Cora Harrison,
I was Jane Austen's Best Friend
(Delacorte, 2010)

Jane Austen is one of the world's most well-known authors. Girls all over the world dream of someday marrying their own Mr. Darcy or Mr. Knightly. This love for all things Jane Austen has inspired many authors to write continuing tales about the lives of Austen's characters and Austen herself.

I was Jane Austen's Best Friend by Cora Harrison is written as the diary of Jane's cousin Jenny Cooper, written when the girls were 15. According to Harrison's historical note in the back, Jenny Cooper was actually Jane Cooper, an orphan who really did stay with the Austens for a year. Also according to Harrison, the basic premise of the story is historically accurate with only a few alterations, such as Cooper's name and age. For the descriptions of each of the characters and events themselves, Harrison drew inspiration from Austen's own novels.

The story starts out interesting enough. Jane and Jenny are away at school, where Jane has taken ill and the headmistress refuses to get treatment for her. So Jenny braves a late-night walk through the streets of Southampton to mail a letter to the Austen family, informing them of Jane's condition. Along the way she meets a dashing young ship captain who walks with her to see that she fulfills her mission safely. Of course, she immediately falls for the officer, but the next day she is taken from the boarding school to stay with the Austens, and she fears she will never see him again.

The next 200 or so pages are filled with Jenny's crushes on boys she meets while staying with the Austens, including Jane's own brother Henry. There's lots of giggling, gossiping and preparing for dinners and balls. In other words, there was a lot of frivolity. I realize that in many ways this was the life of British women at the time; they didn't have much to do other then read, sew, draw or play music, but for some reason this lifestyle seemed so much more irritating in Harrison's novel than in any of Austen's own works. Even the character of Jane was mildly irritating. I'm sure the author intended her to be clever and whimsical, but she mostly just came off like a spoiled child. The only times she seemed like the Jane I imagined her to be was when she was spending time with her mentally handicapped brother George, whom her parents had sent to live with another family in town to take care of him. Jane's compassion for that brother, and desire to teach him to read so her parents would welcome him back into their home, fit more in line with the Jane I pictured. Of course, I'm sure as a young girl Jane really did have her moments of frivolity; I just always pictured her more as Elizabeth Bennett than Lydia or Kitty.

The story didn't start to get interesting again until about the last 50-100 pages, when the dashing Capt. Thomas Williams made his reappearance. I don't want to give away the ending, but this was inspired by Austen's own writing, so I'm sure you can draw your own conclusions. I think the last part of the book was probably the best part and made reading the rest of the novel worthwhile.

This book would probably be great for teenage girls who are just becoming interested in Austen's works, or even as an introduction to Austen. However, this isn't one of those teen novels that crosses age boundaries and can appeal to older readers. This book is definitely intended for a younger audience. The romance, fancy dresses, balls, etc., will appeal to younger girls who are too old for Prince Charming, but may not yet be ready for Mr. Darcy.

While this book may not appeal to a reader like me, I would certainly recommend it over many other books, such as Gossip Girl or the Clique series, which are also targeted at teen girls. It has that same sense of innocent romance that Jane's novels do, meaning there's no need to worry about it containing anything questionable for younger girls who may be interested in reading it. And if older readers need to satisfy their curiosity and give it a chance, go ahead. It's not a complete waste of time -- it does have its good moments -- just keep in mind, the next Pride & Prejudice it is not.

book review by
Charissa Jelliff

22 January 2011

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