From the desk of Tracy Hickman:
Natalie Jenner’s debut novel The Jane Austen Society was an international bestseller and one of my favorite books of 2020. Would Ms. Jenner’s latest novel, set in post-war literary London, hold up under the weight of public expectation and comparison with her accomplished first effort? Would the Bloomsbury Girls be up to the task set before them?
Cambridge to Bloomsbury
The story begins in Cambridge with Evie Stone’s unsuccessful bid for a position as research assistant. Refusing to return to the tiny village of Chawton in defeat, she sets her sights on a position at Bloomsbury Books & Maps. At her interview with the bookstore’s General Manager, Herbert Dutton, Evie’s quick thinking during a medical emergency impresses Mr. Dutton and she is hired on the spot, much to the surprise of the rest of the Bloomsbury staff.
A Staff Divided
Evie finds herself thrust into an eclectic group of men and women at Bloomsbury Books. From Mr. Dutton’s fifty-one unbreakable rules that dictate every aspect of the running of the bookstore, to blustery Master Mariner Simon Scott’s territorial protection of “his” history department, to smooth-talking and ambitious head of fiction, Alec McDonough—men call the shots at Bloomsbury Books while Grace Perkins, Mr. Dutton’s secretary, and Vivien Lowry are charged with “elevenses duty” making tea for the entire staff. Grace and Vivien are frustrated by the limitations placed on them. Grace has innovative ideas for expanding business opportunities for the bookstore, but Mr. Dutton dismisses them.
“Thank you, Miss Perkins,” he finally replied, looking almost pained by her suggestions. “That will be all for now.”
It was indeed all for now. It would be all for tomorrow, too, and for the day after that. She would go back to typing up his unnecessarily long letters, organizing his voluminous paperwork into alphabetical files, and fetching his tea. Then she would go home and do a version of the same for her family.” (16)
Similarly, Vivien chafes against Mr. Dutton’s fifty-one rules and Alec’s “Boys Club” method of running the fiction department.
“Vivien’s issues with Alec ranged from the titles they stocked on the shelves, to his preference for booking events exclusively with male authors who had served during the war. With her own degree in literature from Durham (Cambridge, her dream university, still refusing in 1941 to graduate women), Vivien had rigorously informed views on the types of books the fiction department should carry. Not surprisingly, Alec disputed these views.
“But he doesn’t even read women,” Vivien would bemoan to Grace, who would nod back in sympathy while trying to remember her grocery list before the bus journey home. “I mean, what—one Jane Austen on the shelves? No Katherine Mansfield. No Porter. I read that Salinger story in The New Yorker he keeps going on about: shell-shocked soldiers and children all over the place, and I don’t see what’s so masculine about that.” (19)
Upsetting the Hierarchy
When Mr. Dutton must take an extended medical leave, he promotes Alec to acting general manager and Vivien becomes the new head of fiction.
“Vivien not only suddenly felt free—she felt emboldened. She could take the structure and the strictures in place, the framed fifty-one rules of the shop, the many pages of notes that Alec was already eagerly administering, and turn them in her favour. She wondered if the men fully understood what they had done, in their fervour to elevate Alec.
It was to be a significant miscalculation on their part.” (54–55)
At the same time, Evie begins her search for an undervalued rare book from the Chawton Great House library that she now believes is worth more, both historically and financially, than when it was originally sold to the bookstore. But when she locates the book, events quickly spiral out of control. Evie will need help from Grace and Vivien to hold on to her precious find. Using Mr. Dutton’s rules to their advantage, the women enlist several famous literary figures including Daphne du Maurier, Ellen Doubleday, Sonia Blair (widow of George Orwell), Peggy Guggenheim, and Samuel Beckett in their plan to breathe life into the stolid atmosphere of Bloomsbury Books & Maps.
“Grace sighed. “There’s so much at stake—and so many people to keep quiet. What if it all blows up in our faces?”
Evie looked at both women in eagerness and asked with all the optimism of youth, “But what if it all goes right?” (307)
Vibrant and Atmospheric
The varied cast of characters in Bloomsbury Girls held my interest throughout the novel. While the narrative focuses on the women at the bookstore, the male characters are not reduced to two-dimensional foils for the heroines. Ms. Jenner crafted the relationships between the fictional characters and the ones involving historical literary figures with equal realism and dimension.
Each chapter began with a featured rule from Mr. Dutton’s fifty-one rules for the bookstore, which often set up an ironic twist or humorous situation. For example, the chapter beginning with “Rule No. 41: All shop events must be held after hours” features Vivien arranging a literary luncheon with guest Daphne du Maurier, held during the day so that more women will be able to attend. Ms. Jenner uses the post-war London setting to underscore the tension between the safety of the known and the risk and possible reward of venturing into the unknown.
“One day Grace had headed early into Camden Town for her weekly shopping day. Just as her bus approached the line of greengrocer, fishmonger, and butcher shops up ahead, she impulsively decided to stay on. The double-decker bus travelled next towards the King’s Cross and St Pancras stations, winding and winding its way farther south into the city’s West End, farther than Grace ever had reason to go. She sat at the very front of the top deck, staring through the clear gridless window as all of London whirled about below. She thought of the book she was currently reading to the boys at bedtime, Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, and in a rare moment of whimsy that fit her suddenly impulsive mood, Grace could imagine being at the front of a futuristic submarine roaming the sea in exile, far from the reach of everyone for whom she had been made responsible.” (39)
Readers of Bloomsbury Girls will be inspired by Grace, Vivien, and Evie’s strength, humor, and resourcefulness as they struggle for greater self-determination and respect. Natalie Jenner’s Bloomsbury Girls is highly recommended historical fiction for anyone who appreciates the people—writers, editors, publishers, booksellers, and store clerks—who contribute to the transformative wonder that is conjured through the seemingly mundane act of curling up with a good book.
5 out of 5 Stars
- Bloomsbury Girls: A Novel, by Natalie Jenner
- St Martin’s Press (May 17, 2022)
- Hardcover, eBook, & audiobook (368) pages
- ISBN: 978-1250276698
- Genre: Historical Fiction, Women’s Fiction
We received a review copy of the book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. Austenprose is an Amazon affiliate. Cover image courtesy of St Martin’s Press © 2022; text Tracy Hickman © 2022, austenprose.com.