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*I Was Jane Austen's Best Friend* by Cora Harrison- young adult book review
I Was Jane Austen's Best Friend
by Cora Harrison
Grades 8+ 352 pages Delacorte September 2010 Hardcover    

In this Regency romance that blends fact and fiction, Jenny Cooper is a teenaged Jane Austen’s best friend and cousin. After saving Jane’s life at a girls’ boarding house at great risk to her own reputation and safety, Jenny is invited to live with Jane and the Austens at their home, Steventon Parsonage.

The recent death of her mother has left Jenny practically an orphan, at the mercy of her cold brother and his grasping wife, Augusta. The callous pair are only too happy to palm the seventeen-year-old off on the Austens, while quietly pocketing the money set aside for Jenny in her mother’s will.

At Steventon, Jenny finds solace in the bustling Austen household, enjoying her first true moments of happiness after the death of her mother. Here, she blossoms under the friendship and guidance offered by her cousins Jane, Cassandra, and their numerous brothers --- more than one of whom shows a flattering interest in her. Jenny finds Reverend Austen to be unfailingly kind, and her maternal aunt Mrs. Austen to be capable and well-intentioned if occasionally brusque with the girls. Innocent, sheltered Jenny is even given ample instruction in flirtation and the womanly charms by Jane’s worldly and sophisticated cousin, the French countess Eliza.

But all of Jenny’s newfound happiness hinges on one man, who has the power to make all her dreams come true, or to cruelly expose her to public ridicule and shaming. Will Jenny find a happy ending to her time at Steventon, much like the people in her cousin Jane’s later novels would?

I Was Jane Austen's Best Friend is a light romantic story loosely based on characters in Jane Austen’s life. The tale draws its inspiration from Austen’s cousin Jane Cooper (here nicknamed Jenny, to avoid confusion between the two cousins), who was orphaned and went to live with the Austens for a year before meeting a young man, falling in love, and making a successful match while living at Steventon. Although no details of Jane Cooper’s life are known, Cora Harrison has imagined one such scenario that would account for her whirlwind romance and betrothal during her year spent at Steventon.

For a Jane Austen buff, there is an “Aha!” moment to be had on nearly every page of this book. The real charm of this tale lies in its being densely populated with lines and characters closely reminiscent of those from Jane Austen’s works. Of course, people from Austen’s real life make up the entire cast of characters in the book, giving one a sense of peeking in on a young Austen.

Jane’s first love, Tom Lefroy, makes a minor appearance here, as does Cassandra’s ill-fated fiancé, Tom Fowle. Jane’s brother Henry Austen is as rakishly handsome as all reports have him, and another brother, Frank Austen, is as obsessed with the navy as his later meteoric rise in the navy would warrant. Jane’s mentally handicapped brother George, who was sent away from home to be cared for by a woman in the village, makes a poignant appearance.

We meet some of Jane’s friends such as the Biggs sisters whose younger brother Harris would later famously propose to Austen and be rejected. We also see traces of famous Austen characters throughout the book…someone’s turn of phrase may be evocative of unctuous Mr. Collins from Pride and Prejudice, while another character calls to mind social-climbing Mrs. Elton from Emma.

Not every person in the story is portrayed in a way that will seem familiar or even desirable to Austen fans. For instance, far from the close and warm sisterly bond that the real Jane and Cassandra are believed to have shared, the fictional Austen sisters here are often at loggerheads, with Cassandra providing a stodgy and prim foil to Jane’s high-spirited antics. Presumably this was a novelistic device that enabled Jane to need and acquire a best friend in the form of her cousin Jenny. The fictional Jane herself is sometimes shrill and acerbic rather than witty and shrewd, but perhaps this is to be excused since it is her cousin, not she, who is the heroine of the story.

The seamless blending of fact and fiction makes for a fun and enjoyable glimpse into Jane Austen’s life and times. It is clear that successful children’s author Cora Harrison has done her homework on Austen. The numerous line drawings of people and objects in the margins of the book (supposedly from Jenny’s diaries) are both amusing and instructional…I don’t think I’ve ever seen a drawing of a patten --- a wooden clog-like shoe for wearing in rainy weather --- before!

I Was Jane Austen's Best Friend is a good bet for teens and young adults looking for a light Regency romance.
Young adult book reviews for ages 12 and up - middle school and high school students

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