I Was Jane Austen’s Best Friend is a wonderful and original way to introduce younger generations to Jane Austen’s life and work.
Even more poignant perhaps is the fact that the foundations of this story are real.
- Waterstones's Books Quarterly review.
Published February 2012, Jane Austin stole my boyfriend:
San Francisco Book ReviewI Was Jane Austen’s Best Friend
Filed inFeatured-Fiction, Young Adult on December 23, 2010
Delacorte Books for Young Readers, $17.99, 342 pages
Young Jane Austen fans are in for an once-in-a-lifetime treat that will sweep them back into the excitement of 1790s British society, fancy skirts, dashing gentlemen, and young love. Cora Harrison’s novel is a delicious combination of historical fact and fabulously crafted fiction based on the relationship between teenage Jane Austen and her cousin Jenny Cooper. I fell in love on page one and could not put this book down.
Jenny risks her life and reputation to escape the boarding school where she and her cousin Jane live in order to get a letter to Jane’s mother. Jane was direly ill and the headmistress refused to contact the family. Jenny happens to meet and fall desperately in love with handsome Captain Thomas Williams along the way. He charms her with his kindness and aids her in getting the letter to her cousin’s family. The Austen family quickly rescues the girls from the school and brings them back to live at Jane’s family estate. When Thomas reappears later in the novel, Jenny fears he will inadvertently ruin her reputation by letting slip how he originally met her. Can true love conquer all or will persnickety relatives get in the way in the name of propriety?
Prepare for a fun and fast-paced adventure as the girls learn about growing up, love, friendship, aspirations, and marriage. This novel is a rare gem in historical fiction and one I would gladly read again.
Reviewed by Jennifer Melville
JANE AUSTEN’S WORLD
January 1, 2011, USA
I recently finished reading a charming book by Cora Harrison, I Was Jane Austen’s Best Friend, in which Jane Austen has just reached the age of 15. It is February, 1791, and 16-year-old Jenny Cooper has slipped out of Mrs. Crawley’s boarding school to post a letter to Steventon Rectory warning Rev. and Mrs. Austen that their daughter, Jane, is seriously ill. By doing so, Jenny risks her reputation, for she ventures out alone and unescorted in a rough area of Portsmouth.
This scene sets the stage for the rest of the novel, in which young Jenny Cooper chronicles the months she spends with her best friend Jane and the Austens at the rectory. The girls are avid writers: while Jane spins her creative tales, Jenny describes their routine days in her journal. And what days they were! Jenny observes Jane’s family and friends minutely: her gentle father and stern mother; her charming favorite brother, Henry, and the mentally challenged George, who lived with another family; Cassandra’s love for Tom Fowle; exotic cousin Eliza; the well-dressed Bigg sisters; and other vivid portraits of the people who inhabited Jane’s and Jenny’s world.
Jane Austen reads at Jenny's bedside. Image@Susan Hellard
The scenes are culled from actual events in Jane’s life and from letters that others wrote about her (for none of her letters from that time have survived). As teenagers are wont to do, Jenny and Jane dream of romantic encounters and parties and balls, engage in outdoor activities, and while away their time reading and writing and play-acting, or wishing for pretty gowns.
Image @Susan Hellard
The scene in which a pinch-penny Mrs. Austen must decide which color muslin would look best for ball gowns for all three girls (Cassandra, Jane and Jenny) is priceless, and the descriptions of tender romance between Cassandra and young Tom are heartbreaking to those who know he will die before they can be married. Tom LeFroy makes a suitably short appearance, and Jenny meets handsome Captain Thomas Williams, who in real life became engaged to her within three weeks of their first meeting, and whom she later married before her own untimely death.
Jenny witnessed Jane writing constantly and being inspired by the people she observed. For example, Jenny’s shrill sister-in-law, Augusta, becomes the prototype for Mrs. Elton and Mr. Collins is somewhat inspired by Jenny’s preachy brother.
Augusta. Image @Susan Hellard
While I found the book a delight, not everyone has been thrilled with its purchase. The American cover of I Was Jane Austen’s Best Friend is a bit mature for a novel that targets young girls of eleven or so, but it explains the reason why so many older readers are buying the book.
