Guild of America and a proud and active life member of JASNA!
EASY LINKS TO BUY “JANE AUSTEN’S FIRST LOVE”:
And now for the GIVEAWAY!
In celebration of the launch of Jane Austen’s First Love, I’m giving away 2 prizes, both of them purchased at Jane Austen’s House Museum:
An “I Love Mr. Darcy” book mark, featuring favorite Darcy quotes from Pride and Prejudice.
A beautiful “Jane Austen’s Garden” note card and postcard set, featuring botanical illustrations from Jane Austen’s Garden
To enter to win, please leave a comment below, asking me any questions you have, or sharing what intrigues you about “Jane Austen’s First Love.” Or tell us the story of your own first love! We’d love to hear it!
Earn extra points by LIKING my facebook page, and/or posting about the book or this blog on facebook, twitter, or your website/blog—don’t forget to tag me. Winners will be posted here on Aug.15. US only. Thank you so much for your support! Best of luck to everyone!
Finally, a big THANK YOU for celebrating my book launch with me. I look forward to your comments!