"Jane Austen's best friend spills the beans on the famous author in this sweet novel!"
Reviewed by Sharon Galligar Chance
Posted March 17, 2011
Jane Austen | Young Adult
Imagine how much fun it would have been to be friends with
the famous author Jane Austen. Imagine if you were lucky
enough to grow up with Jane as your cousin. This is the
premise of the enchanting book, I WAS JANE AUSTEN'S BEST
FRIEND: A SECRET DIARY by Cora Harrison.
The story opens with young Jenny Cooper writing in her
diary about how she and her cousin, Jane Austen, are
unhappy, homesick students at Mrs. Cawley's school for
young ladies. When Jane is taken deathly ill with a
mysterious fever Jenny must take matters into her own hands
and she slips out at night to send a letter to Jane's
parents advising them of the situation. What she doesn't
count on is being caught out alone by a group of rowdy
sailors and she is grateful when she is rescued by a
handsome young Captain Thomas Williams, the man who would
soon hold the key to her young heart.
Jane and Jenny (who also falls ill with the fever) are
whisked away to Steventon by Jane's parents where Jenny is
quickly accepted into the Austen household. As she joins
her cousin Jane in the family's activities, Jenny's
thoughts are never far from the handsome young Captain
Williams and her hopes that someday they might be reunited.
Cora Harrison has crafted a delightful story with this
sweetly innocent "diary" of Miss Jenny Cooper. Written in
Jenny's voice and decorated throughout with charming line
drawings (by artist Susan Hellard) this book is a great
introduction to young readers to the real-life biography of
Jane Austen and her family.
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.
ExcerptDown the stairs . . .
Every stair creaks . . .
Every minute I think that I hear my name screamed by Mrs Cawley.
‘Miss Cooper!’ she will shriek at me. I stop and listen, but
there is nothing to hear. My hands are damp and I am
shaking. My bonnet strings come undone and the bonnet falls
off my head and rolls down to the bottom of the stairs, only
stopping when it reaches the front door. And it makes a
sound that I feel could wake the house. I leave it on the
floor as I struggle with the bolt. Eventually it slides back
with a rusty screech.
The cold damp air of the street rushes in. I pick up my
bonnet by its blue ribbon, but I dare not stop to put it on.
I close the door as carefully as I can and pray that no
burglar tries the handle before I can get back, and then I
am off running down the street, my bonnet swinging from one
hand and my folded letter in the other.
Lights flash in my eyes: the watchman is ahead of me. I must
not overtake him. He would want to know what I was doing out
here on my own. I stop in a shadowed shop door and tie on my
bonnet and then I go on, walking as fast as I can.
More lights now. Some runners with flaring torches, and four
men carrying a lady in a sedan chair – through its window I
can just see her powdered hair piled very high and the
low-cut frilled neck of her yellow gown. The sedan is
painted in very fine colours of black and gold, but the
poles in the men’s hands are rough and look full of
splinters. I shrink against a gateway with my back turned,
and they pass me without breaking step.
I can hear their trotting footsteps grow quieter and
quieter. And then a crowd of rough sailors laughing and
shouting. Southampton is full of sailors. They’re the ones
that brought this fever; the kitchen maid told me that. The
men are on the other side of the road so I slip quietly
behind a tree and stand there very still, my head down so
that my bonnet hides my face.
I will just have to wait until they pass, and then I will
turn left, go through two small lanes and then into Bargate.
The post-inn is in Bargate. The mail coach will set out at
midnight; I know that. I will be in plenty of time. I peep
out to see whether the sailors have gone as I can’t hear
And then something dreadful happens. The sailors have not
gone. They are all drinking from flagons. That’s why they’ve
stopped talking. Another sedan passes and the torch held by
one of the chairmen at the back casts a light over my face,
making me blink. There is a shout, a sort of a cheer from
across the road. ‘Look what I see!’ shouts one.
‘A little beauty,’ shouts another. He sounds quite drunk.
‘Come on, pretty girl. We’ll give you a good time.’ This
sailor puts down his flagon and starts to cross the road. I
shrink against the wall. My heart jumps and my mouth is dry.
I open my mouth to shriek, but no sound comes out. I used to
have nightmares like that sometimes, where I struggled to
scream but could not. It’s a cold night, but I feel sweat
run down between my shoulder blades.
