The Jane Austen Society: A Novel, by Natalie Jenner—A Review

The Jane Austen Society, by Natalie Jenner (2020)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

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The Jane Austen Society Blog Tour Banner

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. 

BLOG TOUR SCHEDULE: 

ADDITIONAL REVIEWS: 

The Jane Austen Society: A Novel, by Natalie Jenner
St Martin’s Press (May 26, 2020)
Hardcover, eBook, & audiobook (320) pages
ISBN: 978-1250248732

AMAZON | BARNES & NOBLE | BOOK DEPOSITORYINDIEBOUND | AUDIBLEGOODREADS | BOOKBUB

Cover image courtesy of St Martin’s Press © 2020; text Tracy Hickman © 2020, Austenprose.com

Marry in Scarlet: Marriage of Convenience Series (Book 4), by Anne Gracie—A Review

Marry in Scarlet by Anne Gracie 2020From the desk of Pamela Mingle:

Every good Regency romance deserves a manipulative old dowager. In this book, it’s Great Aunt Agatha. She tells the Duke of Everingham, called Hart, that her niece would “…rather live with dogs and horses than marry.” Likewise, she tells her niece that the duke would never consider her for a wife, “…ill-trained, boyish, impertinent hoyden” that she is. Of course, this serves to pique the interest of both. Anne Gracie’s Marry in Scarlet, book four in the “Marriage of Convenience” series, is a delightful romp portraying the gradual coming together of a pompous duke and a reluctant lady.

The heroine, named Georgiana but called George, finds Aunt Agatha’s machinations annoying in the extreme. She’s acquainted with the duke and he has “…irritated her with his cold, hard gaze, so indifferent and superior and I-rule-the-world.”

George and Hart see each other frequently, mainly because he wants it that way. When he catches a glimpse of George riding her horse, he’s impressed. Hart makes an offer—for the horse, not George, who immediately refuses. Her horse is not for sale, to anyone. Hart thinks the selling/breeding of horses should not be a woman’s business.

The two meet at the opera, where she shushes him and his friends. He’s fascinated with how enraptured she is with the singing. Despite the fact that she insults him, calling him an arrogant boor, Hart is enchanted. And aroused.

At a London ball, George hides in the conservatory to get away from Lord Towsett, a man whose numerous proposals of marriage continue despite her staunch refusals. Unexpectedly, Hart sneaks into her hiding place because he too is escaping from marriage-minded pursuers. Later, Hart confronts Towsett and forces him to leave the ball, extracting a promise that he’ll never bother George again. Continue reading

Recipe for Persuasion: A Novel, by Sonali Dev—A Review

Recipe for Persuasion by Sonali Dev 2020From the desk of Sophia Rose:

Jane Austen’s Persuasion gets a modern facelift Desi-style in this standalone sequel to Sonali Dev’s 2019, Pride, Prejudice and Other Flavors, as Indian American chef, Ashna Raje, and Brazilian footballer, Rico Silva, encounter each other once again as acrimonious cooking partners on a reality TV show. I love that the author has cooked up a series of modern retellings of Jane Austen’s classic works by giving members of the Raje family their chances at romance.

In Recipe for Persuasion Ashna’s family is convinced a reality cooking show is just the jumpstart her dying restaurant needs and she is willing to do anything to preserve this last bit of her father who opened the restaurant.

As a pro footballer at the top of his game, Rico thought he had moved on from Ashna’s rejection. That is until he is injured badly and yet another relationship didn’t work out.  He decides he has to do something about not being over his teenage love so signs onto the show to be Ashna’s partner. He vents his long-smoldering anger, but also understands as an adult what his teenage self couldn’t when he learns the true state of Ashna’s affairs. Understanding her leads to an understanding of the past.

Ashna had a difficult childhood. Her father, a prince, was forced out of India for some trouble he got into and lost the lifestyle he was accustomed to making him a bitter, angry man. Her parents were stuck in a loveless marriage where abuse and alcoholism were rife and Ashna was physically abandoned by her mother while the remaining parent’s issues were just as unhealthy for her so that, even after his death, she works to please a father who was never going to be pleased.

It was his dream to go to Paris and become a superb chef which she did for him and she now can’t even create her own dishes without bringing on an anxiety attack. She can only keep his restaurant just as he had it and cook only his dishes which is why the restaurant is failing. Others see it and she refuses to heed them because honoring her father is all she has left. Into this situation steps the boy become man from her past and she hasn’t gotten over him. Continue reading

The Jane Austen Project: A Novel, by Kathleen A. Flynn —A Review

The Jane Austen Project by Kathleen A Flynn 2017Hey-ho Janeites. I hope that you are all coping during this crazy time. I am on lockdown here at Woodston Cottage trying to be productive while immersing myself in audiobooks and rom-com movies. It is Spring and the birds are singing, and the flowers are blooming. I have much to be grateful for.

