Sunday 10 May 2020

Miss Austen by Gill Hornby - Review

US cover: Miss Austen by Gill Hornby
Today I’m bringing you my review of Miss Austen by Gill Hornby. It’s not about that Miss Austen, but the other one, Jane’s sister, Miss Cassandra Austen. Let’s start with the blurb:

Book Description

Whoever looked at an elderly lady and saw the young heroine she once was?

England, 1840. Two decades after the death of her beloved sister, Jane, Cassandra Austen returns to the village of Kintbury and the home of her family friends, the Fowles. In a dusty corner of the vicarage, there is a cache of Jane’s letters that Cassandra is desperate to find. 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?

Moving back and forth between the vicarage and Cassandra’s vibrant memories of her years with Jane, interwoven with Jane’s brilliantly reimagined lost letters, Miss Austen is the untold story of the most important person in Jane’s life. With extraordinary empathy, emotional complexity, and wit, Gill Hornby finally gives Cassandra her due, bringing to life a woman as captivating as any Austen heroine.

US cover: Miss Austen by Gill Hornby
Miss Austen by Gill Hornby – My Review

The Miss Austen of the title of this book is Cassandra Austen, Jane’s elder and only sister. What do we know about Cassandra? Well, we know that she and Jane were extremely close, sharing a bedroom when at home. They were best friends and confidants. When Jane Austen died, Cassandra wrote a letter to their niece, Fanny, which contains the following, which never fails to bring a tear to my eye:
I have lost a treasure, such a sister, such a friend as never can have been surpassed. She was the sun of my life, the gilder of every pleasure, the soother of every sorrow; I had not a thought concealed from her, and it is as if I had lost a part of myself.
We know that Cassandra, too, never married. She was engaged in her youth to Tom Fowle, who was hoping to become a clergyman, but he died abroad before they could marry.

Another well-known fact is that Cassandra Austen destroyed and redacted a lot of Jane’s history. She cut bits out of some letters and burned many others.

Miss Austen picks up with Cassandra in her late 60s. In this book she not only intends to destroy the letters that Jane wrote to her, but also those that she wrote to other people, if she is able to get her hands on them. She has travelled to the home of Tom Fowle’s brother. He has recently died and Cassandra, ostensibly there to help his daughter prepare to vacate the house, instead is hoping to track down the letters that Jane would have written to her friend, Mrs Eliza Fowle. Cassy is successful in locating the letters, and as she reads them, we are taken back in Cassy’s mind to her younger days, the times that Jane is writing about.

Gill Hornby puts forward two main motivations for Cassandra’s actions. Firstly,  she is trying to preserve her sister in as positive a light as possible, believing that Jane’s work will continue to excite interest in the future:
Cassandra was the executor of her sister’s estate: the keeper of her flame; the protector of her legacy. In the time that was left to her, she was determined to find and destroy any evidence that might compromise Jane’s reputation.
The fact that she needed a bonfire to destroy the amount she censored makes you wonder how much of Jane’s correspondence and manuscripts contained evidence of her wicked wit!

Miss Cassandra Austen
Miss Cassandra Austen
The second reason is down to privacy, both Jane's and her own. Letter writing was a big part of the lives of Georgian/Regency ladies. When families and friends were apart so much of their interaction must have been written. That so much was destroyed leads one to suppose that there were confidences and innermost feelings that Cassandra didn’t want other people to see.
She pictured her sister-in-law Mary reading them, spreading the contents, passing them on. She imagined the next generation examining her own traces as if she were a South Dorset fossil.
I thought this story was beautifully done. I loved the intermingling of the facts that we know with an imagining of the lengths Cassandra might have gone to in order to edit the evidence of Jane’s personality and past. I loved the flashbacks to years gone by when Cassandra remembered the events from Jane’s life and her own that she was trying to suppress. The flashbacks range from Cassandra’s engagement in 1794 to Jane’s death in 1817.

I particularly enjoyed the excerpts from Jane’s letters (the ones that Cassandra planned to burn). Enough of Jane Austen’s letters exist for us to have a flavour of her style. She wrote very amusing letters, and I felt that the author did a great job of making the letter seem like something Jane might have written, such as this one, on her first impressions of Bath:
In the meantime, we have been here three days and I have yet to meet a gentleman below the age of one hundred.
I found the story really touching, seeing Cassandra’s devotion to her sister, and preserving her privacy and her legacy. I feel that this part at least probably reflects reality, as it’s an agreed fact that Cassandra actively destroyed a lot of documents. I also found the story a little sad, as in this rendition at least, Cassandra lets chances of personal happiness pass her by partly in order to prioritise her sister’s happiness. Whether or not that was the case, I don’t know, but it made me sad to think of it, particularly as the two things needn’t have been mutually exclusive.

Like many people, previously I felt it was a shame that Cassandra had purged so much of the documentation that would have made it possible for us to learn more about Jane Austen. This story gives a personal touch, portraying how that idea might have felt to somebody who didn’t see Austen as the commodity of a great author, but wanted to protect her as a person and ensure that her private life didn’t become public record.
These are the things by which most of us are remembered, these small acts of love, the only evidence that we, too, once lived on this earth. The preserves in the larder, the stitch on the kneeler. The mark of the pen on the page.
I thought this story was wonderful, and I would heartily recommend reading it. Big fat 5 stars from me.

5 star read

*My thanks to Flatiron Books, who provided me with a copy of this book for my honest review.

I understand that this book has been optioned for a movie, which is very exciting. Let’s hope it comes to fruition!

Author Bio

Gill Hornby is the author of the novels The Hive and All Together Now, as well as The Story of Jane Austen, a biography of Austen for young readers. She lives in Kintbury, Berkshire, with her husband and their four children.

(When I looked up Gill Hornby’s bio to add to this blog post I realised that she has some famous literary connections – she is married to novelist Robert Harris and her brother is Nick Hornby. Whaaaaat?!

Also, she lives in Kintbury, where much of Miss Austen is set, as it’s where the Fowle family lived. Double Whaaaaaaat?!)

Buy Links

US cover: Miss Austen by Gill Hornby
US Cover-++
This book is available to buy in both ebook and paperback. In the US it’s published by Cornerstone/Flatiron Books - Buy it here!

UK cover: Miss Austen by Gill Hornby
UK Cover
In the UK it’s published by Penguin - Buy it Here!

Why not add it to your Goodreads shelf

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  1. I just got given this for Mother's Day today, can't wait to read it! And would definitely see it if it was made in to a movie!

    1. I think it would work really well on screen. I hope it gets made!

  2. I thought this version of Cassandra's story was just lovely. Glad to see what you thought, Ceri.

    1. I did too! Thanks so much for commenting, Sophia.

  3. I have not read this but would like to do so. Thanks for sharing here.

    1. I hope you enjoy it if you read it. It's well worth a read in my opinion :)

  4. So very glad to hear your praise for this story, Ceri!! And I don't think I heard about the movie option...that would be so fantastic!!

    1. It would be fantastic, if it happens!


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