And then there is a clatter of hoofs. An open-topped
barouche comes swiftly down the road, drawn by a pair of
grey horses. Two young men are in it. I think by their
uniforms that they are naval officers. ‘Whoa,’ shouts one of
them, and the horses stop with a skidding of hoofs and a
squeal. For a moment I think that I am completely lost, that
they will drag me into the barouche like what happened to
Clarissa in the novel Jane lent to me. I will be ruined.
But they are not looking at me.
They are shouting angrily, but not at me. They are scolding
the sailors for drinking in the street, for disgracing their
uniform, and they are telling them to get back on board
Suddenly my courage comes back. My gown is well looped up
over my petticoat, and my petticoat is quite short; it
barely reaches my ankles. I start to run as fast as I can.
The angry shouts ring out as I continue up the High Street,
but it is still the young naval officers shouting at the
drunken sailors. No one has seen me. And now I turn into the
I had been afraid that it would be very dark, but there is
an inn there, halfway up the lane, and the lights are on in
every window. Even the door stands open and lets a pool of
light come out on to the cobblestones. I tiptoe over their
bumpy, uneven surface. I will be able to go quickly once I
pass the inn, but I am scared of the rough voices that I
hear from within.
There is a sudden silence from the inn. I’m afraid that
someone has seen me and I step into a darkened doorway. I
wish that my cloak were a dark colour, but it is a light
blue, and my petticoat shows shockingly white below it. I
reach inside and let my gown down to cover the petticoat,
but the gown is also a pale blue; it will be easy to see
against the darkness of the door. Then there are a few notes
from a fiddle and someone starts to sing – a horrible, rude
song, but I don’t care.
The man sings so loudly and the noise as the others join in
is so deafening that it means that no one could possibly
hear the sound of my footsteps. I move on as quickly as I
can go, but I don’t run and I keep my face turned to the
wall as I pass the inn.
Now I am at the top of the lane. There is a house there with
a torch burning in the holder outside. All the windows are
lit up. I can see an oil lamp burning in the parlour. The
curtains are not closed so the light from the room spills
out. I wait for a minute there. My heart is still thumping
hard. I tell myself that I am just waiting for it to slow
down, but I know that I am too scared to go on. There is a
young lady sitting at the piano.
She turns her head and I can see that she is not much older
than me. She looks about seventeen. She has lovely curling
dark hair; some of it is piled up on top of her head, but
other long curls hang down behind her neck and a few fringe
her forehead. She is wearing a pale yellow gown and a string
of pearls around her neck. Although the window is closed, I
can hear the notes of the piano and the sound of a high,
sweet voice singing a love song.
One more lane to go and then I will be in Bargate. In the
distance I hear the watchman call out, ‘Half past the hour
of eleven o’clock and all is well.’ Only half past eleven
o’clock. That’s fine – still half an hour to go, and Bargate
is not far now. I linger for a few minutes; somehow I feel
safe there outside this well-lit house, but an elegant lady,
her hair piled on top of her head and powdered in the
old-fashioned way, comes to the window.
Her hand is on the cord of the window blind and for a moment
her eyes meet mine. Hers are full of curiosity and mine are
probably filled with panic. And so I turn away quickly and I
go on. I go into the second lane. My eyes are getting used
to the dim light and I don’t need to touch the wall. I am
clenching my fists so tightly that my nails are digging into
the palms of my hands. I know all the reasons why I should
not be out here alone at night-time. This town is rougher
than Bristol, and Mama would never dream of walking after
dark in Bristol.
But I also know that I must send this letter to Mrs Austen –
Jane’s life may depend on it – so I cannot give up. Now the
street is less crowded. I am trying to see the post-inn. It
should be near. I had passed it one day, but I cannot see it
now. I am straining my eyes so much to see it that I almost
don’t notice that a man with a sword is coming towards me.
He’s looking all around him, and his hand is on the hilt.
He hasn’t seen me yet, but he will do in a minute. I stop.
