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Archive for the ‘Jane Austen’s enduring popularity’ Category

When the world is topsy-turvy and my heart is heavy, many of us find comfort in the beauty of Austen’s novels, in the richness of the movie adaptations, and even in the thought of the lovely Hampshire countryside, secluded and beautiful, tucked away and secure.

The world inside Austen’s novels never changes. The familiar scenes and characters are always there and waiting. Elizabeth and Darcy never fail to spar and flirt in the drawing room in Pride and Prejudice. Mr. Woodhouse continues to eat his porridge and worry comfortably over the weather in Emma. And at the end of Persuasion, Captain Wentworth always sits down to write his letter to Anne Elliot.

Perhaps that’s why many of us (and why so many others throughout history) have found solace and comfort within the pages of Austen’s novels, especially during times of turmoil. And why her novels have been reprinted and translated and enjoyed around the world by so many people for over 200 years.

Familiar Faces

I find similar comfort in the film adaptations. When I sit down to watch a Jane Austen movie (or even have one playing in the background as I do chores), I love knowing just what to expect. I can’t wait to hear the music I love, listen to the accents and voices of characters and actors I adore, and watch the ever-amusing (and always touching) storylines unfold.

Sense and Sensibility, 1995.
Pride and Prejudice, 1995.
Emma, 2009.

The comfort and familiarity of Austen movies keeps us coming back for more, year after year. There are always new adaptations to enjoy and critique (because there’s nothing better than debating this Emma over that Emma with Austen friends).

Familiar Sights

And then there’s the comfort of Jane Austen’s actual world. Although I know Hampshire is a real place with its own fair share of regular, everyday life activities and stormy days, both figurative and literal (such as when Storm Eunice brought down many trees on the Chawton estate and in Mingledown Woods just last month), the England described in Austen’s novels never fades.

Jane Austen’s House Museum, 2022.

I think the charm of the setting in her books is another reason so many of us as lifelong students and fans of Austen love to learn about her life, her family, and the places where she lived and wrote. During the height of the pandemic, we all did what we could to support the historic sites in England and watched for updates whenever possible. We dreamed of the day when we might get to visit those precious sites again or for the first time. Many of us even took virtual tours so we could “be” there.

Benches Along the Way

That’s probably why I was so overjoyed when I saw the good news a few weeks ago that the bench my local JASNA regional group sponsored had been installed in the Chawton House Gardens. In fact, the entire bench project fundraising is now complete! (I know many of you have contributed in various ways to the care and keeping of the historic sites as well.) Here is a snippet of the announcement:

“This month, we are pleased to announce that thanks to the wonderful support of the North American Friends of Chawton House (NAFCH), we have received the final 17 benches donated through the ‘Share a Bench with Jane’ scheme, just in time for our Spring Flowers season.

Photo: Chawton House. Bench, 2022.
Location 22: at the head of the Pride and Prejudice Rose Walk.

If you’d like to see all of the bench locations, you can find them HERE.

As I read through the announcement and looked through the photos, I was comforted. I thought about how peaceful it would be to sit on a bench and enjoy the garden around me. I even thought about how I should install a bench in my own small garden area.

And then I came to this lovely quote that was included in the announcement from Chawton House:

Although the recent storms have caused significant damage to parts of the estate, these latest additions mean that visitors to Chawton House will still be able to rest among the spectacular displays of snowdrops and daffodils as we move into a warmer season.”

Isn’t that an encouraging thought? I made me think. Though storms come in this life, there are benches along the way where we can rest. When the journey is long, it’s important to stop and sit. And though some winter seasons are particularly difficult, spring always comes and bright new flowers always bloom.

Signs of Spring

I’ll leave you with that lovely thought and a few photos of the “snowdrops and daffodils” mentioned above. I hope that each of you is finding comfort in the glimpses of beauty around you, in friends and family, in faith and home, in lending a helping hand to others when you can, and in the enjoyment of Jane Austen.

Photo: Chawton House. Snowdrops, 2022.
Photo: Chawton House. Daffodils, 2022.
Photo: Chawton House. Daffodils and Snowdrops, 2022.

