Book Review: Miss Austen by Gill Hornby – the story of the famous writer’s sister

When Jane Austen died, she left thousands of letters sent to family and friends, of which many were destroyed by her sister, Cassandra. This is the Miss Austen of Gill Hornby’s novel. The story begins with the elderly Cassandra visiting the vicarage where her long-dead fiancé grew up, the home of her very dear and also departed friend Eliza.

Jane and Cassandra both wrote to Eliza, and Cassandra is sure there must be a cache of letters somewhere, full of heartfelt disclosures and secrets, as well as (knowing Jane) waspish comments about other family and acquaintances. It is imperative that Cassandra finds these before they are made public. Cassandra was the carer and confidante of Jane in life, and now, twenty years after her sister’s death, she wants to preserve her good name and not allow Jane to be the subject of speculation and gossip.

And so here she is at the vicarage where as a young woman, she farewelled her beloved Tom on a voyage to the Caribbean, a chance for him to win a living from his patron and secure the means for he and Cassandra to marry. Memories come flooding back and the story dips back in time to those early years and the promises she made to Tom before his departure.

Meanwhile Eliza’s daughter Isabella is rattling around in the vicarage with her grim but loyal servant Dinah, her father the vicar having recently died. Isabella has the job of finding somewhere else to live as well as packing up all the chattels and furnishings that have been a part of her life since childhood. But Cassandra is appalled to see that Isabella doesn’t seem to know how to begin, obviously so ground down by years with an autocratic and belittling father she has a complete lack of initiative.

So we have two story threads here: Cassandra’s efforts to encourage Isabella to find a house with her other spinster sisters – for what could be more pleasant than to live with sisters?; and the early years of Cassandra’s own life with her beloved Jane as revealed by the letters she finds.

I listened to Miss Austen as an audiobook read by Juliet Stevenson and if there is a Juliet Stevenson fan club out there, I should probably become a member because her reading is utterly superb. She brings to life the characters so well along with the nuances of tone in the writing, the conversations and voices of Jane and Cassandra, plus all the peripheral characters ,to recreate the Austen sisters’ world.

There are multiple characters – the girls had five brothers, plus friends and new acquaintances, which echo some of the themes and interactions from Jane Austen’s novels. Gill Hornby has done a really good job with this, and while there are many novels out there that pay homage to Jane Austen, mostly through further stories about some of her much-loved characters, this book about Cassandra is one of the better ones I’ve come across.

Of course we can’t expect a raft of happy endings here. Jane Austen didn’t live long, and the Austens struggled to find a permanent home after their father died. Neither Jane nor Cassandra ever married and there seems to have been both grief and a sense of missed opportunities over this. And yet, Hornby sneaks in a rather charming and amusing ending to the story, casting the truculent Dinah in a whole new light. Cassandra herself is wonderful company and as an elderly unmarried woman, a believable and refreshing heroine. Miss Austen is a four out of five read from me.

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