Title: The Jane Austen Society
Author: Natalie Jenner
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
Publication date: May 26, 2020
Length: 320 pages
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
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.
The Jane Austen Society is historical fiction set in post-war England, in the small town of Chawton. The main estate of the village has been in the Knight family for generations, and centuries earlier, became the home of Jane Austen’s brother and Jane herself.
But after World War II, the last remaining members of the Knight family are Frances Knight, a woman in her 40s who never leaves her home, and her ailing, elderly, unpleasant father. With Mr. Knight’s demise looming, the future of the estate is at risk — and if the estate passes out of the family hands, so too will the priceless objects and books that once belonged to Jane Austen.
The characters of the book all seem to have some sort of special connection to Jane Austen, her fiction, and her memory. Through their love of her fiction, the various characters find common ground, and ultimately band together to find a way to save the cottage that was once Jane’s home and to preserve the books that were an important part of her life.
As these people form the Jane Austen Society, we get to know them as individuals as well. There’s the widowed doctor who may be ready for love again, the young war bride who suffers unimaginable loss, the local farmer who never got to pursue his dreams of higher learning, and the teen-aged girl whose passion for Austen leads to some truly amazing discoveries.
And then there’s the outsider, a Hollywood star whose love for Jane Austen and her admiration of the author’s works and life inspire her to imagine a different sort of career and life for herself, other than being a property of the studios who want to make money off of her beauty — but only until she ages out of starlet status.
I enjoyed The Jane Austen Society and its characters, but I can’t say that I felt particularly invested. The story develops slowly, and it was only at around the midpoint that I started to feel any sort of excitement building.
This is a quiet sort of story, and it’s lovely to see how these very different group of people, all suffering and struggling to recover from loss after the war, find new purpose and connection through their love of literature. I really enjoyed all of their conversations about the meaning they find in Austen’s works, which characters they most relate to, and how the characters’ actions help them understand elements of their own life.
I wished for something more, somehow. It’s a sweet book, but just lacked a real oomph as far as I was concerned. I can’t quite put my finger on it. It was a nice read, and I didn’t mind it a bit, but I also couldn’t quite care very strongly about the stakes or how the various personal entanglements would all work out.
The Jane Austen Society is a good choice for fans of historical fiction, and of course, for fans of Jane Austen! And after reading this book, I’m feeling the need to go reread a little Austen myself… maybe Persuasion or Mansfield Park this time around?