Source: Review copy
Publication: 28th May from Orion
Length: 9 hours and 34 minutes
Can a village in need find hope after the devastation of war?
The Jane Austen Society is a fictional telling of the start of the society in the 1940s in the village of Chawton, where she lived. There are eight main characters, all of whom are obsessed with Austen and conspire to create the society and turn the Austen cottage into a museum in her honour: a WWII war widow, a Farmer, a village Doctor, a local Solicitor, a House-Girl in the Knight estate, the anticipated heiress of that estate, an employee of Sotheby’s and a Hollywood Actress. Multiple social, romantic and cultural collisions ensue. Jenner brings all of these disparate characters vividly to life, and you’ll root for all of them to find their own happiness.
If, like me, you are a fan of Jane Austen and the 19th Century novel, then you will love The Jane Austen Society. I had no idea what to expect from this book, set in Chawton, shortly after the end of the Second World War.
Chawton is where Jane Austen spent the last few years of her life, and either wrote or revised most of her best loved novels. Jane lived in a cottage in the grounds of Chawton House, owned by her brother, Edward Knight. The Chawton cottage has been the home of the Jane Austen’s House Museum since 1946.
The book opens in St Nicholas Churchyard, where Jane’s mother and sister are buried, though Jane herself is interred in Winchester Cathedral. This is where we begin the introductions to our characters; a farm worker, a doctor, an American actress, a maidservant, a school teacher and a spinster daughter of the local landowner. The latter, Frances Knight, is related to Jane Austen and her house holds a major library of important literary works. Sadly Frances’ father does not value his spinster daughter and bemoans the lack of a male heir.
At the end of the war, the class system was still prevalent, but starting to break down. The role of women had changed forever, though some were slow to recognise that and this book gently reflects a changing world in which some things will forever be different and some still reflect the world that Jane Austen transcribed. The changing nature of post-war England is portrayed well and the shock of the war to a sleepy village like Chawton is captured in the opening chapter set in that graveyard.
A chance meeting with Mary Ann Harrison in the churchyard led farm worker Adam Berwick to deviate from his usual diet of H.G. Wells and Dumas to read Pride and Prejudice, and then he knew he had to read Austen’s other books. Evie Stone, a servant at the house is entranced by the library. American actress Mimi meets Yardley Sinclair at an auction of some of Austen’s effects. Andrew Forrester is the Knight family solicitor.
Jenner’s book is about how a love of Austen’s literature is able to unite this disparate group of people, each of whom has suffered a great deal of pain and she shows how, in bringing them together over their shared love of Austen’s books, their grief is slowly assuaged.
Her style is gentle and she brings her characters vividly to life; sharing their inner turmoil and showing us the inter-dependency of this community even while they shield themselves from the pain of their respective losses.
This would not be a tribute to Austen though if it did not have its own dramas. Thus we have a bitter and uncaring father; a Hollywood producer who thinks everything and everyone can be bought and some misunderstandings over the nature of attraction. This is wonderfully portrayed in the interactions between the local physician, Dr Gray – a man who couldn’t save his own wife after a fall – and former schoolteacher, the widowed Adeline Grover, nee Lewis.
The audiobook is beautifully narrated by Richard Armitage. Though I was expecting a female narrator due to the Austen connection, in fact the choice of a man turned out to be perfect, and I was happily lost in the story as his rich, well-modulated tones carried me along.
Verdict: Natalie Jenner has given us in The Jane Austen Society a book that Jane Austen might herself have loved. It is a fabulous story in its own right, but for lovers of Jane Austen it is a must read.
Natalie Jenner is the author of THE JANE AUSTEN SOCIETY (St. Martin’s Press (NA) & Orion (UK), May 2020), a fictional telling of the start of the society in the 1940s in the village of Chawton, where Austen lived. Born in England and raised in Canada, Natalie is a former lawyer who also recently founded the independent bookstore Archetype Books in Oakville, Ontario, where she lives with her family and two rescue dogs. A lifelong devotee of all things Jane Austen, THE JANE AUSTEN SOCIETY is her first published novel.