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.

Book Review: Mrs Jewell and the wreck of the General Grant by Cristina Sanders – a haunting tale of shipwreck and survival

Who isn’t fascinated by survival stories? I mean look at all those Survivor series on TV. But Survivor doesn’t dump its contestants in a locality like the Auckland Islands – windswept and rugged, and at 360 km south of New Zealand, inhospitable to say the least. In her latest book, Cristina Sanders explores the true story of one of New Zealand’s most intriguing shipwrecks and the fate of the fifteen survivors who washed ashore there.

In 1866, the General Grant was sailing from Australia to Britain, carrying assorted cargo including a quantity of gold as well as some of the miners who had worked for it. Among them, Joseph Jewell, is planning to use his bundle of nuggets to buy a holding in Devon and build a future. He is recently married and his young wife Mary, the Mrs Jewell of the title, the only female survivor. But before we get to that, the novel describes Mary making friends with the other families on board, the wives and their children, while Joseph works his passage as a seaman.

This sets the scene for the terrible events of the shipwreck as the General Grant is driven irrevocably towards cliffs and sucked into a cave which cripples the ship and causes it to sink. If it hadn’t been dark, if there wasn’t such a swell, the lifeboats might have been launched in time to save more of those onboard. Cristina Sanders brings the horror of the situation to life and you’re there with Mary as she is pushed overboard by Joseph and dragged into one of the lifeboats, while around her the women and children she’d got to know are lost at sea.

It’s almost a relief when the ‘lucky’ fifteen make land. But now the real work begins – the fight for survival. With very little food salvaged and biting cold, the fifteen not only battle the elements to stay alive, but also despair and pessimism. And Mary, the only woman, as well as young and attractive, feels the horror of her situation, particularly as her husband, hampered by depression, withdraws from her, leaving her to the predatory glances and overtures of the miner, Bill Scott.

Mrs Grant and the wreck of the General Grant is unflinching in its retelling of what might have happened, based on a load of research and a few letters recovered from survivors. The book includes a picture of the Grants in their hand-stitched sealskin clothing – the seals are vital for food as well. It’s either seal meat or shellfish and the energy expended to stalk, kill, butcher and cook the unappetising mammals is all there for the reader. Over the year and a half the survivors remain on their island, they get quite proficient at feeding themselves, building huts and expand their diet. But Mary can’t help wondering, will they ever be rescued?

We had all been living so long in such danger that our group fermented in a broth of obligations and duties and cares as we got through each day. All the tensions, each disappointment simmered; we lived so bound to each other and slept all packed together every night.

You get some intense scenes – the battle to start their first fire with a handful of matches and damp kindling will have you chewing your knuckles. And the book explores the way leadership shifts as the old hierarchies seem no longer relevant. Mr Brown, the first mate, struggles to stay sane and it’s the miner James Teer, Mary’s lifeboat rescuer, who helps them pull together. The characters of the survivors are reflected in the way they each respond to events large and small, while the thought of all that gold lost on the ship taunts them.

Mary is a well-rounded character and engaging narrator, dealing with a multitude of situations and emotions, as well as expressing a watchfulness around the motives of the others. The writing is brilliant – evocative and immediate, and brings the situation to life beautifully. Its a great story and there are scenes here I shall never forget. Mrs Jewell and the wreck of the General Grant gets a four out of five from me.

Quick Review: Remarkable Creatures by Tracey Chevalier

y648An author I’ve picked up fairly consistently over the years is Tracey Chevalier, who writes historical novels – you may remember The Girl with a Pearl Earring, which was made into a movie. Her books are usually a fairly light, engaging read, but she has a knack of digging out a very human story from an often overlooked corner of history.

Remarkable Creatures is a novel about two women who were instrumental in the discovery of fossilised remains of dinosaur-era animals at the coastal town of Lyme Regis. We are just after Waterloo, and the Origin of the Species has yet to be written so the Bible’s version of how God made the world holds sway. Continue reading “Quick Review: Remarkable Creatures by Tracey Chevalier”