A must-read for Austen fans and anyone who enjoys character-driven fiction with hope at its heart.
I bought ‘The Jane Austen Society’ by Natalie Jenner on the basis of the title and cover alone. I’m a sucker for Jane Austen and books about Jane Austenish things, both because I love her novels and because I’m fascinated the devotion of Jane Austen’s fans.
I’m glad I didn’t read the publisher’s summary first because it might have put me off and then I’d have missed out on a good read and a new author.
The first part of the publishers summary was encouraging, with some reservations:
‘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.’
It offers a book focused on Jane Austen fans and set in the currently fashionable (by now verging on over-used) historical setting of England in 1945. An ‘unusual but like-minded’ group who ‘band together’ sounded quirky and jolly, which would have been OK but it suggested that 1945 in England was being positioned as a time of renewal and optimism rather than as a time of huge social conflict, widespread deprivation and collective PTSD.
The next sentence was discouraging:
‘One hundred and fifty years ago, Chawton was the final home of Jane Austen, one of England’s finest novelists.’
The book is set in 1945. Austen lived in Chawton from 1809 to 1817. How is that one hundred and fifty years ago? This left me hoping that this was an oversight by the marketing department and that Natalie Jenner had paid more attention.
I’m happy to say that five chapters into ‘The Jane Austen Society’ I could already see that this was not the glib, light and instantly comforting book in period dress that had been marketed to me. It was something much better.
The scope was broad, the pace was measured and the tone was sombre, almost melancholy. Everyone’s story was edged with grief or the threat of grief and the period was not romanticised and the research was meticulous both in terms of the 1945 setting and of Austen’s works.
This is not a book about a set of quirky villagers who band together to do something jolly. They are people marked by war and loss who have Austen as their common thread. Her books are their refuge and her flawed characters, passionate, stubborn, blind to their own needs or the needs of others, are valued companions who are all the more welcome because they are guaranteed a happy ending.
They don’t come together to found the Jane Austen Society until nearly halfway through the book and when they do, it’s not a light-hearted let’s-throw-a-party kind of thing, more a route for some seriously depressed people, who each find solace in Jane Austen, to achieve some sense of agency for themselves through engagement with the real world in a way that honours Austen.
It was a sombre book that felt real to me. Austen’s books and her association with the village in which the main characters live were a source of hope, offering the possibility of community and perhaps happiness.
Many of the challenges facing the people in the Society mirror those of Jane Austen’s characters: we have property being entailed away, spirited women being courted by charismatic but dangerous men, long-held but unspoken passions, shy men with good hearts and vulgar men with money but no manners. The people in the Society aren’t Austen’s characters in modern dress but I had a lot of fun lining up their situations, attributes and relationships with the characters up against the characters in Austen’s novels, in a sort of Fantasy Football way.
Surprisingly, the relationship that had me thinking most about the parallels with Austen’s characters is between two Americans: a successful movie star and leading lady, Mimi Harrison, who has a passion for Jane Austen and a ruthless millionaire turned studio owner, Jack Leonard, who, despite his obsessive pursuit of her, Mimi initially refuses to take to her bed.
I was fascinated to see how Jack, a man with an acute insight into the weaknesses of others but who avoids all introspection, and who is paying attention to Austen as a strategem for getting in Mimi’s head, admires what he sees as Austen’s attraction to bad boys. Jack never reads Austen’s novels. He has a screenwriter write treatments of ‘Sense and Sensibility’ for him and finds himself admiring Willoughby and wondering why Austen gave him such a happy ending. Jack, of course, is a 1940’s version of Austen’s bad boys, but with a twist. He has Wickam’s passions and Darcy’s self-discipline, a frightening combination,
There’s also a scene where the studio head pulls a Harvey Weinstein on Mimi, who fends him off. The contrast between his attempt at rape and Jack Leonard’s patient but relentless hunt for submission turns Jack from bad guy to something more complicated.
This ability to recognise how complex people are is one of the things that attracts the various members of the Society to Austen’s work. In one of the many discussions of Austen between the members of the Society, they speculate on what it must have been like to see people as clearly as Austen does, with their sillinesses and their veniality and small pettinesses all on display, and yet still be able to write about them with compassion and even give them some hope of happiness.
I think that combination of insight and compassion and hope is the defining attribute of this book. ‘The Jane Austen Society’ is a lovely piece of writing about a small group of people and what they know and are able to feel and say about themselves and each other.
Its clean, calm prose lets us see the world through their eyes, amplified by the different things each of them gets from reading Austen and the way they see Austen’s characters.
There’s a lot of grief and pain and awkwardness but there is also a backdrop of quiet hope.
I became completely engaged with these people and found myself hoping for a happy ending for each of them.
I recommend the audiobook version of ‘The Jane Austen Society’. Richard Armitage’s narration is perfectly judged and increased my enjoyment of an already enjoyable book. Click on the SoundCloud link below to hear an excerpt.