Your turn: What is it about Jane Austen’s novels and life that brings you comfort? Why do you think people continue to turn to her work in life’s difficult seasons?


RACHEL DODGE teaches college English classes, gives talks at libraries, teas, and book clubs, and writes for Jane Austen’s World blog and Jane Austen’s Regency World magazine. She is the bestselling author of The Anne of Green Gables Devotional: A Chapter-By-Chapter Companion for Kindred Spirits and Praying with Jane: 31 Days Through the Prayers of Jane Austen. Her newest book The Little Women Devotional just released and is available now! You can visit Rachel online at www.RachelDodge.com.

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P&P Book CoverInquiring Readers, On September 15th Chronicle Books will release an edition of  Pride and Prejudice: The Complete Novel, with Nineteen Letters from the Characters’ Correspondence, Written and Folded by Hand, By Jane Austen, Curated by Barbara Heller. I received my lovely copy along with this text:

“This deluxe edition brings to life the letters exchanged among Jane Austen’s characters in Pride and Prejudice. 

Glassine pockets placed throughout the book contain removable replicas of 19 letters from the story. 

Image of Pride and Prejudice letters with glassine inserts. Image Chronicle Books.

Pride and Prejudice letters with glassine inserts. Image Chronicle Books.

These powerful epistles include Lydia’s announcement of her elopement, Mr. Collins’s obsequious missives, and of course Darcy’s painfully honest letter to Elizabeth.

  • Nothing captures Jane Austen’s vivid emotion and keen wit better than her characters’ correspondence.
  • Each letter is re-created with gorgeous calligraphy.
  • Letters are hand-folded with painstaking attention to historical detail.

Perusing the letters will transport readers straight to the drawing-room at Netherfield or the breakfast table at Longbourn.”

Image of Barbara Heller

Barbara Heller

Purchase the book at Chronicle Books, or at other booksellers, including Amazon, Bookshop.org, and Barnes and Noble.

Find Barbara Heller at BarbaraHeller.org, with information about her process and the scribes and graphic artist who designed the letters.

 

ChattyFeet Winners of Jane Austoe Socks!

In mid-August we held a contest regarding ChattyFeet’s Jane Austoe socks and received a variety of creative answers to our prompts. 

We announced three winners on August 22nd–Denise, Mea, and Mary. Mea proudly sent images of her wearing the socks and holding them. 

Denise, another contest winner, also sent in her images.

 

Denise with her new chattyfeet socks

Denise with her new chattyfeet socks


Denise and her socks view her Darcy and Lizzie figurines.

Denise and her socks view her Darcy and Lizzie figurines.

Vic received a surprise gift from Gil Kahana, the CEO of this funky, wonderful site. It was a literature box set of four outstanding authors: Jane Austoe, Virginia Wool, Ernestoe Hemingway, and Marcel Proustoe. I was thrilled and immediately donned two socks. Guess which author dominated!

Image of Vic wears rival authors on her feet whilst reading Fullerton's A Dance With Jane Austen.

Vic wears rival authors on her feet whilst reading Fullerton’s A Dance With Jane Austen.

The box is as unique as the socks.

ChattyFeet does not stop at literature. Famous artists, scientists, and royals also receive the funky and humorous treatment. Jane Austoe is the latest design to receive foot accolades. 

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Inquiring Readers, I discovered that Susanna Fullerton, President of the Jane Austen Society of Australia and Austen author, is as much of a fan of Georgette Heyer as I am, perhaps more. This delightful article compares and contrasts the writings of Jane Austen and Georgette Heyer. Susannah also offers a giveaway at the end of her article. Enjoy!

In Georgette Heyer’s novel Regency Buck there’s a delightful scene that takes place in Hookham’s Library in London’s Bond Street. The heroine, Judith Taverner, picks up a novel called Sense and Sensibility, one of the “new publications on offer” and written “By a Lady”. She proceeds to read aloud to her cousin Bernard from the scene when mercenary John Dashwood congratulates his sister Elinor on capturing the romantic interest of Colonel Brandon. John Dashwood is of course mistaken – it is Marianne that interests the Colonel – and it’s a lovely comic moment of misunderstanding. Judith closes the book and says to her cousin, “Surely the writer of that must possess a most lively mind?” This is one of the tributes that Heyer pays to Jane Austen, in her fiction. She knew only too well how very lively was the mind of her favourite novelist.

