The Missing Manuscript of Jane Austen
I have found the growing trend of literary spin-offs to be a mixed bag; some are kind of fun, and others just seem like creatively bankrupt attempts to cash in. The Missing Manuscript of Jane Austen is a book within a book, featuring a modern heroine who finds a previously undiscovered Austen book. The entirety of the “Austen book” is in this one, and I found that I enjoyed the manufactured Austen book more than the modern parts.
Samantha McDonough, current university librarian and former Oxford grad student, tags along with her boyfriend when he goes to a medical conference in England. While wandering the shops, she buys an old book of poetry and finds – to her complete astonishment – an unfinished letter tucked in the back, stuck between uncut pages. Before her mother’s health forced her to abandon her studies, Samantha was writing her dissertation on Jane Austen’s female characters, so she recognizes what she has immediately. Not only is the letter written by Jane Austen; it has the tantalizing mention of a lost book and clues to where to find it.
Her quest takes her to an old estate called Greenbriar, which happens to be owned by Anthony Whitaker, whose father just died and left him the estate. Though he’s skeptical (an not much of an Austen fan), he jumps on the bandwagon and helps Samantha look in all the nooks and crannies. Easily enough, they find it. The remainder of the book is the text of the missing manuscript (called The Stanhopes, interspersed with little entr’actes featuring Anthony and Samantha, and their reactions to what they’ve read.
The heroine of The Stanhopes is Rebecca, the daughter of a clergyman who falls on hard times when he is accused of stealing church funds intended to pay for new bells for a church tower. Her father is forced to resign, and his living is given to a nephew of the local lord. They sell most of their possessions, including Rebecca’s beloved pianoforte and harp, and move north to live with Rebecca’s sister Sarah and brother-in-law Charles, who is also a clergyman. They are swept into society in Medford, and Rebecca befriends Amelia Davenport, the niece and heiress of Mrs. Penelope Harcourt. She also catches the eye of Doctor Watkins, whose company she enjoys. But quarters are close in the vicarage. Sarah has three children and another on the way, and Reverend Stanhope is old and on the fastidious side. Rebecca and her father decamp to Bath, where they stay with a distant cousin.
While Rebecca is in Medford and Bath, she spends time with Philip Clifton – the very man who replaced her father. If you’ve read Jane Austen (and I don’t really know why you’d bother to read this book if you hadn’t), you’ll know within seconds of meeting Mr. Clifton that he is the hero. He’s Darcy, and maybe a little Mr. Knightley. Dr. Watkins on the other hand? A neat combo of Mr. Willoughby and Mr. Elton, with a dash of Wickham thrown in. After some adventures and travails, all ends happily, except for the people who don’t deserve to get what they want.
I definitely liked The Stanhopes. While I wouldn’t really say I felt like I was reading an Austen novel, it is Austenesque enough to be pretty fun. Of course it is derivative; that’s rather the point. The similarity of the Stanhope characters to those in other Austen books is explained rather simply: The manuscript is supposed to be an early effort that was stolen. Austen then “reused” some of the ideas in later books. I enjoyed both the style and the characters, even though I could tell exactly where it was going.
I could tell where the more modern plot was going too, but I didn’t like it as much. Unlike The Stanhopes, it feels stilted and a little unnatural. You would think it would be the other way around. Samantha and Anthony’s search for the manuscript is laughably easy and reads somewhat like a Nancy Drew mystery. Their discussions of the book feel staged for the reader’s “benefit”.
Indeed, I would have given the book a higher grade had it just been the Stanhope part. However, because I did really enjoy that portion, I’d consider The Missing Manuscript of Jane Austen worth reading – and worth recommending. I’ve had mixed reactions to novels that use classic novels – or historical figures – as a jumping off point. This one is worth a look.