Saturday, 29 May 2010

I was Jane Austen's Friend by Cora Harrison

  It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single girl in possession of a journal must write all her secrets in it...

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.
'Jane says that if I am to be the heroine of this story, something will throw a hero in my way...'
An irresistible tale of swoon worthy young men, glorious gowns , one ordinary girl... and Jane Austen!.'

I first saw this book under suggestions that Amazon had generated for me to read and fell in love with the beautiful cover. The connection with Jane Austen appealed to me because although I have watched several film adaptations of her novels and loved the time period, I have not yet read any so I felt it would be a perfect introduction.

The book is told through the diary entries of young Jenny Cooper, who is Jane Austen's orphan cousin and comes to live with the Austen family at Steventon. Although Jane is not the main character, she is written about a lot by Jenny as she is involved in the storyline as the girls are 'best friends.' I think this ensures that the book has a unique plot of its own and is not one of the many Jane Austen spins offs which rely entirely on her character.

The story opens  in 1791 when Jenny and Jane are at Mrs Crawley's boarding school for young ladies where they are treated very badly and Jane is very ill with a  raging fever. Fearing for Jane's life, Jenny commits the ultimate crime in the eyes of high society by escaping from the school onto the streets of Southampton alone at night to send a letter to her Aunt. Petrified and alone, she meets the handsome Captain Thomas Williams who escorts her to the post inn. Although promising never to tell anyone about the escapade, Captain Thomas Williams has the power to ruin and disgrace Jenny in society. Little does Jenny know at the time that scandalous night walk will affect her life for a long time.
Back at Steventon, Jenny gradually fits in with the Austen family and meets all of Jane's many brothers and sisters, learns the language of the fan when the French women Aunt Eliza visits and falls head over heels in love.....

 In the diary format that flowed naturally I found myself hooked instantly and absorbed in Jenny's world with family relationships, dashing gentlemen and balls.
I also loved the cute illustrations (by Susan Hellard) at the sides of the pages with sketches of the characters or fashion and hairstyle details that added an adorable extra dimension to Jenny's diary along with snippets of writing that Jane has given her. Here is an example:

Cora Harrison has researched the period details very well and as you are reading the diary of Jenny, it really does make you feel as if you are in that era. I also thought that Jane Austen's world and family as a young girl was re created accurately and I could imagine how certain events went on to inspire her later novels.

The author's note at the end of the book was very helpful in distinguishing what was fact and what the author had used creative licence for. I think that Cora Harrison created just the right balance between the two and the ideas worked very well together.

I really liked Jenny's character  as she was shy, kind and warm, the opposite to Jane;'s vibrant, humourous  and clever personality that lit up the book with witty remarks. Also, I think that the ending was very cleverly done  with a small twist and it left me feeling very light hearted  and happy once I had turned the last page.

I would reccommend this book to anyone who  enjoys a romantic story or likes historical books that are relevant to them and likes the sound of Jane Austen as this book is the perfect introduction to her novels. I have now borrowed Emma from the library and can't wait to start reading it!

To read an extract of the book and the authors note follow this link:

Above is a photo of the two cover editions: on the right is the UK version and on the left is the US version. I think that both of the covers are beautiful and each have their own lovely characteristics. The US edition photo looks like a snapshot from a historical drama and gives you an insight to what the book is about whilst the UK version is more girly in white and pink. Although I can't decide which one I like best, I think that the UK edition will appeal more to younger teenagers who it is aimed at and this cover will stand out more on a library/book store shelf.