by Jen Moyers (@jen.loves.books)
“I just feel, when I read her, when I reread her--which I do, more than any other author--it’s as if she is inside my head. Like music” (loc. 74).
Natalie Jenner’s The Jane Austen Society, historical fiction ranging from 1932 to 1947, is about grief and recovery, greed and sacrifice, selfishness and love. It’s also about the power of books and reading to bring people together and to help them understand themselves and those around them.
The book takes place in Chawton, Hampshire, where Jane Austen lived and wrote for part of her short life. It features an array of characters, some of whom have never left the tiny village and others who find its comfort later in life. The Jane Austen Society offers the charm and clear-eyed view of the world that one could expect from a book titled after Jane Austen. Like Austen’s novels, this one has a strong sense of both the beauty and the flaws of a traditional English village; it also is brilliant at demonstrating the way that the Wars, though not taking place in the story itself, had a lasting effect for its characters.
Jenner rotates between seven or so characters, with short glimpses into the perspectives of a few others. We come to know the village doctor, a teacher, the farmhand who lost both of his brothers in the war, the Hollywood star who loves Austen and her books, and the woman who is Austen’s last relative on the estate. We’re drawn into both Austen’s literature and what it means to these people. Through the novel, several characters form a society (the Jane Austen Society, of course) who aim to preserve some part of the home in which Austen lived and wrote--it is clear that their intentions arise from their need to hold on to something from the past, something they fear they may be losing. Austen, with her frank view of the village and the people around her, definitely symbolizes something more: she’s all that’s good about Chawton, the knowledge that they’ve played a part in the world, that they are--despite their negligible size--contributors to British history. One character thinks of Austen’s legacy, “These were small things in a way, much smaller than the war, yet they seemed to him more important to survival than he had previously understood” (loc. 1780). The author excels at showing just how much books to which we truly connect can mean to us, that they’re more than just a hobby to while away the time but are touchstones for all that is meaningful in our lives.
Overall, I would characterize this as a lovely, gentle read, one that makes incisive observations about human nature so that these sharp insights sneak into readers’ consciousness. While few books, for me, can compare to Jane Austen’s novels, Natalie Jenner’s The Jane Austen Society is a worthy tribute to the great writer.
*Credit to Sara Voigt for this subtitle! When she was reading over my review to give feedback, she said that it seemed like The Jane Austen Society would be a "warm hug for Austen fans."
The Jane Austen Society is part of both the Modern Mrs Darcy Summer Reading Guide and the BookSparks Summer Reading Camp. We enjoy being part of these bookish communities so much, sharing recommendations and reviews with other readers. For more about Bookish Communities, check out this recent episode!
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