Miss Austen by Gill Hornby
Published by Flatiron Books
Publication date: April 7, 2020
Genres: Fiction, Historical
On Monday I reviewed what was a stunning, but intense book, so it’s with a bit of relief that I’m back with a book I’ll call recovery reading. Cassandra Austen is the older sister of author, Jane Austen. Jane has been dead for many years and Cassandra has felt it was her duty to be the arbiter and controller of her beloved sister’s legacy. To this end, she has been gathering her sister’s letters and writings. While Jane was the famous sister, in Gill Hornby’s Miss Austen it is Cassandra’s life that unfolds on the page.
Now, in her 80s, Cassandra makes a final visit to the home of their sister-in-law, Eliza, who passed away years ago. She was a dear friend to both women and both had corresponded with her regularly. Correspondence at a time in their lives that was fraught with circumstances Cassandra does not want exposed for public consumption. The problem is she doesn’t know where the letters are and she has no right to them. The current resident of the house is Isabella, Eliza’s daughter. Isabella’s mother, Mary, who is married to Cassandra’s brother and was Eliza’s sister, has already staked a claim to any written material found in the house. It’s a twisted tale.
There are several reasons Miss Austen is such delightful reading. The most straightforward is the times themselves are a refreshing change from the vulgarity and too-much-information that permeates much of today’s society. England in the 1800s had a lot of problems, but manners and etiquette were not one of them. Then there is the story itself. It may be fictional, but Hornby gives a clear sense of the abiding love between all the members of the Austen family. They were unusual in their openness, humor and intellectual pursuits—as evidenced by the acceptance of Jane’s writing. As written it’s a simpler life, with its own challenges, but one with a slower pace that allows room to breathe.
At the same time, Hornby presses the very theme Jane Austen herself returned to time and again: a woman’s need for a good marriage. NOT in the sense of psychological satisfactions, but simply for survival. In Miss Austen Cassandra and Jane are proof of this. After their father’s death, they are without a home and dependent on whatever financial contribution their brothers want to make to help their sisters and mother. Without marriage they have no stability or even a set place to live. But even in the face of this precariousness neither woman feels compelled to marry, driving home what may be the largest theme in the novel—the profound comfort and joy to be found in the presence of other women.
All of this comes together with a lively plot that wraps itself up as neatly as any of the real Miss Austen’s novels. There may not be an abundance of depth or nuance, but if you’re ready for an escape and reading that entertains as it soothes, than Miss Austen is a welcome respite.
Shelter-in-place reads: Another novel I loved about the sister of a famous writer is Vanessa and Her Sister. It was a five star favorite of mine in 2014. It’s perfect if you want something more literary with a bit more depth. Highly recommended and easy to get from the library.
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