I am always encouraged when new Jane Austen-inspired young adult novels hit my radar. The Austen Girls is a welcome addition to the Austenesque genre. Written by historian, television celebrity, and Janeite Lucy Worsley, it is the latest addition to her series of novels featuring young women from history. Following Lady Mary (2018), Eliza Rose (2018), and My Name is Victoria (2018), The Austen Girls is inspired by the lives of Jane Austen’s nieces–cousins Fanny and Anna Austen.
The novel is being released in the UK on April 2 by Bloomsbury Children’s Books and is aimed at girls ages 11 – 14. For those who subscribe to Jane Austen’s Regency World Magazine, Worsley is featured on the cover and has the lead article in the March/April issue including an exclusive interview about the novel by editor Tim Bullamore. Besides the two heroines, Fanny and Anna, their aunt Jane plays an important part in the narrative and many other Austen family members support the story.
After a persistent pursuit of an excerpt for my readers, I was able to connect with the staff at Bloomsbury in London who generously sent a portion of the second chapter for our enjoyment. My review will follow next month. On an aside, please do not confuse this new title with a nonfiction book about Jane & Cassandra Austen, by Helen Amy with the same title. It is also delightful, but an entirely different genre and topic.
What Might the Future Hold for Jane Austen’s Nieces?
Would she ever find a real-life husband?
Would she even find a partner to dance with at tonight’s ball? She just didn’t know.
Anna Austen has always been told she must marry rich. Her future depends upon it. While her dear cousin Fanny has a little more choice, she too is under pressure to find a suitor.
But how can either girl know what she wants? Is finding love even an option? The only person who seems to have answers is their Aunt Jane. She has never married. In fact, she’s perfectly happy, so surely being single can’t be such a bad thing?
The time will come for each of the Austen girls to become the heroines of their own stories. Will they follow in Jane’s footsteps?
In this witty, sparkling novel of choices, popular historian LUCY WORSLEY brings alive the delightful life of Jane Austen as you’ve never seen it before.
The stairs, Godmersham Park
Just outside the bedroom door Anna stopped so suddenly that Fanny cannoned into her cousin’s back.
The obstruction was her father, on the landing in his best coat, the one that made him suck his stomach in before he could button it up. He now stuck out his leg, and eased himself into a low bow.
‘Quite charming!’ he said. ‘You look charming, girls.
And your carriage awaits!’
Elizabeth was smiling and clasping her hands.
‘Oh, Mr Austen,’ she said. ‘Look how … marriageable the girls are! Very pretty indeed!’
She lowered her voice to continue, but Fanny’s mother’s idea of a whisper was just as loud as a normal person talking at a normal volume, and Fanny could hear her perfectly well.
‘They’ll be off our hands in no time,’ she said in his ear. ‘Then just four more of those great hungry useless expensive girls to go!’
Fanny could feel her cheeks turning pink. Being bowed to, by her own father, was all so very different from being told off for running, or shouting, or for not watching her little brother and he could have fallen under the horse’s hooves and did she not have eyes in her head to see and suchlike.
Her father beamed and resumed his normal height.
‘Not really girls any more,’ he said in his jovial way, as if he were addressing his fellow landowners at a political dinner. ‘The girls have become young ladies. Young ladies!’ he repeated, so loudly that the townsfolk of Canterbury several miles away might possibly have been able to hear him. ‘But there’s still work to be done. We must get them hitched!’
‘Mr Austen! What an inelegant expression!’
Elizabeth’s tone rose to match her husband’s. They often spoke to each other as if they were shouting across the hunting field.
‘HITCHED,’ Fanny’s father said again, huffing and puffing and straightening his coat. ‘And at the very least,’ he continued, ‘they can dance tonight with that nice Mr Drummer. He’s a fine young fellow.’
‘Mr Edward Austen!’ groaned his wife, striking a blow on his arm. ‘No, and no again. Not Mr Drummer. He’s beneath the attention of the Austen girls, even Anna.’
Fanny wondered who this Mr Drummer was, not having heard the name before. But it was Anna who forced the question into her parents’ torrent of talk.
‘Mr Drummer … ?’ she managed to say.
‘Clergyman! Appointed him to the parish – got it all signed and sealed this afternoon.’ Edward had already lost interest in the subject, and was taking Fanny’s elbow to escort her down the stairs.
It occurred to Fanny, with a twinge of dread, that her father would be doing exactly the same thing in an hour’s time. He’d be leading her into the ballroom beneath the eyes of all the gentlefolk of Canterbury.
Fanny’s skin suddenly felt hot, and she remembered all over again that she was nervous. She could almost sense the pressure of people watching and wondering if she would be chosen by a gentleman. It was more than just a dance. As Anna said, it could, it might, lead to a proposal.
But how could she possibly find herself a husband and make her parents happy, if she couldn’t even picture what this imaginary man might be like?
Fanny’s mother, of course, had more to say. ‘We don’t just want the girls married,’ she continued, at volume, ‘we want them married well!’
At that, there was a ragged cheer from somewhere up above.
‘What’s all this hullabaloo?’
Fanny and her father turned to look back up the staircase. The balustrade above was crowded with little faces.
It was as if a signal had been given, and a horde of her sisters, and indeed some of her smaller brothers too, all came running down.
‘Children!’ Elizabeth was exclaiming. ‘You were all sent to bed hours ago!’
But there was no stopping them.
In their nightgowns down came Lizzie, Marianne, even tiny Louie, all of them, Fanny could see, thoroughly overexcited. Mrs Sackree, their nurse, was going to have a long evening of it, she thought.
‘An- na! Fan- ny!’ they were chanting, like little savages. ‘Married! Married!’
“Want to see the dresses,’ wailed little Louie, who had delicate feelings, and who’d been left behind by the rest of the stampeded.
‘Oh, show them, show them,’ Edward said. ‘They’ll be on the market themselves soon enough. Better show them what it’s like.’
Fanny felt strangely awkward, even though these were her sisters whom she knew as well as her own fingers and thumbs. She wasn’t used to wearing such a naked-feeling dress with its low neck.
Chapter 2, pages 11-16
Dr Lucy Worsley is Chief Curator at Historic Royal Palaces, the charity which looks after the Tower of London, Hampton Court Palace, Kensington Palace, and other historic places. (Yes, this is a fabulous job, but no, you can’t have it. Bribes have been offered and refused.)
Her first paid employment after studying history at Oxford was at a minor stately home called Milton Manor, near Abingdon, where she fed the llamas. After that she became an Inspector of Ancient Monuments at English Heritage, doing historical research at Bolsover Castle in Derbyshire: this led to her first book, ‘Cavalier’, about a dissolute Royalist duke. Her work as a curator at Kensington Palace led to ‘Courtiers’, which was followed by ‘If Walls Could Talk’, ‘A Very British Murder’, and her first historical novel for young readers, ‘Eliza Rose’, which is set at the Tudor court. Then it was Jane Austen, for her 200th anniversary, then Queen Victoria, for hers.
The Austen Girls, by Lucy Worsley
Bloomsbury Children’s Books (2 April 2020)
Trade paperback, & eBook (320) pages
Cover image, book description, and excerpt courtesy of Bloomsbury Children’s Books © 2020; text Laurel Ann Nattress © 2020, Austenprose.com