We know that in times trouble, when we’re down, when we just need a friend, we turn to Jane Austen. That feeling is really what Natalie Jenner’s The Jane Austen Society is trying to capture.
The book is a combination of Jane Austen Book Club and The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. The post WWII community in Chawton comes together because of a shared love of Jane Austen and forms a society to help preserve her legacy, all while slowly coming to terms with their pasts and maybe finding love along the way.
Now before I go on, yes, there is a REAL Jane Austen Society in the UK. This is basically fanfiction of the creation of that group, complete with an AGM at the end.
Was there a Knight family still living at Chawton? Yes, and you can find out about the real history of that family (again, this book takes lots of liberties there) and the preservation of Chawton House here.
I wanted to set that up now so you’re aware that some of the major plot points that involve real places, societies and families are fiction. (Though there are nods to real history there, the golf course buyer, for example.)
The Book: (yes, spoilers ahead)
So once you get over the fact that this is fanfiction of real things, the book itself is a standard small-town charmer (mostly taking place in Chawton) with a Jane Austen twist.
Adam Berwick, who is the character we meet first, develops a really sweet affection of Austen’s works after running into an avid fan (who turns out to be Mimi). The book has a little setup starting in 1932 and fast-forwarding a little over a few chapters until we get to 1945, where the events of the story really start.
Adeline and Dr. Gray have lots of unresolved tension. Frances Knight is a hermit heir that finds community in her town, and rekindles an old love. Mimi Harrison is a movie star with a soft spot for Austen and a sleazy Hollywood producer fiancé. Evie Stone is a brilliant young woman who works at the house and slowly documents the whole library (she may be my favorite character here). Yardley Sinclair is an Austen fan working at Sotheby’s, so he has an eye for special items and preserving the author’s legacy through the objects associated with her. There are many other characters, but these are the ones that really stuck out to me.
With all these plotlines running, the through-theme is a love of Jane Austen, and turning to her works in a time of need throughout our lives. Which I liked. I think especially in this moment, that’s a theme I think we could all relate to.
Adam comes up with the idea to do more for Austen’s legacy in the small town, the energy around a society is started and it’s kind of fun to watch the excitement over the contents of the house library and the mysterious letter from Jane that is discovered. Will the new heir to the house sympathize with their mission? Or is there another secret heir out there?
The book ends very neatly (much like an Austen novel) with happy endings swiftly coming together at the end. Most of the couples are homages to (or have moments that call to) Austen’s couples.
I must admit, I wasn’t particular drawn to any of the characters. This story is such a fantasy of “cute and quaint British life” that I felt like I was cringing for most of it. It’s really reminiscent of other book-club focused stories, so maybe that’s why I felt it was wanting character-wise. I think the book works fine if you want an overly-quaint story, but I didn’t feel very attached to the idea of fanfiction about a real society.
I also think I’d love to see more diverse works getting as much press as I saw for this, but that’s for another day.
Who should read this: If you are seeking more Austen-fiction in your life, there are better books out there. If you liked Jane Austen Book Club and The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, this is also a fine option.
What you should drink with this: Tea. Buckingham Palace garden tea, to be exact.
BONUS: If you liked this book, I think you’d love First Impressions by Charlie Lovett.
(This review was originally published 6/13/2020.)
Note: I was provided a review copy for this book in exchange for an honest review. If you would like to submit a book for me to consider for review, please email email@example.com.