I Was Jane Austen’s Best Friend
by Cora Harrison
September 28, 2010
Borrowed from Library
When shy Jenny Cooper goes to stay with her cousin Jane Austen, she knows nothing of the world of beautiful dresses, dances, secrets, gossip, and romance that Jane inhabits. At fifteen, Jane is already a sharp observer of the customs of courtship. So when Jenny falls utterly in love with Captain Thomas Williams, who better than Jane to help her win the heart of this dashing man?
But is that even possible? After all, Jenny’s been harboring a most desperate secret. Should it become known, it would bring scandal not only to her, but also to the wonderful Austen family. What’s a poor orphan girl to do?
In this delicious dance between truth and fiction, Cora Harrison has crafted Jenny’s secret diary by reading everything Jane Austen wrote as a child and an adult, and by researching biographies, critical studies, and family letters. Jenny’s diary makes the past spring vividly to life and provides insight into the entire Austen family—especially the beloved Jane.
It's true, I overuse the word delightful, but this book was absolutely delightful in every sense of the word. From the design and little pictures accompanying the text to the characters of a teenage Jane Austen and her cousin Jenny Cooper, everything about it made me want to buy my very own copy so I could read it on rainy days to cheer myself up.
The author made an excellent choice in writing this book as a series of diary entries by Jenny Cooper. A more typical third-person narrative would have either invited comparison with Miss Austen or worse, caused the author to attempt to mimic that style. As it is, the diary entries are in an entirely new and original voice, giving the reader a very different look at the famous novelist.
I loved Jenny's voice as conveyed through her diary. She's both sweet and naive as she attempts to navigate her new life first as a ward of her brother and his less than congenial wife and then as she becomes a fixture in her cousin Jane's enormous and slightly rowdy family. Jenny’s also coming to terms with the slight prospects of a gentleman's daughter without a fortune. If it sounds like the plot of a Jane Austen novel, well, yes. And that’s part of the brilliance of the book. Any reader familiar with Austen’s novels will recognise situations, partial quotes, and even characters, and the fact that this is handled so well just made me smile.
Some readers may find Jenny overly sweet. In Pride and Prejudice terms, she’s much more a Jane than a Lizzie, but I found her gentleness and delicacy a nice change from the more usual YA heroine. Jane is the character with all the fire, and while Jenny is both diplomatic and at times stubborn, Jane’s wit and sense of humour nearly flares off the page. The friendship that develops helps both girls come of age. Even as a teenager, Jane’s writing plays a major role in her life, and we get to see some of her rough stories and sketches. I’m not familiar enough with Austen’s Juvenilia to know if these snippets come from her actual teenage work, but I based on how well the pieces fit into the action and themes of the book, I doubt it.
Not all the members of Jane’s large family are fully developed, and even towards the end, I was getting some of the brothers’ names mixed up, but they all are endearing. I definitely sympathize with Jane though - I think if I had that large of a family, I’d want some peace and quiet for writing too!
If you’re a reader interested in Jane Austen or just want a lovely little story about two girls in Regency England, I’d definitely recommend this book. It would be lovely “cuddled up during a snowstorm” reading!