Jane Austen’s First Love

Written by Syrie James
Review by Waheed Rabbani

In 1791, fifteen-year-old Jane Austen and her sister Cassandra are visiting Goodnestone Park in Kent to attend the festivities planned by Lord and Lady Bridges to celebrate the engagements of two of their daughters. One of them is betrothed to Jane’s brother. En route, Jane is helped out of her bogged-down carriage by a dashing young man, Edward Taylor, heir to the neighboring estate of Bifrons. Their meetings during the revelries make Jane’s heart race. Strong-willed Jane, although not “out” yet, is just coming of age. Upon her pleadings, Jane receives her mother’s permission to attend a ball where Edward induces her to dance, uncustomarily, a number of sets with him. That night while lying in bed, she murmurs to Cassandra, “I love him.” However, other complications stand in her way.

In one of her letters to Cassandra, Austen’s mention of “my Irish friend” had led to speculation of her involvement with an Irishman, which was chronicled in a biography, Becoming Jane Austen by Jon Spence, and in the movie Becoming Jane. Similarly, Syrie James has adroitly used words to compile this intriguing story from another Austen letter: “Bifrons… the abode of him, on whom I once fondly doted.”

This third fictional reconstruction of Austen’s ‘missing manuscripts’ by James is a much more convincing account of the first love Austen might have experienced. It’s 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. Janeites will recognize many of the scenes in this novel from Austen’s other works, but the characters’ discussions of world events and politics are a pleasant surprise. 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.