Right now, we are all in need of some escapism, and what better way than with a time travel novel. The Jane Austen Project has been in my reading queue for a few years and seemed like the perfect choice given the current climate of high anxiety and uncertainty. Talk about the ultimate fantasy. What Jane Austen fan would not want to travel back in time to meet their favorite author? Heck yeah! So, let’s put on our best Regency frock and head on over to the local time machine and see what author Kathleen Flynn has created up for us. Here is a description of the book from the publisher.

BOOK DESCRIPTION:

London, 1815: Two travelers—Rachel Katzman and Liam Finucane—arrive in a field in rural England, disheveled and weighed down with hidden money. Turned away at a nearby inn, they are forced to travel by coach all night to London. They are not what they seem, but rather colleagues who have come back in time from a technologically advanced future, posing as wealthy West Indies planters—a doctor and his spinster sister. While Rachel and Liam aren’t the first team from the future to “go back,” their mission is by far the most audacious: meet, befriend, and steal from Jane Austen herself.

Carefully selected and rigorously trained by The Royal Institute for Special Topics in Physics, disaster-relief doctor Rachel and actor-turned-scholar Liam have little in common besides the extraordinary circumstances they find themselves in. Circumstances that call for Rachel to stifle her independent nature and let Liam take the lead as they infiltrate Austen’s circle via her favorite brother, Henry. Continue reading

Rakes and Roses: A Mayfield Family Romance (Book 3), by Josi S. Kilpack—A Review

Rakes and Roses by Josi S Kilpack 2020From the desk of Katie Patchell:

What do you think of when you hear the word “rake”? Do you think of a rogue, face and heart scarred, but with a devilishly attractive smile? Do you think angry thoughts, with words like “cad” and “bounder” (and maybe some unprintable ones) flashing through your mind? Or maybe you think of the gardening tool that sits in your shed? Regardless, rakes are tricky creatures, capable of evoking a passionate response. Josi S. Kilpack’s latest novel, Rakes and Roses, tells a story of the transforming power of mercy and love, one that’s reminiscent of the beloved legend of Beauty and her Beast.

Born the illegitimate daughter of a duke in a society where that detail matters greatly, Sabrina Carlisle has gotten used to turning a brave face to the world. When an older, titled man proposes, Sabrina accepts, happy to finally have peace and security. Her dreams are shattered soon after the wedding. Abusive physically and verbally, her husband makes her life a living hell. Unable to leave him permanently, she seeks reprieve one fateful night during a tense dinner party. While hiding in the bushes outside, Sabrina prays that no one notices her. Her prayer isn’t answered…but not in the way she fears.

Young, handsome, and reckless, Harry Stillman is already in training to be a rogue. When he takes a moonlight stroll in his host’s gardens with a beautiful woman on his arm, he doesn’t expect to see a face staring out at him with terror from the local flora. Steering his companion away from her is a small mercy — but returning to find out what the mysterious woman was afraid of is true kindness, a small act Sabrina never forgets.

Years pass; Sabrina and Harry find themselves in vastly different circumstances. Sabrina’s husband is dead and fear is no longer her constant companion. Harry, no longer carefree and wealthy, spends sleepless nights drinking and gambling. Consequences catch up to him in the form of thuggish moneylenders…but then the unexpected happens. An unknown person going only by the name “Lord Damion” offers him a chance at freedom. When Sabrina (through her pseudonym) finds the opportunity to save Harry from being killed by moneylenders or from drowning in his addiction, she jumps at the chance. The only question is—does he want to be rescued, as she did years ago? Continue reading

A Stroke of Malice: A Lady Darby Mystery (Book 8), by Anna Lee Huber—A Review

A Stroke of Malice by Anna Lee Huber 2020From the desk of Rachel McMillan:   

Though locked room mysteries are a trope often revisit in the genre, it takes an immense amount of talent for an author to convince you that theirs is, indeed, the first of its kind. At once an homage to a classic trope and an immersive gothic romance A Stroke of Malice is a compelling historical romance that is not only atmospheric but eerily relevant. Lady Kiera Gage (nee Darby) and her husband, inquiry agent Sebastian Gage long familiar with the gothic and macabre, are put in close quarters with a puzzling corpse when a revelry turns deadly. The prospect of a holiday at the Bowmount’s Estate in Scotland is welcome for the investigative couple, but nothing could prepare them for one of the most baffling of their many cases together.

