Happy New Year Janeites! I am starting off the new decade by introducing you to a fabulous forthcoming book in the Austenesque genre, Miss Austen, by Gill Hornby.
I had the great pleasure of reading an early manuscript of Hornby’s new novel Miss Austen last year. If like me, you have always been baffled by Jane Austen’s older sister Cassandra destroying much of her sister’s correspondence after her death and are curious why she felt she needed to do so, this forthcoming novel which releases on April 7th fills in the story, and much more. I was moved by this beautiful and engaging story and I hope that you will be intrigued by the book description and the exclusive excerpt here and add it to your TBR pile. There is also an announcement of a sweepstake by the author’s publisher Flatiron Books of a giveaway of five (5) copies of an advance reader’s copy of the book. Enjoy, and good luck to all.
For fans of Jo Baker’s Longbourn, a witty, poignant novel about Cassandra Austen and her famous sister, Jane.
Whoever looked at an elderly lady and saw the young heroine she once was? 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 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 finally gives Cassandra her due, bringing to life a woman as captivating as any Austen heroine.
Cassandra sipped at her tea, quite lost for words. It was not the first time that she had heard this assumption: that the divine blessing of a male presence somehow made a household more desirable, superior. But to hear it from a woman who had suffered sticks to the head? Now, that was a novelty indeed. Isabella had clearly not grasped the truth of her own situation: her sisters were her future; single women have only each other. For many, mutual support was their only means of financial survival, but for most it brought other riches with it: a whole wealth of comfort, companionship and joy. Isabella must learn this; Cassandra must teach her. It was something else to be accomplished before she left here.
“It will all fall into place, I am sure of it. Now,” Cassandra was bright but firm, “let us read together, to take our minds off it all. I am not convinced these long, silent evenings of unemployment are entirely good for you. There are no spirits so low that a good novel cannot raise them.”
“A novel?” Isabella put down her saucer with a rattle. “I believe I already mentioned: I do not enjoy novels.”
“I am not suggesting we drag ourselves through The Peveril of the Peak. That is no remedy for anything at all. I was thinking of one of my sister’s. You already know them, I am sure.”
Isabella shook her head, and showed no enthusiasm. “I believe my mother read and enjoyed them. But Papa did not permit them to be read aloud – or not that I remember. He had heard they were not of much interest.” She thought, and added:” But then I never found much of interest in Sir Walter Scott.”
“My dear Isabella.” Cassandra reached down, opened her valise and brought out the one book that never left her. “Now your father is no longer here to offer guidance and wisdom in all the many matters on which he was so very expert, I think it may be time for you to embark on the development of your own tastes.” She opened it at the beginning. “Of course, I am prejudiced, but I believe you might enjoy this.” It did not now matter that her eyes were old and the lamplight was dim. Cassandra knew every word of it by heart:
“Sir Walter Elliot, of Kellynch-Hall, in Somersetshire, was a man…..”
Isabella sat, studying the flames in the fire-place – listening, but with no outward sign of enjoyment. The Baronetage clearly bored her. She fidgeted, sighing loudly from time to time.
Undeterred, Cassandra went on: “Three girls, the two eldest sixteen and fourteen, was an awful legacy for a mother to bequeath; an awful charge, rather, to confide to the authority and guidance of a conceited, silly father….”
Pyramus showed his belly to the fire and let out a snore. But her human listener, Cassandra noticed with some satisfaction, had grown still.
“…. she was only Anne….”
Isabella’s eyes were now upon her, she could sense it.
“….. her bloom had vanished early….”
It may have been fond imagining, but Cassandra was almost certain that her reluctant little audience was now quite in her grasp. Nevertheless, the act of performance was tiring and there was still much to do before she could rest. After four chapters, she put down Persuasion and looked up: the Enemy of the Novel did not seem quite as ferociously hostile as before.
“Are we to stop there? Oh! Well, thank you, Cassandra. To my surprise, I found it rather enjoyable. Anne is a very pleasant sort of person, sensible – quite the right sort of heroine to my mind. There is not so much drama about her as in other books. I do not appreciate too much drama myself, and fail to understand why it should be so often written about. After all, there is so little drama in life, is there not? Please, before you go up, do reassure me: does it all turn out well for her? Is there a happy ending in store?’
“My sister did not write desultory novels, Isabella – that was just one aspect of her genius.” Cassandra put the book back in the valise. “But what would constitute a happy ending, in your view?”
“Well, marriage of course!” Isabella retorted. “What other sort is there?”
Cassandra looked up, raised an eyebrow and paused. She could now protest and proclaim, say: look at me, Isabella! I have known happiness. Without man or marriage, I found a happiness, true and sublime! But who would believe her? She was now an old woman and such proclamations were really not in her style.
“Ah,” she spoke mildly instead, using the arm of the chair to push herself upright. “Then what a tragedy that the world has so many unmarried women in it, if there is no route to any possible happiness open to them.” She took the hand that Isabella offered and together they walked through to the foot of the staircase. “Good night, my dear. We will pick up Anne’s story tomorrow evening. And I promise all will be revealed before I leave.” Chapter 2, p 26 – 28
- “Hornby’s gift to the world of Austen lovers is to return to Cassandra her rightful recognition as Jane’s most intimate and sustaining relationship, her greatest love. This is a deeply imagined and deeply moving novel. Reading it made me happy and weepy in equally copious amounts.” ― Karen Joy Fowler, author of The Jane Austen Book Club and We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves
- “Unputdownable. So good, so intelligent, so clever, so entertaining―I adored it.” ― Claire Tomalin, author of Jane Austen: A Life
- “A joy from the prologue to the author’s note. Rich in historical detail, family lore, and heart, Miss Austen will wow Janeites and enchant the uninitiated. Upon her sister’s death, Cassandra claimed that she was ‘the sun of my life.’ Now we know why.” ―Laurel Ann Nattress, editor of Jane Austen Made Me Do It
- “Fans of Austen will rejoice in the chance to enter this fictional world and spend time with the extended Austen family as Cassandra and Jane navigate the demands of her genius and temperament in the face of the many pressures single women have endured throughout history.” ― Natalie Jenner, author of The Jane Austen Society
Gill Hornby is the author of the novels The Hive and All Together Now, as well as The Story of Jane Austen, a biography of Austen for young readers. She lives in Kintbury, England, with her husband and their four children.
Hornby has magically recreated Cassandra Austen and revealed so much about her life with her famous sister and their complicated family. Miss Austen is a beautifully drawn and mesmerizing look at a life cut short by illness, and the devoted sister who promoted and protected her legacy. It is a must-read in 2020 for Janeites and historical fiction lovers. Read with a cup of tea and a hanky.
Miss Austen: A Novel, by Gill Hornby
Flatiron Books (April 7, 2020)
Hardcover, eBook, & audiobook (288) pages
Cover image, book description, excerpt, and author bio courtesy of Flatiron Books © 2020; text Laurel Ann Nattress © 2020, Austenprose.com