“This novel delivers sweet, smart escapism.” ―People
First, a disclaimer: I have never read anything by Jane Austen, though I have seen (and enjoyed) Pride and Prejudice. So why is someone almost totally ignorant of Austen’s work writing a review of a novel about characters obsessed with this author? Because I loved this book and you don’t have to have read Jane Austen to enjoy it too.
The Jane Austen Society by Natalie Jenner (St. Martin’s) will appeal to anyone who is as obsessed with an author as I am (with Louisa May Alcott), or who enjoys historical fiction. Anyone who collects artifacts — or would love nothing more than to lose oneself in research with the hopes of uncovering an exciting discovery — will very much appreciate the read. The eight characters that comprise the society offer rich stories that will draw you in and keep you engaged. With Austen as the backdrop, there is no doubt a certain level of this book went past me undetected because of my unfamiliarity with Austen’s books, but it did pique my interest in reading them.
EIGHT CHARACTERS WHOSE LIVES INTERTWINE
Set shortly after World War II in Chawton, Hampshire, in England (Austen’s last known residence), Jenner spends the first third of the book introducing the members of the society and how their lives intertwine: Dr. Benjamin Gray, Adeline Lewis Grover, Adam Berwick, Andrew Forrester, Frances Knight, Evie Stone, Mimi Harrison and Yardley Sinclair. Several have experienced significant losses in their lives, and all harbor dreams yet to be fulfilled.
Dr. Gray and Adeline (both recent widows) share a history; he was her doctor and delivered her baby, which subsequently died. Yet they both love discussing Austen’s books, which assuages their loneliness and opens the possibility of something more.
Frances Knight, the last surviving member of the Knight family, is single, childless and the sole caregiver of her father, who disdains her because she had no male child with which to carry on the family name. The estate, once belonging to Jane’s older brother Edward (and including the steward’s cottage where Jane had finally found a home for her writing) is now in serious decline, as is its mistress, Frances, who has become a recluse. Little does Frances know of the late-night work of her teenage maid, Evie Stone, and how her obsession with Austen would change their lives.
Adam Berwick, painfully shy, lost his two brothers in World War I and his father years later. Living with his embittered mother, Jane Austen is his only consolation and escape from the world. A chance meeting with a soon-to-be world-famous movie star (Mimi Harrison) sets the stage for future events. This nearly invisible man with a family secret proves to be the impetus behind the Jane Austen Society.
These are just a few of the many characters and their compelling stories, all of which come together by the middle of the book. This unlikely band of wounded people pull together and achieve something extraordinary, all because of their love of Jane Austen.
A DELIGHTFUL LITERARY ESCAPE
All readers know how an engrossing book can provide a much-needed escape, along with healing and consolation. Certain authors know how to capture the most important parts of our lives and speak to us through their writing as if we are the only ones they are addressing. Natalie Jenner not only succeeds in capturing the essence of Jane Austen and what she means to her readers, but she also makes her book a personal read — even for those yet to discover the treasure of Austen.
There are times when a good book provides a lifeline. In my case, The Jane Austen Society gave me a chance to escape for a time from these difficult days of the pandemic, and to enjoy a story of people coming together for a greater good, and finding healing and happiness in the process. Thank you, Natalie Jenner, for this refuge.