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

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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.

On “Lincoln in the Bardo” by George Saunders

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George Saunders is highly regarded as a short story writer, gaining recognition and accolades like the O.Henry Award, PEN/Hemingway Award, and the MacArthur Fellowship. When he announced the publication of his first novel, the literary world held its breath in anticipation, wondering what the acclaimed writer would do with his departure from the short story form. What we got—Lincoln in the Bardo—is one of the strangest, funniest, and most heartbreaking novels in recent memory.

The novel, set in 1862, concerns the death of Abraham Lincoln‘s beloved eleven-year-old son, Willie. A few long hours leads to a fever that won’t break. Everyone knows young Willie isn’t doing well, but Abraham and Mary Todd are obligated to hold one of their lavish parties anyway. Throughout the night, both parents check on Willie, but it’s too late.

Guilt plagues Abraham Lincoln and his wife as they lay him to rest in the historic Oak Hill Cemetery in Georgetown, Washington, D.C. If only they had forgone the party that night. If only Lincoln wasn’t—at that moment—responsible for the deaths of thousands of soldiers as the Civil War builds to a frenzy. It takes everything in his power to leave Willie behind and keep moving.

It is only after Willie’s funeral, when everyone has left, that the characters of the Bardo appear. Hans Vollman, Roger Bevins III, and the Reverend Everly Thomas comprise the youngster’s slapdash welcoming crew. In this halfway point between life and death, the people of the cemetery don’t really believe they’re dead; they’re just in their “sick-boxes” waiting to rejoin their loved ones.

As the reader finds out, the people here have refused to let go of the “previous place,” where they can’t quite remember what life was like, but they repeat the stories that leave them longing for what never happened in life. Hans Vollman, for example, married a woman much younger than himself. Rather than force himself on her on their wedding night, he took the time to build a friendship with her, which then blossomed into romantic love.

On the day the couple was to finally consummate their union, he is hit in the head by a beam in his workshop, never knowing the love of his dear wife. It’s only in true Saunders fashion that, in the Bardo, Hans Vollman has a constant, unceasing erection from the failure to satisfy his anticipation. The way he does this is subtle, but when you realize what “member” everyone is talking about, it becomes the funniest thing.

Tragically, Roger Bevins III, slit his wrists in the previous place, but he believes he’s still on his kitchen floor waiting for his family to find him. In life, his “proclivity,” as he calls it, was a love for men. But his lover decides to “live the right way” and ends their relationship leaving him despondent. It is only at the moment when it’s too late that he realizes he wants nothing more than to live. In the Bardo, Bevins has ears and eyes that appear at the slightest sensory input because he’s all too eager to take in everything all at once.

Unfortunately, the Reverend, Vollman, and Bevins know that children cannot stay in the Bardo for long before horrible things start to happen to them. But they cannot convince young Willie to let go.

Saunders’ narrative shifts seamlessly from the surreal to the tragic. Lincoln must grapple the weight of grief, while Willie must come to terms with the fact of his death even though he can’t bear to leave his father behind. The novel’s finest moments show the inner workings of the president’s mind as he weighs the meaning of his sorrow with the overarching theme of death that extends from the Bardo to the battlefields of the war.

What’s incredible about Lincoln in the Bardo is its structure. Many writers have drawn acclaim for their manipulation of conventional form, but Saunders’ work is stunning for the sheer amount of research it must have taken to build the fabric of certain pieces of the narrative. For example, the night of Willie’s death/the Lincoln’s party, Saunders tells the story with excerpts from real primary sources and historical texts along with made up sources and texts. Some of them agree, some do not, but they allow for the reader to see various texts working in concert to form a completely new piece of art.

Even paragraphs in the Bardo scenes are attributed to specific characters, almost as if it were a play. The multiple perspectives from myriad voices are the product of painstaking effort on Saunders’ part.

While it takes a few chapters to get used to Saunders’ style, Lincoln in the Bardo is well worth the effort, and I imagine many people can finish it in one sitting. This compelling story of a father losing his son, fighting with grief and guilt while also shaping the landscape of the United States is unabashedly ambitious and completely unmissable.

On “The Luxe” by Anna Godbersen

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I am so late to the party when it comes to Anna Godbersen‘s The Luxe. Where was it when I was going through severe Gossip Girl withdrawals? All that time when I was pining for more Blair Waldorf/Chuck Bass drama, I could have found even juicier stuff in the world of the Holland sisters, Penelope Hayes, and Henry Schoonmaker. Those nouveau riche have nothing on those old New York families; the prestige of family money cannot be bought. Or so those old New Yorkers would have you think.

While Godbersen’s story is essentially a turn-of-the-century Gossip Girl tale of scandal, betrayal, and the filthy rich, it is also an exploration of that crucial time in history where the poorest of poor could make a fortune for themselves and, in an instant, change the very core of society. Men and women are defecting to the wild west where the skies are as wide as people’s dreams. This drive for a better life in which people do not have to serve the wealthy becomes the silent undercurrent of Godbersen’s book.

