Title: I was Jane Austen's Best Friend by Cora Harrison
Release date: September 28th 2010 by Delacorte Books for Young Readers
Format: Paperback (352 pages)
Age group: Young adult
Genre: Historical fiction
Grade rate: A
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.
I really love this book. I feel like I'm getting away with something by being asked to review it so long after I first read it, because it's not often I get to re-read my old favourites for a blog!
Jane Austen's youth is shrouded in mystery. We know some basic facts about her - for example where she lived and how many siblings she had - but there is little to no evidence of the kind of person she was as a child, and later, a young teenager. She was a prolific letter writer, but so many of those letters have been destroyed that we can only piece together brief images of what her early life must have been like. Some people may never even have pictured the young Jane - so easy is it to see her as a permanently adult novelist scribbling away on loose sheets at her bureau. Cora Harrison's I Was Jane Austen's Best Friend sets the record straight.
Narrated by Jane's real-life cousin Jenny, this book has a simple story but real heart. Told in diary format and littered with beautiful sketches, it's an authentic look at England of the 1790s, but the reader never loses out on having characters to relate to. As the unique selling point of the book is so obviously Jane, it runs the risk of overshadowing Jenny, but it never does. She's an observational narrator but full of own special kind of spark. She cares a lot about reputation and scandal but remains an innocent and likeable main character throughout the book.
Jane's family in particular are so warm and genuine - if constrained by the customs of their time - it's hard to believe that more than two centuries have passed since they were alive. I loved her brothers, who are numerous and provide much-needed humour. Her sister Cassandra, a confidante and occasional enemy, isn't as vibrant but plays an important role in a subplot which adds depth and food for thought amid otherwise stylized world-building.
There's a lot of research behind this book so much of the plot is based on true events - with some artistic licence thrown in there for good measure. That said, the characters are definitely the driving force of the novel. Captain Thomas Williams isn't exactly historical crush material, but as the book is aimed at YA's lower age group, that's only to be expected.
Fans of action or fantasy won't adore the book and it's not heavy-going historical fiction, but it's a really sweet read. It's perfect for newcomers to the genre and younger readers of YA as well as contemporary or Jane Austen fans who are looking for something different.