The book felt wonderful in my hands. I held it up to my nose and drank in its aroma. “I think I’m addicted to the smell of books. It’s as comforting to me as Christmas.”
(from The Missing Manuscript of Jane Austen, page 39)
While on a trip to England with her boyfriend, Samantha McDonough buys a poetry book at a used bookstore in Oxford unaware that it will take her on a life-changing journey and give her the opportunity to live out the dream of many Jane Austen fans. Although forced to abandon the PhD program at Oxford four years before to care for her ailing mother, forcing her to give up on her dream of becoming a college English professor, Samantha understands the importance of the unfinished letter she finds in the back of the book. She is certain that the letter was written over 200 hundred years ago by Jane Austen to her sister Cassandra, and it makes mention of a manuscript she lost while on vacation at the Greenbriar estate.
Most Austen fans lament the fact that she only wrote six novels during her short life, so the chance that there might be a seventh novel out there somewhere is something Samantha can’t ignore. She travels to the now run-down Greenbriar and convinces its new owner, the handsome (and British!) Anthony Whitaker to search for the missing manuscript. It’s not long before the precious pages are in their hands, and as they delve into the story, they form a bond that will be tested by the decision Anthony must make: sell the manuscript for several million dollars at auction or sell it for a lesser amount to a museum or university, the latter of which ensures that Austen fans across the globe will have a chance to read the precious manuscript.
In The Missing Manuscript of Jane Austen, Syrie James succeeds in writing a book-within-a-book that is delightful and captivating from the very first page. I could feel Samantha’s excitement upon discovering the letter and the manuscript, and having once dreamed of being a college English professor myself, I could understand her regret at not finishing her degree. I could understand Anthony’s desire to live out his dream and how selling the manuscript could make that possible, and I could understand how Samantha could be tempted by a sexy British man willing to spend hours with her reading aloud the works of Jane Austen. And their discussions about reading, rare books, and of course, Jane Austen were right up my alley.
Even better than the story in the present day was the fictional seventh Austen novel, The Stanhopes, and readers get to enjoy it with Samantha and Anthony. I absolutely adored this book within the book, the tale of Rebecca Stanhope, whose world is turned upside down when her beloved father is forced to retire as rector when his reputation is ruined, leaving them homeless and penniless and forced to rely on the kindness of relatives. Rebecca clashes with the young man who takes her father’s place as rector, befriends a silly young woman, catches the eye of a dashing doctor, and stands by her father through the worst of times.
James does a brilliant job with the missing manuscript, so much so that I had to remind myself that it wasn’t really Austen. It sounded much like Austen’s earlier writings, her juvenilia, and it was fun to pick out characters who were (for the sake of the book) precursors to those in her published novels. Rebecca was as feisty as Elizabeth Bennet, as devoted to her father as Emma Woodhouse, and as good a person as Fanny Price or Anne Elliot. I loved this part of the book, and when it shifted back to Samantha and Anthony, I honestly couldn’t wait to get back to the Stanhopes and their tale of woe.
The Missing Manuscript of Jane Austen, based on Austen’s “Plan of a Novel,” is a must read for Austen fans, providing a few hours in which to dream about what it might be like to have a new Austen novel to read. James also gets you thinking about the importance of reading and sharing literature, the lessons learned from reading Austen’s novels, and whether your life is fulfilling or whether you need to find your bliss. A great start to my 2013 reading!
Disclosure: I received The Missing Manuscript of Jane Austen from Berkley for review.
© 2013 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.