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)

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A Preview of Miss Austen: A Novel, by Gill Hornby, & Exclusive Sweepstakes

Miss Austen, by Gill Hornby (2020)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.

BOOK DESCRIPTION:

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? Continue reading

Reflections upon Jane Austen’s death, July 18, 1817: “her talents, her virtues, and her engaging manners”

Much has been written on the cause of Jane Austen’s lingering illness and untimely death in Winchester on 18 July 1817. I have a stack of biographies that I perused in search of a poignant passage that would express the tenor of this solemn day. Her great biographers Claire Tomalin, David Nokes and Elizabeth Jenkins give detailed accounts from family in attendance and their own conclusions. I find her nephew James Edward Austen-Leigh’s interpretation from his A Memoir of Jane Austen simple and touching. Even though it is not elaborate or detailed, it is the only version from the view point of someone who actually knew her, and I find that unique and invaluable.

Throughout her illness she was nursed by her sister, often assisted by her sister-in-law, my mother. Both were with her when she died. Two of her brothers, who were clergymen, lived near enough to Winchester to be in frequent attendance, and to administer the services suitable for a Christian’s death-bed. While she used the language of hope to her correspondents, she was fully aware of her danger, though not appalled by it. It is true that there was much to attach her to life. She was happy in her family; she was just beginning to feel confidence in her own success; and, no doubt, the exercise of her great talents was an enjoyment in itself. We may well believe that she would gladly have lived longer; but she was enabled without dismay or complaint to prepare for death. She was a humble, believing Christian. Her life had been passed in the performance of home duties, and the cultivation of domestic affections, without any self-seeking or craving after applause. She had always sought, as it were by instinct, to promote the happiness of all who came within her influence, and doubtless she had her reward in the peace of mind which was granted her in her last days. Her sweetness of temper never failed. She was ever considerate and grateful to those who attended on her. At times, when she felt rather better, her playfulness of spirit revived, and she amused them even in their sadness. Once, when she thought herself near her end, she said what she imagined might be her last words to those around her, and particularly thanked her sister-in-law for being with her, saying: ‘You have always been a kind sister to me, Mary.’ When the end at last came, she sank rapidly, and on being asked by her attendants whether there was anything that she wanted, her reply was, ‘Nothing but death.’ These were her last words. In quietness and peace she breathed her last on the morning of 18 July, 1817.

On the 24th of that month she was buried in Winchester Cathedral, near the centre of the north aisle, almost opposite to the beautiful chantry tomb of William of Wykeham. A large slab of black marble in the pavement marks the place. Her own family only attended the funeral. Her sister returned to her desolated home, there to devote herself, for ten years, to the care of her aged mother; and to live much on the memory of her lost sister, till called many years later to rejoin her. Her brothers went back sorrowing to their several homes. They were very fond and very proud other. They were attached to her by her talents, her virtues, and her engaging manners; and each loved afterwards to fancy a resemblance in some niece or daughter of his own to the dear sister Jane, whose perfect equal they yet never expected to see. [1]

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Jane Austen’s Letters: What a bit of pewter will supply

Illustration from Ackermann's Repository, a Walking Dress (1817)My Dearest 

The parcel arrived safely, & I am much obliged to you for your trouble. It cost 2 shillings 10 but as there is a certain savings of 2 shillings 4 ½ on the other side, I am sure it is well worth doing. I send 4 pair of Silk Stockings but I do not want them washed at present. In the 3 neckhandfs, I include the one sent down before. These things perhaps Edward may be able to bring, but even if he is not, I am extremely pleased with his returning to you from Steventon. It is much better – far preferable. I did mention P.R. (Prince Regent) in my note to Mr. Murray, it brought me a fine compliment in return; whether it has done any good I do not know, but Henry thought it worth trying. The Printers continue to supply me very well, I am advanced in vol. 3 to my arra-root, upon which peculiar style of spelling, there is a modest query in the Margin. I will not forget Anna’s arrow-root. I hope you have told Martha of my first resolution of letting nobody know that I might dedicate &c for fear of being obliged to do it & that she is thoroughly convinced of my being influenced now by nothing but the most mercenary motives. I have paid nine shillings on her account on her account to Miss Palmer; there was no more owing. Well, we were very busy all yesterday; from ½ past 11 to 4 in the Streets, working almost entirely for other people, driving from Place to Place after a parcel for Sandling which we could never find, & encountering the miseries of Grafton House to get a purple frock for Eleanor Bridges. Letter to Cassandra, 26 November 1815 from Hans Place, London 

