Miss Austen: A Novel, by Gill Hornby—A Review

Miss Austen, by Gill Hornby (2020)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
ISBN: 978-1250252203 

ADDITIONAL REVIEWS: 

AMAZON BARNES & NOBLE | BOOK DEPOSITORY | INDIEBOUND | GOODREADS | BOOKBUB 

Cover image courtesy of Flatiron Books © 2020; text Tracy Hickman © 2020, Austenprose.com

A Preview of The Jane Austen Society: A Novel, by Natalie Jenner & Sweepstakes

The Jane Austen Society, by Natalie Jenner (2020)A year and a half ago I had the privilege of reading an early manuscript of The Jane Austen Society by debut novelist Natalie Jenner. It only took two chapters for me to be totally hooked. By the end of the book, I was weeping with joy. I just knew that my fellow historical fiction and Jane Austen fans would rejoice as I had in the endearing characters, compelling plot, and the heartfelt tribute to one of literature’s most beloved authors, Jane Austen.

If ever we needed an emotionally uplifting escape, it is during these turbulent times. The Jane Austen Society is a joyous antidote to help us through a pandemic.

Today, I am so thrilled to finally share this very special book with my readers. Natalie has kindly offered an exclusive excerpt that will give you an introduction to one of the five main characters, Adam Berwick, as he reads Pride and Prejudice.

And…gentle reader, I do hope you are sitting down. The audiobook of The Jane Austen Society was narrated by British actor Richard Armitage! The combination of Natalie’s enchanting prose and his velvet voice is nonpareil. I have included an audio excerpt from it as well. I hope your aromatic vinegars are close at hand.

Our full review of The Jane Austen Society will post on Monday, May 25th. Until its release, I hope you enjoy this excerpt and additional information.

Be sure to enter the sweepstakes offered by her publisher St. Martin’s Press for a chance to win an advance reader’s copy of the book. The details are included below. Enjoy!

BOOK DESCRIPTION:

Just after the Second World War, in the small English village of Chawton, an unusual but like-minded group of people band together to attempt something remarkable.

One hundred and fifty years ago, Chawton was the final home of Jane Austen, one of England’s finest novelists. Now it’s home to a few distant relatives and their diminishing estate. With the last bit of Austen’s legacy threatened, a group of disparate individuals come together to preserve both Jane Austen’s home and her legacy. These people—a laborer, a young widow, the local doctor, and a movie star, among others—could not be more different and yet they are united in their love for the works and words of Austen. As each of them endures their own quiet struggle with loss and trauma, some from the recent war, others from more distant tragedies, they rally together to create the Jane Austen Society.

A powerful and moving novel that explores the tragedies and triumphs of life, both large and small, and the universal humanity in us all, Natalie Jenner’s The Jane Austen Society is destined to resonate with readers for years to come.

EXCLUSIVE EXCERPT: Continue reading

The Other Bennet Sister: A Novel, by Janice Hadlow—A Review

The Other Bennet Sister, by Janice Hadlow 2020From the desk of Sophia Rose:

The oft-forgotten of the five Bennet sisters who may have been a reader’s source of amusement or irritation, engendered pity or magnanimous sympathy comes endearingly alive in Janice Hadlow’s gentle opus to Mary, the other sister who must follow a very different path to happiness.

The Other Bennet Sister opens when Mary Bennet is a young girl happy and content with herself and her life until slowly, she becomes aware of a miserable truth. She’s plain and unattractive. Jane the pretty sister and Lizzy the witty favorite of their father’s pair off as they all get older, her father is entrenched in his library sanctum, and her mother laments Mary’s looks and hurls painful remarks to her and about her. Even her younger sisters take their cue from this to draw together and tease her when they do notice her. Mary searches for ways to please and be noticed though she works hard to avoid her mother who twits her on her looks or quiet manners.

