I’d heard lots of good things about this book and was really interested to read something related to Austen that comes in from a different angle – a fictionalised account of the setting up of a society to preserve her legacy by securing the cottage wI’d heard lots of good things about this book and was really interested to read something related to Austen that comes in from a different angle – a fictionalised account of the setting up of a society to preserve her legacy by securing the cottage where she lived out her final years in Chawton. This cottage is now the Jane Austen House Museum, and it’s bound to be on the visiting wish list of any Janeite. I had planned to visit it this March, but then impending lockdown intervened!
In the 1930s/40s the interest in Austen wasn’t as mainstream and embraced by the places that benefit from her tourism effect as it is now, but some enthusiastic admirers would make the pilgrimage to the places where they could feel closest to the author. The story begins with one such American going to the tiny village of Chawton. She meets a farmer, Adam, and finding out that he has never read Austen, suggests that he gives her books a try.
Adam has had quite a disappointing existence, having lost his brothers in WWI and his father soon after, which led to the loss of his dreams of studying. Adam finds solace in reading Austen, and he is not the only one in the village who finds comfort in her works. Part of the comfort they derived from rereading was the satisfaction of knowing there would be closure – of feeling, each time, an inexplicable anxiety over whether the main characters would find love and happiness, while all the while knowing, on some different parallel interior track, that it was all going to work out in the end.
As the book goes on we meet more of these people; they have all individually had troubles and disappointments in their lives and to varying degrees most of them are existing rather than living. He had been sitting in a window seat, watching everyone else go by, not putting himself out there. And getting nothing in return.
Over time these people start to come together, connected by their love of Austen and the importance of her work to them. As the incumbent owner of the estate is reaching the end of his life and the future of the cottage looks uncertain the idea sparks that they will try to preserve it as a lasting legacy. The society itself sounded like a band of misfits with negligible expertise and no head for business: a country doctor, an old maid, a schoolmarm, a bachelor farmer, a fey auctioneer, a conflict-averse solicitor, a scullery maid and one Hollywood movie star.
I was absolutely swept up by this story, right from the beginning. The author has a real gift for drawing the reader in. When I had to put the book down it took me a little while to come back to reality, which is one of the best things for me about reading a book that you are really immersed in.
I enjoyed the slow build, getting to know each of the members of the Society, and their backstories. A lot of them were connected not only by their love of Austen, but that her stories provided them with comfort from their grief – either at losing people, or losing their futures. There were also some relationship dynamics which mirrored some of those in Austen’s stories which I enjoyed, but felt could have been a little more subtle.
As these people are all big admirers of Austen there is also some discussion of her books between them, and you are privy to some of their thoughts about her characters and storylines. I really liked this aspect as it gives the opportunity for the reader to think about the points raised, which might never have occurred to you before if you haven’t studied or discussed them. You could read this book if you hadn’t read Austen’s works but I think this is an extra benefit for those who are more familiar with them, that you will have your own view on the books being discussed.
As with anything with some basis in reality, I like to be clear whether a story is entirely fictionalised, or whether there is truth, and if so, what is true. There is an author’s note at the end which makes it clear that this is a fictional account and gives a brief rundown on what actually happened.
The only downside this book had for me was some of the language used. There were quite a few phrases and words used that sounded quite American which I felt made the dialogue feel too modern for the period, particularly when being said by older people. There were also instances of things which didn’t seem quite right, such as tea bags being used, which weren’t sold in the UK until the 1950s and a marriage taking place at the suggestion of a vicar without a licence or banns being read which I think would invalidate it. However, I still really enjoyed the story and found myself carried away by it.
In terms of content, there is the odd swear word, and no sex scenes, but there is a brief scene of sexual violence.
One of the things I enjoyed about this book was seeing the relationships between the characters grow. So many of them were quite alone, even if they didn’t initially realise that they were lonely, they needed the connection with other people. There was even a dash of romance, both of the slow burning and the unexpected variety! I found this a heart-warming story. I would recommend it and rate it at 4½ stars.
*I was provided with an e-ARC of The Jane Austen Society for my honest review, courtesy of the US publisher, St Martin's Press. My thanks also go to Laurel Ann Nattress for arranging the blog tour....more