Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Review: The Jane Austen Society by Natalie Jenner

I no longer remember when or how I first came across Jane Austen and her works. She seems to have always been a part, a happy part, of my reading life. I've read the six novels many times, for pleasure and for school, and I've spent hours watching film adaptations and reading modern retellings, books inspired by her works, and books about the author herself. If there is the slightest hint that a book has a connection to Austen, I am all but guaranteed to pick it up. So I was delighted to discover Natalie Jenner's new novel, The Jane Austen Society, a fictionalized account of the founding of the eponymous Jane Austen Society, about a group of people in Chawton trying to preserve Austen's legacy before it's too late.

Set mainly just post-WWII, with only two brief bits outside of this time frame, one before the war and one during, the novel echoes Austen's own stories in the best way. An ensemble cast, composed primarily of residents of Chawton, where Austen lived out the last years of her life in a cottage on the grounds of her older brother's estate, comes together with a few outsiders who are also transported by Austen's works as they try to create a place worthy of the author, a place that justifies the pilgrims that periodically find their way to the small village looking for any sign of the once lived life of Jane Austen. Just as in Austen, the action centers almost entirely in the village, paying similar attention to the everyday realities of the main characters, Austen descendant Miss Frances Knight, farmer Adam Berwick, the widowed Dr. Gray, former teacher and war widow Adeline Grover, the young maid Evie Stone, lawyer Andrew Forrester, and outsiders actress Mimi Harrison and Sotheby's representative Yardley Sinclair, and the society they live in as do Austen's own novels. Each character is simply living his or her ordinary life when they come together in a passion project to do an extraordinary thing, to create the society. And as they create the society, their regular lives and small but important dramas continue to unfold. They are very different from each other on the surface but they are all touched in some way by real life, facing death, addiction, poverty, grief, and disappointment, understanding and learning their own hearts and their very beings, and finding or rediscovering love. And just as in Austen, there is also a villain who could derail the hopes of the society and a crass heir who cares for nothing beyond money.

Jenner has written a completely delightful novel and tied it to Austen, not just in name but in the very fabric of the story she's created. Had Austen been writing a little more than a century onward from her own time, she very well might have written characters like these, found in her own small village in the aftermath of the war. Certainly Jenner has captured the themes of Austen, love and friendship, the state of society and the paths in life open to people from each stratum within it. She has captured the change afoot after the war and its lasting effect on all those who lived through it, even if only indirectly. The reader will warm to and sympathize with each of the main characters, rooting for them to find a way to preserve Austen's quiet legacy amidst the setbacks, legal, financial, and personal. The opening of the novel is a bit slow and the sheer number of characters can be overwhelming until the way that they come together and start to weave in and out of each others' lives consistently becomes clear but the slow build is definitely worth the payoff. Austen fans will love this addition to the books about the author and the impact of her works on ordinary people, smiling broadly as yet another Austen element makes its way into the story and on the page. It is a lovingly drawn picture of an English village post war, a time capsule of society, a historical fiction full of heart. It is not even close to the actual true story of the founding of the Jane Austen Society, nor does it try to be. What it is instead, is a charming novel dedicated to the spirit of Austen, an imagined and creative exploration into the continued importance of literature and reading in our lives, and the ever enduring legacy of Austen and her novels.

If I haven't yet convinced you to read this, you can listen to an audio excerpt of the book read by Richard Armitage. You can also listen to a fun Spotify playlist with music from various film adaptations of Austen's books and from other movie soundtracks.

For more information about Natalie Jenner and the book, check our her author site, like her on Facebook, follow her on Twitter or Instagram, look at the book's Goodreads page, read another review and follow the rest of the blog tour, or look at the reviews for others' thoughts and opinions on the book.

Thanks to Laurel Ann from Austenprose and publisher St. Martin's Press for inspiring me to pull my copy of this book off the shelf to review.

1 comment:

  1. This is such a lovely review, Kristen. Thank you for being the concluding blog of this tour. I am glad that you enjoyed the novel. It is special. Best, LA


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