In short, Mary is miserable and is willing to try anything even securing the interest of the bumbling and bothersome cousin Collins who has come to Longbourn in search of a wife. If she thought her homelife was misery, being overlooked by Mr. Collins even after she put her best foot forward and made a horrid spectacle of herself at the Netherfield Ball teaches her that being invisible is even worse.

Her sisters’ triumphs in being wed, a family death, and feeling at a loss sends Mary on a journey of self-discovery.

The Other Bennet Sister worked hard to be true to Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Mary’s childhood and her debut on society along with the story flowing on parallel lines fit hand in glove with the P&P story. It had a broodier Jane Eyre feel to it, but this works since it is Mary’s story. It was intriguing to see that by focusing on Mary the author shows all the familiar characters in a slightly different light. Some even get more of a stronger role like Mrs. Hill the Longbourn housekeeper who has a soft spot for neglected Mary and by Charlotte Lucas who sees Mary as sharing a similar personality and needs since they are both plain. I will offer the warning that the usual sparkling favorite characters in Pride and Prejudice to not always appear in a favorable light so be prepared to see a different interpretation to many familiar characters. Continue reading

Two More Days at Netherfield, by Heather Moll—A Review

Two More Days at Netherfield by Heather Moll 2020From the desk of Debbie Brown:

Everybody familiar with the classic story of Pride and Prejudice knows that Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy don’t communicate to each other with total honestly until their meeting at Hunsford during his (horrible) marriage proposal, which he continues in his letter the following day. But what if circumstances lead them to do so much earlier in their relationship? That’s the premise for Two More Days at Netherfield, a Pride and Prejudice variation by Heather Moll.

While Jane Bennet is ill at Netherfield and Elizabeth is there to nurse her, early changes lay the foundation for those extra two days. First, Elizabeth learns Darcy actually admires her. Then, Darcy discovers Elizabeth overheard his insult at the Meryton assembly. His initial apology is half-hearted at best, and Elizabeth calls him on it, adding, “[Y]ou have been disagreeable and conceited from the moment of your arrival in Hertfordshire!” Interestingly, the conversation does not deteriorate. Darcy, recognizing he’s in the wrong, offers a more sincere apology.

“[N]ow that Mr Darcy had offered an acceptable apology, she could tolerate his company a little better.” Ergo, Elizabeth isn’t as disturbed when her mother refuses to send the Bennet carriage, and the sisters remain there two more days rather than borrowing Mr. Bingley’s and returning to Longbourn.

Events over these two days lead to a lot of self-examination by both Darcy and Elizabeth. He comes to recognizes that his behavior IS haughty and unmannerly, while she realizes that she forms judgments too quickly and harshly. Continue reading

A Preview of The Austen Girls, by Lucy Worsley

The Austen Girls by Lucy Worsley 2020I am always encouraged when new Jane Austen-inspired young adult novels hit my radar. The Austen Girls is a welcome addition to the Austenesque genre. Written by historian, television celebrity, and Janeite Lucy Worsley, it is the latest addition to her series of novels featuring young women from history. Following Lady Mary (2018), Eliza Rose (2018), and My Name is Victoria (2018), The Austen Girls is inspired by the lives of Jane Austen’s nieces–cousins Fanny and Anna Austen.

The novel is being released in the UK on April 2 by Bloomsbury Children’s Books and is aimed at girls ages 11 – 14. For those who subscribe to Jane Austen’s Regency World Magazine, Worsley is featured on the cover and has the lead article in the March/April issue including an exclusive interview about the novel by editor Tim Bullamore. Besides the two heroines, Fanny and Anna, their aunt Jane plays an important part in the narrative and many other Austen family members support the story.

After a persistent pursuit of an excerpt for my readers, I was able to connect with the staff at Bloomsbury in London who generously sent a portion of the second chapter for our enjoyment. My review will follow next month. On an aside, please do not confuse this new title with a nonfiction book about Jane & Cassandra Austen, by Helen Amy with the same title. It is also delightful, but an entirely different genre and topic.

