"The Jane Austen Society" | Reviewed by Pat Sainz
Updated: Aug 23, 2020
The popularity of Jane Austen and her novels has rarely wavered since her death in 1817. Most of her books have been made into films. Even now, in 2020, a new film based on Austen’s book “Emma” can be viewed on Netflix.
That is why the recently published book, “The Jane Austen Society,” by Natalie Jenner, is sure to attract a wide audience. The setting for the novel is Chawton, the village where Austen spent the last eight years of her life. Jane, her mother, and Jane's sister Cassandra moved to a cottage near Austen’s brother’s English estate, Chawton House, in 1809. The house and the village of Chawton are the locations for much of the novel’s events.
The story is about an unlikely group of people dedicated to preserving Austen’s home, books and artifacts in Chawton. It is just after the war in 1946; the individuals have all been terribly affected in some way by the war. Although the book’s characters are fictional, the story is loosely based on a real group’s efforts to save Chawton house.
The last surviving heir to the Austen legacy lives in Chawton House. Frances Knight, having given up chances of happiness because of her bullying father, sadly accepts the final will her father has left. He gives the entire property and its contents to the last surviving male relative, if any can be found. Frances will be able to live in the adjoining cottage only if the found relative permits it.
Enter the assorted group who try to save the estate. All are infatuated with Austen’s books and her life. They are dedicated to preserving the neglected and mostly forgotten memory of Austen.
Aligned with the preservation project are a famous American actress, a widowed doctor, a young mother who recently lost her young husband in the war and her newborn baby, an attorney who grew up with Frances Knight, a lonely farmer, a Sotheby’s auctioneer and a teen who has the ability to catalog books as though she had been schooled to do so in the British Museum.
Each character finds something in Austen’s books that connect with his or her own circumstances. All find strength in the themes present in Austen’s novels; enduring illness and disappointments with grace, love mistaken for friendship, strength found through relationships serving common purposes.
It isn’t necessary to have read Austen’s books to enjoy “The Jane Austen Society.” The nuances of social situations, the humor, and the drama characteristic of Austen’s books are present in this charming novel.
Today, the Chawton House is preserved as part of an international project to establish a new Centre of the Study of Early Women's Writing. The cottage in which Jane lived is now a museum housing artifacts belonging to Austen. Thankfully, the entire estate avoided becoming a golf course, which was planned for the area before the company faced financial issues.