This is whata high school reviewer had to say about the U.S. cover: "… if you plan on buying [the book] at any time soon, make sure to check out the U.K. version… the cover art is so much cuter!" In fact, the U.K. cover (below) enjoyed the author’s full approval, and was drawn by Susan Hellard, the artist responsible for the charming illustrations displayed in this post and that are sprinkled throughout the book.
Page from the book, in which Jane describes some of her siblings. The style of writing is aimed at a very young audience. Drawings @Susan Hellard.
In writing this novel, Cora Harrison has kept her very young audience in mind. As you can see from the sample page above, the sentences are short and written in plain English, speech patterns and terms from the 18th century are kept to a minimum, the romance is sweet, and the story is written from a young lady’s point of view. While Ms.Harrison hoped that this book would introduce Jane Austen to very young readers, she also envisioned that mothers and grandmothers would enjoy reading the novel as well.
The book's U.K. cover
I have gone into great detail about the author’s intentions for a reason. Reviews of this book, while largely favorable, are varied. Lower rankings come largely from disappointed adult readers who expected a mature romance and a "more interesting plot." But as the author wrote to me: "I didn’t want to do an in-depth analysis of love. I wanted to do a fun book, romantic in an old-fashioned style."
Purists have also decried the changes in facts, dates, and characters, but isn’t it the novelist’s prerogative to change historical facts in order to move the plot forward? Besides, Ms. Harrison made her reasons for these changes clear in her Author’s Note in back of the book, which should have been placed as a Foreword. I also think that annotated notes for juvenile readers (such as those included for book clubs), would help adults explain some of the more obscure facts about the Georgian period to their children and place events in the novel in context.
Be that as it may, I rarely read review books from cover to cover, but I kept reading this one until I was finished (and then wished I had a daughter to give it to). This is a sweet book, filled with useful details about life in England 200 years ago. Ms. Harrison’s conjectures on how the Austens lived and interacted with each other is based on the letters and information about Jane that survived. After reading these pages, it is clear that Cora Harrison wrote her novel as an homage to Jane Austen. She also is an author with a mission. "As a teacher I am realistic enough to know that girls won’t automatically read Jane Austen unless their interest is awakened and I hoped to do that…"
Stories from my bookshelf
End of 2010 Survey
1. Best book of 2010I was Jane Austen's Best Friend by Cora Harrison
Review: Tuesday, December 28, 2010
This book was one of the best I read in 2010.
It is written in the form of a diary and it is a YA book, but it is read very pleasantly by an adult, too.
It is perfect for any lover of Jane Austen's work, not only because it features Jane herself as a teenager, but because the writing itself and the romance in it are very reminiscent of her novels.
The 'best friend' of the title is supposedly Jane Austen's cousin, but they are like sisters in this tender and romantic Regency story. There is a Mr. Darcy type of hero and a P&P type romance.
In general, it is a mix of history and fiction, and there is a note by the author at the end that explains which is which.
I simply loved it in every way.
P.S. This would be the perfect present for girls as well as women.
2 June 2010
It is 1791, and shy, sensible Jenny Cooper and her bold cousin Jane Austen are in a rather bad way. Jane is very sick with a fever and the cruel and rather unscrupulous headmistress of their girls' boarding school is refusing to contact Jane's parents.
Jenny feels she has no other choice than to venture out in the middle night, alone, to take a letter to the post inn to try to warn her aunt and uncle of Jane’s poor health...
Although written in contemporary prose, this lovely novel captures Jane Austen's times perfectly.
This is a social account of the end of the eighteenth-century England just as much as it is a bit of girly fun.
Coral Harrison most definitely did her homework; the boundaries between fact and fiction are often blurred, as the author was inspired both by real events and characters and episodes in Jane Austen's life (mostly recorded in her correspondence to several people) as well as the imaginary characters and scenes in her novels.
They all come together very well and Cora Harrison manages to touch on subjects that were close to Austen's heart too: the issues around marriage, with true love always competing against finding a match that will bring financial security is central, and girls with an independent mind are pivotal to the story...
