Review by Lisa Galek
When a teenage Jane Austen becomes gravely ill at boarding school, her sixteen-year-old cousin, Jenny Cooper, wanders out at midnight into the dangerous streets of Southampton in order to send word to the Austen family. There, she meets the handsome Captain Thomas Williams, who offers her his protection and guidance. When the two girls are taken from the school and Jenny goes to stay with the Austens, she believes she will never see Captain Williams again, but when their paths cross at a ball, Jenny worries that the captain has the power both to ruin her reputation and break her heart.
I Was Jane Austen’s Best Friend is told in the form of Jenny’s 1791 diary entries. This is slightly odd at first because Jenny does not write or speak in traditional Regency style. Her entries are formal, but use much more contemporary language (I’m sure this was done to make the story easier for young adult readers). Aside from the beginning and end of the novel, I found most of the entries pretty boring. At times, it was like reading an actual sixteen-year-old’s diary. There’s a lot of information about the Austen family (Jane’s brothers all seem to have a crush on Jenny) and much detailed gushing over balls and gowns, but not a lot actually happens. Aside from the main romance, there are some subplots with Jane’s cousin, Eliza de Feuillide, and her older brother, George, but other than that, there are quite a lot of mundane details.
Though Jane Austen did actually have a cousin named Jane Cooper (renamed Jenny for the novel), the book does take some liberties with the historical record (you can actually read the author’s note on the real history behind the book if you don’t mind some spoilers, though it’s kind of troubling that Jane’s last name is spelled “Austin” in some places on the book’s official site). She did experience a whirlwind romance while staying with the Austens and was married by Cassandra’s husband-to-be, Tom Fowle. But the real Jane Cooper was actually closer in age to Cassandra and would have probably been more of a companion to the older Austen sister. In making Jenny a best friend to Jane, the book really underplays the real-life relationship between the two Austen sisters. We know how exceptionally close they were, though the book portrays the sisters as distant, with Jane generally preferring the company of Jenny.
All in all, the story was okay, but not very engaging. While the author seems to have a lot of good details about Regency life and customs, and the book might be informative for young readers looking to find out some information about Jane Austen’s life and family, it simply didn’t hold my attention throughout. I wasn’t very interested in Jenny, and the scattered nature of the romance (Captain Williams appears in the first few pages, but then doesn’t show up again until around page 200), left a lot of down time. I’d take a good Austen biography over this any day.
Lisa Galek is giving away a copy of this book on her blog. Just leave a comment to enter, and there will be a drawing on November 15.