From the desk of Tracy Hickman:
My go-to choice in times of uncertainty is a comfort read. While each person has their own ideas about what qualifies as comfort, I especially enjoy books by authors such as Miss Read (Dora Saint) and D.E. Stevenson. These books are set in a time and place distant enough from my own to divert, but still recognizable and familiar. When I learned that Natalie Jenner’s debut novel, The Jane Austen Society, was set largely in a rural English village in the years immediately following World War II, I hoped it would provide a welcome respite from current personal and collective anxieties.
The story opens in the village of Chawton in 1932, when a young and attractive American tourist, Mary Anne Harrison, asks a local farmer, Adam Berwick, for help locating Jane Austen’s house. He directs her to the cottage, telling her that he’s never read Austen and doesn’t understand “how a bunch of books about girls looking for husbands” (6) could qualify as great literature. Miss Harrison enthusiastically shares her love of reading Austen and presses Adam to start right away with Pride and Prejudice. Intrigued by the arresting stranger’s powerful emotional connection to Austen, Adam checks out a copy of P&P from the lending library and is quickly immersed in the story.
“He was becoming quite worried for Mr. Darcy.
It seemed to Adam that once a man notices a woman’s eyes to be fine, and tries to eavesdrop on her conversations, and finds himself overly affected by her bad opinion of him, then such a man is on the path to something uncharted, whether he admits it to himself or not.” (10)
But as much as it amused him, the book also confused him.
The Bennets, for all intents and purposes, simply didn’t like each other. He had not been expecting this at all from a lady writer with a commitment to happy endings. Yet, sadly, it felt more real to him than anything else he had ever read.” (11)
In the chapters that follow, set during and immediately following WWII, we are introduced to other future members of the Jane Austen Society: Dr. Benjamin Gray, village doctor; Adeline Lewis, schoolteacher and war widow; Evie Stone, house girl at the Great House; Frances Knight, member of the Knight family; Andrew Forrester, Knight family solicitor; and Yardley Sinclair, assistant director of estate sales at Sotheby’s.
After several Chawton residents discover that they are not alone in their admiration for Austen, Adam conceives of a way to honor the famous author after he finds a discarded child’s toy in a rubbish pile outside the cottage at Chawton. He asks Dr. Gray, “What if this toy belonged to Jane’s family? And now it’s got no home, and it’s just lying there, trash, in the street.” (106) The project quickly takes hold, drawing in more members who contribute their unique talents toward securing Chawton Cottage and the books from the library at the Great House for preservation for future generations.
“No sooner had the words left his mouth than Dr. Gray realized that time was the one thing so many in their sleepy little village seemed to have. Jane Austen had used her time here for housework and visits and composing works of genius. That the population of Chawton had barely varied since then made Dr. Gray suddenly see each of the villagers as almost pure one-to-one substitutes for those of the past. If they weren’t up to the task of preserving Austen’s legacy, who on earth ever would be?” (106)
But dramatic changes are set in motion when the famous American film star Mimi (Mary Anne) Harrison visits England again, this time with her wealthy fiancé Jack Leonard. Seeking to secure Mimi’s affection, Jack arranges to make an offer to lease Chawton Cottage. Meanwhile, Frances Knight’s father makes spiteful last-minute changes to his will to further complicate the situation. The members of the Jane Austen Society are tested in their resolve to remain true to their mission and each other.
The fictional people and events of The Jane Austen Society provide a rich reading experience. Each character is holistically rendered, with relatable human frailties and insecurities. I was drawn into the narrative as the disparate group of characters assembled and their lives began to weave together. And just as in real-world relationships, I found myself struggling to understand the intent behind a character’s words or actions, sometimes going back to re-read a passage, looking for signals or clues.
One of my favorite characters, Evie Stone, works at the Great House and spends her evenings secretly cataloging the books in the library. In the process, she discovers a letter from Jane to Cassandra that was never sent, tucked away in an old Germanic textbook. What bibliophile wouldn’t envy her?
“As Evie sat on her little stool, her completed catalogue open on her lap, she felt the ecstasy of discovery. The passion of learning. The pride of having achieved something no one else had done before… And she had gone inward in a way, into the confines of a neglected old house, not even truly a home anymore. She had seen the thing right under everyone’s eyes, and she hadn’t let it go or been subsumed by the rigours of daily life. She had made space for discovery in the midst of a most contained life, the life that the world seemed bent on handing her. She had watched Miss Frances float through that world like a ghost, and Adam Berwick sit alone atop his old hay wagon, and Dr. Gray walk through town with that strange faraway look in his eyes, as if he were looking past reality, past pain, to a kinder, gentler world. But a world that did not exist. For the world that really existed demanded the pain, and the living with it, and would never let you go even when everything else fell away.
Yet, even while immersed in that same world, Evie Stone had carved out something new and enlightening and earth-shattering, all on her own and on her own terms. No one could ever take that away from her.” (227)
Likewise, I found little to criticize in Ms. Jenner’s first novel. Apart from a few word choices that tripped up the flow of reading for me, The Jane Austen Society was a delight to read. In the concluding Historical Notes section, the author states, “The people and events described in this book are completely fictional and imaginary; the places are not.” (305) The Jane Austen Society is an engaging story and a love letter to both the places Jane lived and her beloved works of fiction. All six novels make appearances in some form, even the often-overlooked Northanger Abbey and Mansfield Park.
I rarely have time to read a book in one sitting, but in the case of The Jane Austen Society, having just time enough to read several chapters each day became a much-anticipated treat. I was transported to another time and place; I was inspired by the courage, kindness, and resourcefulness of the society members. While themes of loss and grief echo through The Jane Austen Society, they are answered with opportunities for redemption, delineated with tenderness and humor that strengthen the quiet joy of Ms. Jenner’s story. The Jane Austen Society is a book that deserves to be read, savored, and then read again.
5 out of 5 Stars
- The Jane Austen Society: A Novel, by Natalie Jenner
- St Martin’s Press (May 26, 2020)
- Hardcover, eBook, & audiobook (320) pages
- ISBN: 978-1250248732
- Genre: Historical Fiction
We received a review copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. Austenprose is an Amazon affiliate. Cover image courtesy of St Martin’s Press © 2020; text Tracy Hickman © 2020, austenprose.com.