Book Review for “The Jane Austen Society” by Natalie Jenner.
Summary: Just after the Second World War, in the small English village of Chawton, an unusual but like-minded group of people band together to attempt something remarkable. One hundred and fifty years ago, Chawton was the final home of Jane Austen, one of England’s finest novelists. Now it’s home to a few distant relatives and their diminishing estate. With the last bit of Austen’s legacy threatened, a group of disparate individuals come together to preserve both Jane Austen’s home and her legacy. These people—a laborer, a young widow, the local doctor, and a movie star, among others—could not be more different and yet they are united in their love for the works and words of Austen. As each of them endures their own quiet struggle with loss and trauma, some from the recent war, others from more distant tragedies, they rally together to create the Jane Austen Society.
Age: Adult; Genres: Literary, Women, Fiction; Settings: Historical – Post WWII, England – Chawton; Other Categories: Novel, Jane Austen.
When I heard about this novel last year, I knew that it was something I wanted to read. Unfortunately, by the time I heard about it, I was too late to ask for an ARC of the book, so I just put it on my wish list. Well, sometimes wishes do come true, and I won a giveaway (through the Let’s Discuss challenge), and this was the book that I picked to get! Although it took a bit of time to get to me (as I suspected, during a pandemic), as soon as it arrived, it immediately went to the top of my reading pile. Well, I’m pleased to let you all know that it was both well worth the wait, and it fully deserved to jump the line ahead of all the other books on my shelves that I want to read. (Plus, because it arrived after I’d moved apartments, but before I was able to put up my new bookshelves and unpack my books, it was right on hand, with no searching needed!)
So, what did I enjoy about this book the most? I’ll tell you, Jenner really gets Jane Austen, I mean, you can feel that her books are in Jenner’s bones, in her soul, in practically every breath she takes! How do I know this? Well, there are several indications of it throughout the novel. For example, when this rag-tag group of people get together, Jenner is able to give them opinions of any aspect of Austen’s books, that are all knowledgeable, reasonable, and well argued. When one character prefers Eliza Bennet to Emma as their favorite character, that person knows why they view Emma as being less likable, and with a depth of understanding of the motivations and personalities of the two women. They also state these well-formed opinions using examples of things one character does that they like, and how the other character acts that they dislike. In short, each one could be excellent book reviewers (which I think is high praise).
More importantly, Jenner actually forms her story using familiar romantic tropes that Austen employed in practically all of her books, and thereby made this novel into a semi-modernized version of a cross between Pride & Prejudice, and I think Sense & Sensibility, with a touch of Emma thrown into the mix, with just a smidgen of Mansfield Park. You will all forgive me if I overlooked any element here, but since I unpacked my books, I’m finding that the only Austen that hasn’t gone missing (for now) is Pride & Prejudice (yes, it is true, and I’m gutted. But some of my editions were in pretty sad condition, so I guess I’ll have to replace them now). But I digress… what I’m saying here is that Jenner has put the preservation of Jane Austen’s legacy into an almost fan-fiction Austen novel. Thankfully, it isn’t fan-fiction, because to be frank, all the Austen fan-fiction I’ve ever read is well… subpar, if I’m being diplomatic!
No, this is just delightfully done, juxtaposing fans of Austen with some Austen tropes and Austen-like characters. Placing this in post WWII England, in the last village where Austen lived, and the efforts to preserve her legacy, is a wonderful story line, with enough conflict and a few twists to keep the reader interested. Furthermore, I also liked how Jenner echoed, but didn’t copy, Austen’s style of writing, where I could feel hints of Austen-like dialog or descriptions along the way, tempered by Jenner’s own style, so that it still felt original. It seems to me that with all this praise, I should say that it also made me giggle in places, but not laugh out loud. The ending was sweet, and a bit obvious for my taste, which didn’t make me cry. Since I can’t say that I could lower my rating of this book by a whole half star because of that, I’ll warmly recommend this charming novel and give it a full five stars out of five (although to be totally honest, it is more like 4.75 stars, but I like to round up).
“The Jane Austen Society” by Natalie Jenner is available (via the following affiliate links) from Amazon, The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), Foyles, Waterstones, WHSmith, Walmart (Kobo) US (eBooks and audiobooks), the website eBooks.com, iTunes (iBooks and audiobooks), new or used from Alibris, used from Better World Books (promoting libraries and world literary), as well as from as well as from Bookshop.org and UK.Bookshop (to support independent bookshops, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic) or an IndieBound store near you.
This novel qualifies for the following reading challenges: Historical Fiction Reading Challenge (#13).