One of my Creative Writing MA modules this trimester is called Writing Now, which requires us to read a recently published book each week.
It’s a great way to broaden our bookish horizons as some weeks we’ll have to read novels out of our comfort zones (*cough* Hilary Mantel’s 912-page beast *cough*) but it just so happened that the first book on our reading list, Miss Austen by Gill Hornby, is, for want of a more literary phrase, a bit of me.
When Miss Austen was published in early February, I went to a talk by Gill Hornby. It was with Toppings, Bath’s most beautiful bookshop, but it wasn’t held there. It was in a more poignant venue, St. Swithin’s; the church where Jane Austen’s parents married in 1764 and her father was buried in 1805. There was something special about being surrounded by fellow Austen fans in a building so connected to her life, and moving considering the heartache and misfortune she experienced in Bath.
Imagine if Jane Austen could’ve seen into the future! I don’t think she would’ve believed it if she knew her novels would be celebrated over two centuries after her death and readers would still have a huge appetite for books about her life. Perhaps our stomachs continue to rumble for details on Austen’s personal life because her sister Cassandra burned a lot of Jane’s letters, twenty-three years after she died. It’s this intriguing mystery that Miss Austen explores, delving into what those letters might have contained and why Cassandra felt compelled to censor her sister’s life.
We are introduced to Cassandra in her old age as she visits the home of her family friends, the Fowles, in the village of Kintbury in Berkshire. Isabella’s mother, Eliza Fowle, was a close friend of the Austen sisters, and now that her father has died too, she has to leave the vicarage. Cassandra turns up unexpectedly, not only to pay her respects, but to make sure Jane’s letters don’t fall into the wrong hands. When Cassandra finds the stash of letters and reads through them, she looks back at her youth and the strong bond she shared with her sister.
The vicarage was also once home to Cassandra’s fiancé, Thomas Fowle, before he died, and her visit stirs up painful memories. I didn’t know much about Cassandra before I read Miss Austen and it was really interesting to view Jane’s life from her perspective and learn about their connection with the Fowle family. Gill Hornby actually lives in the Kintbury vicarage so it’s no wonder she was inspired to write about the relationship between the Fowles and the Austens.
Through Cassandra’s devotion to her sister, shines Gill Hornby’s love for Jane and Miss Austen pays homage to her novels. From the cast of characters, including a bitter aunt, a devoted sister, a comical clergyman and a match-making sister, to the style that echoes Austen’s wit, Gill Hornby is more than a safe pair of hands when it comes to Jane’s world. I must admit, I did initially get a bit confused by the many Austen siblings and their spouses with similar names but there’s a handy character list in the front of the book to refer to and they soon establish themselves.
The letters evoke Jane’s voice and richly imagine events in the Austen sisters’ lives that also wouldn’t be out of place in one of her novels. Together they experience changes in fortune, romantic encounters, heartbreak and grief, creating some touching moments between the two sisters. It was Cassandra’s devotion to Jane which moved me the most. As the sister of Nick Hornby and wife of Robert Harris, Gill Hornby knows what it’s like to be related to a famous author and she illustrates the important role Cassandra’s played in Jane’s life and career. Cassandra supported and championed her sister, for as long as she lived and for decades after her early death.
Miss Austen is a must read for any Janeite. It’s a delightful book that fully immerses you into Jane’s life, filling the gaps with fictional but convincing pieces, whilst also telling the story of Cassandra, a supportive sister who deserves recognition in her own right.