Miss Austen by Gill Hornby – A fictional version of the life of Cassandra, Jane’s older sister, and difficult decisions
Miss Austen by Gill Hornby
Jane Austen fans will know of Cassandra Austen, her older sister, who was probably the closest person to the author. Gil Hornby has taken the known facts of this woman and created a story around possibly her best known action, destroying some of Jane’s correspondence. In this novel the much older woman who has survived most of her close family is motivated to carry out an act that has bewildered biographers of the author and her many fans for years. In doing so it reveals much about the life of a woman whose life has been dedicated to being useful, to her parents, to Jane, to their brothers and families, especially when tragedy has occurred. In this well written and often moving book, Cassandra is presented as a self-appointed helper to the Austen family, especially Jane, but also to their friends and connections.
This novel also has much to say about the lives of women at that time, how marriage is the only hope for so many, and how if it does not take place there are precious few options for them to support themselves financially, even in a large and generally successful family. Hornby has followed this book with “Godmersham Park” in which a woman is forced to become a governess in order to survive, and in which incidentally Cassandra features as a less than friendly character. In this novel Cassadra’s actions are examined and set in the light of her past and present intentions. She is genuinely concerned in what she sees happening about her as another clergyman’s daughter is charged with sorting out a family home, but she also knows that she must not be deflected from her true mission. Knowing that Jane was a prolific correspondent with Eliza, a close connection with both sisters, Cassandra is concerned with discovering what was revealed about the author’s mental stability and true thoughts. Cassandra’s life has been shaped by the death of her betrothed, Tom Fowle, before they could marry; while it has connected her to this family, it has inspired her to self-renunciation ever since. The narrative alternates with events in the past, the story of the young Cassandra and her great disappointment, the leaving of the rectory at Steventon and the frequent moves endured by the sisters afterwards. It is also interrupted by fictional letters written mainly by Jane which reveal another side to the story.
This book is a lovely fictionalisation of the known facts of the Austen family, especially Cassandra’s history which gives a possible context for her actions later in life. There is also a fascinating story of the current time, as Isabella and her sisters are depicted. Undoubtedly the crowning glory of this novel is the characters. Mary Austen is a minor character, but stands out as woman who could well have been a Jane Austen character for her awfulness. Jane Austen is more vulnerable and more amusing than some biographies suggest, whereas Mrs Austen senior is a hypochondriac and definitely recalls Mrs Bennet in all her glory. The main character, Cassandra, emerges as a woman who decided a long time ago to be of use rather than follow her own desires, yet knows moments of doubt. She is perhaps less perceptive than expected, but is determined and resourceful. I really enjoyed this engaging book and would recommend it not only to Austen fans but also to those who enjoy a readable historical novel set in the earlier 1800s.