This quirky romantic novel is a great introduction to Jane Austen for younger readers and an insight of what life might have been for her, seen through the eyes of her cousin. The fact that it is written in the form of a journal, accentuated by pretty illustrations, makes it effortless to read, and one that I very much enjoyed.
18 May 2010
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 harbouring 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 Was Jane Austen's Best Friend is a sweet, heart-warming tale of love, friendship and ball gowns. Written in diary form, Jenny Cooper reveals her secrets and desires in a book that fans of Jane Austen novels will enjoy!
I really enjoyed reading this book despite not having read anything by Jane Austen before. It picked up from the first page and I was immediately transported back to 1791 in the streets of Southampton. As I live near Southampton and in Hampshire (where the story is set) it was really interesting to see the contrast between the time periods through Jenny's eyes. I loved the additions to the text as well. There were beautifully drawn illustrations accompanying real prints of short stories that Jane Austen wrote. The story progressed nicely at the beginning and towards the end, but I felt a little bit stuck in the middle. The plot never really seemed to be moving forward. I suppose the plot wasn't a key focus in this book, but it would have been nice if a surprise twist occurred once in a while, just to spice it up.
I loved Jenny as a narrator. She was shy, kind and just an overall great character. There was nothing particularly unlikeable about her at all. I really liked learning her story and the problems she faced throughout the book. Jane, who was also a main character, was very smart, humorous and witty. She kept the story alive with her sarcastic remarks and zesty attitude. It was nice to see that the author challenged herself by writing Jenny who is quite unknown and mysterious in the life of Jane Austen. I think it worked well as a way for the reader to learn more about Jane's teenage years and of her cousin.
I couldn't help feeling sad when IWJABF ended. I had grown to like Jenny and had to accept that I'd probably never read her again. There is nothing to really tell you about Jenny Cooper except this book itself and when it was over, I felt like I had to say goodbye to her character forever (oh dear, how cheesy). Knowing she was a real person, brought her to life and made you want to learn much more about her.
I Was Jane Austen's Best Friend is a must-read for fans of Jane Austen. It's a great resource to dig deeper in the famous novelist's life with a gorgeous cover to match. It's not for everyone, but I liked it!
Intrigue aplenty... Teenage Fiction for All Ages review
My Journal Monday, 7 February 1791
Jane looks like she could die.
Review: At sixteen, Jenny Cooper is a year older than her cousin Jane Austen. The book opens with both of them in an unspeakably awful boarding school in Bristol and Jane is seriously ill with a fever. Jenny knows that the only way to save her friend is to write to Jane's mum. To do so she must venture out at night, unaccompanied and risk ruin and scandal if she's discovered, to deliver a letter to the post-inn. When she does so, she meets the handsome Captain Thomas Williams who looks after her and sees her back to school safely. Thomas holds Jenny's future in his hands but promises not to tell anyone that he has seen her out, alone.
The action then shifts to Jane's home at Steventon to which Jane is returned, along with Jenny for recuperation. The girls are then allowed to stay on there and take lessons. The remainder of the book is devoted to Jenny's experiences with the Austen family and her attending balls and the return into her life of a dashing young Captain.
The story is told by way of lengthy journal entries, written in a clear language which makes this story suitable for younger readers as well. Jenny is the main character but Jane's personality is also well evoked and may lead readers to seek out more about Jane herself as well as her novels and possibly the film Becoming Jane which portrays a relationship between Jane and Tom Lefroy - who briefly appears in this novel.
I Was Jane Austen's Best Friend is a stately paced novel which takes the reader into the eighteenth century with ease and there is intrigue aplenty in the last 50 pages. I found this a quick read and though I thought the romance element a little improbable due to Jenny's youth and naivety it is in fact based on true life events, though the real Jenny was a bit older. I appreciated the illustrations by Susan Hellard which added another level of charm to this book.
Cover: This is an exceptionally pretty cover which caught my attention.
