I’m absolutely thrilled to be sharing my review of a brilliant book that has just been published (three days ago!) as part of a blog book tour – Natalie Jenner’s debut novel, The Jane Austen Society. I’d like to thank St Martin’s Press for gifting me an advance readers’ edition to be able to have a slice of the magic early – because if you love novels about Austen, I really think you’ll adore this one!
Jenner’s novel tells the fictional tale of the beginnings of the Jane Austen House Museum (and Chawton House Library), as places of pilgrimage for Austen lovers everywhere. We begin in 1932, with a young American woman stumbling across a helpful farmer in Chawton village, who shows her to Chawton House and the churchyard where the graves of Austen’s mother and sister are. Before they part ways, she implores him to read Austen, and he, a brilliant student who had to take to the land after the First World War, agrees.
The novel picks back up again in 1943, briefly during the Second World War, and then following the end of the war, with many of the characters left to pick up the pieces of their lives. Jenner weaves together stories of various Austenites, from a bereaved Doctor, to an American actress, to a sensitive farmer, an agoraphobic descendent of Austen, an enthusiastic young maid and a lonely auctioneer. Their lives intersect through their love of Austen, and the ultimate desire to acquire the cottage that Austen spent the final eight years of her life in for the enjoyment of Austen fans worldwide. (Read more about the House Museum here and here.)
The characters Jenner writes about are fictional, as are the events described – but Chawton, with the cottage, Chawton House and its library, and the surrounding country is very, very real. Jenner makes the setting completely immersive. For the couple of hours I spent reading (I couldn’t put it down to be honest, I was hooked from the first chapter in which we met our actress and farmer), I was completely wrapped up in the world of Chawton village, Austen and the wonderful array of characters Jenner created.
The ensemble nature reminded me of Karen Joy Fowler’s The Jane Austen Book Club or Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows’ The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society: comforting, cosy and heart-warming, and highlighting the healing power of reading and community.
My favourite characters were Adeline Lewis, a feminist schoolteacher, and Evie Stone, a young student of Adeline’s who becomes a housemaid at Chawton House after her family fall upon hard times. Adeline’s passion for discussing literature and teaching it was wonderful to read about, as was Evie’s ardent desire to keep up with literature even in her changed circumstances. Her employer, Frances Knight, allows her to dust the Chawton Library, which Evie does, but alongside this, stays up late into the night to catalogue to incredible collection of books Chawton House has.
I also had a real soft spot for Adam Berwick, a farmer with a love of reading who had to abandon his academic aspirations – much like Evie Stone – through the loss of family members in the war and having to take up the mantle of the family farm. There is a wonderful passage at the end of the first chapter when Jenner describes him reading Pride and Prejudice for the first time, analysing the actions of the characters and becoming engrossed by the plot. Ultimately, it shows him falling in love with Austen’s work. I loved the whole story (and it has a wonderful ending!), but this little part, alongside discussions between other characters about Austen and their various favourites of her six novels, was perhaps my favourite.
I really feel that this is a gem of a book about the resounding power of Austen’s words and what it means for those who love her work. I may have been gifted a copy of the book in exchange for review and the wonderful audiobook (read by actor Richard Armitage, who has one of the loveliest reading voices, and who played Mr Thornton of one of my favourite period dramas, North and South), but honestly, I enjoyed every second of reading this book from beginning to end, and wholeheartedly recommend it to all Austen lovers out there.