But make no mistake, the novel is by and large about how the debutantes and eligible bachelors of New York City’s disgustingly wealthy elite juggle their romantic prospects. Juicy scandals and catty attitudes abound in Godbersen’s depiction of New York in 1899. The world is changing, but a few things remain the same for people in Elizabeth and Diana Holland’s set. Diana, the free spirit, could care less about the severity hidden beneath the glittering wealth of her family and friends. She wants to live an adventurous life like one of her novel’s heroines, but unfortunately, she has a rich person’s understanding of poverty. It’s not exactly the romantic walk in the park she seems to think it is.

Alas, she’s not like her level-headed, practical sister, Elizabeth, who is perfect. She has learned every rule and is always kind. When their mother reveals that the death of their father has left the family in dire straits financially, Elizabeth will undoubtedly do everything to please her mother, including marrying for wealth over love. No one knows, though, that saving her family means ruining her own life. Since she was a child, she’s been in love with the family’s coachman, Will Keller, and he insists that she flee west with him. But a good person like Elizabeth can’t just abandon her family. Little does she know, she has to contend with her maid, and former childhood friend, Lina Broud, who is also deeply in love with Will.

Enter Henry Schoonmaker—the most eligible bachelor and the unapologetic bad boy of elite New York. Women fall all over themselves for him, and he basks in the adoration. That is, until, his permanently angry father decides to run for office and forces Henry to become propose to Elizabeth Holland—society’s darling. He’s forced to end his affair with Penelope Hayes, Elizabeth’s best frenemy, who is dead set on having Henry for herself. Chaos ensues.

To be honest, Elizabeth is the only character I rooted for in this book. You might think, “Of course, she’s the nice girl. That’s boring,” but I legitimately felt bad for her. The situation she’s in is unfathomable. Then again, all the other characters are terrible people, so she doesn’t have a whole lot of competition. Though there are moments where the reader can sympathize with them, one cannot forget their true natures: conniving, self-serving, and, in Penelope’s case, cruel.

Then I thought, that’s exactly what makes them so appealing. Like Gossip Girl, which I hate-watched.

We dislike these characters for their snobbery and their condescension and the overall wastefulness of their lifestyles. But we also love it for those very reasons. Watching the rich flounder and fall from grace is frighteningly satisfying…

But on a less “eat the rich” note, it’s also humanizing. Usually, we see people in positions of extreme privilege and forget that they are often forced to live a certain way, trading happiness for a life of comfort. Maybe not so much anymore, but definitely so at the turn of the century.

Godbersen ultimately does a fantastic job of developing the ambiance of late 1800’s New York. She integrates lush historical details seamlessly into the landscape of her characters’ lives, and it was nearly impossible not to imagine it becoming a film or television show similar to the 2012 Great Gatsby remake where everything on set is larger than life and constantly moving. Someone pass the message along.

All that being said, it’s a great poolside read for the upcoming summer months. You could finish it in one sitting if you’re ambitious enough, but the chapters really fly by.

Rest assured, I will continue to hate-read the rest of this series.

On “The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir” by Jennifer Ryan

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So many words come to mind when I think of Jennifer Ryan‘s debut novel, The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir: cozy, delightful, warm, heartbreaking, empowering—a refreshing addition to the canon of World War II literature. Those destructive years are parsed out in countless novels, biographies, memoirs, and non-fiction accounts of the war, but very rarely does a book approach it quite the way Ryan’s novel does.

Through journal entries and letters from nearly a dozen residents of Chilbury, Ryan pieces together a beautiful mosaic of a small, English village coping with the start of a war they do not yet know the scope of. Each perspective gives a glimpse of the town’s changing culture as most of the men are called to combat and the entitlement of the area’s landed gentry becomes less and less powerful in the wake of the war’s increasing carnage.

The novel’s major players include Mrs. Tilling, a middle-aged nurse whose son has just been sent to the front, Venetia Winthrop, a coquettish eighteen-year-old intent on wooing a handsome artist, Kitty Winthrop, Venetia’s thirteen-year-old sister who aspires to become a famous singer, and Edwina Paltry, a midwife of dubious moral character. Their stories weave together to build the fabric of a story that encapsulates the rapidly changing landscape of rural England.

In the novel’s beginning, no one believed the war is going to last more than a few months–no one believes this war will reach the hellish proportions of the “Great War” just a couple decades earlier. They soon see, however, that the Germans are determined to swallow up as much of Europe as they can, and the coast near Chilbury becomes a particularly dangerous area, susceptible to an air raid at any moment.