She’d have loved to have learned more about Jane Austen, but Heyer did not have the wealth of material available to today’s reader. James Edward Austen-Leigh’sMemoir had been published, and she could also turn to Constance Hill’s Jane Austen: Her Homes and Her Friends, but otherwise she had to pretty much rely on the novels to gain details she could use in her own fiction. There was no superbly researched edition of the letters by Deirdre le Faye, no Tomalin biography, no John Mullan analysis, for Heyer to turn to. But she made the most of what she had and reread the novels frequently. One reviewer of Friday’s Child picked up on this, noting with approval, “The author has read Jane Austen to advantage”.

I think Heyer must have felt, even with the limited biographical material available to her, that she had much in common with Jane Austen. Both women lost adored fathers and had rather troubled relationships with their mothers, both cherished their privacy, both were meticulous when it came to accuracy, and neither suffered fools easily. Both novelists “dearly loved to laugh” and their humour shines through in their fiction.

Sense and Sensibility is a novel about sisters and one can see the influence of this in Heyer’s oeuvre. Frederica is the sensible sister in the novel of that name, while Charis is the emotional and romantic equivalent of Marianne Dashwood. Mary and Sophia Challoner of Devil’s Cub, Horatia and Elizabeth Winwood of The Convenient Marriage are more examples of Austen-influenced sister-pairings, and Heyer shows, just as Austen did in Sense and Sensibility, that second attachments can succeed and that sometimes handsome young men turn out to be rotters.

Heyer learned from Northanger Abbey too, playing with Gothic conventions such as abductions, strange and overbearing ‘villains’, dark and stormy nights, and people being locked in cellars – but, like Austen, she mines Gothic tropes for humour, not for scariness. We find Gothic devices being mocked in The Reluctant Widow, Devil’s Cub, Friday’s Child, Cousin Kate and Faro’s Daughter.

Image of the cover of 24 novels of Georgette Heyer published by Sourcebooks Cassablancain 2008
Image of the cover of 24 novels of Georgette Heyer published by Sourcebooks Cassablanca in 2008

Novelist PD James once described Pride and Prejudice as “Mills & Boon, written by a genius”. Certainly, Austen’s novels give us the standard romance plot of ‘boy meets girl – consequent misunderstanding – romantic happiness’. Of course, Austen adds to this standard plot her own unique depth, psychological acuteness, and complexity of character which lifts her books into the realm of genius. Heyer uses this standard plot too – just as Elizabeth Bennet has to listen to Darcy’s “not handsome enough to tempt me”, so does Arabella have to listen to slighting comments from Mr Beaumaris. Like Austen, Heyer shows her couples learning about themselves and their world, often through making mistakes or initial prejudice. Sylvester, like Darcy, will learn to be “properly humbled” by the woman he comes to love, Sherry has to learn from Hero to think of others and not just himself, Freddy Standen in Cotillion must discover that love comes into one’s life in unexpected ways. Heyer shows couples sparring with each other in seeming dislike, just as Elizabeth and Darcy bandy words in the ball room. In Bath Tangle, Lady of Quality, Black Sheep and The Grand Sophy we see young men and women falling in love as they argue, and so often their language has echoes of the language used by Austen’s characters.

Eyes are said to be the windows of the soul, and eyes that speak to each other are important in Jane Austen’s books. Darcy finds himself admiring Elizabeth’s very fine eyes and when Emma’s eyes “invited him irresistibly to come to her”, Mr Knightley doesn’t even try to resist. The eyes of Heyer’s heroines (usually cool grey ones) are often mentioned and are a great part of their attraction to their lovers. Eyes in her novels also sparkle with laughter, for Heyer’s heroines all love to laugh, as do Austen’s (even Fanny Price laughs – once!). Gurgles of laughter, lips twitching in smiles, and sudden bursts of laughter, all remind one of Elizabeth Bennet’s laughter, or of Emma’s smiles.

