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.  

Godmersham Park by Gill Hornby – A novel of Anne Sharp, governess, and her encounters with the Austen family

Godmersham Park by Gill Hornby

This novel is an immersive, stylish read in the world of Jane Austen whose brother owned the Park of the title, and employed Anne Sharp from 1804. The narrative is written from the point of view of Anne, a single woman who was a real and fairly well documented character in the lives of the Austen family, as governess to Fanny or Frances, a correspondent and favourite of Jane. This book expands on the known history of this remarkable young woman, who features in the diaries and correspondence of the Austen family. It gives her a background which goes some way to explain how a well-educated, imaginative and able woman found herself as a governess.

 This novel reflects a lot of research not only into the Austen papers, but also the lot of governesses at this time. As the only real career option for unmarried women with some education and worthy background at the time, the role was positioned somewhere between the family and the servants. The accommodation, meals and continued employment was very much at the whim of the woman running the house, and in this account Elizabeth Austen, wife of Edward, emerges as a unpredictable employer and the household a changeable one. I found it a fascinating and engaging read, depicting Anne as a character with real depth and interest. While not a deeply dramatic read, it conveys something of the dependence of a woman on those around her, despite her many gifts and skills. Anne emerges as a genuinely convincing character, and the various Austen family members contribute to a story of her progress in a challenging and realistic world.

Anne’s own story in relation to Gomersham Park begins as the result of a surprise following the death of her much loved mother. Her father was a loving if apparently variable character, but his silence compels the young woman to seek employment and ensure her loyal servant Agnes can support herself. The shock of going from a much loved daughter to a single woman living in another family’s house is considerable; Anne had received marriage proposals which she rejected, unwilling to be tied to a man who she could not love and who would not support her own interests. Now she realises that her world, her continued well being is totally dependant on Elizabeth Austen, and her own ability to educate and cope with Fanny, a girl who has had little or no experience of learning in an organised manner.  The frequent visits of Henry Austen change the whole atmosphere of the establishment, and Anne finds him a capricious character capable of sudden acts of kindness or challenge. Can she discover a real future in this vibrant and changeable house, or is it simply too difficult?

I enjoyed this book with its mixture of real people and events related against a background of a woman’s fictional story. It is skilfully written in terms of creating a setting of a grand house and a family who are close and involved in each other’s lives. Anne’s own progress is not easy, and is described realistically and with real understanding of a young woman’s difficulties, which is reflected in some of her friends who choose other paths. It is an entertaining read that I would recommend as being steeped in a real sense of time and place, and featuring a genuinely interesting character against a background of others which includes the thoughtful and endearing Jane Austen.