Jane Austen has inspired writers for generations, few more so than best-selling romance novelist Syrie James, who has written a series of books sparked by the famed author’s life and works. The Lost Memoirs of Jane Austen imagines a secret love that inspired some of the most beloved books in history, while The Missing Manuscript of Jane Austen offers the story of a Janeite who stumbles upon a supposed lost masterwork.
The hallmark of James’ books is her careful attention to the historical details of Austen’s life, and her latest, Jane Austen’s First Love, is no exception. Directly inspired by true events, the novel features a 15-year-old Jane falling for an unlikely suitor, and is peppered with verifiable incidents from Austen’s life.
One such story was included in an early draft but eventually deleted because it didn’t fit in the context of the novel. Instead, James decided to rework it as a short story, presented exclusively here, in honor of Austen’s 239th birthday. In Jane and the Church Register, a young Jane audaciously writes her name in the register at the church where her father serves as rector, listing herself along with the names of her three potential (imaginary) husbands.
“Jane and the Church Register”
by Syrie James
March 12, 1791
I have had the most amusing adventure this morning! It was the product of a whim—entirely unanticipated and unplanned—as all the best adventures, I think, must be.
It was a fine morning: the snow had at last melted away, and the fields were covered in a sparkling frost beneath a vivid blue sky. Cassandra and I had just retrieved the post at the Deane Gate Inn, when we stopped to call at the parsonage to say hello to Martha and Mary Lloyd and their mother, who were very glad to see us.
Who would have ever thought that Martha, ten years my senior, would become such a particular friend? And yet in the two years since the Lloyds moved to the neighbourhood, the kind, intelligent Martha (who is now five-and-twenty years old) is almost as dear to me as my own sister. Try as I might, however, I cannot warm to Mary, even though at nineteen, she is much closer in age to me.
The two young ladies were in the mood to venture out, and as such we invited them to walk home with us. As we made our way down the lane through the village, we chatted amiably on a variety of subjects, covering all the little nothings which had occupied our time and thoughts since our last meeting.
“What is the latest news from your brother James?” asked Mary.
“He is doing well,” answered I, “and appears to be enjoying his post as curate of Overton.”
“The last we heard,” added Cassandra, “he has been seeing Anne Matthew, the daughter of General Matthew.”
Mary’s face fell. “Oh. Does he—is he—partial to her?”
“It would seem that he is,” said I delicately. I have long sensed that Mary likes James, and I could see that my answer caused her pain.
“What do you think of Anne?” asked Martha.
“She is very sweet and good,” replied I sincerely; and for Mary’s benefit added, “although at thirty, I think her decidedly too old for him.”
“Too old? James is only four years Anne’s junior,” insisted Cassandra with a verve I could not account for. “Four years between lovers is nothing. I think Anne tall and elegant, and she has the most beautiful eyes.”
“And a good deal of nose,” remarked I, laughing.
“Jane!” my sister admonished me. “Do not be unkind. Anne is lovely. I would be delighted if she and James were to wed—and so would mama. She keeps saying it is high time that one of her children was married.”
“Perhaps you will be the first in the family to be betrothed, Cassandra,” offered Martha.
“Me?” Cassandra coloured.
“Every young gentleman at the last ball at Basingstoke seemed taken with you,” said Martha. “No doubt you will soon have any number of offers.”
“If so, I would not accept any of them,” insisted Cassandra.
“Why not?” asked I.
“My acquaintance with those gentlemen is of short duration. When I marry, it must be to a man I love and esteem, whose character I have had sufficient time to ascertain.”
“Well, I must also esteem my husband, and love him dearly,” agreed I, “but I doubt I will need a great deal of time to make out his character.”
“No?” said Martha.
“No. Where true love is concerned, I believe people know it in a half a moment.”
“First impressions are not always reliable, Jane,” replied Cassandra.
“Perhaps not for everyone,” said I saucily, “but when I meet my husband, it will be love at first sight, and we will be happy for ever.”
Mary, frowning, said: “I think that highly unlikely. You may not marry at all, Jane.”
“Are you saying,” cried I with mock dismay, “that I may never find a man who pleases me, or that no man will have me?”
“The latter,” replied she, shrugging her shoulders. “Who would have you? You play games like a common boy.”
Her comment caused me no offence, as I judged it to be motivated by her own disappointment—and I was unashamed of the activity to which she referred. “I do derive enjoyment from playing baseball and cricket with any number of unruly boys, but I doubt such experience will preclude marriage.”
“You write all those horrid stories.”
“Thank you; I agree, my stories are quite horrid.”
Mary shook her head. “You ought not to take pride in writing such drivel.”
“You dare to call my masterpieces drivel?” said I, laughing.
“I do. In Love and Friendship, your heroines are heathens who ignore the wise counsel of their parents. A girl at fifteen elopes with a fortune-hunting officer! Two young men steal from their mothers, abandon them to starvation, and then take to the stage at Covent Garden! What a poor lesson that provides!”
“And what a very apt summation!” cried I, delighted. “I admit, in that story, everyone is either illegitimate, robbing some body, running up debts, or fainting alternately on sofas.”