Stack of the annotated editions of Jane Austen's six novels: Northanger Abbey, Pride and Prejudice, Sense and sensibility, Emma, Mansfield Park, and Persuasion.
Stack of the annotated editions of Jane Austen’s six novels: Northanger Abbey, Pride and Prejudice, Sense and sensibility, Emma, Mansfield Park, and Persuasion.

“There are just so many similarities in language, character and plot, as one sees again and again how Heyer pays tribute to Jane Austen. To many modern readers, the idea of cousins marrying each other is not appealing (we know of the possible genetic consequences for their children), but we find cousin marriages, which must have been common in the Regency, happening in Mansfield Park and in The Grand Sophy. That Heyer novel has a rather sleepy Spanish woman, a Marquesa, who is surely a Lady Bertram copy-cat, Dr Grant’s obsession with food and wine is mirrored in the wonderfully named Sir Bonamy Ripple of False Colours, and sudden illness, elopements to Scotland, and marital unhappiness (all to be found in Mansfield Park) are found frequently in Heyer. Sir Thomas Bertram and Miles Calverleigh have money from Indian plantations, Tom Bertram and Horatia Winwood are addicted to gaming, Fanny Price and Kitty Charing are taken in by relatives when young, and even Lady Bertram’s lazy pug is comically reincarnated in Friday’s Child. Emma is a rather managing young lady – so is Sophy Stanton-Lacy of The Grand Sophy though Emma has more to learn than Sophy; Miss Bates rarely stops talking long enough to draw breath and we gain such a vivid sense of how exhausting it must be for poor Jane Fairfax to live with her – Maria Farlow in Lady of Quality also has an inexhaustible flow of “nothing-sayings” which exhausts Annis; and Mr Woodhouse’s hypochondria has influenced the vapourish and imagined illness of many Heyer characters. Mrs Elton’s social climbing teaches Mrs Challoner a thing or two, dim-witted Harriet Smith and Belinda of The Foundling have much in common, while Bath Tangle concerns itself with lost love and second chances, just as does Persuasion.

Both Jane Austen and Georgette Heyer wrote about young women who enter the marriage market, and their novels are centred on romantic relationships. However, both novelists then proceed to de-centre this romance by using comedy, irony and by showing us the realities of marriage. Sometimes love or lust are just not enough, as is obvious from the Bennet marriage. Both writers investigate what W.H. Auden called “the amorous effects of brass” and show how money influences and distorts. And both show us the instability and social concerns of the Regency era (urban poverty, enclosure of land, women lacking dowries, a growing middle class, and soldiers with not enough to do). They give us heroines who must learn to cope on their own while losing homes, income, family and love, both show an unerring sense of place, and they give us so much to laugh over.

I love both of these authors, sometimes for the same reasons and sometimes for very different reasons. Jane Austen was writing contemporary novels, Heyer historical ones, so she spends more time explaining social detail than does Austen. I love Heyer’s sense of fun and relax into her fiction without feeling challenged or disturbed (which in these Covid times is exactly what I need). But Heyer never provides the acute psychological brilliance that we find in Austen, or the sheer innovation, or the depth of characterisation, or the knowledge that every single time we go back to her books we will learn something new about ourselves or other people. Austen challenges our intellects and makes us think; Heyer soothes and restores. Georgette Heyer would have been the first to admit that her own talents were far inferior to those of her literary mentor – she knew her novels were not in the same class. And yet her novels have huge charm and I am happy to keep going back to them, always with delight. I think that as readers we can rejoice in the differences and enjoy both writers in different ways, and have the fun of finding the echoes of Austen in the pages of Heyer.

Jennie Chawleigh of A Civil Contract reads Mansfield Park after her marriage to Adam. She is consoled by reading in its pages that a man can form a deep and lasting second attachment, and seeing Edmund Bertram begin to forget Mary and think about Fanny brings her comfort. I love such references made by one of my favourite novelists to the writer whose books I adore more than any other. In my view, one can find that both writers are, in the words of Heyer, “complete to a shade”, each in their own inimitable way.