Ryan chooses to keep The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir on the lighter side of World War II fiction. Chilbury’s women must take over the jobs and tasks that the men in their town have left behind, but their parish vicar still wants to bring an end to the church choir, believing that it couldn’t possibly go on without male vocalists. But a newcomer by the name of Prim–a professor of music at Litchfield University–won’t have any of it. She rallies the town’s women together, and they form The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir.

As the choir grows in confidence, so do each of its performers, especially Mrs. Tilling, who, up until then, has been trapped by her own fear and the need to help others more than herself. Though her caring nature continues to grow throughout the novel, she also becomes assertive; she refuses to let people take advantage of her and does what she can to protect the innocent people around her who are trapped by the whims of men who hate women.

Ultimately, that is Ryan’s overarching theme–the strength of women in the face of certain destruction. She weaves issues of class, wealth, reproductive rights, and homosexuality into the fabric of this theme, but it is first and foremost a novel meant to celebrate the contributions of women who do everything they can to help the people around them during times of great crisis.

I highly recommend that anyone interested in the early years of the war read this book because it has the advantage of bringing together some of the time period’s most compelling developments. It is also hopeful, which cannot be said for many things these days. I was saddened when I finished the book because I wanted badly to hold onto the book’s narrative of personal growth, which is told with a warmth that is hard to create without veering into the maudlin.

The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir is lovely, witty, and moving, but most importantly, it’s absolutely unputdownable.

On “The Fortune Hunter” by Daisy Goodwin

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It’s no secret that I find Daisy Goodwin‘s novels irresistible. Her first book, The American Heiress, perfectly captured the essence of the Victorian era guilty pleasure aesthetic, and I’ve been hooked ever since. Her ability to blend history and fiction is simultaneously delicious and delicate—everything a Victorian romance should be.

Published in 2014, The Fortune Hunter published in 2014, managed to slip past my radar until a few months ago when I was browsing my library’s available e-books. At first, I wasn’t sure how much it would interest me because I knew nothing about the novel’s protagonist, Empress Elisabeth of Austria. Nevertheless, after reading her other novels, I knew I wouldn’t be disappointed.

I did a little research before starting the book, just to get a little background information. The Empress, or “Sisi,” as she was known to her family and friends, was apparently the Princess Diana of the 19th century. Famed for her beauty, the novel consistently references a famous Winterhalter portrait in which the statuesque empress is wearing a luxurious white, glittery gown with her floor length hair done up in intricate plaits, peppered with stars. She’s paranoid about losing her good looks and the public’s scrutiny. It becomes an important detail in the story that she hates to be photographed because she believes it will show her as less than perfect, even though she’s a mere 38.

Goodwin does an excellent job of highlighting the strained relationship Sisi had with her family and the rigid Austrian court. As someone who was raised in a relatively lax environment, marrying into the Austrian royal family at the age of 16 almost guaranteed the Empress would have a difficult time adjusting to her new life; the novel suggests she was never comfortable in it. She gets her kicks by riding out with the hunt and learning circus tricks…and, when the melancholy kicks in, by shooting cocaine? Who would have thought…

Enters Bay Middleton, a cavalry officer, and notorious ladies’ man. He is perhaps best known now as the father of Clementine Hozier, Winston Churchill’s wife when he had an affair with her mother, Lady Blanche Hozier. Goodwin basically begins the novel with the end of their affair, so the reader learns about his habit of falling into the traps set by beautiful, influential women.

Personally, I love the way Goodwin intertwines these little nuggets of history into her stories. While not everything is true to life, it seems as though it all could be.

Of course, he falls into the Empress’s clutches when he is asked to be her pilot during the hunting season, making sure she doesn’t lose her way in the English countryside. As an avid horse rider, he’s happy to find that the Sisi is one of the best horsewomen in Europe, and he’s absolutely enchanted with her. Thus, he’s prey to another woman who will always get what she wants.

This is tricky, though, because Bay has already met and proposed to Charlotte Baird, a young heiress who happens to be an outcast in the society set—a woman who much prefers to spend her time taking photographs than going to balls and meeting an endless stream of suitors looking to get a hold of her money. Unfortunately, it’s never a simple case of boy meets girl, where they live happily ever after. But that is why we love these kinds of stories.

This story did confuse me, however. It seemed to me that this book was much more about Charlotte Baird and her aspirations than it was about Sisi, which is what every synopsis made it out to be. A story about the Empress of Austria. The most compelling parts of the novel, in my opinion, are the conversations between Charlotte and Caspar Hewes. Their relationship delves into all sorts of interesting parallels between America and England, the futility of the monarchy, and the power of a woman to assert her own independence in an era that wouldn’t allow it.

That being said, this was still a delicious morsel of a book, and I recommend it to anyone looking for a great beach read in the middle of winter. It’s a tidy little story with great characters and beautiful scenes in the English countryside and London. What more could you ask for?