Author: Natalie Jenner
Performed by Richard Armitage
Released on Audible: May 2020 and Published by Orion
Category: Historical Fiction, Audiobook Review
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.
A small, diverse group of people, which includes local farmer Adam, Adaline the widowed village teacher, Dr Gray, the village doctor, Frances Knight, who’s father owned the estate, Frances’ solicitor and housemaid, a specialist at Sotheby’s and a movie star from America, come together with the idea of forming a Jane Austen Society.
Initially, the only thing the group really have in common is a love of Jane Austen’s works and a commitment to honour and preserve as much of her legacy as possible. All are struggling with personal issues, ranging from grief, devastation, dreams of what could be, acceptance of what is, disillusionment and a struggling conscience. Jane Austen’s books have proved to be a solace on more than one occasion.
Reading Jane Austen was making him identify with Darcy and the thunderclap power of physical attraction that flies in the face of one’s usual judgement. It was helping him understand how even someone without much means or agency might demand to be treated. How we can act the fool and no one around us will necessarily clue us in.
He would surely never see the American woman again. But maybe reading Jane Austen could help him gain even a small degree of her contented state.
The setting is the Hampshire village of Chawton in the mid 1940s, where Jane Austen lived and worked for the last few years of her life. Frances Knight, a descendant of Jane Austin’s brother, has been under the control of her father all her life, to the exclusion of all else. Now he is on his death bed but still with enough ill will and bitterness towards his daughter to deprive her of everything he hasn’t already. Shy farmer Adam Berwick first became inspired to read Jane Austen through a chance encounter with an American tourist. Adeline Lewis, although at odds with the school board over her teaching methods, is determined to instil in her students a knowledge of Jane Austin. Evie Stone’s education was cut short after her father’s accident and she went to work for Frances Knight but didn’t give up on her reading.
Characters are well devised and realistic, and although well written, on occasion the language and phrasing didn’t ring quite true for the period and the fact it was set in England. I love the premise that an author could bring people together. There are obstacles and dilemmas to surmount, it’s not all plain sailing with some unexpected twists. I enjoyed the insights into the possessions and details of Jane Austen’s life, which showed much research, and also that the author managed to incorporate a few contemporary themes.
The Jane Austin Society is a reimagined story with fictional characters affected by whatever life saw fit to throw at them as well as the emotions and losses you would expect post war. The pace is steady with the first several chapters giving a good insight into the cast of characters, and, needless to say, Richard Armitage’s performance is excellent with voices, both male and female, as well as accents, all spot on. A very enjoyable listen and an impressive debut.
About the Author
Natalie Jenner was born in England and emigrated to Canada as a young child. She obtained her B.A. and her LL.B. from the University of Toronto, where she was the 1990 Gold Medalist in English Literature at St. Michael’s College, and was Called to the Bar of Ontario in 1995. In addition to a brief career as a corporate lawyer, Natalie has worked as a recruiter, career coach, and consultant to leading law firms in Canada for over two decades. Most recently Natalie founded the independent bookstore Archetype Books in Oakville, Ontario, where she lives with her family and two rescue dogs. A lifelong devotee of all things Jane Austen, “The Jane Austen Society” is her first published novel.