I can’t say I’m the biggest fan of historical fiction, but I can say that I am a huge fan of Jane Austen! Pride and Prejudice is one of my favorite books of all time! So when I saw there was going to be a novel about the creation of society to preserve Austen’s legacy, I immediately put it on my TBR* list.
I want to say that for the last few years I haven’t been able to listen to the news. I used to be a huge news junkie – listening to NPR in the car every time I went for a drive. But once I couldn’t listen anymore, I had to find something else to fill that time. Since I read most often for my job, I decided to use the time to listen to audiobooks of the books I wanted to read. I can always tell the best books – the ones that transcend the “like” category to the “love” category – when I, while still in the middle of the audiobook, HAVE to get the print copy because I cannot wait to get to the end. Well, that was my experience with this book!
The story takes place in the small village of Chawton, Hampshire, UK which is where Jane Austen lived at the end of her life and wrote some of her most famous works. The book follows a group of ardent Austen fans who, in the years following World War II, come together to preserve Austen’s legacy by creating a charity to purchase Austen’s cottage and create a landmark to celebrate Austen.
This is Natalie Jenner’s debut novel, but you wouldn’t really think about it when you read it. Expertly narrated by Richard Armitage, this book is a delightful, cozy gem. The book reminded me a bit of Fredrik Backman’s books because she spends a great deal of time – especially in the beginning of the book when each chapter seems to follow each individual – on character development. I’m not usually a fan of this – even with Backman who is especially good at it – but I was proven wrong, yet again, because by the time the plot really picks up, you really have sympathy and empathy for the entire cast of characters.
Side note (with shameless self-promotion): Read all about my love of Fredrik Backman here.
However, like Backman, the plot serves to examine the human condition. Jenner highlights that these characters have gone through the hell of war and loss and now are working to get back to normalcy. There is the town’s doctor, a pregnant war widow, the last surviving heiress to the Austen family, an American actress who is one of Austen’s biggest fans, and more. Each of them deal with pain, grief, and loss. They deal with PTSD, survivor’s guilt, drug abuse, and sexual assault. They help each other even when they don’t know that they’re doing it. The Austen Society helps many of them heal and the book ends on a hopeful note.
That isn’t to say that there aren’t some issues with the book. It definitely drags a bit in the middle and I really want several of the characters to wake up and smell the roses since they were making poor decisions that I wish they wouldn’t have made. All in all though, once I had finished the book, I definitely flipped back through to read the end all over again. That’s the sign of a good book!
Some takeaways for me:
-Go reread Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, and Emma!
-Delve into the ones I haven’t read yet – like Northanger Abbey and Persuasion!
-Have I read Mansfield Park? (Double check this by reading it…)
-Plan a visit to Chawton to see the Jane Austen cottage. You can visit it in the village of Chawton, Hampshire, UK or online here. It’s closed now due to Covid-19 but I’m already planning another Bookish Travels to see it!
The Jane Austen Society, published 2020
The Jane Austen Box Set (aka what I’m secretly hoping to get for my birthday this year!)
*I always use this and assume everyone knows what it means. I have had it pointed out to me a bunch of times (by Mr. Librarian, my sister and more) that I am a book nerd and not everyone is as dorky as I am. It means, To Be Read – and now you’re as dorky as me!