Vivien had lost count of the number of times young female students and staff from the surrounding universities and museums had come into the shop asking for certain women authors, only to be met with an unexpected lack of success. Only Agatha Christie, Nancy Mitford, and Daphne du Maurier could reliably be found on the shelves, mostly because they continued to produce and sell and were therefore harder to ignore.
Bloomsbury Girls was a very pleasant read with a great ending but I didn’t like it as much as The Jane Austen Society. I think that maybe the small village bucolic setting gave me a Deja Vue nostalgia that called up so many gentle English countryside novels and cozy mysteries that I have read over the years. The very insularity appealed to me for whatever reason. Of course, the ties to Jane Austen and the shades of her novels in the characters and their relationships were also a plus.
This one is set in bustling post-war London. This is probably an advantage over JAS for most readers, and I was looking forward to the change of scene as well. It centers around 3 underestimated women working in a new, used, and collectible bookstore run by men. At Bloomsbury Books Daphne DuMaurier is referred to as “that romance writer.” Beautiful Vivien, whose fiance was killed in WWII is smarter, more talented, and more business-minded than all of the men in higher positions, but since she is a woman, she doesn’t get the opportunity to enact her progressive ideas. Until she does. Grace is Vivien’s friend and the secretary to the “shaky but iron-fisted” manager of the bookstore with his 51 inflexible rules. She sympathizes with Vivien, but she is a peacekeeper, not a rabble-rouser. She is trapped in a bad and emotionally abusive marriage, with seemingly no way out. And last but not least, we have Evie Stone, a favorite character from The Jane Austen Society. Evie is one of the first women graduates of Cambridge but has been denied a career in academia because of sexism and the political “old boy system”. She takes a job organizing and cataloging the huge and constantly growing rare books section of Bloomsbury books. But she has an ulterior motive. Thanks to her brilliant work with Jane Austen’s family library, she knows there is a book there somewhere that she has to find. Her ultimate dream is to see that long-forgotten and neglected works by women authors of the past are brought to light and properly recognized.
Evie often found herself frustrated by the discrepancy between the archival preservation of male writing and that of their female counterparts—how every sketch of a twig that [famed 18thc. Botanist] John Loudon had ever even whimsically composed was being carefully safeguarded by several British museums, while an entire novel by his wife had become only a minor footnote in the record of her husband’s work.
Real Life historical figures in the book world of the day all play a part in how the women achieve their dreams, with an assist from another important (fictional) character from The Jane Austen Society. And it is pretty spectacular how the three women escape from the bonds of tradition, sexism, and stagnation. It’s pretty clear that Natalie Jenner was inspired by real-life events and women who moved the needle forward for female empowerment. Towards the end, the series of events which by cause and surprising effect upend the bookstore, the opportunities for our heroines, and the academic establishment itself is tightly woven and immensely satisfying. But getting to that end was at times a bit too slow-moving and meandering, which the fast-paced and well-constructed last quarter of the book only highlighted.
Of course, I rarely read a book that doesn’t have at least a little romance. And two of the three stories were charming in that regard. The third started out very promisingly but was stymied by the irritating character traits and bad behavior of the couple. Although I wasn’t bowled over by the book as a whole, many aspects kept my interest going, and the way it all ended made up for most of the more frustrating aspects.
September 17, 2022