Saving Jane: “The Jane Austen Society” by Natalie Jenner

While Jane Austen is now considered to be one of the greats of English literature, her legacy has not always been so secure. We tend to assume that nearly every famous British writer has his or her blue plaque gracing some historic building in the UK. And doesn’t Jane’s image grace the £10 note? But Chawton Cottage in Hampshire, where Austen enjoyed her most creative period, was not dedicated as a museum until after World War II. Before that, it was subdivided into workers’ cottages and bore little resemblance to what it once was. It is during this somewhat precarious period in the cottage’s history that debut author Natalie Jenner sets her charming novel, The Jane Austen Society.

“Three or four families in a country village is the very thing to work upon,” Austen counseled her aspiring-novelist niece: Jenner takes that suggestion to heart in this carefully-crafted book. The cast is small, and we get to know them well. While they may not be family, they are united by their love of Jane. As in Austen’s novels, plot is secondary to conversation and character development. The chief aim of most of the characters (all of the sympathetic ones, at least) is simple–to purchase and restore Chawton Cottage via a charitable trust. But the chief pleasure to be had here springs from observing the complex emotional journeys of an array of unlikely friends: a country doctor, a housemaid, a lawyer, an American screen siren, the last direct descendent of Jane’s brother Edward Austen-Knight, a farmer, a schoolteacher, and a Sotheby’s auctioneer. The lives of all have been marred by tragedies of various sorts–most of which have taken place off-stage, before the story begins (though Jenner renders a young war widow’s miscarriage and a near-rape in somewhat harrowing detail). Physical objects also play key roles, with Austen’s jewelry, her brother’s grand library, and one of her newly-discovered letters driving the action at points. The author’s delicately deft handling of these threads keeps the reader entranced. So does the suggestion that, amid the struggle to save Austen’s home, these lost souls just might save each other.

Jenner’s novel is not exactly fan fiction, as it neither attempts to mimic Austenian style nor resurrect her characters. However, there are references aplenty to Pride and Prejudice, Emma, and Persuasion in particular, and the reader will be sure to spot circumstantial resemblances–a long-regretted broken engagement, for instance–as well as believable twentieth-century permutations of favorite heroes and antiheroes. There is much to praise and very little to fault, and as you turn the last page, you very well might find yourself agreeing with Jane’s observation that “if a book is well-written I always find it too short.”

You can access The Jane Austen Society in both ebook and audiobook format on Overdrive/Libby with your Marblehead library card. If you need a card, get started here!

Love is in the Air in These Rom Coms!

Here are some romantic comedies that read like a box of chocolates…

Contemporary

I Owe You One by Sophie Kinsella

Author of Confessions of a Shopaholic, Sophie Kinsella is the queen of funny and creator of endearing characters. In I Owe You One, meet the loveable Fixie Farr, who runs a housewares store with her family. After rescuing a stranger’s laptop in a coffee shop from a ceiling collapse, the grateful Sebastian gives Fixie an IOU slip with his business card. When Fixie’s old flame, Ryan, returns, she finds she might need to use that IOU after all. 

Accessible on Overdrive/Libby as an ebook and audiobook.

The Worst Best Man by Mia Sosa

Wedding planner Lina Santos was jilted at the altar, and the ex-groom had sent his brother, Max, to deliver the bad news. Years later, Lina finds the job of her dreams, but it will be working alongside Max, the man who had been the messenger of her heartbreak.

Accessible on Overdrive/Libby and hoopla

Wedding Date by Jasmine Guillory

Accessible as an ebook and an audiobook.

Classic

Emma by Jane Austen

Classic, timeless Jane Austen’s fourth published novel is one of her funniest. Emma Woodhouse is an incurable romantic and matchmaker, though happily single herself. As her efforts go awry for her friend Harriet Smith, she suddenly finds herself falling for a long-time friend and neighbor, Mr. Knightley. 

