Miss Austen by Gill Hornby

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.

16 thoughts on “Miss Austen by Gill Hornby

  1. Lark says:

    I like the sound of this one. I admit, I don’t know much about Cassandra Austen, other than the fact she was Jane’s older sister. And how cool that Gill Hornby is Nick Hornby’s sister. 🙂

  2. Margaret Skea says:

    This is definitely going onto my tbr – likely close to the top – once I finish my binge reading of Lexie Coyningham’s Orkney Murders series – new to me as I don’t often read crime and have only ever once read Viking related stories – Robert Low’s – but as my husband’s family came from Orkney I couldn’t resist these. Book 1 finished, and books 2 + 3 downloaded. Thanks for the recommendation.

    • Helen says:

      I would definitely recommend adding this one to the TBR. I’ve never come across Lexie Coyningham, but I think Orkney is a fascinating setting.

  3. cirtnecce says:

    What a great review Helen! I love the sound of focusing on Cassandra for a change and it seems like the author did an awesome job of judiciously weaving fact and fiction. I am putting this down as my next read!

  4. Margaret says:

    I’ve had a copy of this book for a couple of years and reading your post has prompted me to star reading it – and I’m already hooked. I like Gill Hornby’s style of writing – I hadn’t heard of her before either. And now I’m thinking of rereading Persuasion, as Cassandra is reading it to Isabella.

    • Helen says:

      I’m glad you’re enjoying it, Margaret. Persuasion is probably my favourite Jane Austen book and seeing Cassandra and Isabella reading it made me want to read it again too!

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