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!

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!