About Susannah Fullerton:

Susannah Fullerton, OAM, FRSN, has been President of the Jane Austen Society of Australia for the past 25 years. She is the author of several books about Jane Austen – Jane Austen and Crime, A Dance with Jane Austen, Happily Ever After: Celebrating Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and Jane & I: A Tale of Austen Addiction. She has also organised 3 Georgette Heyer conferences in Sydney and edited Georgette Heyer: Complete to a Shade. Please visit her website at https://susannahfullerton.com.au/ She is a ‘Lady Patroness’ of the newly formed International Heyer Society, which publishes a newsletter ‘Nonpareil’ and sends out fascinating posts about all things Heyer. For further information, see https://heyersociety.com/

Bibliography:

A fuller version of this article can be found in Heyer Society: Essays on the Literary Genius of Georgette Heyer, Edited by Rachel Hyland, Overlord Publishing, 2018

Georgette Heyer: Biography of a Bestseller, Jennifer Kloester, ,Penguin, 2011

SPECIAL OFFER!:

Susannah writes a very popular blog, ‘Notes from a Book Addict’, which comes out for free on the first day of each month. This blog provides reading recommendations, keeps you up-to-date concerning film versions of classic novels, discusses a fabulous poem each month, and much more.

If you subscribe to this blog before 31 September, your name will be entered into a draw to win one of these prizes:

  • A signed copy of Georgette Heyer: Complete to a Shade 
Image of the cover of Georgette Heyer: Complete to a Shade
Cover of Georgette Heyer: Complete to a Shade
  • A signed copy of Jane Austen and Crime

  • A 25-page Reader’s Guide to Jane Austen’s Emma

  • Complimentary membership for the rest of 2019 and all of 2020 of the International Heyer Society

  • Two of Susannah’s fabulously illustrated video talks: ‘Jane Austen: Her Life and Works’ and ‘The Inimitable Georgette Heyer’ (each talk is about 60 mins)

To enter the draw, simply email Susannah on susannah@susannahfullerton.com.au, reference HEYER, and she will subscribe you to the blog and enter your name in the draw. Winners will be announced at the end of September.

Georgette Heyer links on this blog:

How I Fell In Love With Georgette Heyer, Vic Sanborn, August 7, 2012

Georgette Heyer Posts on Jane Austen’s World

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Inquiring readers: Today is the 203rd anniversary of Jane Austen’s death. She lived from December 16th, 1775 to July 18, 1817, and managed to achieve more in 41 years than a majority of us in twice that time. My previous posts marking this occasion were somber. This one provides a more light hearted, science fictiony approach. The North American Friends of Chawton House sent a limited edition of Celebrity Jane, a bobblehead doll, after I made a contribution that qualified me for this gift. NAFCH challenges Celebrity Jane doll possessors to share photos of Bad Ass Jane, as I renamed her, in various locations in our lives. I chose home.

Image of Bad Ass Jane meeting her 18th century silhouette, as drawn by Mr. Rose at the 2019 AGM in Williamsburg

Bad Ass Jane meets her 18th century silhouette, as drawn by Mr. Rose at the 2019 AGM in Williamsburg

It was a dream. It must have been. I had been researching Jane Austen’s life in Steventon until I fell asleep. Then, when I awoke around 2 A.M., as I am wont to do, I saw a bad ass version of Jane Austen on my bookshelf, staring at a silhouette of herself. Only she wasn’t quite the spinsterish virgin that I knew and loved so well, Oh, no! She was Bad Ass! A Rocker Chick. A person who would have appealed to my rebellious younger self and my current, well, rebellious me.

She still wore her virginal cap, but from the neck down she wore a black tee, low rise jeans that bared her midriff, and leather boots! Best of all she carried a guitar. Regency Jane loved playing music every morning on her piano forte. Bad Ass Jane (BAJ) plays electric guitar at every opportunity. (How BAJ finds the time to write—heaven knows.)

I gruffed at this strange Jane, who wanted to discuss the books in my book shelf, most of which pertained to her life and history. I needed my beauty sleep and promised her a tour of my house and gardens the following morn, but she would have none of it. She desired my company NOW! Jane played a few tunes on her guitar, which woke me more efficiently than two cups of Moroccan coffee. She mesmerized me with her persistence, pluck, and talent.

