The life of Jane Austen reads like one of her novels – in most ways. There are balls, flirtations, close friends, tiresome family members, adverse financial situations which make marriage an apparent necessity, and choices which hold out for love despite adverse financial situations. In one major aspect, however, the biography and the novels of Austen diverge: a happy romantic ending. Austen died at the age of 41, having never married.
Nancy Moser, author of Just Jane: A Novel of Jane Austen's Life, a fictionalized account of Austen’s life, postulates – quite correctly – that when Austen was “unable to find her own Mr. Darcy, she created him.” Poser’s book swells the basic facts of Austen’s life into a first-person, 350-page narrative which dwells on Austen’s evolution as a writer and points out the many obvious connections between the biographical facts of Austen’s life and her fiction.
In utilizing first-person narration, Moser allows the reader into Jane’s head, which is both illuminating and, in this particular case, often very disappointing. While the reader does get a cinematic view of the events of Austen’s life as they unfold, the avid Jane Austen fan expects something more – Jane Austen’s sparkling voice which, sadly, is not apparent in Moser’s book. Moser herself admits at the book’s end that she “did not attempt to match the unique ‘voice’ of Jane Austen, only to hint at it.” This makes Moser’s choice of first-person narrative quite puzzling; if she wasn’t going to try and approximate Austen’s voice, why in the name of the Regency period did she have Austen narrate the entire book?
As much as a true Jane Austen fan cannot conceive of being bored while reading one of her novels, so one cannot possibly imagine being bored while residing inside of Austen’s head. Unfortunately, while inhabiting the one Moser’s book creates, I often was. There isn’t much here that even remotely sounds like the wonderfully witty writer who was frequently observed to laugh out loud, set aside her needlework and rush across the room for a sheet of paper with which to immortalize whatever clever line had just popped into her head. It strains literary credulity to believe that the same person who was able to write lines such as “From this day you must be a stranger to one of your parents. Your mother will never see you again if you do not marry Mr. Collins, and I will never see you again if you do” would, in her private moments, be thinking such dull stuff as “I am free to...to be Jane. Day to day, day after day, just Jane.”
Moser has spent considerable time researching her biographical facts, however, and anyone wanting to read a play-by-play account of the plot points of Austen’s life will find plenty of illumination on that score. But in order to hear that inimitable voice, you’ll have to go back to those inimitable novels. Which is always a good idea.