BOOK DESCRIPTION:

What Might the Future Hold for Jane Austen’s Nieces?

Would she ever find a real-life husband?

Would she even find a partner to dance with at tonight’s ball? She just didn’t know.

Anna Austen has always been told she must marry rich. Her future depends upon it. While her dear cousin Fanny has a little more choice, she too is under pressure to find a suitor.

But how can either girl know what she wants? Is finding love even an option? The only person who seems to have answers is their Aunt Jane. She has never married. In fact, she’s perfectly happy, so surely being single can’t be such a bad thing?

The time will come for each of the Austen girls to become the heroines of their own stories. Will they follow in Jane’s footsteps?

In this witty, sparkling novel of choices, popular historian LUCY WORSLEY brings alive the delightful life of Jane Austen as you’ve never seen it before.

EXCLUSIVE EXCERPT: Continue reading

The Jane Austen Dating Agency: An Uplifting Romantic Comedy, by Fiona Woodifield—A Review

From the desk of Sophia Rose:

Can a Jane Austen-themed dating agency do anything about a floundering career woman’s life- ahem love life? With trepidation and not just a few sharp pokes in the back from her friend, Sophie Johnson, long-time Jane Austen lover, and dreamer of finding her own Mr. Darcy is about to find out.

Sophie Johnson dreams of a grand career in the editing office of a posh magazine, a chic lifestyle, and a dashing rich handsome guy to lavish anything her heart desires on her because he is utterly devoted to her happiness. Of course, in real life, she’s stuck in a low-level sales job at that posh magazine, a shabby chic lifestyle, and not the fashionable kind, and a pathetic serial texter who won’t believe she called it quits. She does nothing but work her dead-end job and go home to her small shared flat for a book or a favorite rom-com movie. Something has to give and fashion writer friend Mark, finds it, a dating agency right up Sophie’s alley.

Sophie loves Jane Austen and the thought of experiencing dates while engaging in themed balls, card parties, picnics, and lectures at various Jane Austen real life and movie sites makes it worth her jitters over putting herself out there to be matched. On her way out of her interview, Sophie spots a picture on the wall of gorgeous and obviously wealthy Darcy Drummond’s whose company is backing the agency and wonders what it would be liked to be matched with him.

Sophie encounters the man in real life and is unimpressed with his arrogant rich boy attitude when Darcy vocalizes his disapproval of her and others like her. After that, she bristles just being in the same room with his high and mighty, but soon she finds herself engaged in the new circle of people who have also joined the lower tier of the agency. Continue reading

A Preview of When Duty Calls: A Pride & Prejudice Variation, by Belén Paccagnella

When Duty Calls, by Belen Paccagnella (2020)Being a book geek, I am not ashamed to say that I get chills when I see a beautiful book cover. I am drawn to them like a moth to the flame. The mesmerizing design of When Duty Calls is by Janet Taylor. It is her best to date. Bar none. Forgive this indulgence. I just had to gush about it for a moment!

Okay, now on to the book that we are previewing here today by Belén Paccagnella. When Duty Calls was written close to twenty years ago and posted online as Jane Austen fanfiction. It has been resurrected and published as a book by Meryton Press. You don’t see that happen very often. Maybe, like never!

I am thinking back to 2000 and the state of Austen fanfiction at the time. Linda Berdoll’s The Bar Sinister was self-published in 1999 (and later reissued as Mr. Darcy Takes a Wife in 2004), and Pamela Aidan was posting her Fitzwilliam Darcy Gentleman trilogy on the Republic of Pemberley fanfic board. It takes me back to the early days of Jane Austen fanfiction. It says a lot for the story in When Duty Calls that it is still viable after all these years and I am intrigued to read it. How about you?

The author Belén Paccagnella has kindly offered an exclusive excerpt and her publisher is giving away eight eBook copies through Rafflecopter of When Duty Calls. The excerpt follows this introduction and the details of the giveaways are at the bottom of the post. Enjoy!

