When New York artist Eliza Knight buys an old vanity table one lazy Sunday afternoon, she has no idea of its history. Tucked away behind the mirror are two letters. One is sealed; the other, dated May 1810, is addressed to "Dearest Jane" from "F. Darcy"--as in Fitzwilliam Darcy, the fictional hero of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice. Could one of literature's most compelling characters been a real person? More intriguing still, scientific testing proves that the second, sealed letter was written by Jane herself.
Caught between the routine of her present life and these incredible discoveries from the past, Eliza decides to look deeper and is drawn to a majestic, 200-year-old estate in Virginia's breathtaking Shenandoah Valley. There she meets the man who may hold the answer to this extraordinary puzzle. Now, as the real story of Fitzwilliam Darcy unfolds, Eliza finds her life has become a modern-day romance, one that perhaps only Jane herself could have written...
"Fascinating...pays tribute to Jane Austen's enduring ideals of romantic love." --Booklist
"O'Rourke's latest is mysterious yet romantic as she reveals secrets of Jane Austen's life." --Romantic Times
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Kensington Publishing Corporation
December 31, 2008
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Excerpt from The Man Who Loved Jane Austen by Sally Smith O' Rourke
Chawton, Hampshire 12 May, 1810
The slender young woman hurrying along a lonely woodland path beyond the village of Chawton this night seemed heedless of the falling moisture that sprinkled her hair and dampened the shoulders of her light cloak.
It had rained in the afternoon, a hard spring shower that had passed over the wood in no more than ten minutes. And though the downpour hadn't lasted long enough to muddy the path that Jane now followed, the leaves of the overhanging trees were still shedding droplets that glittered like jewels in the cold moonlight.
As she moved through the silent wood Jane imagined the scandal that would erupt should a neighbor happen upon her in this lonely place. For she was a respectable young woman by any standard, the unmarried daughter of a clergyman with aristocratic family connections, and youngest sister to the owner of the great country house on which the village depended. Which circumstance rendered her midnight foray all the stranger. For Jane had never before dared nor even considered an adventure such as the one on which she was now embarked.
Yet here she was, gliding wraithlike through the dark forest, en route to a clandestine meeting with a man--a mysterious and possibly dangerous man--whom she had known for scarcely five days. She prayed that he would be at the appointed spot, as he had promised. And she felt her heart thundering in her breast at the mere thought of what she had committed to share with him this night. She who had long since abandoned all hope of ever finding love.
She was thirty-four years old--an unremarkable spinster who lived an unremarkable life in a house provided by her devoted brother and shared with her elder sister and their aged mother. And, until fewer than twenty-four hours ago, she had never known a lover's caress.
But last night that had changed. Now Jane wanted nothing more than to be again with the man. For he had reawakened her girlhood dreams of love and romance, all the lovely dreams she had so carefully preserved on countless sheets of neatly inscribed vellum that she kept hidden away in the deepest recesses of her closet.
Of course, she fully realized, going to meet him like this was madness. But then, she reminded herself, madness had been the hallmark of their brief but intense relationship, a relationship that had been doomed from the start. For she could not go with him and he could not stay.
And if they were found out, she knew to a certainty, scandal and disgrace would be her only reward.
But love knows not reason. And Jane did not care what consequences might ensue. For, in her mind, the risks she was taking to meet with her new-found lover tonight were as nothing compared to the dread she felt, of slipping into her old age without ever having tasted love.
After a few more minutes she came to the edge of the woods, which bounded a broad meadow. Covered now in swirls of mist frosted by the light of a near-full moon, the grassy field had taken on an otherworldly look, like one of the fairy-tale landscapes she was forever imagining in her dreams. At the end of the path she hovered like a frightened deer, huddling in a pool of darkness beneath the dripping trees, until he should appear.
Presently, she heard the drumming of muffled hoofbeats from the far side of the meadow. Willing her joyously thudding heart to be still, Jane boldly detached herself from the sheltering shadows and advanced into the open, anxious not to waste a precious moment of the brief time they would have together.
Slowly a horseman emerged from the mist. Spying her moving through the grass, he altered the course of his great black steed to intercept her. Within seconds he reined to a halt beside her. His face was obscured beneath the brim of the tall hat he wore, and she ran forward to meet him as he dismounted. "I prayed you would come," she laughed, prepared to throw herself into his arms.
But instead of the joyous response she was anticipating, the rider nervously swept the tall hat from his head. The moonlight struck his plain, sun-reddened features and she saw to her mortification that he was not the one for whom she had so anxiously waited, but an awkward young servant named Simmons.
"Sorry, miss," the nervous messenger stammered, "the gentleman went away in a great hurry after the troops came. He had asked me to come and tell you if he could not get here himself tonight."
Jane felt herself flushing beneath the servant's questioning gaze. Her bitter disappointment at the broken rendezvous was overlaid by a sudden pang of fear. For young Simmons was a groom from her brother's stables, and she wondered how much he knew . . . or would tell.
"Oh . . . I see," she said, forcing her voice to remain calm, and wondering what motive the servant must be imagining had brought her to the lonely meadow at this ungodly hour. "Thank you, Simmons."
His unlined, honest features betraying no hint that he thought the situation odd or particularly scandalous, Simmons fumbled in the pocket of his greatcoat and produced a folded letter sealed with wax. "This is for you, miss," he stammered, bowing slightly and extending the letter to her.
"From him?" Abandoning all pretense of calm, Jane eagerly accepted the envelope and attempted to read the address in the dim light.
"No, miss. It's the letter you sent to him," Simmons replied. And in his voice Jane heard something that sounded like sympathy as he hurried to explain. "The gentleman had already gone before it could be gotten to him."
Simmons paused then, as if considering his next words carefully. "There was such a row up at the manor house," he finally continued. "Well, I thought you'd want to have your letter back . . ."
Jane tucked the letter into the folds of her cloak and looked up at him, realizing that in the groom she had found an ally who would not betray her indiscretion. "Thank you, Simmons," she said again. "That was very thoughtful of you."
She hesitated awkwardly, aware that such loyalty should be rewarded. "I am afraid I have no money with me at the moment--" she began. But before she could suggest that she would have something for him on the morrow Simmons cut her off with a wave of one big, work-hardened hand.
"Don't you worry, miss," the young groom assured her with dignity, "I didn't come here for money. The gentleman was very good to me while he was here." Then his broad features creased in a smile and in a gentler tone he asked, "Shall I see you home now, miss?"
"Thank you, no," Jane replied, the little catch in her voice promising that tears would very soon follow. "It is only a short walk. You have been very good."