“It is ridiculous.”
“It is meant to be ridiculous, Mary.”
“It is Jane’s way of poking fun at the novels of to-day,” explained Martha, “in which—you must agree—no one behaves remotely like a person in real life.”
Mary stared at her sister, and then at me. “That was your intention?”
“Jane’s tales have given me and my family many a good laugh through numerous readings,” added Cassandra.
We were just approaching the tiny stone church of St. Nicholas, over which my father presided. Mary nodded in that direction. “I still say, if Jane continues to conduct herself in such a boyish manner and to write such dreadful tales, her name will never appear in the parish register, unless she writes it there herself.”
“Is that so?” cried I indignantly. Mary’s manner, tone, and statement instilled in me a challenge. I was seized by a sudden impulse. “I will prove you wrong, Mary. I will prove it this instant!”
“What do you mean?” replied she uncertainly.
“I will write my name in the parish register myself—just as you have prophesized.” So saying, I marched across the graveyard towards the ancient yew tree where the key of the church door was kept.
Mary and Martha gasped.
Cassandra cried: “Jane! Do not be ridiculous.”
I made no reply, but with determination retrieved the key from the hollow in the tree’s trunk and strode quickly to the church.
Martha was laughing now, while Mary looked on in open-mouthed dismay. At the arched front entrance to the church, the small stone carvings of a man’s and woman’s heads seemed to stare disapprovingly at me. I ignored them. Fitting the key in the lock, I pushed open the heavy door.
It was cold and silent within, the thick white-washed walls and high beamed ceiling reflecting the dim light from the south and east windows. My footsteps resounded sharply as I made my way down the stone aisle, the hesitant footfalls of the others echoing at my heels. I passed the dark wood pews to the pulpit at the front, which stood beneath one of three stone arches embellished with medieval paintings.
“Jane,” said Cassandra, her voice and low and urgent, “you cannot write in the register unless you are truly betrothed—and certainly not without papa’s permission.”
“Papa will not mind,” whispered I carelessly—although in truth I worried slightly that he might. From behind the pulpit I retrieved the register, the bottle of ink, and the pen which were stored there. I laid them out and opened the book to one of the printed specimen pages at the beginning, where at the top were printed the words, “The Form of an Entry of Publication of Banns,” after which the name of the engaged gentleman was to be inscribed.
“What man’s name is she going to write along with hers?” said Mary, astonished, to her sister.
“I suppose we shall find out,” replied Martha with a giggle, “when the banns are read on Sunday.”
I dipped the pen, considered my mythical, prospective husband, then quickly wrote two of my favourite Christian names: Henry Frederick. After some contemplation, I added one more name and a surname, as well as a place of origin: Henry Frederick Howard Fitzwilliam of London.
I smiled. Impulsively, I wrote an entirely new appellation under “Entry of a Marriage”: Edward Arthur William Mortimer of Liverpool. A final entry was required to indicate that the marriage had been solemnized. I had no sooner dipped my pen again, when of a sudden, the sound of approaching voices came from without.
“Some one is coming!” whispered Mary in agitation.
“Hurry, Jane!” cried Martha, as she and the others rushed away.
I scribbled the shortest name that came to mind—Jack Smith—and quickly added the bride’s name—Jane Smith late Austen. I had barely finished capping the ink bottle when, at the far end of the church, my sister and friends dashed out the door, just as two women entered with a mop, broom, and bucket.
I raced down the aisle and slipped past the cleaning women, one of whom cried out in disparagement, “Hey there, Miss, what’re ye up to now?”
Once safely outside, I joined my sister and the Lloyds, who were running as rapidly away as their boots would allow.
“That was an idiotic thing to do!” cried Mary.
“What on earth will papa say?” added Cassandra.
“I hope he will not be angry,” replied I, feeling a bit anxious now that the deed was done.
“If I know Mr. Austen,” said Martha, smiling, “he will think it very funny.”
Immediately upon entering the house, I found my father reading alone in his study (his students engaged in exercise without) and, in an abashed tone, told him what I had done. He glanced up from his book and with amusement said:
“So you registered yourself to be married, did you? Well, that is thinking ahead, Jane. What is the name of my future son-in-law?”
“I cannot recall the names of the first two exactly, but—”
“The first two? Are you saying there are more than two? Do you mean to commit bigamy, then?”
“No, papa. I do not know what I meant.” My cheeks grew warm. “It is only that—Mary provoked me, saying my name should never be in the register at all, and I felt compelled to prove her wrong.”
Setting aside his book, he stood up and regarded me seriously. “Well Jane, you have fine spirits and an excellent imagination; you know I would wish nothing to inhibit either of these attributes.” After a small pause, he added, “In making that inscription—did you have a bit of fun?”
“I did, papa. But—it is the church register! I knew I was doing wrong.”
“I am glad you knew it. And I am glad you enjoyed your small transgression.” He took me in his arms and embraced me; then drawing back and looking at me, added: “but I admit, I had rather you did not make a habit of it.”
Our eyes met; I saw the good humour in his, which contained no hint of censure, but only love; and we both laughed loud and long.
What’s your favorite Jane Austen-inspired novel?