Narrated by Richard Armitage
This past spring, in the early days of the pandemic, I read the complete works of Jane Austen, which, I thought, made me rather suited to taking on a review of the audiobook version of The Jane Austen Society, a gentle, quiet, sincere story that is an homage to the work of the author.
In Chawton, England in 1945, lives Adeline Lewis-Grover, an unapologetically modern former schoolteacher dealing with the death of her soldier husband, and subsequently her unborn child (who dies early in the book), Dr. Benjamin Gray is trying to survive both his grief at his widowhood and his subsequent pining for Adeline, and Frances Knight is on the verge of disinheritance by her dying father, who controls the estate where Jane Austen lived. An addition to Chawton is Mimi Harrison, a Hollywood starlet in town for a film shoot with her compellingly sexy but “devoid of a soul” producer fiancé. This group, along with a few other secondary characters, eventually form the Jane Austen Society. Their goal is to keep the material remnants of Austen’s legacy, from letters to writing desk to physical abode, in the care of those who love her work, and make them available to the public.
Jenner wisely doesn’t attempt to imitate Austen’s style – there are no verbal acrobatics here. And she views the fictional inhabitants of her small-town setting with a great deal more affection than Austen ever viewed hers. Jenner also mercifully avoids the surface-level homage that many a romcom has attempted to pay: there are no desperate single women in their twenties here, making lists of WHICH AUSTEN HERO IS HOTTEST. There are, however, an abundance of low-key romances that pay tribute to Austen’s famous couples: Adeline and Dr. Gray are an obvious Mr. Knightley/Emma, Frances and her family’s lawyer, Andrew, are Captain Wentworth and Anne, and Mimi and Jack are Elizabeth/Wickham. A theme of the story is the ability of Austen’s works to alleviate grief, and it plays a twofold role; Austen’s writing acts as a consolation to the characters of The Jane Austen Society, and Jenner’s book in turn is a lovely bit of solace itself. That said, I did find the first third a little over dark in places – when Adeline loses her baby and Dr. Grey observes it’s “too much to bear”, I agreed. And flitting references to possible drug addiction by both Adeline and Dr. Grey as a result of their various griefs are unnecessary.
The characters discuss the books in a thoughtful but refreshingly unpretentious manner; you could read this book without knowledge of Austen’s works, but I wouldn’t suggest it because all the little allusions and analysis add a richness to the experience – and really, what more delightful a prerequisite could you ask for than to read some of the wittiest, cleverest books ever written?
The actual formation and activities of the Jane Austen Society are left until extremely late in the book – they’re only on meeting #2 by the last third of the story. For much of the time before, the storylines of the characters are more loosely connected, with one or two characters clustered together, and sometimes a number of chapters go by without returning to one particular storyline. This isn’t a terrible thing – all the storylines are individually viable – but it’s still odd considering the title touts the society as the core of the book.
While this is an exceptionally easy listen, it also is a little too easy to stop listening. The narrative’s lazy river, low drama tone is both comforting and lacking in propulsion, and so there aren’t many chapters that leave you with an insistent need to keep going.
Richard Armitage’s narration is superb – so superb I think I wouldn’t have enjoyed the book nearly as much had I encountered it in print, which is a reason why I did not award the story itself an A. He does male voices, female voices, Scottish accents, English professional and working-class accents, and Jack’s rumbly American showbusiness tycoon accent that’s too delicious to ever be a parody.
The book format also complicates the narration; there’s lot of month-to-month time-jumping in the span of a few years at the beginning and Armitage’s pauses to mark breaks within chapters are often not long enough to delineate the end of one scene and the start of another.
If you’re looking for something to knit, color, or simply listen to in the upcoming ‘bleak midwinter’, The Jane Austen Society will fill your house with a number of good companions.
Breakdown of Grade: Narration – A- Story – B+
Running time: 9 hours 55 minutes
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