BOOK DESCRIPTION:

The Netherfield ball brings about many changes for the population of Meryton, and more so for the female residents of Longbourn. Mr. Bingley’s departure leaves the eldest, Jane Bennet, heartbroken whilst Mr. Collins’s proposal induces Miss Elizabeth to make a hasty escape. During her flight, she happens upon Mr. Darcy, a gentleman she despises. A moment of solitude in the woods leads to rather improper behavior, and the couple departs with the promise they will tell no one about their minor indiscretion. When their secret is finally uncovered, marriage becomes the only solution to saving Elizabeth from social disgrace. Her other grudges against Mr. Darcy are amplified by resentment and the prospect of spending her life with a man she can never respect. Nonetheless, the marriage takes place, forcing the young couple to deal with their pride and prejudices as husband and wife.

Originally posted online almost twenty years ago, this Regency tale of redemption narrates the struggles of two people, their differences, and their rocky start. But will they succeed in overcoming lies, misunderstandings, and their own errors to finally find love?

EXCLUSIVE EXCERPT: Continue reading

Elizabeth: Obstinate Headstrong Girl (The Quill Collective Book 5), edited by Christina Boyd—A Review

Elizabeth Obstinate Headstrong Girl 2020From the desk of Debbie Brown:

The Jane Austen Fan Fiction (JAFF) world has been exploding with stories about Elizabeth Bennet for a long time now. What can possibly be left to explore about this beloved Pride and Prejudice character and her Mr. Darcy? Ten talented storytellers prove they can always find new ground to cover in the character-driven anthology, Elizabeth: Obstinate, Headstrong Girl.

One of these storytellers is the anthology’s editor, Christina Boyd, who took on two roles by including her own contribution here. Well-known historical romance author Tessa Dare provided the foreword. In it, she eloquently explains her lifelong admiration for the fictional Elizabeth Bennet.

As the book’s title suggests, Elizabeth’s obstinacy and stubbornness are highlighted; however, her intelligence, humor, and willingness to admit when she’s wrong are apparent throughout, too. Another recurring topic is Elizabeth as a young woman struggling to fight male dominance in society. Naturally, other Pride and Prejudice characters have important roles, most particularly Mr. Darcy himself. All the ten stories are told from Elizabeth’s point of view, though not necessarily in first person. The snippets below give a small taste of the delicious contents.

Starting with the modern era and making our way back to traditional Regency settings, we begin with Leigh Dreyer’s contribution, “The Last Blind Date.” Charlotte to Elizabeth: “You convince yourself at the start of any relationship that the guy is an idiot, treat him like he’s an idiot the whole time, and refuse to even consider a second date.” Continue reading

A Preview of A Different Kind of Woman: A Variation on Mansfield Park (Mansfield Trilogy Book 3), by Lona Manning

A Different Kind of Woman by Lona Manning 2020I am happy to welcome author Lona Manning to Austenprose today. She has graciously offered to share her latest Austenesque novel, A Different Kind of Woman with us. Inspired by Mansfield Park, this is her third book in her Mansfield Trilogy, all of which are variations on Jane Austen’s original. 

Manning’s Mansfield Trilogy sets out to alter the original Regency-era story by pivoting the relationship of its main characters: Fanny Price and Edmund Bertram. There are also other changes that some will find beneficial and engaging. Are you as curious as I am if Fanny Price is no longer priggish? What is married life like for Edmund and his new wife?

If you are in the mood to experience a re-imagined Mansfield Park, then this is the series for you. Check out the book description and the exclusive excerpt supplied by the author. 

BOOK DESCRIPTION: 

In the exciting conclusion of the Mansfield Trilogy, the lives and destinies of Jane Austen’s well-known characters are deftly blended with dramatic historical events. Fanny Price is torn between her love for William Gibson and her duty to her family. In London, Fanny’s brother John meets his match in a feisty bookseller’s daughter. And Edmund Bertram’s wife Mary meets the charismatic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley and risks everything to gain the power and influence she craves. Regency England comes alive in this tale of love, loss and second chances set against the real-life backdrop of political turmoil in England. 

