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
Austenprose is delighted to be participating
in the blog tour of The Jane Austen Society.
Learn more about the tour and follow along with us.
Join the virtual online book tour of THE JANE AUSTEN SOCIETY, Natalie Jenner’s highly acclaimed debut novel May 25 through June 30, 2020. Seventy-five popular blogs and websites specializing in historical fiction, historical romance, women’s fiction, and Austenesque fiction will feature interviews and reviews of this post-WWII novel set in Chawton, England.
- May 25 Jane Austen’s World
- May 25 Austenprose—A Jane Austen Blog
- May 26 Frolic Media
- May 26 A Bookish Affair
- May 26 Courtney Reads Romance
- May 26 Margie’s Must Reads
- May 26 The Reading Frenzy
- May 27 Book Confessions of an Ex-Ballerina
- May 27 Gwendalyn’s Books
- May 27 Romantically Inclined Reviews
- May 28 Getting Your Read On
- May 28 Living Read Girl
- May 28 The Lit Bitch
- May 29 History Lizzie
- May 29 Silver Petticoat Reviews
- May 30 Cup of Tea with that Book, Please
- May 30 Historical Fiction Reader
- May 31 Jane Austen in Vermont
- June 01 From Pemberley to Milton
- June 01 My Jane Austen Book Club
- June 01 AustenBlog
- June 02 Lu’s Reviews
- June 02 The Green Mockingbird
- June 03 The Interests of a Jane Austen Girl
- June 03 Relz Reviews
- June 03 Impressions in Ink
- June 04 The Caffeinated Bibliophile
- June 04 Life of Literature
- June 04 Laura’s Reviews
- June 05 Reading Ladies Book Club
- June 05 Bookish Rantings
- June 06 From the TBR Pile
- June 07 Rachel Dodge
- June 07 An Historian About Town
- June 08 Bringing up Books
- June 08 Austenesque Reviews
- June 09 Captivated Reading
- June 09 Savvy Verse and Witt
- June 10 Lady with a Quill
- June 10 Drunk Austen
- June 11 Book Girl of Mur-y-Castell
- June 11 Inkwell Inspirations
- June 12 Nurse Bookie
- June 12 A Bookish Way of Life
- June 13 Calico Critic
- June 14 Jane Austen’s World
- June 15 Stuck in a Book
- June 15 Storybook Reviews
- June 15 Confessions of a Book Addict
- June 16 Literary Quicksand
- June 16 Becky on Books
- June 17 The Reading Frenzy
- June 17 Anita Loves Books
- June 18 Chicks, Rogues, & Scandals
- June 18 The Write Review
- June 19 Diary of Eccentric
- June 20 Cracking the Cover
- June 21 Short Books & Scribes
- June 22 Reading the Past
- June 22 Babblings of a Bookworm
- June 23 My Vices and Weaknesses
- June 23 The Book Diva Reads
- June 24 Books, Teacups & Reviews
- June 24 Wishful Endings
- June 25 Robin Loves Reading
- June 25 Bookfoolery
- June 26 Lit and Life
- June 26 Vesper’s Place
- June 27 Foxes and Fairy Tales
- June 28 Probably at the Library
- June 28 Scuffed Slippers Wormy Books
- June 29 The Anglophile Channel
- June 29 So Little Time…
- June 30 BookNAround
The Jane Austen Society: A Novel, by Natalie Jenner
St Martin’s Press (May 26, 2020)
Hardcover, eBook, & audiobook (320) pages
Cover image courtesy of St Martin’s Press © 2020; text Tracy Hickman © 2020, Austenprose.com