The final book I read in 2021 was one that I very much enjoyed: Gill Hornby’s Miss Austen. The title character is not, as you might expect, the famous novelist Jane Austen, but her elder sister Cassandra. Cassandra, who outlived Jane by nearly thirty years, is known to have burned many of her sister’s letters, although we don’t know exactly why she did this. In this fictional version of Cassandra Austen’s story, Hornby explores a possible reason for the destruction of the letters, while also giving us a glimpse into the lives of Cassandra, Jane and the rest of the Austen family.
The novel opens in 1840 with Cassandra, now an elderly woman, arriving at Kintbury, home of the Fowles, the family of her long-dead fiancé. Following the death of the Reverend Fowle, his daughter Isabella has been left to pack up her parents’ belongings so that a new reverend can move in. Cassandra believes that the letters she and Jane wrote to their friend Eliza Fowle (Isabella’s mother) must still be in the house somewhere and she is determined to find them and remove them before they can be made public.
The story unfolds through the letters Cassandra discovers at Kintbury (not the real letters, of course, as they were destroyed) and through Cassandra’s memories of her younger days. The narrative moves back and forth in time as she remembers the loss of Tom Fowle, the man she should have married, her relationship with Jane and the lives they both led as single women. In the 1840s storyline, we also get to know Isabella, another spinster, and this provides some further insights into what it means to be an unmarried woman in the early 19th century: the lack of security; the pressures created by failing to conform to society’s expectations; and the feeling of being a burden to other family members.
This is a quiet, domestic novel, but I was never bored. There is an authentic period feel and although Hornby doesn’t try to imitate Jane Austen’s writing exactly, the language used generally feels suitable for the time. I enjoyed the occasional references to Jane’s novels, some of which we see her working on and others which the characters read to each other for entertainment. There’s an interesting suggestion that Jane based Mary Bennet in Pride and Prejudice on her sister-in-law, Mary Austen. Most of all, I enjoyed learning a little bit about Cassandra and the world in which she lived.
I had never come across Gill Hornby before, but it seems that not only is she the sister of the writer Nick Hornby, she is also married to one of my favourite authors, Robert Harris! Her earlier novels sound very different and don’t really appeal to me, but I’ve discovered that she has a new book out later this year – Godmersham Park, about a governess in the Austen household. I will be looking out for that one.