What a delicious first chapter there is to Miss Austen by Gill Hornby. Elderly Cassandra Austen arrives unannounced to visit a family friend in Kintbury, endures a parsimonious supper and a difficult evening without much conversation. Why, I wondered, is Cassandra there. And then at bedtime, comes a hint at her reason. Cassandra visits Isabella, a family friend who is grieving the death of her father. Cassandra’s objective, is to retrieve any incriminating letters between her sister Jane and Isabella’s mother, Eliza, before Isabella leaves the family vicarage. With both letter writers dead, and knowledge of the novelist Jane Austen more widely sought than ever before, Cassandra is anxious to protect Jane’s legacy.
What follows is a gentle telling of the sisters’ relationship as Hornby pieces together the real letters of the Austen sisters and the known biography of the family, combined with events and dialogue of her own imagination. This is a meandering read without a real focus, there is the imagined threat to Jane’s reputation as Cassandra searches for the missing letters under threat of exposure by her sister-in-law Mary. But this threat is not wholly formed and the story goes back and forth between Cassandra reading the letters at the dead of night, to key times in the life of Jane.
Not until three-quarters of the way through does the dilemma becomes personal to Cassandra. Until this point, it is oddly numb. Cassandra has been seeking private – and very personal – letters written to Eliza but instead finds letters that cast what she, Cassandra, believes to be a bad light on her own life. Not Jane’s. The stakes are raised and I wanted to see more than a snapshot of the man involved and don’t really care if he was a real person or the author’s invention.
Cassandra in her old age is dismissive of those who do not read or don’t appreciate the art of her sister’s books, and has a lack of interest in anyone not an Austen. ‘Those other mortals, whose poor veins must somehow pulse with no Austen blood in them, always appeared to her comparatively pale’. This quote reminded me of Marianne’s dismissal of Edward’s underwhelming reading of Shakespeare sonnets and made me want a 360 degree picture of Cassandra’s own life.
I finished Miss Austen reflecting on the difficulty of writing this novel. What an awkward task it is for an author, to balance biography and real letters with invention and how strong must be the impulse to stick with the truth. I longed for Hornby to take a bigger risk and show us more of the life, and loves, Cassandra may have had.
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If you like this, try:-
‘After Leaving Mr Mackenzie’ by Jean Rhys
‘The Confessions of Frannie Langton’ by Sara Collins
‘Amy Snow’ by Tracy Rees
And if you’d like to tweet a link to THIS post, here’s my suggested tweet:
MISS AUSTEN by @GillHornby #bookreview https://wp.me/p5gEM4-4iB via @SandraDanby