This summer, I read eight books with a Jane Austen setting: some re-imagining the author’s life, and others set in the world of her books.
I am not the world’s biggest Austen fan; in fact, I’ve only lately come to appreciate her work. In 2018, I read The Annotated Sense and Sensibility, one of a series of Jane Austen Annotated Editions by Harvard University Press. When they say annotated – these editions contain extensive, easy to access notes alongside the main text.. These notes really opened the door to me understanding what was going on in Austen’s world and engaging with the narrative. I went on to read all of Austen’s finished work in 2018 and 2019.
Jumping back to summer 2020, the best book I read set in Austen’s universe was The Other Bennet Sister by Janice Hadlow. I can’t be the only nerd who has ever read Pride and Prejudice and sympathized with middle daughter Mary, who wears glasses and is not musical and always has awkward things to say. This book tells her story, taking her in the first section from the awkward sister on the sidelines of Lizzy’s story to a woman in her own right, confident yet still retaining her intellect and character. I could easily recommend it to most historical fiction fans, even those with only slight familiarity with Austen’s work. However, to my IRL friend Peg who hates books that are drawn out by communication problems and misunderstandings: Walk away from this one.
For me, I enjoyed Hadlow’s writing so much that I picked up her earlier book, a biography of King George III and Queen Charlotte called A Royal Experiment. I’m about 25% of the way through it and am really enjoying both the historical immersion and the dramatic tension she brings to the story by describing the couple’s battle to build a private domestic life.
I also read and enjoyed Miss Austen by Gill Hornby. The titular Miss Austen is Cassandra, Jane’s beloved older sister, who is shown in her old age at a relative’s home trying to collect Jane’s letters to hide a family secret. Once again, I enjoyed being immersed in this world and the writing was strong enough to get me past two of my peeves: I generally don’t care for books that oscillate between two time periods, nor do I like books where the primary tension is undivulged family secrets. I did think the family secrets were a bit of a letdown in the end, and as someone who is not fanatical about all things Austen, I struggled to follow some of the family relationships described in the book. It would be a great read for true Austen fans who love books about dark family secrets.
Finally, I continued with Stephanie Barron’s series of Jane Austen mysteries. In this series, Jane Austen is a detective. Throughout the series, the author uses Jane Austen’s diaries to ground her in time and place, and frequently even incorporates actual events into the story. For me, this gives the books a strong sense of place, which is something I value highly in a book. This summer, I read:
- #6 Jane and the Prisoner of Wool House (abandoned; my fault as I don’t like nautical stories)
- #7 Jane and the Ghosts of Netley (very good!)
- #8 Jane and His Lordship’s Legacy (a series favorite – permanently etched Chawton in my mind)
- #9 Jane and the Barque of Frailty (good, but overly dramatic and not as much Austen character)
- #10 Jane and the Madness of Lord Byron (again good, but less character than other books in the series)
- #11 Jane and the Canterbury Tale (good, love the parallels to Chaucer)
There are two books left in this complete and overall very consistent series, plus the author has a second pen name of Francine Mathews, so I’m looking forward to lots more reading.
What other books have you read set in Austen’s world?