Excerpt from Miss Austen by Gill Hornby, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Miss Austen

by Gill Hornby

Miss Austen by Gill Hornby X
Miss Austen by Gill Hornby
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    Apr 2020, 288 pages
    Mar 2021, 304 pages


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Not odd at all; indeed, it was entirely deliberate. Cassandra had never before been so discourteous as to arrive without proper notice but, on this occasion, had simply had no choice. So she gave a vague smile.

In the absence of any explanation, Isabella went on: "I did not grasp quite how long you are staying. Do you plan to be with us a while?"

Isabella's displeasure at her arrival was now perfectly plain. Beneath that mild, quiet exterior there was, perhaps, a stronger character than had previously been witnessed. Nevertheless Cassandra would stay here as long as was necessary. She was determined not to leave until her work here was done. She muttered about possibly traveling farther on to a nephew, affecting an uncharacteristic indecisiveness brought on by advancing age.

"Fred will bring in your trunk. Please." Isabella signaled toward the door, which opened at once from the inside. "Ah, you are there, Dinah."

There. Dinah. She must remember that. She might be needing Dinah.

"Miss Austen is with us."

Dinah squeezed out a negligible bob.

"Shall we go in?"

* * *

CASSANDRA HAD FIRST CROSSED this threshold as a young woman. She was tall then, and slim; many were kind enough to say handsome. Was time playing its tricks, or had she worn her best blue? A crowd of family had assembled to greet her; the servants—excited, admiring—jostled behind. She had stood still and thrilled at it—the power of her position! The force of that moment!

Oh, she still looked in the glass when she had to. She knew she would not be called slim now, but spare. Her spine, once a strict perpendicular, was kinked and shortening; her face so gaunt that her once-proud nose—the Leigh nose, the stamp of a distant aristocracy—more like the beak of a common crow. And the people who loved her then were gone now—as she herself was gone, almost. Those receiving her today—poor Isabella; difficult Dinah; Fred, who now passed through the vestibule, grunting and dragging her trunk—of course knew the facts of her history, but had no sense of the truth of it. For whoever looked at an elderly lady and saw the young heroine she once was?

They moved through to the wide wood-paneled hall. Cassandra followed them meekly, but once there was suddenly seized with alarm. She made for the generous stone fireplace, clung on for support, and looked with horror at the scene around her.

She could hear Dinah mutter: "Lord save us. She's turned up and lost 'er senses. As if we don't have enough on our plate."

And Isabella whisper: "Perhaps it is more sorrow or sentiment that affects her. After all, this must be the last time that she will ever come here."

Cassandra knew better than to acknowledge them. It was one of those conversations conducted as though she could not hear it, in which the young so often indulge around the old. But as if she could be overcome by sorrow or sentiment, when for decades they had been her constant companions. No. It was not the fact that this was the last visit—she gasped for air, her hands shook—it was the fear that she had left it too late. The house was already in a chaos of removals.

"My dear, are you sure you are quite well?" Isabella, softening, took her elbow, giving her something to lean on.

A portrait of the Fowles' benefactor, Lord Craven, had hung above that fireplace ever since she could remember. Now it was gone from the wall.

"That coach was too much for you." Isabella talked loudly as if to an imbecile, while untying the ribbon around Cassandra's chin. "All that way in this cold weather." Her bonnet was removed. From where she was standing, Cassandra could see into the study where the shelves had been emptied. Which books were gone? They had had the whole set of Jane's. Who had them now?

"And she's come alone then, I can't help but notice." Dinah was behind her, loosening off her cloak.

Excerpted from Miss Austen by Gill Hornby. Copyright © 2020 by Gill Hornby. Excerpted by permission of Flatiron Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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Beyond the Book:
  Cassandra Austen (1773-1845)

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