Monday, August 15, 2022

Miss Austen – historical fiction by Gill Hornby

Title: Miss Austen
Author: Gill Hornby
Publication: Flatiron Books, hardcover, 2020
Genre: Historical Fiction
Setting: 19th-century England
Description: In this historical novel set in 1840, Hornby imagines a purposeful visit paid by Cassandra Austen to Kintbury in Berkshire after the deaths of Eliza and Fulwar Fowle. The Fowles were close friends of the Austens: Reverend Austen had taught all the sons and Cassandra had been engaged to Tom Fowle, who died of yellow fever on a Caribbean voyage. Eliza had been the frequent recipient of letters from Jane Austen, and it is Cassandra’s goal to find and destroy any letters that might reveal too much personal information about her sister. Once Cassandra finds and reads the letters, the story is told in flashbacks, revealing the close bond between the sisters, romantic possibilities, and their lives after their father’s retirement.

My Impression: Jane Austen died in Winchester in 1817 – I visited her grave in June and paid my respects – but her elder sister Cassandra lived until 1845. Most Austen fans know that Cassandra destroyed most of Jane’s letters, presumably to suppress information that she felt would damage Jane’s dignified reputation. This fictional exploration of Jane Austen's life through Cassandra’s point of view is well researched and told with humor. Hornby focuses on the sisters’ relationship and believes Cassandra essentially facilitated the freedom Jane needed to write: that if Cassandra, the more attractive sister, had married, Jane would have been stuck with domestic responsibilities and never have created her six novels.
Winchester Cathedral
It is painful to read about the rootlessness the sisters experience after their father gave up his rectory in Steventon to his eldest son and, after his death, the need to be supported by their brothers. Of course, even at their most indigent, there is no question of their seeking employment and genteel poverty still involves servants! And Hornby’s version of Mrs. Austen is very reminiscent of Mrs. Bennet, which is no compliment.

I chose this for my book group to read this month, partly because my friend Cath had just enjoyed it and partly because I was curious about the concept and whether the author could deliver. And once I heard PBS was adapting the book into a four-part series for Masterpiece, I knew it was important to read it first! It is a quiet book but well worth reading. It will be interesting to see what my friends think when we meet next week. Hornby lives in Kintbury herself, in a former vicarage, with her husband, Robert Harris, author of Fatherland and Enigma. Her brother is writer Nick Hornby.
Source: Library. Miss Austen was my nineteenth book in the 2022 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge led by Marg at The Intrepid Reader.  I am also reading this for Austen in August with Adam at Roof Beam Reader.
Giveaway:  I have a copy of Jane Austen's Christmas by Maria Hubert to give away (US only).  If you are interested, please indicate in the comments and tell me which Austen book is your favorite.


TracyK said...

This does sound very good, Constance. I had already planned to read it after hearing about it at Cath's blog, but you have motivated me further. The annual book sale is getting closer, maybe there will be a copy there.

Also interesting to learn about her connections to Nick Hornby and Robert Harris. I have read one book by each of them.

Jerri said...

This does sound like a very interesting book. Thank you for the review. I was pleased to see that my library system owns a copy of Miss Austen, which I now have on hold.

I think my favorite Jane Austen novel is Northanger Abbey, the humor is delightful. I also have a soft spot for Lady Susan, such a delightful wicked tongue in cheek book. Perhaps the greatest weakness of each is the ending, not the general outline, but each sort of makes me feel that Miss Austen wanted to provide a conventional happy ending, which was a bit more "sweetly sweet" then the rest of the novel and she wasn't sure how to end it. I would enjoy the free book if it doesn't go to someone else. I do live in the US.

Lory said...

Those destroyed documents are always so tantalizing ... if the people who do it knew how much rumor and speculation they cause, would they still make the same choice? This sounds like a good way to explore the possibilities and imagine some of those lost corners of Austen's life.

Cath said...

Glad you enjoyed this. It's made me want to read a decent biography about Jane now, the thing is, which one? Not exactly a shortage...

CLM said...

I own a couple of JA biographies (I figured I would have time to read them sooner or later) and I believe the Claire Tomalin is highly regarded. Jane Aiken Hodge's Only a Novel is the one I have read but so long ago I don't remember anything about it.

CLM said...

Jerri is the winner of Jane Austen's Christmas. Can you send me your address, please?

Marg said...

I haven't read a lot of the stories on the edges of Jane Austen's lives or the retellings that were so prevalent a few years ago. But I could be tempted by a well done one!

Thanks for sharing this review with the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.