There is nowhere to hide. The man lifts the sword and
garde!’ Then he screams something. For a moment I
am frozen, just standing there, watching the light of the
street torches flash on the steel of the naked blade. He
draws back the sword and then makes a stabbing motion. The
sword is very near to me. I can’t move. My mouth is dry and
my legs have no strength in them. I feel paralysed. The man
He is staring straight at me, but I know from the strange
look in his eyes that he doesn’t see me. He doesn’t see a
sixteen-year-old girl, small for her age; he is seeing some
enemy. I don’t know the meaning of the words that he yells,
but I know that I must get away quickly. Now the man points
his sword at the ground and examines the blade carefully. He
is talking to himself in an angry, loud voice. He lifts the
sword again and it flashes in the torchlight. Suddenly the
strength comes back to my legs.
I turn round very quickly and start to run in the opposite
direction. The railings in front of the houses and the
bright rectangles of window light blur in front of my eyes.
My feet in their soft shoes patter on the cobblestones. My
chest hurts. I can hardly draw a breath.
I turn back into the lane.
And I run straight into another man. ‘What’s the matter?’ he
says, and he sounds quite alarmed. ‘Where are you off to,
young lady?’ I stand very still. He has a tight hold on my
arm and I don’t struggle. I just wait, my heart racing. I
think about resisting so that he has to let go of my arm,
but my legs are still so weak that I am quite glad to be
held. And then the dangerous-looking man with the sword
passes us, going straight along the well-lit street of Bargate.
His face is terribly scarred by a puckered line that runs
down one cheek from eye to chin. He takes no notice of us;
he is too busy looking over his shoulder and muttering
loudly to himself. His eyes are strange. I can see them
quite clearly in the light of the flaring pitch torch that
has been stuck into the gateway of a house by the roadside.
‘Whew!’ whistles the man, letting go of my arm and giving a
little bow. ‘That fellow looks dangerous.’ I look closely at
him now and I’m not so scared of him. He is very tall and
imposing, but quite young, and looks just like I imagine one
of Jane’s brothers to look. He catches my eye and smiles,
and his smile is so warm and his eyes so kind that I begin
to feel less frightened. ‘You’re too young to be out alone
in the streets of Southampton at this hour,’ he says. ‘How
old are you? Fifteen? What’s your name?’
‘My name is Jenny Cooper and I’m sixteen,’ I say, and I try
to sound annoyed and grown-up, but I can hear my voice shaking.
‘Captain Thomas Williams, at your service, Miss Cooper.’ He
bows again and I manage to drop a curtsy. He is very
handsome, with jet-black hair curling around his neck and
very dark brown eyes. I would like to ask him how old he is,
but I daren’t. He’s probably about the same age as Jane’s
It feels so strange, standing there in the street at night
with a man that I haven’t even been introduced to, a man
that I’ve never seen in my life, and another man, a madman,
walking up the street waving his sword, that I start to
giggle and then I think about poor Jane lying on the bed
muttering, her face red with the fever, and I feel so bad
about giggling when my best friend is so ill that I start to
‘Are you running away?’ He gives me a worried smile, and for
a moment looks as though he might move to comfort me, though
he can’t, of course.
It would be most improper. But for some reason I feel that I
can rely on him, and I begin to feel better. I shake my
head. The watchman has got to the top of the High Street
now. I see him turn round and start to march down towards us.
‘Take my arm, keep your head bowed so that your bonnet hides
your face, and we’ll just stroll along. Try to stop crying,
or else I’ll be in trouble with the watch.’
Captain Thomas Williams has tucked my hand through his arm
and he starts to saunter up the High Street, stopping from
time to time to look in the shop windows. He doesn’t say any
more until after the watchman has gone to check on the
locked gates of the Assembly Rooms and then he stops and
‘Seriously,’ he says, ‘I think you should go home. Running
away isn’t a good idea. I’ll take you home now. Where do you
‘I’m not running away!’ I nearly shout the words and then
lower my voice in case the night watchman hears me.
‘So where are you off to, then?’ He’s smiling, but he looks
a bit worried. I wonder if he’s sorry he met me. He probably
doesn’t want the responsibility of deciding what to do with me.
‘I’m going to the post-inn. I want to send a letter.’
‘A love letter?’
‘No, to my aunt.’ I hold up the letter so that he can see
the address and he looks surprised. ‘Wouldn’t the morning do?’
‘No,’ I say, and I tell him everything.
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