1815 were heady times for Jane Austen. Her novel Emma had been accepted for publication by John Murray, one of the most important and influential publishing houses in London. She would be in fine company with Sir Walter Scott, Washington Irving, Lord Byron, George Crabbe (her personal favorite) and many others on Murray’s roister of prestigious authors. She had learned that the Prince Regent so admired her first three novels that he would endorse her new effort by allowing her to dedicate it to him. Though she did not agree with this lifestyle, she did not decline the honor, knowing full well what the publicity and sales would generate. “…but tho’ I like praise as well as anybody, I like what Edward calls Pewter too.”(Letter to Cassandra, 30 November 1814). Even though she has book royalties coming in, she is still keenly aware of how much a shilling is worth! 

You can feel her energy and confidence in her letters of this period. As a spinster, she was dependent on her family for financial support. Emma would be her fourth novel to earn her ‘pewter’, and even though it would be published at her expense, she would realize the profits after the payment of a 10 percent commission was paid to Murray. [1] With money coming in and further recognition of her talent, she was experiencing a bit of pride and self-assurance in her life. In this letter to her sister Cassandra from her brother Henry’s residence of Hans Place in London, we see her bustling about town to purchase or collect items for neighbors and family, and a few niceties for herself. The bit about the 4 pairs of silk stockings always makes me smile. It pleases me to think of Jane Austen able to purchase such a luxury items from her own hard earned funds and so concerned over their care. Silk does shrink when you wash it! 

Reading her letters brings her life closer to heart. Even the smallest enjoyment of silk stockings, or her kindness in running errands for her in-law Eleanor Bridges, who was the wife of a Baronet and far richer than Austen would ever be, is enchanting. I can just envision her calling at Grafton House, a stylish linen-drapers on New Bond Street to collect Mrs. Bridges frock, and being amazed at the choice of the color purple. One can only imagine what she had to say to her sister Cassandra in private over her color choice! Oh what a bit of pewter can supply! 

Further reading 

1. David Gilson, A Bibliography of Jane Austen, 2nd ed., Oak Knoll Press, New Castle, Delaware (1997) pp 67

Vintage flourish urn

Cassandra & Jane: A Jane Austen Novel, by Jill Pitkeathley – A Review

She knew herself that sometimes she overstepped the proper boundries and could only do so safely with me. In later years, when she wrote something particularly scandalous she would urge me, ‘Take the scissors to this at once.’ She was right to surmise that others might judge her comments more harshly, but with me she knew she could be frank and that I understood her turn of mind. Cassandra Austen on her sister Jane, Chapter Two 

What is the most tragic and disappointing thing you know about author Jane Austen’s life? My immediate choice would be that she died too young and wrote too few novels, and at a close second would be that after her death in 1817, her sister Cassandra destroyed many of her personal letters to protect her privacy. This act of sisterly devotion is greatly lamented by historians, biographers, scholars, and Austen enthusiasts, limiting what information that we do know to her edited letters and family recollections. The complete reason why they were destroyed will always be a mystery, but one can imagine from Austen’s surviving letters and novels that her keen sense of social observation and biting irony played a key factor in her sister’s decision to remove them forever from family and public scrutiny.   

In author Jill Pitkeathley’s recently re-issued 2004 novel Cassandra & Jane, we are offered a chance to explore that chasm left by Cassandra Austen’s bonfire of humanity as Pitkeathley imagines the back story of two beloved sisters who were the best of friends, honorable confidants and devoted to each other through all the ups and downs of their heartbreaking life in rural 18th-century England. This bio fic is told from the viewpoint of Cassandra’s experience of their life together, as only she would know, and is a creative blending of historical fact with a fictional narrative that is both believable and compelling. 

The story begins with a prologue to their story. It is 1843, and Cassandra Austen now seventy years old is still residing at Chawton cottage in Hampshire, the house where she and her sister Jane lived together until her untimely death at age forty-one in 1817. She has kept everyone of the letters that her sister ever wrote to her safely stored in her sister’s rosewood trunk after her death. Her family has known of their existence, but she has safeguarded them for twenty-six years from their perusal. She fears that when she is gone, that they will pour over them examine and discuss every detail and then publish them for posterity, and profit. She has now re-read them and sorted them into two piles. She must not forget her responsibility to her sister, and to her memory, as Jane had previously warned her “No private correspondence could bear the eye of others.” 

