Natalie Jenner,

The Jane Austen Society

Review posted to NetGalley, February 1, 2020

literary fiction

International best-selling novel about people coming together to preserve Jane Austen's home and legacy.

Set in the years leading up to and during World War II, this charming story is built on an intriguing premise. The residents of Chawton, Hampshire, do not appreciate all that their Jane Austen connection can do for their peaceful village until a visit by an American fan of the early nineteenth-century novelist converts one man of the village from H. Rider Haggard’s adventure fiction to Austen’s domestic fiction. Eventually a couple of independent-minded women, along with influential men who support them, develop a scheme to save Austen’s legacy and improve the village’s economy.


Jenner’s novel relies on characters that could have sprung from Austen’s imagination: an intelligent girl from a large family who has to make her own way in the world, a bold teacher who prescribes a “steady diet of lady authors” for the boys in her school, a mature widower who falls in love with a vivacious young woman, a rich but insensitive husband, a self-educated farmer, an heiress who gave up her chance at love at her father’s insistence. Jenner does not rely only on a reader’s familiarity with the most famous of Austen’s stories, Pride and Prejudice, but also draws heavily from Emma and Persuasion, while updating the world her characters live in.


Thus, the relatively new medium of talkies plays a major part in Jenner’s novel, from the celebrity of actresses and movie producers to the social activity of going to the movie theatre. Yet for the more intelligent of Jenner’s characters, collecting books, reading them, and discussing them are far more admirable pursuits than the more mundane movie night. While some residents of Chawton complain about gawking tourists, others profit from the growing interest in the life of Jane Austen, not merely her books.


Jenner has written a lively story about a group of people who love and admire Austen. For a diehard Austen fan, the allusions to her books and characters should add some spice to what otherwise might be predictable outcomes. For others, the Austen-style plot twists and just deserts may seem fresh.


Above all, the women in this World War II era are financially and emotionally independent in a way that Austen’s female characters could have only dreamed of, and the men largely want the same thing as their women do, making this an unusually female-centric story. In this way, Jenner has created a place for women to shine.