Bloomsbury Girls by Natalie Jenner: Book Review
Have you heard of Persephone Books, a unique – I use the word deliberately – bookstore originally located in London and recently moved to Bath of Jane Austen fame? I didn’t have one either until I was looking for a Christmas present for a relative and came across this independent publishing house that reprints overlooked works by late 19th and 20th century female writers. Some works of men are included!
The reason I bring up this subject, admittedly rather bizarrely when reviewing the latest work by Oakville author Natalie Jenner, is that while your review delved into the comings and goings, struggles and the triumphs of the three women working in the fictional Bloomsbury Books, a century-old Bookshop In Lamb’s Conduit in Bloomsbury, London, the real Persephone Books keep coming to mind. Then low and behold, in the epilogue to this delightful novel, what else can I find but Ms Jenner’s tribute for the ‘creative and imaginative debt’ she owes to the women-led Persephone books .
She may feel in debt, but her new novel, Bloomsbury Girls, is an entertaining and nuanced fictional recreation of women’s working lives in the 1940s – I can vouch for the vibe of having vague childhood memories of this dismal decade. Wry, with a light touch to the character of the novel, as well as an impeccable research of the time with the appearance of well-known literary figures of the time, like Nancy Mitford and Evelyn Waugh.
Three “girls” toil daily under the direction of their male superiors. Beautiful Vivien, whose titled fiancé was killed in World War II, sole breadwinner Grace, torn between her dreams and caring for her war-shattered husband and two young boys. And Evie Stone!
Does the name mean anything to you? This will be the case if you’ve read Jenner’s previous novel, The Jane Austen Society. Young Evie, once a handyman maid and instrumental in this fictional account of the founding of the now famous society, is, when Bloomsbury Girls opens, one of the first female Cambridge students to graduate. . With her plans for a college future going awry, Evie seeks a job at the bookstore.
Life isn’t easy for these three women, whose working lives are governed by literally dozens of rules that they must obey, but often bend or in at least one case simply disobey in one of many delightful examples of l subtle humor of the book:
‘Rule No. 26; no personal visits take place on the premises of the store.
‘Why Hello!’ is the obvious greeting to a friend!
Ms. Jenner always wanted to be a writer, even when she trained and practiced as a lawyer; indeed, she confesses to having written five books without any success before abandoning her dream and opening a small bookstore in downtown Oakville. Her husband’s sudden and debilitating illness caused her to close her bookstore, but his subsequent medical stabilization gave her enough peace of mind to write The Jane Austen Society, her first published novel that quickly became a bestseller. .
Bloomsbury Girls is not a traditional sequel to The Jane Austen Society, but events from that first novel are mentioned here and there, and several characters, especially young Evie, appear in both books. I am reliably informed that there will be a third book completing this unusual and refreshing trilogy.
by Natalie Jenner will be published by St. Martin’s Press on May 17, 2022, in paperback form for $23.99.