Saturday, June 13, 2020

Book Review: The Jane Austen Society by Natalie Jenner

Just after the Second World War, in the small English village of Chawton, an unusual but like-minded group of people band together to attempt something remarkable.

One hundred and fifty years ago, Chawton was the final home of Jane Austen, one of England's finest novelists. Now it's home to a few distant relatives and their diminishing estate. With the last bit of Austen's legacy threatened, a group of disparate individuals come together to preserve both Jane Austen's home and her legacy. These people—a laborer, a young widow, the local doctor, and a movie star, among others—could not be more different and yet they are united in their love for the works and words of Austen. As each of them endures their own quiet struggle with loss and trauma, some from the recent war, others from more distant tragedies, they rally together to create the Jane Austen Society.

For many Jane Austen fans, travelling to England and visiting her home in Chawton is a dream and a privilege if they are able to do so. In this house where she lived for the last eight years of her life, she wrote novels that have become beloved around the world. It is currently the location of the Jane Austen Museum, frequented by tens of thousands of visitors every year. However, in 1947 this was not yet the case. The home was put up for sale. It would not be unreasonable to assume a different possibility: to imagine the deed of ownership transferring to an individual or corporation which held no love or concern for Austen or her legacy. If fate had taken a different turn, the Chawton house could instead be condominiums or a golf course in the present day. One shudders at the proposition.

In The Jane Austen Society by Natalie Jenner, this debut author poses that very possibility. In a fictionalized imagining of the 20th century history of the Village of Chawton, she presents a colorful cast of characters at the center of village life, spanning the years of 1932 to 1947. Dr. Benjamin Gray is the town physician, caring for the residents’ medical needs as he mourns the loss of his wife Jennie and battles his inner demons. Frances Knight, a somewhat forlorn soul, is a descendant of Edward Austen Knight, the brother of Jane who was adopted into the Knight family in about 1783. Adam Berwick is a member of a multi-generational farming family, a self-taught reader and a sweet soul at heart. Adeline Lewis, also living in the area for many years, was a former school teacher, a widow, also was mourning the loss of her child. Andrew Forrester is the family solicitor (lawyer) for the Knight family, primarily for Frances’ elderly, ailing patriarchal father. Assisting in the Knight home is Evie Stone, young house girl and former student of Adeline’s. Mimi Harrison is an American Hollywood starlet, a Janeite in her mid-30’s for most of the story, beginning to feel the pull of age on her career. Her love interest is Jack Leonard, shrewd businessman and aspiring Hollywood producer. Yardley Sinclair is assistant director of estate sales for Sotheby’s, is also a lover of Austen and a man who appreciates the importance of Austen artifacts.

Amongst these and other characters emerges a story that is compelling, page-turning and heartfelt. As mentioned, a number of the players are forlorn and/or dealing with their own types of heartbreak. The Jane Austen Society is not a somber piece by any means, but I was struck at Jenner’s ability to enunciate some of the feelings that come into play when one is struggling with depression, disappointment and/or loss. I don’t know what pains our author has been through, although she alluded to some type of experience in her concluding acknowledgments, but her inner knowledge of emotional turmoil was very touching, without casting the story into a gloomy state.

Of course Jane Austen is frequently mentioned throughout the narrative. One not need be familiar with her work to enjoy the story, but it does make understanding certain aspects of dialogue easier. As such, I primarily recommend this those who have at least a cursory knowledge of the plots and characters of her major works, Pride and Prejudice and Emma in particular. Even if your exposure is just cinematic productions of these stories, that will do just fine. A superficial understanding will still enhance your enjoyment, as the references to Jane and her novels pop up frequently throughout The Jane Austen Society.

As is the case with Miss Austen’s tales, this one has multiple story lines, with several of them being romantic. I loved how Natalie Jenner brought her characters together, but I also enjoyed the tension she employed throughout the chapters. Even if some expected pairings occurred, she was still able to make their journeys interesting, and she kept me guessing. The choices made in the amount of romantic content were appreciated as well. Everything is really quite sweet and PG-rated, if not G-rated.  For my conservative readers, I will say that there is a gay relationship that develops within two members of the group, but it is not in the forefront and there are very, very minimal details.

Due to the somewhat large number of players in this story, I found that having a “cast” from modern movies and television helped me remember each individual. For Mimi Harrison, if the story had been filmed in the 1940’s, I would certainly have cast Vivien Leigh (with an American accent), but my mind ended up defaulting to Megan Fox as the gorgeous and successful Hollywood actress. For her caddish beaux I imagined Leonardo DiCaprio. The Sotheby’s representative with whom they often worked was Rupert Everett in my mind, albeit younger than he is today. Frances Knight would be played by Claudie Blakley, also known as Charlotte Lucas in the 2005 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, although she is now old enough to play the forty-something Frances. English actor Hugh Dancy would play the earnest solicitor Andrew, and James Corden (a few years older than he is now) would play Adam the farmer. Sophie McShera of Downton Abbey would play Evie Stone, with Sophie at age sixteen. Laurence Fox of Sanditon would take on the role of a distant Knight relative I have not mentioned yet, but who makes a few brief but important appearances. Emily Blunt of Mary Poppins Returns would be our schoolteacher Adeline, and Richard Armitage would embody the role of Dr. Benjamin Gray.

