Book review: The Jane Austen Society by Natalie Jenner

Tuesday, June 9, 2020 Permalink

It’s no secret I’m a fan of Jane Austen. In fact, it’s almost exactly 11 years ago since I finally binge-read all of her work. I’d been away (at fat camp – long story) and took The Complete Works of Jane Austen with me. Devouring the tome easily.

It surprised me because though I’d loved the BBC miniseries of Pride & Prejudice and the Gwyneth Paltrow/Toni Collette movie version of Emma (my interest was predominantly piqued by Colin Firth and Jeremy Northam respectively), I’d not even considered reading her books. And I hate(d) historical fiction.

It was only then I understood the eloquent and witty genius of the woman (so) ahead of her time.

Book review: The Jane Austen Society by Natalie JennerThe Jane Austen Society
by Natalie Jenner
on 09/06/2020
Source: Hachette Australia
Genres: Historical Fiction, Women's Fiction
ISBN: 1250272181
Pages: 320

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.

This opens in 1932 with a farmhand meeting a young American woman who’s travelled to Chawton to see Austen’s former home. Adam is an intelligent and well-read young man. He received a scholarship to university but his older brothers were killed in WWI and he had to take over the family farm. Though he talks of Tolstoy the beautiful young woman chides him for not reading Austen. And he’s so taken with her (the American) he starts.

We leap forward over a decade, to the latter stages of WWII. We meet (Adeline) a young teacher with feminist inclinations; Evie, one of her students; and the town doctor, Dr Gray. All lovers of books and especially Austen.

The group come to a decision to form The Jane Austen Society to preserve the author’s memory (and hope to keep a cottage as a museum).  They also co-opt the solicitor of the current owner of the Austen’s former home – Great House (the elderly and unwell Mr Knight). And then there’s the unlikely support of an American actress with an obsession for the English author.

We’ve met all of the group separately to some extent, so know them a little by the time the society is formed. It means we realise it’s more than their shared love of Austen’s work that commits them to the project.

Obviously things don’t go smoothly. Old Mr Knight believes women can’t be trusted with finances or property so doesn’t leave the house to his daughter as expected. It’s squirrelled off to a male heir and the group have to be more cunning than they expected.

This is a light and entertaining read. Weirdly I actually wanted a little more romance. It’s happily obvious in some ways but surprisingly unpredictable in a couple of others. It probably wasn’t paced as evenly as I would have liked and felt a little rushed towards the end when I wanted to savour the group’s shenanigans and feel some sense of closure.

Also strangely I engaged quickly and easily with Adam as a young man at the beginning so was a little sad that he aged over a decade before we met him again, delaying his chance of happiness.

I’ve not read The Jane Austen Book Club but the movie is one of my ‘comfort-watches’ so I’ve seen it A LOT. It similarly references some of Austen’s most famous characters in a way that’s disconcertingly casual. To me her creations are sacred or reverential so it’s confronting to hear them so easily referenced. I would never compare someone to Mr Darcy or Fanny Price for example. Though I’m not sure why not.

This book is described in the media release I received as The Jane Austen Book Club meets The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society which is very apt as it’s a cosy delight and I read it in a comfortable sitting.

The Jane Austen Society by Natalie Jenner was published in Australia by Hachette and is now available.

I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes.


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