EXCLUSIVE EXCERPT:  Continue reading

Thaw, by Anniina Sjöblom—A Review

Thaw by Anniina Sjöblom 2019Epistolary novels were all the rage in the late eighteenth century prior to and during Jane Austen’s early writing career. One does not run across novels written in letters very often today. The fact that characters do not meet face-to-face is restrictive and can be a challenge to readers.

Thaw, by Anniina Sjöblom harkens back to Austen’s first epistolary format before she re-wrote Sense and Sensibility, and Pride and Prejudice. Not only is it a novel written entirely in letters, but it is also told in the first-person by one character—Elizabeth Bennet—and is a variation on Austen’s classic tale. With all of these unconventional restrictions and plot changes, one does not know what to expect. If this complex hook is not enough to get your attention, dear reader, then you are not paying attention.

The story begins with a letter by Elizabeth to her sister Jane from London on Christmas day. It is one month after the ball at Netherfield and Elizabeth is married to Mr. Darcy. Their marriage, however, is not the HEA that we imagined after Austen’s classic tale, but a patched-up business due to a devastating scandal. While walking near a frozen pond, Elizabeth’s misstep lands her in the icy waters. Injured and freezing, Mr. Darcy rescues her and returns her to her family, but not before a local resident witnessed the mishap and is telling a different story. Elizabeth’s reputation is ruined, and Darcy, being an honorable man, agrees to marry her. Neither is happy about the forced marriage, yet agree that they must marry.

So, there is no longer three-quarters of the story that Austen wrote. Just jump straight to Elizabeth as Mistress of Pemberley writing long missives to her Aunt Gardiner and her sister Jane about her miserable existence as the wife of a surly, disagreeable man. That is the big leap-of-faith part for readers in this variation. You will need to disarm reproof and just go with it. Continue reading

A Preview of The Jane Austen Dating Agency: An Uplifting Romantic Comedy, by Fiona Woodifield

The Jane Austen Dating Agency (2020)Happy Valentine’s Day Janeites!

Jane Austen has been attributed as the mother of romance, so in honor of Valentine’s Day, let’s all crack open Persuasion and let Captain Wentworth pierce our soul and Mr. Darcy say to us, “dearest loveliest (insert your name here).”

In celebration of a holiday devoted entirely to romance, we are previewing a new romantic comedy that is Jane Austen-inspired. Debut novelist Fiona Woodifield and I crossed paths on Twitter and I snagged an exclusive excerpt from her new contemporary novel, The Jane Austen Dating Agency.

Fiona’s heroine Sophie is a dating disaster and has a lot to learn before she gets her HEA. I hope you are in the mood for some laughs with that romance today while you wash down Godiva chocolate with a perfectly paired glass of wine.

Many thanks to Fiona and her publisher Bloodhound Books for letting me feature The Jane Austen Dating Agency. I hope you give it a try. It’s very reasonably priced as $.99 and is sure to make you smile.

BOOK DESCRIPTION:

Does true romance really exist?

Sophie Johnson is young, intelligent and attractive. So, when she lands the dream position of Sales Executive at a leading fashion magazine, it appears she has it all.  But in reality, she hates her job, is sick of her controlling mother and is a dating disaster.

Then she discovers The Jane Austen Dating Agency, an exclusive club for ladies who want to meet real gentlemen and believes her luck has changed. And when Sophie meets Darcy Drummond, she thinks her dreams have come true. That is until she discovers he is arrogant and hard-headed.

So, when Daniel Becks steps into her life, she thinks she’s found the one. But is he really all he seems?

The Jane Austen Dating Agency is for anyone who has ever dreamed of romance and wondered if it really exists.

EXCLUSIVE EXCERPT: Continue reading