As we are transported into Jane Austen’s world, Cassandra shares their story together in an honest and open manner, dropping her protective older sister mantle for glimpses of the influences that shaped Jane’s personality through her family, social sphere, environment and 18th-century social stricture that bound her financially and emotionally. Their remarkable friendship is the highlight of this novel as they suffer and survive together through romantic aspirations and disappointments, frustration on their financial dependence on their relations, and rejoice in Jane Austen’s early success as a writer. 

Austen enthusiasts will recognize many historical facts known of their lives that permeate through the novel, and in turn revel in the allusions from their real lives that are transported into Austen’s novel’s. Life imitating art, or art imitating life? Without overt sentimentality, author Jill Pitkeathley has skillfully blended the tragic and joyful lives of two remarkable 18th-century women who chose different avenues to leave their footprint on posterity; – one who would become a literary legend by remarkably revealing social foibles through wit and guile in her novels, and the other renowned for what extreme measures she took not to reveal them in her own sister. This moving and enjoyable rendering of biography and fiction tops my list of favorite Austen inspired novels for this year, and I highly recommend it. 

Rating: 4 ½ out of 5 Regency Stars

Cassandra & Jane, by Jill Pitkeanthley
Harper Collins, New York (2008)
Trade paperback, 270 pages
ISBN: 978-0061446399 

Giveaway!

 
Leave a comment by October 31st. to qualify in a drawing for a new copy of Cassandra & Jane, by Jill Pitkeanthly. The winner will be announced on November 1st.

Further readings

  • Review of Cassandra & Jane by Medieval Bookworm
  • Read author Jill Pitkeathley guest blog on Reading Group Guides
  • Read an excert from Cassandra & Jane at Book Movement

Jane Austen and The Battle of Waterloo

Illustration of the Allies entering Paris after Napoleons defeat at Waterloo, October 1815

Allied troops entering Paris after the defeat of Napoleon Bonaparte

the little bit (two inches wide) of ivory on which I work with so fine a brush, as produces so little effect after so much labour” Letter to Edward Austen, 16 December 1816, The Letters of Jane Austen

Today marks the anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo, which is generally credited as Napoleon Bonaparte’s final defeat; – a significant event in European history that deeply affected the lives of every Englishman and the World. Bonaparte would soon surrender his troops and abdicate the throne, ending a seventeen year conflict between Britain and France, and other European nations. You can read a complete account of the battle here.  

Jane Austen had very little to say about the Battle of Waterloo or any aspect of the Napoleonic War, and that really irritated some of her critics. For some reason, the fact that she did not discuss politics or war in her novels makes her somehow negligent and narrow as an authoress. Her surviving personal correspondence is a bit better, with dribs and drabs of comment to her sister Cassandra about their two brothers Frank and Charles who served as sailors in his Majesties Navy, and were deep into the thick of the fighting. 

She lived almost her entire life in the shadow of the Napoleon’s tyranny. To criticize her because she chose not to include mention of it or other external political events in her novels is a misunderstanding of her intensions. Author David Nokes in his biography Jane Austen: A Life, touches upon this point and offers a logical explanation. 

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My Personal Austen: Does Reading Jane Austen Make Me a Better Person?

Image of a Silhouette of Jane AustenIf anyone out there has ever wondered where I get my inspiration to write continually about one subject – Jane Austen – for six months and counting, you might be amused at what from time-to-time inspires those brain cells into action. Many times, I will be Googling along and happen upon something that I was not searching for in the first place. Serendipity and all that! Often I get an inspiration while driving in my car! Go figure. Here is a meanderin’ tale of my trail of discovery and inspiration for this post today!

Recently I purchased the most amazing book My Dear Cassandra: The Letters of Jane Austen, selected and introduced by Penelope Hughes-Hallet, Clarkson, Collins, New York (1990). I had been aware of this book for years, but had never had the pleasure of seeing it first hand. A few months ago I read a beaming review of it by Book Chronicle whose opinions I respect and admire, resulting in it being pushed up to the top of my ‘must have’ Austen book queue. Yes, gentle readers; – I keep a list! La! 

