From the desk of Tracy Hickman:
Austenesque fiction has produced numerous works told by supporting characters from Austen’s novels, using these fresh viewpoints to breathe life into familiar and beloved stories. Similarly, the title character of Gill Hornby’s Miss Austen is not the famous author, Jane, but her devoted elder sister, Cassandra. In many Austen biographies and surviving family letters, Cassandra figures as an exemplary daughter, sister, aunt, and friend, her quiet fortitude and domestic competence contrasted with her younger sister’s more volatile temperament and creative talent. But what happens when an author shifts the spotlight from Jane to Cassandra? How would a fictionalized retelling of her view of Austen family life engage readers?
Jane Austen once wrote to her niece Anna, “Three or four families in a country village is the very thing to work on” and Ms. Hornby has taken Jane’s advice for Miss Austen. In a narrative that alternates masterfully between Cassandra’s youth and old age, Miss Austen features the extended Austen family as well as the Lloyd and Fowle families. Miss Austen begins with a prologue set in 1795 that introduces two young, dutiful lovers:
He asked for her patience; she promised it without thinking. Cassy was just twenty-two; they had years yet to play with. And patience was, famously, one of her many virtues. They turned back to the house to spread their glad news.
It was met with all the exuberant delight that they could have wished for, though not even a pretense at surprise. For this engagement—between Miss Cassandra Austen of Steventon, and Mr. Tom Fowle of Kintbury—had been settled as a public fact long before it was decided by the couple in private. After all, it was the perfect match, of the sort that would bring such pleasure to so many. So it must be their future, their one possible happy ending.
The universe had agreed on that for them, many years before. (2)
Readers familiar with the fate of Cassandra’s fiancé will immediately appreciate the pathos of those last sentences. And for readers new to Austen, it is quickly revealed that Cassandra never married Tom Fowle. As Chapter 1 opens forty-five years after the engagement, Cassandra visits the vicarage at Kintbury, following the death of Tom’s father, Reverend Fowle. Ostensibly, Miss Austen has come to help the reverend’s spinster daughter, Isabella, sort and clear the family’s possessions from the vicarage so that the new vicar can take possession. “A single woman should never outlive her usefulness. It was simple bad manners.” (3) But Cassy has come to Kintbury uninvited and her true mission is soon revealed to readers, though not to the residents of the vicarage:
…She began to doubt the course of her own actions; she almost determined to stop at that moment, to find a more decorous approach to the problem, one that she could take with her head held high. And then she collected herself. This was Austen business. Family always trumped all.
Both she and Jane had once written many intimate letters to this vicarage. They could still be there. Cassandra was the executor of her sister’s estate: the keeper of her flame; the protector of her legacy. In the time that was left to her, she was determined to find and destroy any evidence that might compromise Jane’s reputation. It was simply imperative that those letters did not fall into the wrong hands. (20)
After discovering a cache of letters hidden away in a trunk, Cassandra reads through them, revisiting events that reveal the depth and complexity of her relationship with Jane. As Cassandra considers past moments of joy and grief, she also finds herself drawn into the lives of the women of Kintbury, especially Isabella Fowle. All too familiar with a life dependent upon the charity of relatives, Cassandra is determined to help Isabella secure a home for herself and some small measure of independence. But Dinah, a gruff servant at the vicarage who resents Cassandra’s “meddling,” has other ideas.
As I read Miss Austen, I was struck by how confidently the author has woven known biographical facts with imagined letters and scenes to create a richly detailed world for Cassandra, Jane, and all the characters. The storytelling has a maturity and emotional depth reminiscent of Austen’s Persuasion. The fictional letters that Ms. Hornby has imagined are impeccably crafted to create an authentic narrative. Here is an excerpt from one of Jane’s letters:
As for Bath—I cannot share my parents’ high expectations, but then they are so very exalted I am not sure who could. Mr. and Mrs. G. A. are determined on a glorious retirement, with as much fine company and good health as a person can cope with, while we young ladies are promised to be met with splendid suitors in an endless array…In the meantime, we have been here three days and I have yet to meet a gentleman below the age of one hundred. And so far, even the city itself is toying with my affections. Its stone is refusing to glow in warm sunlight; instead it glowers darkly through a horrible smog. But I must give it time—not least because I have no choice in the matter. My future is here now, and I must make of it what I can. (132)
Another similarity with Austen’s writing is Gill Hornby’s ability to combine humor and wry observations with deeply moving scenes that deliver an emotionally satisfying story. Readers who prefer stories with fast-paced action and idealized romantic characters may not appreciate Miss Austen as much as I did. As a fan of those stories’ quieter, more contemplative cousins, I am hard-pressed to find fault with this novel. Imaginative, charming, and subtly powerful, Gill Hornby’s Miss Austen celebrates enduring love and the small acts of kindness that sustain it.
5 out of 5 Stars
Miss Austen: A Novel, by Gill Hornby
Flatiron Books (April 7, 2020)
Hardcover, eBook, & audiobook (288) pages
Cover image courtesy of Flatiron Books © 2020; text Tracy Hickman © 2020, Austenprose.com