Accessible as an ebook and audiobook

Bridget Jones’s Diary by Helen Fielding

The classic chick lit by brilliant author Helen Fielding has everything, even delightful references to Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Beginning with Bridget’s assiduously writing down her New Year’s resolutions that she notates in her diary, including not having a crush on her boss,  Daniel Cleaver, and finding a nice, steady boyfriend. The year doesn’t set off the way she planned at all, though.

Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan

This is number one in the series. Nick Young and girlfriend, Rachel Chu, travel to Singapore to attend the wedding of Nick’s friend, Colin, and to visit Nick’s home and family. Rachel visits her friend, Peik Lin, and starts to learn just who her boyfriend and his family really are, and she worries she might not fit in. 

Accessible as an ebook and an audiobook.

Sex and the City by Candace Bushnell

Candace Bushnell started writing for The New York Observer in 1993 and created her own column called “Sex and the City” based on her and her friends’ experience living in New York. These columns were published in an anthology in 1997 and went on to become a popular television series. The book follows the escapades of Carrie Bradshaw, a young writer, and her friends and businessman, Mr. Big, who is a love interest, maybe.

Available on hoopla as an ebook and an audiobook.

Check out more great Rom Com books by visiting NoveList with your library card and under “Recommended Reading Lists” clicking on “Romance” and then “Romantic Comedies,” or browse ebooks directly on Overdrive/Libby and ebooks as well as movies on hoopla.

Pride and Prejudice and the Ugly Duckling: The Other Bennet Sister by Janice Hadlow

You’ll have to forgive the Jane Austen/fairytale mash-up here, because it is too apt to ignore. Do you remember Pride and Prejudice’s Mary Bennet? No, not the “light and bright and sparkling” Lizzy, nor the lovely if diffident Jane. Nor the irrepressibly boy-crazy Lydia. Mary: the awkward, ridiculous one with no special beauty, charm, or accomplishments to recommend her. Definitely the ugly duckling of the Bennet household, a figure to be ridiculed and consigned, in the reader’s mind, to future spinsterhood. It is this unpromising middle child that Janice Hadlow lovingly attempts to rehabilitate in the charming tale of hard-won happiness, The Other Bennet Sister.

Much as we all have over the past months, Mary endures a stifling existence almost entirely indoors throughout the first half of the book–whether at home, at balls, or at her various married sisters’ houses. This imprisoning interiority is exacerbated by the reader’s awareness of this “ridiculous” character’s rich, if rather gloomy, inner life. The entirety of Pride and Prejudice is reimagined through the consciousness of this neglected and negligible character; we as readers come to understand the sad underpinnings of Mary’s awkwardness and risible flaws–as well as her painful self-awareness and increasingly desperate efforts to change. Her misery comes to a climax during a disastrous attempt to entertain guests with her music, followed by the public humiliation she suffers at the hands of her ironic father and, most hurtfully, her beloved sister Elizabeth.

The book’s second half witnesses a slow but certain emergence into the sunlight, as Mary escapes the confines of Meryton and discovers the comforts of her sympathetic extended family and the exhilaration of anonymity in London. Here, she finally gets a genuine chance to reinvent herself–to discover her own self-worth and even to make a bid for lasting happiness. The transformation Hadlow effects is both natural and extraordinarily well done; a stately Austenian plot pace is preserved, even to the cadences and structure of the sentences. Readers will feel themselves to be in familiar territory, with one vital difference: Mary struggles to master her destiny and grasp happiness with both hands. She’s baulked by convention and frustrated by the role of her sex, but she perseveres. Does the ugly duckling attain swanhood? You may just have to find out for yourself!

One of the catalysts for Mary’s transformation is a newfound appreciation for Romantic poetry, especially selections from William Wordsworth’s Lyrical Ballads (available on hoopla) such as “Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey” and “Composed Upon Westminster Bridge,” both of which extol the beauties of nature and the importance of a rich emotional life. You might try them for yourself–and if you’d like a companion soundtrack for your reading, have a listen to the album The Music of Jane Austen, a compilation of themes from various film adaptations.

You can find The Other Bennet Sister in both ebook and audiobook format on Overdrive/Libby. Feel free to share your reactions to this tale in the comments below!

