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Miss Austen: A Novel of the Austen Sisters


Miss Austen: A Novel of the Austen Sisters

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single reader in possession of a good deal of unoccupied free time must be in want of a scintillating literary mystery. Luckily for this quarantined reader, Gill Hornby has provided just that with the release of MISS AUSTEN, a fictionalization of the final years of Jane Austen’s sister, Cassandra, and her devastating decision to burn and otherwise destroy Jane’s letters in an attempt to preserve Jane's legacy. Written with empathy, a keen love of Austen and her family, and a hearty dose of Austen-like wit, this is a captivating tale for lovers of both Jane Austen and historical fiction.

As the only girls in their large nuclear family, Cassandra and Jane were unusually close for the time, and their letters, which detailed their various interactions with friends and suitors, provided much of the groundwork for Austen’s beloved works. Unfortunately for Austen aficionados, Cassandra is reported to have destroyed two-thirds of Jane's letters in 1843, a couple of years before her own death. In MISS AUSTEN, Hornby alternates between an elderly Cassandra hunting down Jane’s most private correspondences and a young Cassandra as she loses her betrothed, then her home, and finally Jane.

When we meet Cassandra, the year is 1840, and she is in her 60s. She has just arrived in Kintbury, at the vicarage of her extended family, the Fowles, now housing only Isabella, the niece of her former fiancé, Tom. Isabella’s father, Fulwar Craven, has just died, which means that poor, spinsterly Isabella has only two weeks to vacate the vicarage, her beloved home of 45 years. Cassandra knows it is an unfortunate time for Isabella to host a visitor, but that is precisely the reason she has come: she and Jane were dear friends of Isabella’s mother, Eliza, and Cassandra knows that Eliza held on to their many correspondences. With the Austen legacy at risk, she has arrived at Kintbury under the guise of helping Isabella pack up, but with the real goal of searching the house for these letters, reviewing them for any unflattering sections, and ultimately destroying them.

"Written with empathy, a keen love of Austen and her family, and a hearty dose of Austen-like wit, this is a captivating tale for lovers of both Jane Austen and historical fiction."

As Cassandra settles into Kintbury, she is plagued by grief-fueled memories of the past. After all, the vicarage was where she once spent happy evenings with Tom. As she recalls the past and her dealings with the Fowles (many of whom became her sisters-in-law), the narrative alternates between her memories and the present, with each chapter informing and fleshing out the next. With the focus finally on the other Austen sister, we are given a more thorough portrayal of life in the Austen family --- their joys, tragedies and tremendous love for one another, a unique trait at the time.

Unfortunately, Cassandra’s story is one of grief: she loses Tom to yellow fever when he is sailing the Caribbean as part of a military expedition as chaplain to his cousin. Though Tom made Cassandra promise to marry if he did not return, he also left his inheritance to her, providing her with the means to forego marriage, at least for a little while. Bound by grief, like her sister, Cassandra refuses to ever marry. She spends the rest of her days laughing with and encouraging Jane and watching the relationships of her brothers grow, stumble and fall apart.

Most interesting in Cassandra’s memories of the past is Mary, the disagreeable wife of her brother, James. Mary was the one to --- gleefully --- break the news of Tom’s death to the Austens and steal their home of Steventon from them by encouraging her husband to succeed his father far sooner than planned. And now, in 1840, it is Mary who Cassandra fears most, for she, too, is talking about compiling a family history. Cassandra knows that she will delight in airing the Austens’ --- and particularly Jane’s --- dirty laundry. With the pressure on, and further details of Mary’s wickedness revealed with nearly every memory, MISS AUSTEN takes on the suspenseful air of a mystery as Cassandra races to find every letter she needs to save Jane’s legacy. With skillful pacing and a flair for suspense, Hornby also reveals the contents of those letters and how they could damage the Austens’ reputation.

Through Cassandra’s grief and loyalty, Hornby paints the portrait of a steadfast, accommodating woman who, upon losing the future that was promised to her, devoted all of her life and energy to serving her family. This included acting as a buffer for Jane, the more feisty of the two, helping her sisters-in-law deliver and care for their children, and tend to the senior Austens as they grew old. But Cassandra also had her own private dreams and fears, and Hornby skillfully divulges them through snippets of Austen’s letters, Cassandra’s flashbacks, and tidbits revealed by other members of the family who show up at Kintbury to help pack.

Interwoven with historical research about the roles of women at the time (and the judgment of spinsters like the misses Austen), the story of Cassandra’s life draws a heartfelt and emotionally tense picture of a woman at odds with her time. As Hornby reminds us, females, especially single ones, were often dependent upon the mercy and generosity of others, a cause that stirs up great feelings in Cassandra, especially when she realizes the severity of Isabella’s situation.

Those who are not as invested in the life of Jane Austen will still find something to enjoy in MISS AUSTEN, as Cassandra’s story takes the forefront, and her narrative is fleshed out by strong, detail-filled historical fiction. But it is lovers of Austen’s work who will find themselves enthralled by Hornby’s masterful portrait of Cassandra and, through her loving eyes, of Jane herself. Even more impressive is the way that Hornby’s writing mirrors that of Jane’s; she manages to effect the same keen observations and wit, making the book a lovely homage to the writer. The Jane revealed through Hornby’s writing of Cassandra is beloved and treasured within the family, but still thorny, to say the least.

As the years pass, Jane’s crystalline wit morphs into cynicism, and she becomes, in Cassandra’s words, “an unhappy woman who refused to pretend to be anything but.” Pitched against her sister’s often unpleasant demeanor, Cassandra remains devoted to the notion that there is but one fact allowed to “walk with the novels into posterity”: that her sister had known no drama and no crises. At the same time, she learns that it is impossible to control the narrative of one family’s history (though, as we know now, she was pretty successful).

The loss of Jane Austen’s letters is one of the heartbreaks of the literary world, and though we can understand Cassandra’s desire to protect her sister, it is still crushing. But in MISS AUSTEN, this is outweighed by the intentions behind it, leaving us with an emotionally resonant, deeply complex imagining of the real contents of these letters --- and a humbling respect for their disappearance and the woman who orchestrated it.

Reviewed by Rebecca Munro on April 24, 2020

Miss Austen: A Novel of the Austen Sisters
by Gill Hornby

  • Publication Date: March 16, 2021
  • Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction
  • Paperback: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Flatiron Books
  • ISBN-10: 1250252210
  • ISBN-13: 9781250252210