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

A Preview of Rebellion at Longbourn: A Pride and Prejudice Variation, by Victoria Kincaid

Rebellion at Longbourn by Victoria Kincaid 2020Hey-ho Janeites. I am happy to welcome bestselling Austenesque author Victoria Kincaid to Austenprose today to share her fifteenth Pride and Prejudice variation, Rebellion at Longbourn.

Variations have become the driving force in Jane Austen fiction for several years now. The creativity of the authors who imagine new stories for major and minor characters is unfathomable. Kincaid spins an interesting new plot for Austen’s iconic romantic couple, Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy. Just imagine that Mr. Collins has inherited Longbourn after the death of Elizabeth’s father and that the Bennet women are now dependent on the charity of their cousin who has gone off the rails and becomes an irrational spendthrift. That has interesting possibilities.

Victoria and her publisher have generously offered a preview of Rebellion at Longbourn for your enjoyment.

BOOK DESCRIPTION:

A Pride and Prejudice Variation

Elizabeth Bennet’s father died two years ago, and her odious cousin Mr. Collins has taken possession of the Longbourn estate. Although Collins and his wife Charlotte have allowed the Bennet sisters and their mother to continue living at Longbourn, the situation is difficult. Viewing Elizabeth and her sisters as little more than unpaid servants, Collins also mistreats the tenants, spends the estate’s money with abandon, and rejects any suggestions about improving or modernizing Longbourn. After one particularly egregious incident, Elizabeth decides she must organize a covert resistance among her sisters and the tenants, secretly using more modern agricultural methods to help the estate thrive. Her scheme is just getting underway when Mr. Darcy appears in Meryton.

Upon returning from a long international voyage, Darcy is forced to admit he cannot forget his love for Elizabeth. When he learns of the Bennet family’s plight, he hurries to Hertfordshire, hoping he can provide assistance. Sinking into poverty, Elizabeth is further out of Darcy’s reach than ever; still, he cannot help falling even more deeply in love. But what will he do when he discovers her covert rebellion against Longbourn’s rightful owner?

Falling in love with Mr. Darcy was not part of Elizabeth’s plan, but it cannot be denied.  Darcy struggles to separate his love for her from his abhorrence for deception.  Will their feelings for each other help or hinder the Rebellion at Longbourn?

EXCLUSIVE EXCERPT: 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

A Preview of All Stirred Up: A Novel, by Brianne Moore

All Stirred Up by Brianne Moore 2020I have been watching several romcoms lately to offset the stress and anxiety generated from a world health crisis. Last week I enjoyed Father of the Bride (1991), Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994), Made of Honor (2008), and The Wedding Date (2004). Do you notice a theme here? No, well they are all romances set during a wedding, an event ripe with comedic possibilities.

In my reading life, I have been searching for lighthearted romantic comedies too, so when a publisher sent me a contemporary romance inspired by Jane Austen’s novel, Persuasion, I leapt with joy. All Stirred Up is a forthcoming romcom novel set at a failing Edinburgh restaurant named Elliot’s. It retells the second chance romance plot of Jane Austen’s classic steeped in the famous culinary community in Scotland with tons of food, tears, and laughter. The author has generously shared an exclusive excerpt for my readers to give you a taste of the narrative and tone.

All Stirred Up is the debut novel by Brianne Moore, so let’s all give her a Janeite welcome by giving her charming novel a try when it releases on September 8, 2020.

BOOK DESCRIPTION:

Susan Napier’s family once lived on the success of the high-end restaurants founded by her late grandfather. But bad luck and worse management has brought the business to the edge of financial ruin. Now it’s up to Susan to save the last remaining restaurant: Elliot’s, the flagship in Edinburgh.

But what awaits Susan in the charming city of Auld Reekie is more than she bargained for. Chris Baker, her grandfather’s former protégé–and her ex-boyfriend–is also heading to the Scottish capital. After finding fame in New York as a chef and judge of a popular TV cooking competition, Chris is returning to his native Scotland to open his own restaurant. Although the storms have cleared after their intense and rocky breakup, Susan and Chris are re-drawn into each other’s orbit–and their simmering attraction inevitably boils over.

