Calling all Janeites and readers hungry for comfort food (Chawton, England and Hollywood; 1932 – 1947): Looking for a novel that will calm you down “in the face of uncertainty, illness, and despair”? The Jane Austen Society serves literary comfort food.
After reading and rereading Jane Austen’s classics while coping with her husband’s long illness, debut author Natalie Jenner wished for more, so she fictionalized one inspired by Jane Austen’s characters and themes. Written in well-mannered, evocative prose, Jenner’s delightful step-back-in-time takes us back to Austen’s life two-hundred years ago, to where she lived her last eight years.
Chawton is a very small village, “population 377,” in Hampshire county, southeastern England. Here sits a red-brick house, once known as Chawton Cottage, where Jane Austen wrote or rewrote her six novels.
In 1949, Chawton Cottage officially became The Jane Austen House Museum. The novel honors those who understood the importance of preserving the legacy of the author of “some of the greatest writing the world has ever known.” It memorializes the museum founders with new characters, historical scholarship, and literary criticism. Jenner acknowledges an “expert on Jane Austen,” Laurel Ann Nattress, but after reading her novel it’s fair to say Jenner is one too. The disparate characters she thoughtfully invents are united by a passion for Austen’s works. They, like Jenner, have an “acute understanding of Austen.”
This perceptive and engaging literary romp encourages us to want to visit the museum, but we can’t right now since it’s closed due to COVID-19 (endangering its future as of this writing.) What better time to take a brief virtual tour:
Jane Austen’s books were not just comforting to the author, the real museum founders, the characters in the novel, and countless Austen fans the world over who call themselves Janeites. They were prescribed during WWII to “shell-shocked soldiers.”
“Part of the comfort,” Jenner writes, “was the satisfaction of knowing there would be closure.” That despite “an inexplicable anxiety over whether the main characters would find love and happiness,” readers knew “it was all going to work out in the end.”
“But part of it,” Jenner goes on to say, “was the heroism of Austen herself, in writing through illness and despair, and facing her own death.” Another reason she attributes to “a world so a part of our own, yet so separate, that entering it is like some kind of tonic.” And perhaps the most powerful reason is that “it may be the most sense we’ll get to make out of our own messed-up world.”
Chawton is a sleepy little village with charming thatched-roof cottages, but it could be “extremely intense” as everyone saw everything. That poses problems for many of the characters, who are stoic, shy, or hiding their emotions. All are grieving losses from the war, or other causes.
The plot – founding the real Jane Austen Society that founded the museum – fires up about 120 pages in. Meanwhile, we’re introduced to a cast of characters from different walks of life, and how each was introduced to Austen, and why they share a common bond of seeing something of themselves in a Jane Austen book. Discovering others who loved Austen as much as they did leads them to discover friendship, purpose, and romance they’d kept secret as long as they could.
The romanticism echoes what Jenner calls Austen’s “big secret”: the chemistry between two people from “physical attraction,” “deep affection,” companionship, respect, or loneliness. Many of their lives are stuck, until they find each other through Austen.
What makes a novel a classic? Why are Jane Austen’s timeless? Readers and the novel’s characters may differ on their favorite – Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park, Emma, Persuasion, or Northanger Abbey – but they all understand the gift Austen gave us.
Understanding is the key word. A great opening quote by the British writer Lionel Trilling emphasizes the significance of understanding: “Who shall inherit England? The businesspeople who run her or the people who understand her?” For Jenner, it’s understanding Austen that unlocks her genius. That it’s the people who understand Austen’s greatness in understanding the human condition that keep her alive.
The band of characters is colorfully created, but most do not lead colorful lives. England was still suffering after the war ended, and still rationing food.
Each of the characters quietly mourns the loss of loved ones. Some are subjected to inequalities due to social class norms and societal expectations. Themes Jane Austen tackled.
The first two characters we’re introduced to are a farmer struggling to save his family’s farm that goes back four generations. He’s lived his whole life in Chawton. He’s lost his father to the war and his brother to illness. As the novel progresses after the war, he’s still living with his mother in his forties. We first meet him in ‘32, when he meets “the most striking human being he had ever met.” In her twenties, she politely asks if he knows where Jane Austen’s house is, having arrived from America to visit the house of the author she adores. Her deceased father introduced her to Austen, so reading her is like “music” filled with poignant memories. The next time we meet her she’s a famous Hollywood actress in her thirties, already seeing her career dimming. So she moves to Chawton to be closer to Austen, along with her wealthy, scoundrel Hollywood producer whose fallen in love with her.
This opening scene is critical to our understanding some confusing genealogy that explains why Jane Austen was living in her brother Edward’s house on the estate of the Knight family, not far from their “Great House,” as Austen called it. The farmer could easily point to the property as it abuts his.
Who is the Knight family? How did Jane Austen (her mother and only sister Cassandra) end up living in one of their houses? Apparently, one of Austen’s six brothers, Edward, took on the legal name Edward Austen Knight, when he was adopted by 1860s Knights. Related to her father, seems it wasn’t all that uncommon for a wealthy couple without children to adopt a child from a poorer one. The Knights owned a number of estates, including the one in Chawton. Edward became heir.
A fictional village gentleman doctor, the only physician in the village, is the character connected to all the village characters since he’s treated everyone. A widower in his fifties still privately grieving the loss of his wife seven years ago, he’s viewed as a “father figure.”
Other characters include a remaining Knight daughter, who lives on the estate dutifully caring for her dying, ornery, ungrateful father. Now a spinster in her forties, she rarely goes outside except to uphold old-fashioned Christmas traditions. The house has a library containing over 2000 rare books, including first editions of every Jane Austen book. Growing up, she lost herself in her books. So does her delightful, bright, mature, and resourceful sixteen-year old housemaid who discovers Austen while dusting the library shelves.
Another Janeite was a schoolteacher that men found (still do) intimidating. Newly married, she lost her husband in the war and was never the same.
One more character of note: a kindly gentleman who works for Sotheby’s in London, where the premier auction house originated from. He knows the value of all-things Austen.
Most, not all, of the characters are goodly, part of the charm and calm of the novel. Yet it riles us up to read or reread Jane Austen. You’ll likely see something you hadn’t seen before.