Miss Austen by Gill Hornby

MISS AUSTEN

GILLIAN HORNBY

England, 1840. For the two decades following the death of her beloved sister, Jane, Cassandra Austen has lived alone, spending her days visiting friends and relations and quietly, purposefully working to preserve her sister’s reputation.

Now in her sixties and increasingly frail, Cassandra goes to stay with the Fowles of Kintbury, family of her long-dead fiancé, in search of a trove of Jane’s letters.

Dodging her hostess and a meddlesome housemaid, Cassandra eventually hunts down the letters and confronts the secrets they hold, secrets not only about Jane but about Cassandra herself. Will Cassandra bare the most private details of her life to the world, or commit her sister’s legacy to the flames?

review

Miss Austen is set thirty years after the death of Jane Austen and focuses on her elder sister, Cassandra with whom she had a strong bond. Cassandra, now in her sixties, has taken it upon herself to protect the legacy of her sister now that she had become a celebrated author. When her friend Reverend Fowle dies, Cassandra heads to the rectory at Kintbury to retrieve letters that she and Jane wrote to the Reverend’s wife, Eliza, as she does not want the personal details to go public.

While at the rectory, Cassandra reflects on the future of Isabella, the daughter of the Reverend Fowle, who is now in her forties, Isabella now has the task of packing up the rectory so the new vicar can move in. Still unmarried, Cassandra believes Isabella’s only option is to make a home with her sisters but none of them seem enthused with the idea and Cassandra’s meddling is causing more harm that good as she doesn’t have a complete grasp of the situation.

When Cassandra finds the letters, she starts reminiscing about her life and the narrative splits between the past and the present. One of the biggest themes of the novel is the lack of security for unmarried women and the anxiety expressed by both Jane and Cassandra is palpable. When their father retires from the rectory, the sisters are forced out of the only home they have ever known and relocate to Bath, however their poor finances force them to move frequently. While Cassandra adapts readily, she knows Jane needs stability and the constant moving is taking its toll on her mental health. The dilemma facing the sisters becomes even more precarious when their father dies and they have to rely on their brothers for an income.

Cassandra, Jane, and their mother finally gain security when they are offered a cottage on the Chawton estate by their brother Edward and Jane was finally able to turn her full attention back to her writing and began to publish them anonymously. The books were published anonymously as it was unseemly for ladies to have a writing career at that time but were a moderate success. There are some fun comments from the less impressed members of Jane’s family who believe her novels will not bring her lasting fame. The sisterly bond between Cassandra and Jane is very evident throughout the novel and it is genuinely heartbreaking when Jane dies. Cassandra outlives her sister by about thirty years but there is very much a sense that Jane is always with her.

While Cassandra really did destroy a lot of Jane’s letters, they are recreated in this novel imaginatively and since the later ones focus on Cassandra’s fears for her sister as Jane’s health deteriorates, you can understand why Cassandra chose to destroy them. The letters also capture Jane’s wittiness and dry sense of humour so they are also very entertaining.

The book is slow-paced so won’t be for everyone but I loved being part of Jane and Cassandra’s world and it was recreated in such a wonderful way. The author doesn’t try to imitate Jane’s style but you definitely feel like you are part of her world and Cassandra’s meddling with Isabella’s living arrangements could have easily been part of one of Jane’s novels. I loved it so much I’ve already started Godmersham Park.