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Q&A with Syrie James, Author of JANE AUSTEN’S FIRST LOVE

December 9, 2014

I’ve heard that you just got back from The Jane Austen Society of North America’s yearly conference. What sort of things happen at a conference of this nature? We’d love to hear about it!

The JASNA AGM (or Annual General Meeting) is like Jane Austen heaven! The meetings are held in a different city in North America every year, with about 750 people attending (they sell out quickly), and a theme related either to Jane Austen’s work, her life, or the world that she lived in. My husband Bill and I plan our travel calendars around them. There are three plenary speakers and thirty or so breakout speakers, who give presentations on a variety of fascinating subjects. There’s an Emporium selling Austen and Regency era-themed goods and books, special interest sessions, English Country Dance lessons, and tours of the local area. It’s great fun!

A Dangerous Intimacy cast Oct 2014

The highlight is the Saturday night banquet and ball, for which nearly everyone dresses up in period attire. The ball is like stepping back in time or into a Jane Austen movie. Some attendees, like me, don Regency wear for the entire conference. (I now own six Regency gowns.) This year’s JASNA AGM was in Montreal. The theme was Austen’s novel Mansfield Park, and Diana Birchall and I were commissioned to co-write and present an original comedic play, which we performed in with a cast of over a dozen players. “A Dangerous Intimacy: Behind the Scenes at Mansfield Park” was a hit! It did our hearts proud to hear the crowd of over five hundred people roaring with laughter!

Syrie Montreal AGM 2014

You have uncovered a lot of new information about Jane Austen’s first love interest, a dashing man named Edward Taylor. Do you mind filling us in on what new information you’ve uncovered?

Edward Taylor Portrait 72dpi

Jane made several sweet and tender references in her letters to Edward Taylor, a young man she met as a teenager and clearly adored—yet biographers knew little about him, except that he was heir to Bifrons Park, an estate in Kent. I spent months researching Edward Taylor, and uncovered many interesting facts about his parents, his eight siblings, and his family estate. I learned that Edward Taylor was born on June 24, 1774, and was therefore eighteen months older than Jane (a fact Austen biographers usually got wrong.) I discovered that he served in the military (which was unusual for an eldest son), and the dates of his marriage and his death. It was a start—but I wanted to know more! I wanted to know who Edward Taylor was when Jane Austen met him as a young man.

Then I struck gold. I discovered The Taylor Papers, the memoirs of Edward’s brother, Lieutenant General Sir Herbert Taylor, which reveal the Taylor children’s unusual and well-traveled childhood on the continent and their many accomplishments. All eight children were fluent in five languages, and each played a musical instrument (the family gave concerts everywhere they went.) The Taylors were close friends with the highest ranking members of society all across Europe, from military and government leaders to royalty. When Jane Austen met Edward Taylor as a teenager upon his return to England, he’d already enjoyed a remarkable education and led an extraordinary life. It’s no wonder that she fell head over heels in love with him! I also found a rarely seen portrait of Edward Taylor, perhaps painted when he was in his late 20s or early 30s. It was exciting to have this information in my possession, and a thrill to bring Edward Taylor and a vibrant young Jane to life in my novel, JANE AUSTEN’S FIRST LOVE.

It’s interesting to imagine Jane Austen as a teenager falling for a young man. If Jane were a contemporary teenager, what do you think she would be like? (What music would she listen to? What TV shows would she watch? Where would she go to college? Would she attend college?)

If Jane Austen were a contemporary teenager, she’d be at the top of her class scholastically, a whiz on the computer, and she’d perform in the school plays. She’d read everything she could get her hands on, especially fiction, and she’d run a book review blog. She’d be on the softball and tennis teams. She’d be slightly shy, yet harbor a burning crush on one super smart, good-looking boy (with beautiful, dark eyes) who shares her love of literature and dramatics. She’d have only a few girlfriends (in the flesh and on facebook), but she’d be very close with those who mattered to her. She’d be a fashionista and do her best to keep up with the latest styles on a limited budget.

She’d listen to popular music and constantly get in trouble for using her phone on campus to call or text her sister (her dearest friend.) Her favorite TV shows would include romantic comedies and dramedies focusing on three or four families in a small community (Desperate Housewives? Sex and the City? Buffy? Friends?) As for movies—duh!—she’d be fond of everything adapted from or inspired by a Jane Austen novel! And of course she’d go to college! Oxford or Cambridge (if she’s a Brit) or maybe Harvard, Princeton, or Yale. On a Fulbright scholarship, all the way.

Do you have a favorite Austen novel? Why?

It’s hard to choose just one, but I have to admit, I’m partial to Pride and Prejudice. Why? Because it has such a fabulous plot and characters. With every re-reading (or re-watching of the film versions) it’s fun to see Elizabeth and Darcy go through their personal learning curves as they overcome their pride and prejudice and fall in love. I can’t help but adore Elizabeth Bennet (and envy her a little, because she ends up with the delicious Mr. Darcy and gets to live at Pemberley.) I love to hate Lady Catherine and laugh at Mr. Collins. I’ve re-read the book dozens of times, and have watched the A&E version so often I can practically quote it verbatim!

Fresh Fiction readers want to know–when you aren’t busy writing, what do you like to read?

I like to read the best of fiction, both contemporary and classic. I always have at least two novels going at the same time!

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