I’m back today with a review of The Jane Austen Society by Natalie Jenner. I have been on a bit of a Jane Austen inspired novel kick lately.
I love the idea for this book — a group of people with little in common bond over Jane Austen. And they seek to save her Chawton home and many items related to her. This seemed to become almost secondary to a focus on each character’s personal life. There was so much potential with this book. But it just fell flat for me in several places. I finished it feeling rather disappointed.
According to Goodreads, “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.”
My favorite moments in this book were when the characters discussed Jane Austen and her novels. I loved when characters debated their favorite or least favorite Jane Austen characters — Elizabeth Bennett or Emma Woodhouse? Wentworth or Darcy? Henry Crawford or Wickham? Fanny or Miss Smith? As a big Austen fan myself, I loved these debates and conversations about the books. I loved reading how these people were changed by reading Austen, how they reread her regularly and how they see and look for Austen in their everyday lives. It’s so fun to read! And I loved the chapters about cataloging the Knight library. I love old books and to be able to see some of that first editions and rare editions of Austen’s books would thrill me! I’ve seen her writing desk at the British Library and I am still super nerdy about it. This novel is at it’s best when Austen herself is at its center.
However, I did not find these characters easy to connect with nor did I find their relationships satisfying. The only thing that brings this group together is Austen. And while I believe in the power of books and the unique ways literature can bring us together, I did not connect with these characters very well. They felt too unrealistic for me. Every single member of this society has a big, dramatic issue in their personal lives. While certainly I know that life is hard and people have trials, this seemed to put all those trials into a more dramatic and sometimes ridiculous light. Instead of having Jane Austen and their society help them, they mostly felt fragmented and all dealing poorly with big issues. Then suddenly it’s all resolved which also felt rushed.
There was too many difficult issues for me in this story that were not well developed. These include loss of spouse, loss of child, traumatic birth, addiction, depression, conflict with parents, secrets about parenthood, homosexuality, Hollywood drama and scandal, broken engagements, and more. These are all topics that come with difficult experiences, emotions and interactions. They can create meaningful and intriguing stories. But I think Jenner tried to do too much. Not many of these issues are well developed. They all feel half baked and half explained. Like when we think one of the characters is the new heir to the Knight estate. But then he decides not to do anything about that and it’s never proven or even investigated. Also be aware there are some graphic scenes with a traumatic birth, and I don’t appreciate when sexual orientation is just thrown into a story. The ending fell flat for me too.
Ultimately, I was also bothered by the fact that this book is mostly just fiction. It isn’t based on a real society that sought to save Jane Austen sites in Chawton. That was really disappointing for me. The authors note is in the back and maybe it should have been in the front so I was more prepared. I thought it was more based on reality. Unfortunately, I was disappointed by this novel. I loved the Jane Austen connections and discussions and books. But I didn’t love the plot lines and felt the characters were not well developed overall. A fun idea, but not well executed for me.
What are your favorite Jane Austen inspired novels?