Publication Date: January 23, 2020
England, 1840. For the two decades following the death of her beloved sister Jane, Cassandra Austen has lived alone, spending her days visiting friends and relations and quietly, purposefully working to preserve her sister’s reputation. Now in her sixties and increasingly frail, Cassandra goes to stay with the Fowles of Kintbury, family of her long dead fiancé, in search of a trove of Jane’s letters. Dodging her hostess and a meddlesome housemaid, Cassandra eventually hunts down the letters and confronts the secrets that they hold, secrets not only about Jane but about Cassandra herself. Will Cassandra bare the most private details of her life to the world, or commit her sister’s legacy to the flames?
Moving back and forth between the vicarage and Cassandra’s vibrant memories of her years with Jane, interwoven with Jane’s brilliantly reimagined lost letters, Miss Austen is the untold story of the most important person in Jane’s life. With extraordinary empathy, emotional complexity, and wit, Gill Hornby’s finally given Cassandra her due, bringing to life a woman as captivating as any Austen heroine.
Now I know you may be thinking not another book about Jane Austen’s life, please; well, I’m happy to report that Miss Austen is different from the other Austen-related books out there. The vast majority of the books about the Austen family focus on Jane, which is only to be expected, but Miss Austen switches the focus to Cassandra – Jane’s sister. It is refreshing, to be honest.
Jane and Cassandra Austen, the only girls in a family with six sons, were close throughout their lives. Neither woman ever married, and the sisters lived together until Jane’s death in 1817. There are over one-hundred surviving letters between Jane and Cassandra, which have helped scholars gain an understanding of Jane’s life. Cassandra reportedly burned hundred’s of Jane’s letters after Jane’s death; no one knows the contents of these letters. Miss Austen explores what may have been written in these destroyed letters.
The line between fiction and reality is blurred in Miss Austen. Gill Hornby’s understanding of Jane and Cassandra’s life is so seamless that the fictional letters feel entirely realistic. I have a lot of admiration for authors who do their research, especially writers of historical fiction, and I am most impressed by Gill Hornby.
If you are looking for a fast-paced, plot-driven novel, then Miss Austen may not be the book for you. However, if you appreciate beautifully-written character studies, then I highly recommend this book. Fans of Jane Austen will certainly find enjoyment here. In fact, Miss Austen actually feels a bit like an Austen novel. It certainly has a similar tone, and many of the same themes. Miss Austen provides a fascinating insight into familial relationships during the time with Jane and Cassandra Austen lived, as well as the role of women during this time. Cassandra Austen is certainly worthy of being a classic Austen heroine. At the risk of sounding repetitive, I am impressed by Miss Austen and Gill Hornby.
Gill Hornby is an English author. She currently resides in Berkshire with her husband and their four children. She has written a number of books, including The Hive and All Together Now.
Miss Austen is a fascinating exploration of the relationship between Cassandra and Jane Austen. I think any fan of Jane Austen’s works will thoroughly enjoy this book.
My rating: ★★★★★
Waterstones (UK): here
Amazon (UK): here
Amazon (US): here