Image of Bad Ass Jane meets Cassandra, her two children, and mother wearing pearls.

Bad Ass Jane visits Cassandra, her two children, and mother wearing pearls.

I pointed to a 5 foot tall doll house, in which my 7-year-old grand nieces played occasionally. “Here’s your family.” I gestured to the top floor of the house where two female adults and two children resided.

BAJ peered inside. “My family? They look strange and somehow not themselves. And the fashion! Oh, so revealing. Who are those children?”

“Dear Jane,” I said familiarly. “Recall that this is a dream and that this story is a mere figment of my imagination and the result of a host of wishes. Tom Fowle never died. He returned with Lord Craven from the West Indies healthy and hale and became the intended heir of a living in Shropshire. He and Cassy married and had two beautiful children. Your mama, Mrs. Austen, acquired a gorgeous necklace of pearls, brought back by Tom.”

Copy of Bad Ass Jane in the ficus tree

Bad Ass Jane in the ficus tree

“How strange,” BAJ muttered. She wandered from the doll house to our ficus tree lit with fairy lights.

 

She then visited the wine corner. Recalling that she had a fondness for a tipple here and there, I offered a glass. Savoring the wine (a nice Australian Shiraz), we discussed her family, my family (our fathers, with their dry wit and extensive libraries had much in common), and our writing. She was better than me. Way. And more successful. Way. I felt humbled in her presence.

When BAJ learned about her enduring fame–the JASNA Societies, the JA groupies, the Austenesque novels and stories–her bobble head bobbled. “Goodness, I’m famous! Did I become rich?”

I shook my head sadly. “Not you, but Cassandra and your ancestors benefited most generously.”

When dawn broke, we walked into my back yard. BAJ played her guitar in the morning, much as she played her pianoforte before breakfast. I was mesmerized. It was time to greet the sun.

Image of Bad Ass Jane at the bird feeders

Bad Ass Jane at the bird feeders

I pointed to my bird feeders, where my hungry hordes of wildlife shrieked for their breakfast: blue jays, red cardinals, musical wrens, and colorful goldfinches. The deer, chipmunks, and squirrels were silent but watchful. Their ferocious appetites challenged my meager resources weekly. All stood a respectful distance away as I filled tubs, tubes, platforms, and the ground.

An impatient BAJ wanted in on the action and hopped right on to the feeders. In an impeccable British accent, she asked, “Pray, where are they?”

birds-deer

The deer and their fawns and birds appeared as we stood still

“Gurl,” I said. “Your Bad Ass attitude must’ve scared them. Stay still and behold the magic.” Shy creatures appeared flock by flock and one by one from the forest within feet of us. BAJ noted with irony that the brown sparrows were as common in the U.K. as in my back yard.

We visited the flowers. “They’re nothing as fabulous as your English gardens,” I cautioned, and so we viewed several areas designed to be deer proof.

At the last, BAJ noticed a sign. “Pray, what is this?”

Image of BAJ posing with an American security sign

BAJ meets an American security sign

“The sign is for security,” I answered. “This deters burglars. We call in and help arrives within, well, whenever.”

She laughed and said, “Is not a dog more effective?,” and jumped into a West Highland Terrier planter.

Image of BAJ's Westie carriage

BAJ Westie carriage

I guffawed. Jennie, our Westie is all bark and no bite. Poof, my dream ended. Once again I missed the chance to ask BAJ the questions swirling in my head. I’d assumed that I had all the time in the world. Ah, well. The mystery that is Miss Jane Austen continues.

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Last summer I received an uncorrected manuscript of The Jane Austen Society to read with a request for feedback and any thoughts I had before a final printing. (I assume many other readers also received this request.) Natalie Jenner’s name was not on the cover. Not wanting to be influenced by preconceived notions, I read the MS before seeking the author’s name. Once I realized that the story is purely fictional (peppered with historical facts), I stopped comparing it to the founding of the real Jane Austen Society in the United Kingdom in 1940.