Almost six months’ expectant, Kiera is looking forward to a warm, inviting, and seasonally riotous Twelfth Night party at a crumbling Scottish manor house: perhaps her last opportunity before her confinement. Herein, with an eerie Poe-like setting of crypts and cloisters, dead friars and monks, and things that go bump in the night, Kiera and Gage must decide whether what they are seeking is foul play or far more sinisterly supernatural. The masked festivities, dancing, merriment libations of the cold December night culminate in the demand by the chosen Lord of Misrule for a ghost tour. Thus, Kiera and Gage attend a forbidden part of the manor house that takes them several steps back in time. Things go amiss when their ghoulish tour leads to a body far more recently deceased than the skeletons tucked into the ancient stones. Thus, the lady and lord of the manor are eager to make good on the Gage’s reputations for solving the most sinister of crimes.

The mystery deepens as no one is missing from the manor or its surrounding area, there are no personal possessions and no distinguishing features. In addition, the regal Lady Eleanor’s husband has been absent in Paris for a long while with seemingly no communication, leading Gage and Kiera to wonder if the deceased is Lord Hemswick. Continue reading

Fortune & Felicity: A Pride and Prejudice Variation, by Monica Fairview—A Review

Fortune & Felicity by Monica Fairview 2020From the desk of Debbie Brown:

Hunsford Parsonage is a popular jumping-off spot for Pride and Prejudice variations. This is when Mr. Darcy makes his ill-phrased marriage proposal to Elizabeth Bennet, is soundly refused, and presents her with a letter the following morning to defend himself against her accusations. It’s the seminal event of the book, making it an ideal spot to imagine “what if” things had happened differently there. That is where we begin in Monica Fairview’s newest variation, Fortune & Felicity.

The Prologue shows an agonized Darcy struggling to write that important missive. When he accidentally spills ink over the finished letter, he decides it must be fate intervening. Consequently, he consigns his night’s work to the fire, leaving Elizabeth ignorant of its contents.

The surprise here is that, unlike most variations, the book then skips ahead seven whole years.

During that time, the Bennet family fared poorly. Lydia did run away with Mr. Wickham who, predictably, abandoned her. Mr. Bennet paid dearly to marry her off. He subsequently died, resulting in Mrs. Bennet’s removal from Longbourn to a simple cottage provided by her brother Mr. Gardiner. Jane is married, but not to Mr. Bingley. Her husband, Mr. Grant, is a tradesman whose business is struggling, and they have four children with another on the way. Elizabeth lives with them, having married Thomas Heriot, a naval officer who died at sea three years ago and left her a penniless widow.

Darcy bowed to Lady Catherine’s wishes immediately after that terrible night seven years ago and married Anne de Bourgh. “He had done it in a moment of anger against the world, a moment of supreme indifference to his own fate.” It was not a happy marriage for many reasons. Continue reading

To Have and to Hoax: A Novel, by Martha Waters—A Review

To Have and to Hoax by Martha Waters 2020From the desk of Molly Greeley:

A young lady and gentleman are discovered (gasp!) alone on a balcony during a ball, and he must either propose or allow her reputation to be ruined—despite their having met each other only minutes earlier. In her debut novel To Have and to Hoax, Martha Waters takes this time-honored Regency romance trope and uses it deftly to not only throw her hero and heroine together in the first pages of the book but as the fulcrum upon which the rest of the plot turns.

The opening scenes, in which we meet both Lady Violet Grey and Lord James Audley, do a lot of work to establish both their characters in a short space. Violet, who has allowed herself to be led outside the crowded ballroom and onto a deserted balcony by the Marquess of Willingham, a known rake, bears little resemblance to the shy flower for which she’s named. She reads novels clandestinely and speaks up for herself rather than shrinking meekly back into the shadows when she and Willingham are discovered. It is James who discovers them, and though James and Willingham might be good friends, it is clear that James doesn’t approve of kissing virginal young ladies on darkened balconies. But when Willingham departs, James finds himself, despite his scruples, unable to walk away from Violet, who is similarly fascinated by him. They share a scandalous waltz in the darkness of the balcony before her mother’s arrival forces their swift engagement.

When we meet them again, Violet and James have been married for five years, four of which they have largely spent not speaking to one another. Violet spends her days in their London home, entertaining friends, cataloging the library books, writing poetry, and sending letters to the editor of various journals under a male pen name. James, like any well-born Englishman, enjoys time at his club with his friends, but much of his days are also spent managing the lucrative stables his father gifted him upon his marriage to Violet. These stables, we learn early on, have long been a source of tension between the newlyweds; from the earliest days of their marriage, Violet has worried about James’ safety around the unbroken horses and resented the amount of time he spends at the stables. James—who has some serious issues with his frankly horrible father—wishes she could understand that he took the stables both to show his father that he is capable of more than his father gives him credit for and to create extra income, so he could lavish her with a country house. Continue reading