Image of the cover of My Dear Cassandra, edited by Penelope Hughes-Hallet, Clarson & Potter, New York (1990)

The book is sadly no longer in print, which is *never* a deferent to this obsessive used book lover! I was able to track down an American first edition in ‘like new’ condition at Advance Book Exchange (www.abe.com). Hurrah! It arrived last week, and it is an eye popper; beautifully designed, copiously illustrated and reverently edited. It was a spiritual experience for me, like one of those beautiful Medieval illuminated manuscripts that monks laboured over for years to glorify the Bible! The holy grail of Austen books. Wow! Serious book swoon here!  Continue reading

Austen’s Regretted Mischance to See Mrs. Siddons

Image of the painting Sarah Siddons by Thomas Gainsborough“I have no chance of seeing Mrs. Siddons.  – She did act on Monday, but Henry was told by the Boxkeeper that he did not think she would, the places, & all thought of it, were given up. I should have particularly liked to see her in Constance, & could swear at her with little effort for disappointing me. Jane Austen to her sister Cassandra, 25 April 1811, London, The Letters of Jane Austen 

Jane Austen took every opportunity to enjoy the London theatre scene when she stayed in town with her brother Henry Austen. In 1811, she was looking forward to seeing the great tragedienne actress of the day, Mrs. Siddons, who was currently playing Constance in King John at Covent Garden. Imagine her excitement at the prospect of seeing the icon of British theatre who was nearing the end of her long and infamous career. When their best laid plans were spoiled by a misinformed Boxkeeper, (an attendant at the theatre who was responsible for managing the box seats), I pity poor Henry the arduous task of breaking the bad news to his sister. Their disappointment must have been doubled when they later learned that Mrs. Siddons had performed, but in another production! No wonder Jane Austen wants to swear at her! 

Illustration of Mrs. Siddons as Lady MacbethSarah Siddons (1755-1831) and Jane Austen (1775-1817) share three coincidences together; 1.) They both resided in Bath and Southampton, but not at the same time; – Mrs. Siddons lived in Bath early in her career and in Southampton after her retirement in 1812. 2.) They also shared an affinity for Shakespeare; – Siddons by her portrayals of his tragic heroines such as Lady Macbeth in Macbeth, Desdemona in Othello, Rosalind in As You Like It, and Ophelia in Hamlet, and Austen by reading and studying of his works, and referencing them in her novels. 3.) They are both considered by critics and the public to be early icons of their genre; Mrs. Siddons as the first modern ‘star’, and Miss Austen as the first modern novelist.   Continue reading

See Jane Austen Sell, – and sell, and sell…

Image of What Would Jane Say greeting cardPROFIT

Walter Scott has no business to write novels, especially good ones. It is not fair. He has fame and profit enough as a poet, and should not be taking the bread out of the mouths of other people. Letter to Cassandra Austen, The Letters of Jane Austen, 28 September 1814

Newsflash from the book trenches! Jane Austen is a popular author. Really, you say?

This will of course not be a surprise to any Janeite, but it appears that it is to the suits and skirts at book publishing headquarters. She has caught them off guard, and the shelves are empty! Three of the major collections of her novels that were recently released in anticipation of The Complete Jane Austen series airing on PBS, are now out of stock. Gone, nada, zip. Sold out!

Seven Novels, Barnes & Nobel, (2007)Recently, I announced the release of the new deluxe edition of Jane Austen: Seven Novels. Within a month it was sold out! This exceptionally beautiful volume is in high demand, and now that new copies are temporally unavailable until the next printing arrives, it is garnering incredibly absurd prices on eBay. If you have not snapped up you copy already, I have it on good authority that they are in production now, so hold on to your bonnets, and please be patient.

Image of the cover of Jane Austen Seven NovelsThe other two editions were Jane Austen: Seven Novels, part of the Library of Essential Writers Series, which were complete and unabridged, and Jane Austen: Complete Novels, part of the Collector’s Library Editions Series, which were also complete and unabridged and included the humorous Hugh Thomson line illustrations from the 1890’s. Since both of these editions are published by Barnes & Noble, the chance of additional printings is very good.

Since Jane Austen has been proclaimed the “it” girl of the 21st-century, her selling power can even surprise the pros at Barnes & Noble, who have been selling books since 1873. Let’s hope that there is not too much delay as they ‘retrench’!

On the local book front, the top 10 selling Austen or Austen-esque books of February in my Alderwood Barnes & Noble store resulted in a few surprises.

  1. Pride and Prejudice (Barnes & Nobles Classics)

The store is pretty main stream as far as a snap shot of American book buyers, so you can take it from that perspective. Oh, and having an Austen enthusiasts on staff does skew things a a bit. ;) Happy reading to all.

*image of greeting cards, “What Would Jane Say”, available at the Pemberley Shoppe at Cafepress.com