 

 

The tale is, in fact, a lovely story—a fairy tale—about a group of people who have very little in common except their love for Jane Austen’s novels. It is a perfect summer read that transported me to Chawton and to a different age and time. Natalie Jenner, in her first published novel, gave herself a difficult assignment: to write about pre- and post-World War II England, to incorporate history and knowledge of the customs of the time, place and setting, and to make the intricacies of estate law and wills understandable without bogging down the story’s pace. She also added complexities to her characters’ motivation and insights that sets the tale apart from Austen fan fiction.

About the Plot:

Aside from their love for Austen’s novels, the primary characters have another thing in common—pain and loss in one form or another. At the start of the book, they are facing their demons in isolation. Some are more successful than others in finding a way forward in life, but all are struggling until they join in a common effort to found The Jane Austen Society. This bond begins a healing process for them all.

Jenner sets up the potential for this bond early in the book, where through the thoughts of Adam Berwick, a young farmer who reads Austen, he thinks about why her novels hold so much meaning in his life:

Adam loved being in this world, transported, where people were honest with each other, but also sincerely cared for each other, no matter their rank. Where the Miss Bateses of the world would always have a family to dine with, and the Harvilles would take in the grief-stricken Captain Benwick…and even the imperious and insensitive Bertrams would give Fanny Price a roof above her head. And the letters people sent—long, regular missives designed to keep people as close to one’s heart and thoughts as possible…” (p.98)

Adeline Lewis, who, as a newlywed, loses her husband at the end of WWII, and experiences yet another loss less than a year later, is in profound pain. In this passage she is haunted by her spouse’s last moments:

She pictured him in his bomber plane, the gauges rattling before him…and the intensity and the detachment that he would have brought to this one terrifying moment. He would have given his all, even though the effort didn’t matter—you were just a speck on someone else’s gauge, a tightrope walk across an abyss, an entire human life balanced on the point of a needle.

Now she was on the point of the needle too…if she kept this up and fell off and into the abyss, she might pull herself out one day—but she also might not.” (p. 101)

As a school teacher in Chawton, Adeline introduces young pupils, including Evie Stone, to a challenging choice of reading materials and class discussions which were more sophisticated than the village authorities liked. The books included Jane Austen novels, as well as writings by Mary Wollstonecraft. Evie dropped out of school at fourteen to supplement her family’s income as a house maid in Chawton House. There she encountered the richness of the Knight family library—over 2,000 volumes, many of them original editions. Sleeping only 4 hours a night, the young girl catalogues every book in the collection after work hours. We Austen fans know that a house maid’s daily duties are grueling, even with the kindest mistress. At this point I suspended disbelief and the fairy tale quality that I mentioned in the second paragraph of this review kicked in. Jenner’s writing style is so lovely that I kept going, for Evie’s trajectory, which is fun to follow, is important in moving the plot forward.

As with many reviewers, I won’t give the rest of the plot away. Jenner adopts Austen’s use of free indirect discourse (FID), which allows us to get in the minds of the narrator and characters. This technique is not as easy as it seems, but as a new author she switches between characters and narrators seamlessly and superbly IMHO.

The group’s discussions and thoughts about Austen’s novels are among the most rewarding passages in the book and provide the details that Austen fans crave. Take this exchange between Adam, the farmer, and Adeline, sitting in her window seat surrounded by books, the top cover of which is Persuasion:

“A hard book, that,” he comments. Adeline asks if he likes Jane Austen and he nods yes.

“…which of the books is your favourite?”

He looked down at his lap and gave her a small, self-conscious smile. “All of them. But Elizabeth Bennet is my favourite character.”

“Oh, me, too. There’s no one like her in all of literature. Dr. Gray goes on and on about his Emma, but I’ll take Lizzie over Emma any day.” (p. 103)

At that moment Adam realizes that Adeline views Austen’s characters as real people, as he does, and discovers that someone else in the village feels the same way about the novels as he.

Each of Jenner’s characters are bonded through their love of Austen, and they talk about the books frequently, which is a joy. Jenner also provides clues and hints about which of her characters resemble those in Austen’s books. It’s a fun game, one that evokes the many hints and mysteries buried within Emma.

To Listen or to Read?

