We were so pleased to be asked to participate in the blog tour for Natalie Jenner’s debut novel, The Jane Austen Society. We were intrigued by the story description back when the book was first announced and have been excited to read it ever since. We were even more excited to be offered the opportunity to review the audiobook, read by Richard Armitage. We love audiobooks and have listened to several read by Mr. Armitage in the past, and they were all wonderful performances, which made the offer difficult to turn down. However, we weren’t sure if we would be able to participate at first, as we have been working extremely long days at le travail de jour during the current Interesting Times (safely home at AustenBlog HQ, thankfully, and we fully recognize our privilege). We usually listen to audiobooks during our daily train commute, which of course is not happening right now, so we weren’t sure if we would have the time; but then realized we could listen to the audiobook on our daily ten turns
in the shrubbery around the parking lot, and signed on. We have broken the review into two parts: the story itself, and the audiobook performance.
The premise of the novel, as we said, intrigued us: a story about the formation of the Jane Austen Society around the purchase of Chawton Cottage as a museum dedicated to Jane Austen’s life and work. We didn’t pay a lot of attention to the pre-publication information, and were surprised when we began to listen to the audiobook and realized the story was entirely made up. We thought it would be about the actual founders of the Society, but this story is entirely made up, with completely fictional characters and situations. We hasten to add, that’s not a bad thing at all, but just wanted to point it out in case someone else, like the Editrix, was expecting a lightly fictionalized version of the real story.
The story opens in 1932 as a local farmer and a young American woman meet outside St. Nicholas Church in Chawton village. Anyone who has been there will recognize the scene, and see it in their mind’s eye. The young lady, a Jane Austen fan, is looking for things in the village related to Austen. The young man, who knows that Austen lived there and has encountered previous tourists in search of her, but hasn’t read any of her books, directs the young woman to the final resting places of Jane’s mother and sister in the church graveyard. She convinces him to read Jane Austen’s novels. Adam Berwick, the farmer, likes to read, and even received a scholarship to college, but was unable to go after his two older brothers were killed in the first World War, and then his father died of the Spanish flu, and he had to work on the family farm. The farm was lost, and he now works as a laborer on the Chawton estate.
Fast forward to 1943, and we meet several of the people living in Chawton village, in particular the widowed village doctor; a young schoolteacher, about to be married; and one of the teacher’s best students, whose father was severely injured in an accident and will be forced to abandon her formal studies and go into service at the Chawton Great House. All of them love Jane Austen.
Adam has read all of Austen’s novels, several times, re-reading them each winter, and has come to love them as well. He also likes to go to the cinema, and recognized the Hollywood star of many of those movies, Mimi Harrison, as the young woman who loved Jane Austen whom he had encountered by St. Nicholas so many years before. Mimi, who is approaching the “danger years” of an actress who will be by no means old, but too old to get plum film roles, returns to Chawton. Her Hollywood producer fiancé, who is very much an Austen character in the attractive, manipulative vein of Henry Crawford, wants to buy Chawton Cottage for her as a wedding present. She brings a friend into the group, a man who loves Jane Austen and works for Sotheby’s; he has his eye on the contents of Chawton House, knowing the precious objects the house contains would be popular among acquisitive and rich Austen aficionados. The last direct descendant of Edward Austen Knight, Miss Frances Knight, lives a quiet, lonely life at Chawton House, tending her elderly father and her own regrets on a diminishing income.
The Austenian group of characters–several people in a country village–are gathered, and their lives intertwine as they experience life, its joy and its heartbreak, past and present. They come together over Jane Austen, and form a society for the purpose of raising funds to purchase Chawton Cottage, much as the real founding group did. However, like Jane Austen herself, Natalie Jenner throws a few wrenches into the works, and the nascent Society must contend with some unexpected twists to their story. There are some echoes of Austen’s novels, particularly Persuasion and Emma, but they are very light (and acknowledged by these knowledgeable Austen readers).
In an interview at the end of the audiobook, the author talks about her main theme for the novel, which is how people read Austen to recover from grief and trauma. There is certainly much of both in the story, along with loneliness and regrets over past choices. Each of the characters finds a bit of themselves in Austen’s work, and always finds comfort there. We dare say that’s something with which most of our Gentle Readers can identify, especially in these Interesting Times. And despite all the pain and trauma, there are happy endings all around.
The novel is gorgeously written, without the sometimes annoying twee-ness that this sort of story can acquire. The human heart and soul are laid bare in some of their worst moments: sudden death, astounding grief, heartbreak, assault, crushing disappointment; and in some of their best: great accomplishment, small but important victories, and finding love when one thought it was gone from one’s life forever. And always, there is Jane Austen, guiding, comforting, teaching, and making us laugh. She just may show us the way, if we let her.
As previously mentioned, we have listened to several audiobooks read by Richard Armitage, and always enjoyed his performances. And it is truly a performance: each character has their own voice, with changes in pitch and accent for man and woman, higher class and lower, British and American and Scottish. This is not a well-known actor phoning it in. This is an actor at the top of his game performing a wonderful story, just for us. Whispering it into our ear, er, earbuds, if you will. What a privilege, and what an entertainment!
And from a purely shallow, selfish, personal perspective, it is always intensely delightful to hear a public figure you have long admired talking about Jane Austen’s books, those books we’ve long loved and the stories we know so well. Of course the characters discuss Austen’s work and make jokes that are funny to other Janeites as we all do, so the reader of the book does so as well. Imagine, if you will, the Editrix walking along giggling like mad as she listens, because that is what happened.
Our daily quarantine walk, while it is a good habit that we are glad to have formed while staying so much at home, is about as exciting as one imagines; probably not much unlike Mr. Woodhouse’s three turns in the shrubbery. It consists of continuous laps around the driveway through the parking lot at AustenBlog HQ, which forms a large loop of about a quarter mile. The weather has just recently turned truly springlike, so those laps were often taken in cold and wet and wind. Listening to this audiobook was absorbing and distracted us from yet another asphalt hill to climb. In these Interesting Times, such an enjoyable amusement is a consummation devoutly to be wished, and we were very glad for it. Thank you to both Natalie Jenner and Richard Armitage for this entertainment.
An Epilogue of Sorts
Dorothy* has made off with our brand-new Bluetooth earbuds in the manner of Henry Tilney absconding to the Hermitage-walk with his sister Eleanor’s copy of The Mysteries of Udolpho, and has been locked in her room, only emerging occasionally to brew a pot of tea, so we suppose she is enjoying herself. But does this mean she has hacked into our phone, one wonders? Ah, the perils of sharing wifi.
*For those new to AustenBlog, Dorothy is the Editrix’s dogsbody and housekeeper at the fabulous high-tech AustenBlog HQ (we borrowed her from Mr. Tilney’s faux-Gothic story). She is sort of a cross between Jeeves and Preserved Killick (unfortunately much more of the latter than the former), but as long as she continues making excellent tea we will keep her around. Regular readers know she maintains a small altar in her garret dedicated to Richard Armitage with candles burning constantly, despite our complaints about fire safety and offer to purchase those cute little flickering battery-powered things. She says it’s just not the same.