What to Read in Quarantine? : A Special Post Part 2
Another excellent book you may hopefully be able to obtain from your library's e-book system or favorite bookseller is. . .
The Jane Austen Society by Natalie Jenner--Austenesque/Historical Fiction
Thanks to NetGalley for an e-ARC of this novel. All opinions expressed in my review are my own and not affected by NetGalley's service.
A race against time to save Jane Austen's legacy in Chawton, the Hampshire village where she spent her final days writing and revising her famous novels. It all begins in in June 1932 when a chance meeting between Adam Berwick, a sad farmer mourning his lost family and educational opportunities, and an American tourist inspires Adam to spend his winter reading Jane Austen. He falls in love with Elizabeth Bennet and wonders at how Mr. Darcy can mess up the situation any more. Though no one understands Adam's desire to read and learn, her returns to Jane Austen again and again as winters pass.
In 1943 in the same Hampshire village where Adam learns to love literature again, Dr. Gray ponders the weight of his responsibilities as a country doctor and as a member of the school board of trustees. Miss Adeline Lewis hopes to inspire her students by teaching Jane Austen and other 18th-century women writers in opposition of the school board. Adeline's star pupil, Evie Stone, is forced to leave school at 14 to work but not without a book list provided by her beloved Miss Lewis. Miss Lewis too is about to leave the school before she is fired. She is engaged to her childhood pal Samuel Grover and intends to keep house and wait for his return from war, a return that will never come.
Two years later the war is over and the village of Chawton will never be the same. Adeline is trying to carry on without her husband, killed in action before they were settled into married life. She looks forward to impending motherhood. An American actress and Jane Austen devotee, Mimi Harrison, is eager to obtain Jane Austen's jewelry at auction and thus begins preserving the author's legacy, while her fiance, Jack Leonard, believes making Mimi's Austen dreams come true will allow him to score with the lady, Willoughby style.
Back in Chawton, Frances Knight, last of the Knight family, last of Jane Austen's brother's line, is waiting for her father to die. Waiting to see if he finally acknowledged her years of service to him - years sacrificed, love lost and never regained. Meanwhile, her housemaid Evie plans to help Miss Knight by voraciously scouring the library for any trace of Jane Austen. This odd assortment of people, plus a few others, will form the Jane Austen Society in hopes of creating a museum in the old steward's cottage in Chawton. Their lives intersect in ways none of them can understand just yet but they all share a devotion to one of the greatest writers in the English language.
It's impossible to fully describe this novel and how I feel about it. I loved the concept of the novel, the preservation of a beloved author's legacy in her hometown, the creation of the museum many of us have made our own pilgrimages to and the friendship and romances between the characters. I found the story compelling and kept turning the page to read what would happen next. Mostly I cared about whether the society would be able to save the Knight library and preserve the cottage. It took a really long time to get there and the end was maybe a bit rushed.
What I didn't like is how contrived this story is. Astute Austen readers will pick up on similarities between the characters of this novel, the "real" people of Chawton and the characters in Jane Austen's novels, yet only ONE character in the entire plot figures this out at the end. This story is permeated with the somberness of a generation caught up in two catastrophic world wars and is therefore, more tinged with sadness that I normally prefer. As Jane Austen once said, let other pens dwell on guilt and misery! The relationships between the characters are very predictable for the most part. One storyline surprised me at the end. The one plot that I really really didn't like was the Mimi plot. It reflects real life a little too much with a sexual assault scene and an actress who knowingly falls for a "bad boy" because of sexual attraction. The rest of the characters and plots I enjoyed, particularly Evie's catalog of the Knight library.
The characters in this novel are composites of Austen characters and yet they are also fully flesh and blood, much like Austen's own characters. We feel right along with them and grieve and ache as they do and experience joy and romance. Shy Adam Berwick may be a farmer but he once had dreams of attending University and studying literature. The only male left in his family after the Great War and the Spanish flu, he was forced to give up those dreams and stay with his mother who doesn't understand him. My heart broke for Adam more than any of the other characters. I empathize entirely with the rut he is stuck in and how much that lost dream meant to him. He's just so sad and lonely. I was hard pressed to put my finger on WHICH Austen character he could be but perhaps Captain Benwick?
