Saturday, April 04, 2020

Miss Austen by Gill Hornby, a novel of Cassandra Austen and her family's legacy

The subject of Gill Hornby’s book may not fit your initial guess. Cassandra Austen was the eldest sister in her large family, and it was she who was known as “Miss Austen” in her lifetime. Indeed, she outlived her beloved Jane by more than twenty-five years.

Miss Austen is a gently understated story told with delicate formality and abundant wit, as you’d expect from any Austen-focused novel. In 1840, Cassandra leaves her cottage at Chawton to visit the vicarage at Kintbury, a place that would have been her home if her fiancé Tom Fowle hadn’t died young. The Fowles are longtime family friends, and Tom’s sister-in-law, Eliza, had been a close confidante of both Austen sisters. With an eye to preserving Jane’s reputation and keeping her secrets private, Cassandra needs to find and destroy the letters they exchanged with Eliza before anyone else sees them and (horrors) thinks about publishing them.

Isabella Fowle, Tom’s sister, is being made to vacate Kintbury, her family residence for nearly a century, to make room for a new vicar, and she and her watchful servant are busy with packing and moving out. Cassandra’s visit isn’t convenient, and she knows it, but she feels desperate. Though her mind is still intact at 67, Cassandra feigns occasional senility to get her way, which creates amusing scenes.

When Cassandra finds a stash of letters, she pounces on and conceals them; their correspondence (imaginatively re-created by Hornby) takes her back to her and Jane’s earlier life, when they were young women pondering their futures. “I must admit we are a quite splendidly dull bunch, to whom nothing of interest occurred,” she tells Isabella, while knowing the letters will reveal otherwise. Some details, though, are so unexpected that they make Cassandra consider what legacy she, herself, wants to leave behind.

Hornby nicely evokes common Austen themes, such as women’s dependence on their male relatives – a serious fact they can never forget – and the close bonds of sisterhood. On the latter note, Cassandra sees Isabella, a single woman of forty she’s known all her life, as a kindred spirit. As such, she doesn’t understand why Isabella doesn’t want to move in with her own sisters – “Her sisters were her future; single women have only each other… It was something else to be accomplished before she left here.” Sharing reminiscences, they seem so alike otherwise, even sharing a dryly humorous disdain of Sir Walter Scott’s novels, with their “many, many words in them,” as Isabella explains: “They seem to take up too much of everybody’s time.”

No knowledge of Jane Austen’s life or works is prerequisite to reading this novel, while those who are already fans will want to dive in. Although Jane has a pivotal role, Cassandra takes the spotlight, and Hornby persuasively imagines the circumstances that shaped both women’s lives and decisions.

Miss Austen will be published by Flatiron Books on April 7th in the US.  Thanks to the publisher for providing me with an e-galley.

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