As Chris’s restaurant opens to great acclaim and Susan tries to haul Elliot’s back from the brink, the future brims with new promise. But darkness looms as they find themselves in the crosshairs of a gossip blogger eager for a juicy story–and willing to do anything to get it. Can Susan and Chris reclaim their lost love, or will the tangled past ruin their last hope for happiness?

EXCLUSIVE EXCERPT: Continue reading

A Preview of Persuaded to Sail: Jane Austen’s Fighting Men (Book 3), by Jack Caldwell

Persuaded to Sail, by Jack Caldwell 2020Raise your hand if you agree that the “half agony, half hope” love letter written by Captain Frederick Wentworth to Anne Elliot in Jane Austen’s Persuasion is the most romantic love letter in literature. If not, by the time you get to the “you pierce my soul” line, you will be a convert.

At the conclusion of the story after Frederick and Anne are reunited and agree to marry, Austen asks us, “Who can be in doubt of what followed?” The reader is left in suspense wanting more. Well, we are happy to share that a sequel to their life together at sea has been written by Jack Caldwell. Persuaded to Sail will be available on May 11, 2020, from White Soup Press. It is the third book in the popular Jane Austen’s Fighting Men series.

A companion novel to the first two books: The Three Colonels (2012) and The Last Adventure of the Scarlet Pimpernel (2016), Persuaded to Sail also takes place during the 1815 Hundred Day Crisis and the Battle of Waterloo. Those familiar with Jane Austen’s novels will see familiar characters from Persuasion, Mansfield Park, Sense and Sensibility, and Pride and Prejudice in all three novels.

You do not have to have read the first two novels in the series to enjoy Persuaded to Sail, nor do you have to read them in order, however, doing so could enhance your enjoyment.

I hope this preview will tempt you to give it a try.

BOOK DESCRIPTION:

The long-awaited sequel to Jane Austen’s final novel, Persuasion.

After an eight-year separation and a tumultuous reunion, Anne Elliot marries the dashing Captain Frederick Wentworth. The pair looks forward to an uneventful honeymoon cruise aboard the HMS Laconia.

But the bride and groom find the seas of matrimony rough. Napoleon has escaped from Elba, the country is at war with France again, and the Admiralty imposes on Wentworth a mysterious passenger on a dangerous secret mission. The good captain is caught between duty to his country and love for his wife.

All eyes are trained for enemies without, but the greatest menace may already be on board…

EXCLUSIVE EXCERPT: 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

Miss Austen: A Novel, by Gill Hornby—A Review

Miss Austen, by Gill Hornby (2020)From the desk of Tracy Hickman:

Austenesque fiction has produced numerous works told by supporting characters from Austen’s novels, using these fresh viewpoints to breathe life into familiar and beloved stories. Similarly, the title character of Gill Hornby’s Miss Austen is not the famous author, Jane, but her devoted elder sister, Cassandra. In many Austen biographies and surviving family letters, Cassandra figures as an exemplary daughter, sister, aunt, and friend, her quiet fortitude and domestic competence contrasted with her younger sister’s more volatile temperament and creative talent. But what happens when an author shifts the spotlight from Jane to Cassandra? How would a fictionalized retelling of her view of Austen family life engage readers?

Jane Austen once wrote to her niece Anna, “Three or four families in a country village is the very thing to work on” and Ms. Hornby has taken Jane’s advice for Miss Austen. In a narrative that alternates masterfully between Cassandra’s youth and old age, Miss Austen features the extended Austen family as well as the Lloyd and Fowle families. Miss Austen begins with a prologue set in 1795 that introduces two young, dutiful lovers: 

He asked for her patience; she promised it without thinking. Cassy was just twenty-two; they had years yet to play with. And patience was, famously, one of her many virtues. They turned back to the house to spread their glad news. 

It was met with all the exuberant delight that they could have wished for, though not even a pretense at surprise. For this engagement—between Miss Cassandra Austen of Steventon, and Mr. Tom Fowle of Kintbury—had been settled as a public fact long before it was decided by the couple in private. After all, it was the perfect match, of the sort that would bring such pleasure to so many. So it must be their future, their one possible happy ending.

The universe had agreed on that for them, many years before. (2)

Continue reading