Mary Anne/Mimi is a bit of an idealistic dreamer yet she enters into a relationship with Jack with eyes wide open. A lifelong lover of Austen, Mimi, like Elizabeth Bennet, has high standards for herself and won't allow herself to be with any man who doesn't respect her. She experiences a #MeToo moment with a 1940s Harvey Weinstein that forces her to rethink her career. At 35, she's old for Hollywood and her time on the big screen may be coming to an end. Intelligent and resourceful, Mimi decides to retire part-time to Hampshire where she can indulge her Austen dreams. I like how she sets out to preserve Jane Austen's legacy from the beginning and how she sparked a rebirth in Adam. I REALLY disliked her relationship with Jack though. She knows he's Henry Crawford and likes that she can ostensibly reform him. I disagree but I know plenty of people on team Crawford. Mimi has some very frank conversations with people she's only just met. Aren't the British supposed to be more reserved than Americans? That was very awkward and unrealistic.
The most beautiful and heart-wrenching plotline is the Dr. Gray/Adeline plot. Austen lovers will figure out which characters they are pretty quickly. Dr. Gray is a tragic figure. He hasn't gotten over the death of his wife, feeling guilty because he couldn't save her. He can't let the past go yet he tries to stay in the present and not think too much about what happened. When tragedy hits Adeline, he worries about her in a very sweet way. She seems him as a bit paternalistic at times though and keeps pushing against him. He truly cares but can't see what's in front of his nose. I like Adeline's spark and her spunk. Like Elizabeth Bennet, her courage rises at every attempt to intimidate her. When the school board said no, she did it anyway. Adeline had a terrible shock and is grieving in an unhealthy way but who can blame her? I experienced all the emotions with these two. Jane Austen brings them together and sparks fly but both are broken and perhaps they can't be made whole again to experience life.
Miss Frances is clearly Anne Elliott with the personality of Fanny Price. She accepts what is and that's that. She never fights back or gets upset at the injustices her terrible father inflicted on her. Old Mr. Knight is a horrid tyrant of the Georgette Heyer type without any humor. For years he has bullied his daughter, ignored her and basically treated her like dirt. He blames her for not marrying and producing an heir. Evie, her housemaid, is devoted to Miss Frances. Evie, a lively girl of 16, would rather spend her nights reading in the library than going out or even sleeping. Evie still has a strong passion for learning and literature. Her plot engaged me the most and I was eager to sit there next to her looking at the books. One day I simply must go to Chawton House Library. Evie's plot hook kept me turning pages late into the night.
Andrew Forrester, a solicitor from Alton and Yardley Sinclair, an auctioneer from London, round out the Jane Austen Society. Andrew is scrupulous about rules and regulations even when it comes to his personal feelings. His feelings are obvious and he directly corresponds to one Austen hero. The situation is basically the same. I found him a bit too black and white and not a character I sympathize with. He needs to do something and take action. Yardley is funny. At first I thought he was just a money hungry businessman but soon his passion for Jane Austen becomes clear. Then the reader knows he has the very best of intentions. Yardley seems to be the only character who isn't broken. He's a little bit of light relief in a heavy story.
Minor characters that populate Chawton and make this English village so charming are Harriet Peckham, Dr. Gray's secretary. I can't stand her. She's a nosy gossip and presumes too much about her employer. His nurse, Liberty, is just as bad and for some reason is rivals with Adeline. Adeline's mother, Mrs. Lewis is sharp tongued and not very pleasant. It's no wonder Adeline can't move on with her battle-axe of a mother staying with her. Mrs. Berwick is nearly as bad but I believe Mrs. Lewis isn't selfish, just protective of her daughter. Mrs. Berwick is selfish and out to protect herself and keeps her son under her thumb. She has a secret that comes out of nowhere and seems rather far-fetched. Colin Knatchbull-Hugessen is a lazy, no-good fool. He's new to Chawton and I don't think he deserves to be there. I'm not a lawyer but I'm pretty sure I would be questioning his arrival in town if I were a certain someone.
I liked the author's writing style, for the most part. A few editorial things bothered me that I hope will be fixed in the final edition. The use of "alright" is my biggest pet peeve. Standard English usage is "all right" - two words. "Alright" one word seems more accepted now but it really doesn't make sense. The other problem I had with this uncorrected edition is the passage of time back and forth within a scene and between characters. I hope the publisher includes some kind of mark to indicate the scene is changing. I enjoyed some of the beautiful phrases and the insights into Jane Austen's novels. I never thought about some of the things discussed and now have more to think about next time I reread.
This book is recommended for true Janeites but probably not to those who only know the movies or GASP don't know Jane at all!
sexual assault - semi-graphic
pre-marital sex - not shown on page but discussed a lot in the inner dialogue
prescription drug abuse