27 March 2010
A charming, heartwarming, emotional and clever read - loved it! ... Funky Librarian, All things teen library
I was Jane Austen's best friend is a fictitious story by Harrison about Austen's teenage years and family life. The main character, the sweet, endearing Jenny Cooper is Jane's cousin, orphaned and sent to live in a boarding school in Southampton with Jane. The girls hate living at the school but make the best of it, until Jane becomes ill, and early in the book Jenny is forced to risk her prospects and reputation to save her friend.
The Austen's quickly realise the boarding school is not suitable for either of the girls and they return to the family home, a parsonage in Steventon to be educated. For Jenny this means living for the first time amongst boys - Jane's five brothers and Mr Austen's male pupils, experiencing social occasions like balls for the first time and writing all about it in her secret diary.
Jenny's is a shy and timid character, quite the opposite to Jane who is very confident and as you would expect, always coming up with entertaining stories and jokes that keep everyone amused. The book is Jenny's story of the journey from child to young woman, with some heartwarming moments and shocking twists along the way.
Harrison really opens up what it would have been like to be a young woman growing up without a fortune in the 18th Century. The relationships she develops between Jane and her brothers were so realistic and the exchange between them written with humour and warmth. At the end of the book the author explains that the extracts of stories she included written by Jane were real, as were all of her family members, their personalities and the families living around them. However, the events were of her creation because Austen left very little record of her teenage years. Where Harrison has filled in the blanks, it is done so cleverly and intuitively. A true Austen fan!
A charming, heartwarming, emotional and clever read - loved it!
4 April 2010
A charming introduction ... UK Sunday Telegraph review
...a sprigged muslin of a novel – light and fluffy but with a good structured underskirt.
It is told in diary form by Jane Austen’s cousin and offers a sideways glimpse into the imagined world of Austen as a teenager.
Along with the balls, dresses, flirtations and biographical details are incidents and characters to be unpicked from the later novels – a light-hearted diversion for those who know their Eltons from their Bennets, and a charming introduction to those who don’t. (Age: 11-14)
Review by Georgia on the Chicklish website
Cora Harrison’s I Was Jane Austen’s Best Friend is a gripping book, good for a wide age range. It gives an enthralling insight into 18th century life, with a brilliant storyline to keep you guessing what will happen next. It’s also written in an exciting journal format.
Confident Jane Austen’s shy cousin Jenny Cooper has a brush with death at the start of the book. Jenny is taken in by Jane’s mother. Once she is there, there is only one thing on her mind: marriage.
She is only a teenager but she’s being pressured to tie the knot already. And now she’s out of an awful all-girl boarding school, she is swooning over many. What with Jane’s brothers, their friend, and a certain someone, she’s very confused and even more shy. And when upper-class French cousin Eliza visits, Jenny has a lot to learn.
This is a enthralling book that will keep you on the edge of your seat. The characters are very relatable, so you can connect with the book, and get lost in it. The storyline is very gripping, and makes it hard to stop reading.
It’s a very romantic book, and I would specifically say it was aimed for girls. It has an extraordinary element of love, and makes your heart beat faster. It’s also very historical, and I found it very good for an understanding of the life of girls in this era: clothing, language and many other thing.
I particularly like Jenny’s character, I found that you could understand her well, and also picture her in your mind. I also think that the ending was a lovely one, and made you feel light and happy. People who like old-fashioned books, such as those written in the time of Jane Austen, will probably enjoy this.
I think the book could have started slightly quicker, but overall it was a brilliant book and I have recommended it to many people. I give it a 3 ½ out of 5. A very enjoyable book.
Review by Georgia, aged 13
Rich in period detail and full of romance and fantasy, this is a delightful imaginary diary of Jenny Cooper which gives entertaining insights into what Jane Austen might have been like as a teenager.
Jenny is the pretty, clever but shy cousin of the young Jane. The girls meet at a horrible boarding school but soon escape to the warmth of Jane's family home where Jenny enjoys with Jane the bustling life of cards and games and gowns and balls and, above all, the delights of finding a hero.
Julia Eccleshare (children's editor of the Guardian) in Lovereading4kids.co.uk 'books of the month'
I Was Jane Austen’s Best Friend is a wonderful and original way to introduce younger generations to Jane Austen’s life and work. Even more poignant perhaps is the fact that the foundations of this story are real.
Author Cora Harrison, who specialises in children’s historical fiction, has researched the characters for her book in such a way that it provides invaluable insight into the life of the wild, witty, imaginative young girl Jane Austen was.
We see the young author through the eyes of her shy cousin, Jenny Cooper, who comes to stay for the summer. And that summer will change her life forever, because above all else this book is a romance, and one that echoes those that we will know and love from Jane Austen’s work in the years to come.
Waterstones's Books Quarterly review.
Illustrated with delightful and informative pen and ink images, this is a recreation of the home life of the fifteen-year-old Jane Austen, seen through the fictional diary entries of her cousin Jane (Jenny) Cooper.
The people and places in this account are real, based on what is known of Austen’s adolescence, and Harrison has made good use of her own love of Austen’s novels and characters, imagining them to be fictional accounts of family and friends.
Late eighteenth and twenty-first-century literary styles are well combined, and lively characterisation provides an engaging text which creates a typical Austen short novel around Jenny’s whirlwind romance.
Harrison also addresses the plight of George, Jane’s brother, and attitudes of the time towards learning difficulties and physical disability.
Booktrust, November 2009
Reviewed in France on a forum for French people who love English literature and culture:
Forum des amoureux de la littérature et de la culture anglaise at http://whoopsy-daisy.forumactif.net/oeuvres-derivees-f33/i-was-jane-austen-s-best-friend-de-cora-harrison-t571.htm
J'aime m'intéresser aux romans dérivés de l'oeuvre de Jane Austen. La production est très riche, on y trouve vraiment de tout. Certains ouvrages ne méritent guère d'attention mais celui-ci m'a plutôt enthousiasmée !
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. But Jane is already a sharp observer of the customs of courtship, and when Jenny falls utterly in love with the dashing Captain Thomas Williams, who better than Jane to help her win the heart of this most eligible of men?
Ce petit livre est en fait le journal intime de Jenny Cooper, la cousine orpheline de Jane Austen qui a résidé chez sa famille à Steventon. Ce roman se lit donc presque avant tout comme tel. Le lecteur est plongé dans les pensées, souvenirs, troubles et espoirs d'une jeune fille de 16 ans.
Au moment où il fait sa rencontre, Jenny s'apprête à faire quelque chose de courageux mais aussi de très dangereux : affronter les rues de Southampton de nuit dans le but d'envoyer une lettre urgente aux Austen, pour leur apprendre que leur fille, Jane, est terriblement malade et que s'ils ne viennent pas la chercher, les choses peuvent très mal tourner. Jenny et Jane fréquentaient alors un pensionnat plus que douteux et qui ne prennait guère soin de ses élèves ...
Jenny, pour sauver la vie de son amie, prend alors tous les risques. Si quelqu'un venait à la surprendre et l'apprenait à l'une ou l'autre de ses connaissance, sa réputation en prendrait un sacré coup et ses chances de se marier un jour (car il s'agit bien de cela !) seraient réduites à zéro !
Le journal s'ouvre donc sur une scène qui affectera considérablement la vie de Jenny par la suite ... en bien ou en mal.
Mais heureusement pour elle (et pour nous), la lettre sera remise à temps aux parents Austen, lesquels retireront très vite leur fille cadette de cette effroyable école. Il est intéressant de noter que bon nombre de faits relatés dans ce roman sont vrais. Jane Austen est en effet tombé gravement malade suite à la négligence coupable du pensionnat dans lequel elle était élève. Sa vie a été très gravement mise en danger. Inutile de vous dire que la vie de Jane (et aussi un peu la nôtre - indirectement, si elle n'avait pas été sauvée in extremis ) en aura été affectée.
Le reste de l'intrigue se déroule sur environ 3 mois. Jenny s'est installée à Steventon, chez les Austen qui l'accueillent à bras ouverts, naturellement. Jenny nous relate la vie qu'elle mène à leurs côtés avec une profusion de détails. La jeune fille est heureuse de passer du temps avec sa chère Jane, qu'elle admire et pour qui elle a énormément d'affection, ainsi qu'avec sa très nombreuse famille. Jane semble être fidèle à elle-même, du moins à l'image que ses lecteurs sont en droit d'avoir d'elle. Elle est vive, intelligente, parfois un peu pertinente (le plus souvent avec sa mère qui bien du mal à lui faire entendre raison sur certaines choses et lui reproche de ne pas être assez accomplie ), et très drôle.
Le portrait qui nous est ici fait de Jane ressemble assez bien à celui de Becoming Jane, et dans une moindre mesure à celui de Miss Austen regrets.
Jane Austen a ici 15 ans. L'écriture est déjà sa grande passion. Tout comme la littérature, qui semble occuper une grande place dans sa vie. Les références aux oeuvres qu'elle lit sont d'ailleurs très nombreuses. On parle de Fanny Burney ou encore des romans gothiques.
Jane Austen a beaucoup d'humour et montre à quel point il est essentiel pour s'armer face aux vicissitudes de la vie. C'est bien souvent grâce à son humour et son ironie que Jane console Jenny de ses malheurs ou de ses soucis.
Le reste de la famille Austen n'est pas en reste. Les membres occupent tous une place importante dans le récit. Les portraits qui nous sont faits m'ont semblée aussi justes que nuancés. A commencer par ceux des parents bien sûr mais aussi les nombreux frères de Jane et sa soeur et Cassandra, déjà amoureuse et sur le point de se fiancer à Tom Foyle. La charismatique Eliza fait aussi une apparition.
Il est donc fait allusion au sérieux (et parfois un peu condescendant) James, amoureux du théâtre, au séduisant Henry (qui a un don pour flirter plus que certain ! ), à l'affectueux Frank mais aussi à George, le frère handicapé de Jane qui, étrangement, ne vit pas avec sa famille ...
Jenny est plus que ravie de vivre au sein d'une famille heureuse et aimante. Elle n'y est pas habituée. Elle n'a pas vraiment connu ses parents et a un frère aîné qui ne s'occupe guère d'elle. Edward-Jones, un pasteur qui semble presque avoir inspiré le personnage de Mr Collins (je dis bien presque ) s'est marié avec une femme terriblement snob, Augusta (une Mrs Elton ! ), qui ne souhaite pas particulièrement se lier avec elle ...
Le temps de la lecture, on vit donc avec plaisir chez les Austen. On s'amuse des plaisanteries de Jane, on s'attache à chacun de ses frères, on est ému par la relation de Cassandra et Tom... Et on a très clairement l'impression de vivre le quotidien d'une famille nombreuse dans la campagne anglaise sous la Régence. Sur ce point, le roman est une réussite. Il est réaliste. La famille Austen est heureuse, certes mais rencontre aussi des problèmes. Les parents doivent penser à assurer l'avenir de leurs nombreux enfants. Ils ne sont pas fortunés. La description de leur vie quotienne m'a semblée très bien faite. L'histoire ne manque pas de rythme mais ne tombe pas dans la facilité pour autant. Les passages ayant trait au personnage de George m'ont tout particulièrement plû.
Bien sûr, on y trouve aussi de la romance. Qui dit premier bal, dit premiers émois. Sur ce point, l'auteur respecte très bien l'oeuvre de Jane Austen. D'ailleurs, elle avoue s'être inspirée du premier bal de Catherine à l'Assemby Room de Bath pour décrire celui de son héroïne.
Je dirais donc, pour conclure, que I am Jane Austen's Best Friend s'est avérée être un excellent divertissement. C'est un roman léger mais écrit intelligemment. Basé sur des fait réels (Jenny a vraiment existé !) et agréablement romancé sur certains points, il est à conseiller à tous ceux qui ont apprécié Becoming Jane, par exemple. Un roman historique (pour la jeunesse ) plus qu'honorable, donc !
Le roman est agrémenté d'illustrations fort réussies d'une certaine Susan Hellard (vous pouvez trouver son site ici). Dans l'histoire, c'est Jenny qui les ajoute dans son journal.
En voici 2 exemples :