Image of Richard Armitage, narrator of the audio book, with the book cover of The Jane Austen Society in the background.When I agreed to review this novel, I received a traditional book and an audio book. I “read” both and had thoughts about each of the treatments. Who can argue with listening to Richard Armitrage reading a story set in early 20th century England? Not I. Think of me as a fan struck by his rich baritone voice, which can be transformed to that of a 16-year-old girl. Richard’s pacing in reading the book is effortless, clear, and easy to follow. He acts the voices of the characters so that we know exactly who’s talking at any time:

Adam Berwith, the farmer with an overbearing mama, who mourns the loss of his father and brothers in the war and who finds solace in reading Austen’s novels; Mimi Harrison, the almost-washed up Hollywood actress who loves Austen’s novels and has funds to burn; Dr. Gray, grieving for his long dead wife and yearning for a woman who doesn’t give him the time of day; Adeline, who struggles to pull herself out of a deep depression; Evie, the young energetic maid; Francis Knight, alone, forlorn, and rejected by her father; and Andrew Forrester, the solicitor who must keep a terrible secret from Miss Knight. These characters are skillfully acted by Mr. Armitrage, who does not disappoint. His brogue as Yardley Sinclair, the auctioneer, is lovely to hear, and I wish Sinclair had a larger role to play in the novel.

The one exception is Jack Leonard, a Hollywood producer and Miss Harrison’s one-dimensional fiancé. Jenner gave him none of the shades and nuances of her other characters. This becomes most obvious when even a talented voice actor can do little but bark out Leonard’s lines. Leonard comes across like an unfeeling thug, which makes this reader wonder what anyone as nice and beautiful as Mimi (Marianne) ever saw in him.

I listened to the book on long walks or car rides; sunning on the deck; washing the dishes or dusting. The convenience of audio books is undeniable, but not when a stray train of thought takes you away from listening closely. It is easy to lose your attention, and if you are interrupted the medium makes it hard for you to toggle back and forth to find the precise spot you lost. In addition, one can’t speed up or slow down an audio book without affecting the sound quality. One bonus of this audio book is an interview of the author at the end of the story, which adds more information about Ms. Jenner to the short biography that sits at the bottom of this post.

Traditional print books—*sigh.* New books crackle, old books emit a delicious library “musk” smell. Print books can be held and fondled, with each page lovingly turned. They are read at leisure or skimmed and skipped quickly to find information. They can be earmarked; they provide space for margin notes. Words and phrases can be underlined (which for years I considered heresy, until I learned that marginalia is a time-honored tradition).

I cherish my books and treat them like beloved possessions. My biggest concern is that they hog space. In my former house, I could devote several rooms to book cases that contained over 4,000 volumes collected since college, but when I downsized, this luxury disappeared. Choosing which books to keep broke my heart, but I managed to save around 600 (and add 100 more since.)

Read or listened to, Natalie Jenner’s debut novel provides a relaxing, fun read. I give it four out of five tea cups.

The Contest: which is your preference?

Please feel free to comment on your preference: Audio or Traditional? The contest will be open until midnight June 30th EST U.S. For the first time, I am giving away an audio book, which I hope traditionalists won’t mind.

Image of Natalie JennerAbout Natalie Jenner:

Natalie Jenner is the international bestselling author of THE JANE AUSTEN SOCIETY, a fictional telling of the start of the society in the 1940s in the village of Chawton, where Austen lived. Born in England and raised in Canada, Natalie recently founded the independent bookstore Archetype Books in Oakville, Ontario, where she lives with her family and two rescue dogs. THE JANE AUSTEN SOCIETY is her first published novel and is available now from St. Martin’s Press in North America and Orion Books in the UK/Commonwealth, with translation rights sold in Portugal, France, Romania, Italy, Brazil, Greece, Czechoslovakia, Croatia, South Korea and Serbia.

About the book:

Purchase The Jane Austen Society at this link to Amazon.

Hardcover: 320 pages

Publisher: St. Martin’s Press (May 26, 2020)

Language: English

ISBN-10: 1250248736

ISBN-13: 978-1250248732

Other reviews:

See the blog tour on the side bar

Rachel Dodge, Jane Austen’s World: An interview with the author, Natalie Jenner

Deborah Barnum, Jane Austen in Vermont: A list of ten reasons to read the novel

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