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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The furniture still in place looked abject, humiliated, like slaves in the marketplace.

"Perhaps her maid is away?"

"Which leaves who looking after 'er, may I ask?" Dinah flung cloak and hat over her arm. "Me and whose army?"

A vicarage without a vicar was always a sorrowful sight. Cassandra had borne witness to it more often than most, yet it still affected her every time. The Fowles had lived in this house for three generations. It had been handed on, father to son—all good clergymen, all blessed with fine wives—but that chain was now broken. Isabella's father was dead, and her brothers had refused it. No doubt they had their reasons, and—to squander all that family heritage—Cassandra sincerely hoped they were good ones.

Church tradition allowed the relicts of the family two months to vacate the house for the next incumbent. And, although it was not anywhere written, Church tradition seemed somehow always to rely on the vicarage women to effect it. Poor Isabella. The task she had before her was bleak, miserable, arduous: just two months to clear the place that had been their home for ninety-nine years! Of course she had to start on it at once. But still, the Reverend Fulwar Craven Fowle had been dead but a few weeks. Cassandra had come as soon as she could. She was shocked to see that the work was already this far advanced.

To think that journey—so tiring, so uncomfortable, so shamefully expensive—might not have been worth it! To think that for which she had come might already be gone!

Cassandra felt nauseated and dizzy. Kindly Isabella smoothed down her hair—she must look disheveled—and led her through the hall.

The Kintbury drawing room was a thing of simple beauty: a perfect cube with walls of deep yellow that caught and held the setting sun. Each of its windows, on two sides, looked out over water: You could stand and watch the fishermen on the river or barges glide along the canal to east and west. Ordinarily it was one of Cassandra's favorite places. It satisfied her soul. But on that day she approached it with nervous trepidation, consumed with a dread of what she might find.

She need not have worried. Even as she entered, before setting a sensible shoe on the needlepoint carpet, she felt herself safe. The atmosphere here was one of calm and repose. The air was quite undisturbed. And all the furniture was here, just as it had always been. So she had not come too late! Her knees almost buckled with the relief. She turned back to Isabella, her voice and authority returned to her at once.

"Now, perhaps I may repair myself before we dine?"

* * *

CASSANDRA HAD OFTEN privately observed that when the gentleman of the house died, fine dining died with him. It was a thesis that evening's dinner was determined to prove. Their mutton was just that: mutton, with no sauce, potatoes, or pudding, its only companion a cabbage that had loitered too long in the ground. She smiled as she compared it with the meals she once enjoyed there. Isabella's father was always a man of high standards and immoderate reactions. If Dinah had dared serve him something like this, he would have made his displeasure known.

But they were two ladies, so they politely thanked their Lord, with some effort cut their mutton, and chewed with a dogged determination. The only other sound was the loud ticking of the clock. Silence at that particular dinner table was another unwelcome innovation, one that Cassandra was finding more tough than the meat.

"I see from the labels on everything that you are already well ahead in dividing up all the effects." Cassandra eyed the decanter, which was empty for the first time in its history. She tilted her head and read that Mr. Charles Fowle had already claimed ownership. It could look forward to a busy future with him.

"The will was read last week, and my brothers were able to make their decisions." Isabella betrayed no emotion as she said this. Her face was turned down; those bright eyes studied her plate.

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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  Cassandra Austen (1773-1845)

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