Keep the Home Fires Burning: Audio and Video for Lockdown

So, here we are. Still (mostly) at home. Hoping that our domestic self-quarantining will help win the war against our invisible enemy. We might like to imagine ourselves as citizens of a contemporary home front–the ones making it possible for front-liners to do their jobs, chiefly by cheering them on, wearing our masks, and staying out of the way.

Even so, it may all feel somewhat less than heroic. To bolster morale, you might turn to APL’s new hoopla collection of home-themed listens: 2020 APL At Home: Domestic Listens for Lockdown. Here, you’ll find a variety of approaches to the idea of “home”: biographies imagining life as a metaphorical journey from–or return to–home (see Josh Grogan’s The Longest Trip Home and Jane & Me: My Austen Heritage by Caroline Jane Knight), or perhaps a history of early American women’s domestic lives in the newly-released Good Wives: Image and Reality in the Lives of Women in Northern New England. Also set close to our home here in the Northeast is an autobiography of boyhood that documents farm life during the last great world conflict–Home Front: A Memoir from World War II by C. D. Peterson.

You can also explore “home” as a cultural concept in Domesticity, where “Ann Tudor examines the joy and the sorrow, the guilt and the satisfaction of domestic life, all of it related in her usual wry voice.” 

Or, if you’re in a philosophical frame of mind, try New York Times-bestselling author Erica Bauermeister’s House Lessons: Renovating a Life, a collection of biographical essays that “takes listeners on a journey to discover the ways our spaces subliminally affect us.” 

If you’d like to enjoy a bit of Bill Bryson’s brilliant-but-curmudgeonly humor as he ranges through an eccentric history of domestic architecture and culture, have a listen to At Home: A Short History of Private Life on Overdrive or through the Libby app. For this book, Bryson challenged himself to “write a history of the world without leaving home.”

For a spot of escape from your own humdrum domestic sphere, tune in to several of Acorn TV’s documentary offerings showcasing the home life of days gone by–and modern attempts to relive or conserve those realities: 1900 Island, Victorian House of Arts & Crafts, or Keeping the Castle.

And keep those home fires burning!

*Quoted material from authors and/or publishers.

Jane Austen in Quarantine

There’s been a little flurry of Austen-flavored memes lately, like this one: and why not? From a modern perspective, affluent Regency men and women were probably past masters at social distancing and spent a good deal of time indoors (well, at least the women did). The recent, timely release of the latest Emma adaptation has gifted viewers with a bit of gentle escapism wrapped up in confectionary costumes and sparkling dialogue. So, Janeites, unite! Now is the time to brew a cuppa, pull up your chaise longue, and succumb to some therapeutic Austen-mania!

To start with, why not revisit the classic 1990’s adaptation of Emma starring Gwyneth Paltrow and Jeremy Northam? The heroine Jane thought “no one but myself will much like” has enjoyed perennial popularity. And there’s so much comfort to a story in which nothing worse than a few matchmaking mishaps and some snarky words at a picnic mar the sunny landscape.

For a bit of sly genre-bending fun, Northanger Abbey (starring the now-famous Felicity Jones) is just the ticket. Tickle your gothic funny bone and cheer on Catherine as she emerges from her novel-induced paranoia to find true love. Imagine being cooped up in a creepy (well, not so creepy, really) abbey with Henry Tilney. Life could be worse! Another house takes center stage in Mansfield Park, a sprightly adaptation that will make you fall in love with one of Jane’s less popular novels–and possibly with Jonny Lee Miller!

Jane herself was no stranger to domestic seclusion. Lucy Worsley invites us into Jane’s many and varied domiciles in her fascinating study Jane Austen at Home: A Biography. Expertly narrated by Ruth Redman, the book examines Austen’s legacy through the lens of her life indoors, from Steventon to Bath to Chawton. If you fancy a turn around the hedges–or are just feeling a bit claustrophobic–have a look at Austen Country: The Life and Times of Jane Austen and let images of the Hampshire countryside soothe your spirit.

It is a universally acknowledged truth that a stir-crazy Janeite in possession of hoopla access won’t be in want of suitable entertainment!