The Jane Austen Society by Natalie Jenner
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
The jacket copy says that fans of the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society and The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir will enjoy this book; I’m a fan of the first and not of the second, but I did enjoy this historical fiction tribute to Jane Austen and her fans. I think the book was written expressly for them; deeper familiarity with her novels would certainly enhance the reading. I’m not sure that it will convert those unfamiliar with her work; it didn’t inspire me to reread Austen, but it kept my interest because it celebrates reading.
Jenner has invented a group of characters who form the Jane Austen Society in the post-WWII village of Chawton (Austen’s historic home). In homage to Austen, she concentrates on illustrating issues of class and romantic expectations in the closed-environment Petri dish of an English village; in service to her own muse, there’s a 21st Century perspective that makes it more bearable to me than Austen’s own works. The author’s outlier characters, Evie and Adam (oh, the symbolism—but no, there’s a huge age gap and they’re never associated romantically) are the ones who made the book interesting to me. I really liked them. Adam, a village farmer, discovers Austen from the visit of an American girl on Austen pilgrimage in 1932, thereby obtaining the gift of companionship and wisdom that books can bring to a lonely life. Evie’s introduced to Austen in school by the dynamic village teacher. Though she has to leave the village school before graduation in order to work in the manor where Austen once lived, she has her master reading list and she’s able to nurture her native intelligence through access to the manor library.
Most of the other characters are flawed but sympathetic, just like real life. The village doctor, the village lawyer, and the lady of the manor all have starring roles, along with the teacher and the American—later a movie star who never lost her love for Austen—her movie producer fiancé, and a Sotheby’s assistant director of estate sales. Couples find happiness and the entwined threads all tie up nicely in the end. I’ll look forward to another book from the author, especially if she steps further from Austen’s shadow.
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