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

A Preview of Masquerade at Middlecrest Abbey, by Abigail Wilson

The Masquerade at Middlecrest Abbey by Abigail Wilson 2020Forced marriages are a time-honored trope in Regency romance. Recently there was To Have and to Hoax, by Martha Waters, and then there are classics like Outlander, by Diana Gabaldon, and The Convenient Marriage, by Georgette Heyer. In each of these novels the hero and heroine must marry to save the heroine’s reputation, and or because their families insist upon it because of social or financial reasons. Marrying someone because they need to protect their identity as a spy is a clever twist on the forced marriage trope that is employed in Masquerade at Middlecrest Abbey, by Abigail Wilson. However, that surprising plot point is only the tip of the iceberg. This novel is so packed full of mystery, intrigue, and romantic tension that you will be turning pages until the wee hours while your heart hurts from the emotional tension.

Here is a description and an exclusive excerpt from the author only for Austenprose readers. Masquerade at Middlecrest Abbey releases on May 26, so be sure to pre-order your little bit of escapist fun with a handsome highwayman living a double life and his emergency bride.

BOOK DESCRIPTION:

In this new Regency romance, Elizabeth knows she must protect her heart from the charm of her new husband, Lord Torrington. She is not, however, prepared to protect her life.

When the widowed Lord Torrington agreed to spy for the crown, he never planned to impersonate a highwayman, let alone rob the wrong carriage. Stranded on the road with an unconscious young woman, he is forced to propose marriage to protect his identity and her reputation, as well as his dangerous mission.

Trapped not only by her duty to her country but also by her limited options as an unwed mother, Miss Elizabeth Cantrell, and her infant son are whisked away to Middlecrest Abbey by none other than the elder brother of her son’s absent father. There she is met by Torrington’s beautiful grown daughters, a vicious murderer, and an urgent hunt for the missing intelligence that could turn the war with France. Meanwhile, she must convince everyone that her marriage is a genuine love match if her new husband has any hope of uncovering the enemy.

Determined to keep her son’s true identity a secret, Elizabeth will need to remain one step ahead of her fragile heart, her uncertain future, and the relentless fiend bent on her new family’s ruin.

EXCLUSIVE EXCERPT: Continue reading