Book Review: I Was Jane Austen’s Best Friend by Cora Harrison 

By  Turn The Page

‘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 Was Jane Austen’s Best Friend follows the teenage life of Jane Austen, her cousin Jenny, and Jane’s immediate family, in a diary-like format. There are little illustrations dotted about, supposedly drawn by Jenny (and mostly of the handsome men she happens to meet!) with scraps of Jane’s writing attached for safe keeping. What’s interesting about this story is that the basic plot and the characters are all real, taken from facts known about that particular time in her life. Jenny Cooper, the main protagonist, did actually meet and fall in love with a Captain Thomas Williams in the short space of three weeks, while staying with Jane’s family, making this a bit more special compared to your average regency romance inspired by Austen’s greatest works.

Sadly, I had some problems with the narration and had a very difficult time getting into the story or connecting with Jenny. She is sixteen here, but she was so naive I couldn’t help thinking that she seemed a lot younger. There wasn’t much substance to her and I kept wanting her to just do something rather than worrying all the time. I’m sure the character was probably quite a realistic portrayal of the young girls of the time, but she was far to sweet, delicate and uninteresting for me to like her.

The novel didn’t capture my interest until nearly halfway through and it’s no coincidence that this was when Captain Williams arrived on the scene. Though I very much enjoyed the second half, I have to admit that I almost didn’t bother to read it, automatically giving this a lower rating. However, the tone of the book and the nature of the story and characters will probably appeal perfectly to a young girl and I have to admit, I Was Jane Austen’s Best Friend would be a good choice for introducing young readers to the works of Jane Austen.

The characters on the whole are well-rounded and I did grow quite fond of them, though we don’t spend nearly enough time with the Captain and Jane remained a bit of an enigma too. She is always scribbling down ideas and stories and doing her own thing. I was left with the impression of a confident, independent young woman who loves her friends dearly and delights in observing people, but keeps her own council – which probably sounds about right.

Will I re-read this? No I don’t think so, but by the end I was glad I took the time to pick it up and I expect I will read the second book though I won’t be buying it. The pacing just wasn’t right and all the interesting events and character growth took place in the second half of the book. A sweet romance, but ultimately, I’m just not the right audience for I Was Jane Austen’s Best Friend – I found the childlike illustrations and scraps of Jane’s writing irritating and distracting. Because of my personal enjoyment I’ve given it a lower rating, but this one is definitely well suited for younger readers, who I think will like it far more.

Recommended Reading Age: 9+