Review: Yours Affectionately, Jane Austen by Sally Smith O’Rourke
February 15, 2013 by Anna (Diary of an Eccentric)
It was Darcy who made her realize that a man could love a woman who was strong and independent, someone intelligent with thoughts and ideas that went beyond clothes and balls. In fact, it had given her the confidence to make Elizabeth Bennet of Pride and Prejudice a bit more individualistic and insightful than she had originally been, even if some of her insights turned out to be incorrect. She was still lively and playful, though, and Elizabeth’s Mr. Darcy was desirous of just such a woman: someone who read extensively to improve her mind.
(from Yours Affectionately, Jane Austen, page 50)
Yours Affectionately, Jane Austen is the sequel to The Man Who Loved Jane Austen, in which Sally Smith O’Rourke imagines that Mr. Darcy of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice was inspired by a real person. This book picks up right where the first left off, with New York artist Eliza Knight and Virginia horse breeder Fitz Darcy falling in love and wondering how to navigate their feelings when they’ve never been in a real relationship before. Fitz is sure of his feelings about Eliza, but Eliza can’t help but feel threatened by his obsession with long dead British author Jane Austen.
For it was Jane Austen who brought them together, through old letters that Eliza found in an antique vanity table that sent her on a trip to Pemberley Farms and into Fitz’s arms. Eliza can’t help but believe his bizarre story behind the letter written by Jane and addressed to him. When the pair rush off to England to take care of a situation with the potential to change the course of history, they realize they could lose one another before their relationship even has a chance to blossom.
O’Rourke weaves in the story of Jane Austen, who by 1813 had published two novels, Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice, and just finished a third, Mansfield Park. Jane remembers the brief moments she spent with her Mr. Darcy three years before, cherishing the memories of a man who treated her as an equal and made her feel beautiful. At 37, Jane feels as young as ever, but she inwardly questions social rules that govern what colors an unmarried woman of a certain age should wear and how they should style their hair. Uncertain whether she’ll ever see Mr. Darcy again, Jane sends a package to him through her brother’s stable boy, hoping he’ll somehow receive it and remember her.
Yours Affectionately, Jane Austen can be read as a standalone novel, as O’Rourke works in a brief summary of the previous book in the prologue, but I highly recommend you read The Man Who Loved Jane Austen first to fully appreciate Eliza and Fitz’s story. I really enjoyed the first book, but I liked this one even more, as O’Rourke focuses less on the old letters and more on developing her characters. I really felt like I got to know Eliza and Fitz, their fears and hesitations, the qualities that make them click as a couple, and even their insecurities, played out through their arguments. I especially loved how O’Rourke moved the narrative between the past and the present, and she wrote the scenes involving Jane Austen with much tenderness for a woman who had a good heart, a playful spirit, and no idea how brilliant she truly was. Although she admits in the foreword that she took some liberties with the historical facts of Austen’s life, her portrayal of Jane was very respectful.
Yours Affectionately, Jane Austen is a sweet love story about new beginnings, magical adventures, and cherishing the moments, however brief they might be, you’ve had with the people who’ve changed your life. It’s about not losing who you are amidst societal constraints and believing that happily ever after is possible, if you’re willing to take a chance. I finished this book with tears in my eyes for a woman whose stories and characters have meant so much to me and who died too young. Like O’Rourke, I’d like to imagine that Austen experienced the kind of love she wrote about. This is the perfect book for people who’d like to believe the same.