In addition to enjoying Natalie Jenner’s novel very much, I also loved the audio book performance of The Jane Austen Society by the aforementioned Richard Armitage. His English voice was a perfect choice for this title, and he did well handling so many characters, many of whom I have not mentioned here. As he has a very deep tone, sometimes his vocalizations made it a bit tricky to accept the females’ dialogue, but in general it went very well. Listening to him as I washed dishes or folded laundry was a lovely pastime. Click HERE to listen to an excerpt of that presentation.

The purpose of the Jane Austen Society in the novel is “the preservation, promotion and study of the life and works of Miss Jane Austen.” This included the effort to acquire Miss Austen’s home in Chawton to use as a museum. The journey that this group of Janeites take in their quest to make this happen is intriguing, entertaining and earnest. I am so grateful that the house in Chawton is indeed a museum in the present day. As a matter of fact, just yesterday I was alerted to the fact that Chawton House is in danger as a museum. Due to COVID-19 restrictions, the museum’s tourism income, which provides most of its funds, has virtually disappeared. They are in danger of closing, as they are unable to have visitors. The very items mentioned in The Jane Austen Society, such as Jane’s jewelry and priceless first editions of books could be lost as they might have to be dispersed in liquidation. After reading Jenner’s novel, the thought of this treasure of a site being lost was heartbreaking. I immediately went to their donations page and sent in a contribution.  Not only do I highly recommend The Jane Austen Society to you, but I also encourage you to support the very thing that is heralded in Natalie Jenner’s book: the preservation, promotion and study of the life and works of Miss Jane Austen.

About the Author

Natalie Jenner is the debut 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 wrote or revised her major works. Born in England and raised in Canada, Natalie graduated from the University of Toronto with degrees in English Literature and Law and has worked for decades in the legal industry. She recently founded the independent bookstore Archetype Books in Oakville, Ontario, where she lives with her family and two rescue dogs.

The Jane Austen Society Blog Tour

Join the virtual online book tour of THE JANE AUSTEN SOCIETY, Natalie Jenner’s highly acclaimed debut novel May 25 through June 30, 2020. Seventy-five popular blogs and websites specializing in historical fiction, historical romance, women’s fiction, and Austenesque fiction will feature interviews and reviews of this post-WWII novel set in Chawton, England.


May 25           Jane Austen's World
May 25           Austenprose—A Jane Austen Blog
May 26           Frolic Media
May 26           A Bookish Affair
May 26           Courtney Reads Romance
May 26           Margie's Must Reads
May 26           The Reading Frenzy
May 27           Book Confessions of an Ex-Ballerina
May 27           Gwendalyn's Books
May 27           Romantically Inclined Reviews
May 28           Getting Your Read On
May 28           Living Read Girl
May 28           The Lit Bitch
May 29           History Lizzie
May 29           Silver Petticoat Reviews
May 30           Cup of Tea with that Book, Please
May 30           Historical Fiction Reader
May 31           Jane Austen in Vermont
June 01          From Pemberley to Milton
June 01          My Jane Austen Book Club
June 01          AustenBlog
June 02          Lu's Reviews
June 02          The Green Mockingbird
June 03          The Interests of a Jane Austen Girl
June 03          Relz Reviews
June 03          Impressions in Ink
June 04          The Caffeinated Bibliophile
June 04          Life of Literature
June 04          Laura's Reviews
June 05          Reading Ladies Book Club
June 05          Bookish Rantings
June 06          From the TBR Pile
June 07          Rachel Dodge
June 07          An Historian About Town
June 08          Bringing up Books
June 08          Austenesque Reviews
June 09          Captivated Reading
June 09          Savvy Verse and Witt
June 10          Lady with a Quill
June 10          Drunk Austen
June 11          Book Girl of Mur-y-Castell
June 11          Inkwell Inspirations
June 12          Nurse Bookie
June 12          A Bookish Way of Life
June 13          Calico Critic
June 14          Jane Austen's World
June 15          Stuck in a Book
June 15          Storybook Reviews
June 15          Confessions of a Book Addict
June 16          Literary Quicksand
June 16          Becky on Books
June 17          The Reading Frenzy
June 17          Anita Loves Books
June 18          Chicks, Rogues, & Scandals
June 18          The Write Review
June 19          Diary of Eccentric
June 20          Cracking the Cover
June 21          Short Books & Scribes
June 22          Reading the Past
June 22          Babblings of a Bookworm
June 23          My Vices and Weaknesses
June 23          The Book Diva Reads
June 24          Books, Teacups & Reviews
June 24          Wishful Endings
June 25          Robin Loves Reading
June 25          Bookfoolery
June 26          Lit and Life
June 26          Vesper's Place
June 27          Foxes and Fairy Tales
June 28          Probably at the Library
June 28          Scuffed Slippers Wormy Books
June 29          The Anglophile Channel
June 29          So Little Time…
June 30          BookNAround


  1. This sounds like a great story, Laura. I'm looking forward to reading it, but I'm even more excited about hearing Richard Armitage narrate it. How thrilling!

    1. Oh he’s so yummy! I’m impressed they got him as narrator. Very well done. Sample:



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