In the case of Natalie Jenner's The Jane Austen Society, that hope will be happily fulfilled. This debut novel takes a fictional look into the origins of the group of townsfolk in Chawton,England, who decided to band together and do what they could to honor the memory of their most famous literary resident.
We start with Adam Berwick, a young farmer whose family dealt with terrible losses during WWII, leaving him and his mother to manage what's left of their farm.
Adam always felt out of place, unlike his late father and brothers, and yet was never really interested in Jane Austen or her work. Like most of the folks in town, he tolerates giving out directions to the cottage where Austen lived as well as the Knight family estate nearby to visitors from afar.
One such visitor from America inspired Adam to take up the books for himself ,resulting in his devotion to Austen's books and becoming the first in 1945 to suggest forming a society that would turn the Austen family cottage into a museum. Considered by all to be a quiet sort, much like his favorite Austen hero Mr. Darcy, Adam surprises everyone with his heartfelt commitment to the project at hand:
Despite her success in Hollywood, Mimi is hoping to embrace a more relaxed life in England with plans to star in an adaptation of Sense & Sensibility(even though her favorite book is Emma).
Her film producer beau Jack is eager to indulge Mimi in her Austen love, to the point of buying her some of the jewelry that Jane herself wore in a Sotheby's auction. Once she hears of the society's plans, Mimi is excited to join in and help anyway she can.
Since she hopes to make Chawton her new home, Mimi is anxious to be part of things, particularly with her Hollywood career slowly yet surely coming to an end. Part of that demise is due to the unwanted attentions of a major studio boss, whose power and influence is sadly more prominent than her own:
It is hardly a secret that Dr. Gray has strong feelings for former school teacher Adeline Grove. As a widower, he well understands the pain of her losses, from her husband dying in the war and the miscarriage of her child.
As a way of encouraging her to get back into the world, he asks Adeline to join the society and despite her own misgivings about getting too attached to the good doctor, she is more than up for the challenge.
With the addition of a former student of hers, Evie Stone, a maid in the Knight household who has been writing up a catalogue of all of the books in the vast family library, Adeline finds herself feeling better connected to life. However, both she and Dr. Gray are unsure of their own true feelings about one another. The only thing that he is certain about is the need to protect Adeline from any and all harm ,whether it be physical or emotional:
While she would like to help with the society's goals, the will of her late father takes away any control Frances has over the property in question. Worse, she must give up most of her meager inheritance to the schemes of a potential male heir,however distantly related.
This situation personally affronts Andrew Forrester, the local attorney who does his best to prevent any conflict of interest between the Knight estate that he works for and the Jane Austen Society, of which he is a member. He and Frances once shared a deep passion that lead to disapproval and disappointment for them both:
Jenner may be a new novelist yet her prose is expertly woven, creating a elegantly tantalizing portrait of a small group of people brought together by more than one type of love and friendship.
While the story could be a little bit longer for my taste, it is my only regret and not much of one at that. The characters are incredibly alive on the page, feeling so real that you are almost beside them during one of their meetings or on a walk through Chawton, a town that I was most fortunate enough to visit many years ago, bringing back some lovely memories for me here.
For any and all Jane Austen fans, this book is a must read for the summer and my thanks to Laurel Ann Nattress of Austenprose who invited me to take part in this blog tour(the JAS banner in the upper column of this blog has a link to Natalie Jenner's website, which should lead you to more stops along this bookish online tour).
Also the audio edition is narrated by actor Richard Armitage, best known for the miniseries North and South, which should be an extra bonus for many period drama viewers indeed! However you engage with The Jane Austen Society, this tribute to the legacy of Austen and her readers is a beautiful grace note to life, love and literature: