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.
Cora Harrison writes:
Whenever I finish a novel about a person who really existed, one of the first questions in my mind, before I close the book, is always: how much of this is true?
Although a lot is known about Jane Austen as a woman, not much is known about her as a teenager so I had to use my imagination to portray her. However, luckily, her family did keep a number of the stories that she scribbled in her notebooks between the ages of thirteen and eighteen so I could get an impression of what she was like from them.
I thought she seemed very clever, very witty, but above all I felt that she was enormous fun – quite wild – and would be someone who was great to have as a friend.
Very little known
Very little, indeed, is known about Jenny – and I must confess here I was guilty of changing two things.
One is that her name really was Jane Cooper, but because I couldn’t have two Janes, I changed her name to Jenny, a common pet-name form of Jane at the time. As well as that, I made her younger than she really was so that she and Jane were nearer in age and I changed the year that both she and Jane were at Mrs Cawley’s school at Southampton.
What we do know about Jenny (Jane Cooper) was that she was an orphan (with no family other than one brother) who lived with the Austen family at Steventon in the year 1791. She met Captain Thomas Williams (later Sir Thomas Williams, which turned Jenny into Lady Williams) in 1791, they fell instantly in love with each other, were engaged three weeks after their first meeting (a real whirlwind romance!) and were married at Steventon later on in the year. Jane and Cassandra were her bridesmaids.
We know from a letter sent by Eliza to a cousin in Kent that Jenny was very pretty and acted opposite Henry in one of the plays put on in the barn at Steventon. (When Mr Austen retired and his furniture was put up for sale at an auction, one of the items in the barn was ‘a set of theatrical screens’).
We also know that Jenny was the one who was brave enough, against Mrs Cawley’s orders, to smuggle out a letter from the school informing Mrs Austen that Jane was terribly ill and that by doing this, she was considered to have saved Jane’s life.
All the neighbours and friends and relations, people in the village – and Mr Austen’s pupils - that I mention in the book, like the Chutes at The Vyne, the Biggs at Manydown House, the Portsmouths at Hurstbourne Park were real people. Jane did have a handicapped brother, called George, who did not live with the family but was boarded out with a villager.
Later on in life, she spoke of being able to ‘to talk on her fingers’ – in other words, she had learned sign language. And as far as can be ascertained, Nanny Littleworth was foster mother to all the young Austens.
Jenny’s first ball
For the story and the characters of the people, I suppose my imagination was triggered by the six novels that Jane Austen wrote. I love the balls and the bits of conversation as they move down the sets in the dances as described in those books and I am a great fan of the gowns they wore then – so much more elegant and flattering than the later Victorian dresses.
When I wrote the description of Jenny’s first ball, I was remembering Catherine at the Assembly Rooms in Bath in Northanger Abbey and how she met a young man there, fell in love and by the end of the book, he had proposed marriage to her.
Captain Williams is like some of Jane Austen’s heroes – a bit of a Mr Darcy from Pride & Prejudice, or a perhaps a Captain Wentworth from Persuasion in him, I would say.
Jenny’s preaching brother (loathed by Jane Austen) is a bit like Mr Collins in Pride & Prejudice and his wife is rather modelled on Augusta in Emma.
Mrs Austen and Eliza were both prolific letter-writers and it is from their letters that I got an impression of their characters. They are both great favourites of mine.
Madly in love
No letters from Jenny (Jane Cooper) survive and in some ways perhaps that is good because now she is mine – my own creation and I can imagine her emerging from a sad time of her life after the death of both parents into the fun and glamour of balls and cousinly chats and then falling madly in love and being loved in return by the handsome Captain Williams.
The sort of wonderful year that people remember for the rest of their lives!
Text copyright Cora Harrison. Illustrations copyright Susan Hellard.