1. Because you might be a mess. I’ll freely admit it. I’m a sad, jittery, absolute mess right now. The world has no compassion on my poor nerves. I cry at the drop of a hat. But take heart! All the characters in author Natalie Jenner’s book, The Jane Austen Society, are messed up, too. It’s not a depressing book by any means, but the characters are each dealing with their own losses, disappointments, heartbreaks and struggles of some kind. There is a famous quote by Josephine Hart about how damaged people are dangerous because they know they can survive.
These characters are all survivors with plenty of heart. The danger lies in letting themselves be vulnerable again. Their tenacity can also gets things done and you cheer for The Jane Austen Society as they do just that. How do messed up people sort themselves out? With the love of their friends, determination…. and lots of Jane Austen!
2. Because the world right now is pretty bleak. You’d think an escape into post-war England is awfully bleak, too, but it is not the same kind of bleak..so it’s okay to visit 1940’s Chawton. They were slowly recovering from the horrors of WWII, but you know it’s going to be alright in the end. There’s comfort in that. Settle in. Have a cup of tea. Don’t worry about germs.
3. Because Jane Austen didn’t write nearly enough to satisfy our hunger for her work. Author Natalie Jenner loves Jane Austen. She puts in references and parallels that we might not even catch on the first read. She also made me want to go back and reread all of Austen, which her characters do shamelessly. We love them for it. We aren’t going to get any new books from Jane Austen, so indulging in a book about characters who are passionate about Austen by an author who adores Austen is like hanging out with a fabulous new book club, which brings me to number …
4. Because book clubs and socializing are not the same on Zoom. At the end of the night you hit “Leave Meeting” and you’re alone with your empty wine glass. This group of Jane Austen aficionados can be revisited again and again. It’s a pleasure to be in the imaginary room listening to them. These characters talk about their favourites and their annoyances. They make discoveries and come to new understandings. The characters literally surround themselves with PILES of books in a decadent book-lovers fantasy come true. They make you want to reread all of Austen plus everything Austen ever read… and then reread The Jane Austen Society.
5. Because you can leave all your knowledge of or lack of familiarity with Chawton history at the door. Don’t worry about cross checking facts and stopping short with those moments of, “But wait a minute…that’s not how it happened”. The Jane Austen Society is a story. It’s pure invention except for some names, objects and places. We all remember what happened with Kelly Clarkson and Jane Austen’s turquoise ring. Let it go. The author tells us in the afterward that it’s a completely fictional story so history nerds like me who run to fact check specifics can just relax, open the book and enjoy the ride. Maybe that disclaimer should come as a forward and not in the afterward, but I’m telling you now so you won’t be googling.
6. Because you had to cancel your trip to the UK this year. Maybe you were just thinking or dreaming about going. Maybe you even had a Jane Austen Festival or Regency ball of some kind on your itinerary. Maybe you just wanted to go SOMEWHERE and now that’s not going to happen. Disappointment seems to be the theme of 2020.
It feels like everything has been canceled. Of course it isn’t like actually traveling to Hampshire but if you’ve already visited or if you’ve only dreamed about going there, it can transport you to a Chawton inhabited by characters who love their village and appreciate their good fortune. Walking up to the big house and going around the back for a cup of tea, the green fields, pathways, the cottage, the kissing gate, the church and the Austen family gravestones..it’s all in there. I could cry. Again.
7. Because you can’t focus to read right now. Too much swirling around in your brain? No worries! Richard Armitage to the rescue! He reads the audio book version of the Jane Austen Society. I would say he comes riding to our rescue on a white steed, but having seen a photo of his in-home recording studio, it would be a white porcelain steed…and now I can’t get that image out of my head. Never mind! He does a lovely job reading the book, differentiating characters ably with different accents and tones. His deep voice is soothing and steady. Another confession. I’ve never been able to get through audio books before, but now being stuck indoors cooking and cleaning like a madwoman, I understand their merit. Having the book read out loud to me during my tasks, and by Richard Armitage, no less, feels like a real indulgence. Who doesn’t need a little of that? Also….
8. Because you might need a little sweetness. The Jane Austen Society is a charming story. Austen herself wrote, “Three or four families in a country village is the very thing to work on” as a subject. Natalie Jenner mixes the classes throughout her story, adds some Hollywood glamour plus London sophistication for delightful additions to the society all bound together by their passion and admiration for Jane Austen. It isn’t cloying. Not everything falls into perfect place. In fact, I yelled at Richard Armitage more than once. I felt ridiculous yelling at a book, so I waited to yell until I was listening to the audio version of the story. Characters don’t heed the warnings. Characters don’t live up to your expectations. Characters don’t follow your best advice. Characters can’t see what is right in front of them on a freaking platter! That’s real life. It’s all mirrored in the story, but it’s told with very little profanity, nothing graphic, and even the most devastating losses are described with delicacy and compassion Who can ask for more than that?
9. Because you want some heroes. You want a few pleasant surprises. These characters have flaws, like any real people would have weaknesses, but that doesn’t stop you from for cheering for them. When a character doesn’t understand Austen, temper your expectations because they will disappoint you in other ways as well. Yet, sometimes someone does the right thing for exactly the right reasons. One of the main reasons is for the love of Jane Austen. Sign me up for any sequels following the further adventures of Evie Stone…and the t-shirt.
10.Because you’re sick of watching tv. How much can a person binge? Don’t answer. I know. As opposed to many comfort foods, a comfort read is pretty healthy. It felt wonderful to have my steaming cup of tea and a nice book. I really needed to get back to reading in the midst of all the tears and worry. There is something to be said for taking time and doing something good for oneself. It is magical when a book transports the reader so she can envision the characters and the action in the imagination, escaping to another world for a little while with fellow Jane Austen fans. It is working those “little grey cells” to quote Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot. My fellow Anglophiles, in The Jane Austen Society, we have an ideal comfort book for the summer. As Jane Austen herself wrote in Northanger Abbey, “Any person, be it a gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid”. Everyone must choose a book to suit their own taste, of course, but I’d urge Janeites everywhere to give this book a chance. Even those who’ve never read Austen or seen the movies may enjoy the story of a village full of passionate people working towards a goal. But will those who adore Jane Austen enjoy it even more? Oh, yes.
Elyse Ashton is an actress, a voracious reader, a sometimes writer, an LA Press Club award-winning co-host of The Anglophile Channel’s Dish shows, a shamelessly enthusiastic historical dancer, an amateur costumier, and a great lover of English literature, her degree in French Literature notwithstanding. She’s a big geeked out fan of Jane Austen and Regency culture.