About the Book:
A wonderfully original, emotionally complex novel that delves into why Cassandra burned a treasure trove of letters written by her sister, Jane Austen – an act of destruction that has troubled academics for centuries.
1840: twenty three years after the death of her famous sister Jane, Cassandra Austen returns to the village of Kintbury, and the home of her family’s friends, the Fowles.
She knows that, in some dusty corner of the sprawling vicarage, there is a cache of family letters which hold secrets she is desperate should not be revealed.
As Cassandra recalls her youth and her relationship with her brilliant yet complex sister, she pieces together buried truths about Jane’s history, and her own. And she faces a stark choice: should she act to protect Jane’s reputation? Or leave the contents of the letters to go unguarded into posterity …
Based on a literary mystery that has long puzzled biographers and academics, Miss Austen is a wonderfully original and emotionally complex novel about the loves and lives of Cassandra and Jane Austen.
‘Happy endings are there for us somewhere, woven into the mix of life’s fabric. We just have to search the detail, follow the pattern, to find the one that should be our own.’
Despite having read and loved Jane Austen’s novels for decades now, I’ve never taken it upon myself to find out anything about her, so the literary mystery that this novel is inspired by was entirely new to me. Partially narrated by Cassandra Austen, Jane’s beloved sister, and partially epistolary, Miss Austen is a delightful family story of love, humour, obligation and sadness, with a touch of mystery. Gill Hornby has set the story up in a way that allows the reader to get to know Jane both personally, through letters, and within the context of her family. However, the author does point out, that the letters contained within the novel are wholly fictional. Even so, a great deal of research has informed the story and my feeling overall while reading was that I was getting a good sense of not just who Jane was, but all of the Austen family.
‘Jane had only two moods: sullen and silent, or brittle and wicked. Neither was easy on the household, and only Cassy could manage her. Mrs Austen was quite close to despair. But then she did not notice that which had struck Cassy. Those foul moods persisted only until the moment when Jane was free to pick up her pen. After an hour or two alone with her thoughts and her writing, she returned – as if purified – to something almost like calm. And at night, when it was just the two of them in their room, she was the happiest of all.’
Cassandra is the true heroine of this story and I enjoyed spending time with her immensely. She has her own story tinged with tragedy and loss, directed by obligation, love, and a promise made in haste. She was a woman who was fundamentally good, selfless, always kind, intelligent and frequently amusing, yet far from perfect, making her an entirely likeable narrator. That her own story, so entwined with Jane’s, needed protection as well, even if it was just for privacy rather than reputation, came as no surprise.
‘Worse yet was the fear that these letters might somehow fall into the hands of a stranger. Cassandra could never surrender the hope that there would one day be a greater appetite for Jane’s novels; that this could bring a new interest in the life of the author had long been a matter of dread. Now in that moment, she felt the dawning awareness of a whole other danger. For was there not a chance – remote and, yes, possibly ridiculous – that even her own life might then be trespass upon? After all, Jane’s story and her own could not be separated: they were bound tight together to form one complete history. On the fortunes of the other, each life had turned.’
Miss Austen really is an endearing novel and even though we shouldn’t go around judging books by their covers, I have to say: have you seen that cover?! It’s so beautiful, and while it’s hard to see from just a picture, all of the ‘stitching’ is embossed, giving it a realistic illusion. But you can rest assured, the story inside more than measures up to the lovely cover. I highly recommend this to Austen fans, along with those who love historical fiction, but I will just note, a familiarity with Jane Austen’s novels will greatly enhance your enjoyment of this one in terms of literary context.
Thanks is extended to Penguin Random House Australia for providing me with a copy of Miss Austen for review.
About the Author:
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, England, with her husband and their four children.
Published by Century
Released 21st January 2020