Natalie Jenner’s ‘The Jane Austen Society’ Is the Ideal Quarantine Novel

jane-austen-societyThis review appears on paperbackparis.com:

 

In the midst of trying times, readers often return to their favorite books for comfort. The current pandemic has prevailed upon many to revisit Jane Austen‘s six great novels, which are widely considered some of the greatest books ever written. But why? Her stories depict the lives of landed gentry in provincial areas of England during the Regency period where the primary objective of young women is to make advantageous marriages. For some people—like a few characters in Natalie Jenner’s debut novel, The Jane Austen Society—it’s easy to dismiss these novels as simple “romances.” But once readers enter Austen’s world, it’s impossible to see her work as anything less than genius.

In The Jane Austen Society, Jenner brings us to Chawton—a village in Hampshire where Austen spent her final years and completed her last three novels. Her brother, Edward Austen Knight, inherited Chawton House, and Jane, her sister Cassandra, and her mother, lived in the estate’s steward’s cottage during those years. Jenner’s novel begins just before the start of World War II but follows most of its characters as they navigate the final stretch of the war and its immediate aftermath. Dr. Benjamin Gray, the town doctor; Adeline Lewis Grover, a former schoolteacher; Adam Berwick, farmer; Frances Knight, last direct descendant of the Knight family; Evie Stone, scullery maid; Andrew Forrester, solicitor; Mimi Harrison; film star; and Yardley Sinclair, Sotheby’s appraiser comprise the eponymous society–a motley group of Austen fans determined to preserve the legacy of their favorite author.

As the society bands together, utilizing each member’s skills and resources to reach the ultimate goal of acquiring the Chawton estate steward’s cottage for use as a museum, the power of Austen’s work as a source of comfort and insight into interpersonal relationships allows the members to address their trauma. Through their discussions of Austen’s characters and plot lines, the society’s members learn about themselves, creating the means to continue living in earnest after years of grief. They recognize the author’s clear-eyed vision of life and society as something essential to the village—something that needs to be preserved before it is lost to time and/or callous business dealings.

While the multiple perspectives Jenner’s debut leaves the narrative unbalanced in parts, she imbues her novel with all the warmth and provincial charm of Austen’s stories, providing another refuge for those readers who have read and re-read those six novels during our current state of affairs. Unlike other spin-offs or alternative narratives of Austen’s stories, The Jane Austen Society hinges upon a close reading of the original novels with Jenner threading her story with all the reasons why Austen’s work is timeless and an eternal beacon during times of duress.

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