The BookBrowse Review

Published June 9, 2021

ISSN: 1930-0018

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Miss Austen
Miss Austen
by Gill Hornby

Paperback (16 Mar 2021), 304 pages.
Publisher: Flatiron Books
ISBN-13: 9781250252210
Genres
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For fans of Jo Baker's Longbourn, a witty, poignant novel about Cassandra Austen and her famous sister, Jane.

Whoever looked at an elderly lady and saw the young heroine she once was?

England, 1840. For the two decades following the death of her beloved sister, Jane, Cassandra Austen has lived alone, spending her days visiting friends and relations and quietly, purposefully working to preserve her sister's reputation. Now in her sixties and increasingly frail, Cassandra goes to stay with the Fowles of Kintbury, family of her long-dead fiancé, in search of a trove of Jane's letters. Dodging her hostess and a meddlesome housemaid, Cassandra eventually hunts down the letters and confronts the secrets they hold, secrets not only about Jane but about Cassandra herself. Will Cassandra bare the most private details of her life to the world, or commit her sister's legacy to the flames?

Moving back and forth between the vicarage and Cassandra's vibrant memories of her years with Jane, interwoven with Jane's brilliantly reimagined lost letters, Miss Austen is the untold story of the most important person in Jane's life. With extraordinary empathy, emotional complexity, and wit, Gill Hornby finally gives Cassandra her due, bringing to life a woman as captivating as any Austen heroine.

1
Kintbury, March 1840


Cassandra managed a smile but stayed where she was on the vicarage doorstep. She would dearly like to be more effusive—she felt the distant, familiar stirrings of effusiveness somewhere deep down—but was simply too tired to move. Her old bones had been shaken apart by the coach ride from her home in Chawton, and the chill wind off the river was piercing her joints. She stood by her bags and watched Isabella approach.

"I had to go up to the vestry," Isabella called as she came down from the churchyard. She had always cut a small, colorless figure, and was now, of course—poor dear—in unhelpful, ill-fitting black. "There are still duties…" Against a backdrop of green bank dotted with primrose, she moved like a shadow. "So many duties to perform." The only distinguishing feature about her person was the hound by her side. And while her voice was all apology, her step was remarkably unhurried. Even Pyramus, now advancing across the gravel, was a study in reluctance with a drag on his paws.

Cassandra suspected that she was not welcome, and if that was so, could only blame herself. A single woman should never outlive her usefulness. It was simple bad manners. She had come uninvited; Isabella was in difficulties: It was all rather awkward but quite understandable. Still, she once might have hoped for some enthusiasm from a dog.

"My dear, it is so kind of you to let me visit." She embraced Isabella, who was all cool politeness, and fussed over Pyramus, though she much preferred cats.

"But has nobody come to you? Did you not ring?"

Of course Cassandra had rung. She had arrived with great commotion and business in a post chaise so that nobody could miss her. The coachman had rung and then rung again. She had seen people, plenty of them: a steady traffic of laborers balanced on carts coming back from the fields and a group of boys, wet to the knees, with a newt in a bucket. She longed to speak to them—she was rather fond of newts, and even fonder of boys in that fever of innocent passion—but they did not seem to see her. And the house had stayed silent, though that difficult maid—What was her name? Cassandra's memory, always prodigious, was beginning to fray, if just at the edges—must know perfectly well she was there.

"I came at a bad moment. Oh, Isabella"—Cassandra held her arms and looked into her face—"how are you?"

"It has been difficult, Cassandra." Isabella's eyes reddened. "Really most difficult." She struggled, but then composed herself. "But how does the old place seem to you now? Have you been looking around?"

"Exactly as it has always been. Dear, dear Kintbury…"

The vicarage had been a landmark—familiar, ofttimes sad, always beloved—in Cassandra's life for forty-five years. A white, three-story building with a friendly face set east toward the ancient village; garden falling on one side down to the banks of the Kennet, rising on the other to the squat Norman church. It stood testament to everything that she valued: family and function, the simple, honest, good life. She rated this happy piece of English domestic architecture over anything grander—Godmersham, Stoneleigh, Pemberley, even. That said, she dearly would like to be inside it—by the fire, in a chair, getting warm. "Shall we—?"

"Of course. Where is everybody? Let me take that." Isabella reached for the small black valise in Cassandra's hand.

"Thank you. I can manage it." Cassandra clutched the bag to her. "But my trunk—"

"Trunk? Ah." Though Isabella's face remained pale and blank of expression, her piercing blue eyes flashed bright with intelligence. "I am sure it is my fault. I have had so much on my mind." One eyebrow arced. "And your letter arrived only yesterday—was that not odd?"

Full Excerpt

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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Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!

  1. Cassandra Austen is perhaps most famous (or infamous) for having destroyed many of her sister Jane's personal papers, including letters and manuscripts, after her death. After reading this novel, do you sympathize with Cassandra's actions? Do you believe, like her, that personal details about her sister are "none of posterity's business," or do readers and scholars have a right to know more about the lives of famous figures like Jane Austen?
  2. The epigraph of Miss Austen is from Persuasion: "Men have had every advantage over us in telling their own story…The pen has been in their hands." How does this novel rewrite the story? Would you consider it to be feminist?
  3. Jane's (and other characters') letters are sprinkled throughout the novel. What do they add to the story that couldn't be conveyed through third-person narration?
  4. In the prologue, we see Tom's proposal to Cassandra. What sort of story does that set us up to expect, and how are our expectations subverted? How is the idea of marriage being their "one possible happy ending" complicated?
  5. Why does Cassy vow never to marry anyone but Tom, despite his protests? Do you agree with her "small epiphany" later in the novel that "it never had been the wilful act of a foolish young woman, but instead the centrepiece of her whole life's design"?
  6. Reading one of Mary's letters, Cassandra is devastated by its account of her reaction to Tom's death, which is very different from Cassandra's own memory: "Cassandra saw now, understood for the first time, the enormity of the task she had lately set herself: how impossible it was to control the narrative of one family's history." Why do you think Cassandra is so upset? Do you think she succeeds in controlling her family's narrative? What is lost and gained in her "editing" of Jane's legacy?
  7. In Sidmouth, Cassy and Anna go hunting for fossils with Henry Hobday. For Cassy, the fossils are symbolic: "She would hate to be dug up and pored over some time in the future." Why is Cassy so protective of her (and Jane's) privacy? Do you feel similarly, or would you like to leave a record behind? 
  8. Cassandra reflects: "A single woman should never outlive her usefulness. It was simple bad manners." What does she mean by "usefulness"? What challenges do the single women in this novel face? Are any of those challenges still present for single women today?
  9. Discuss this line: "For whoever looked at an elderly lady and saw the young heroine she once was?" Did your view of Cassy/Cassandra change depending on her age? Why do you think there are so few depictions of older main characters in literature?
  10. For Cassandra, there is "no closer bond on this earth" than sisterhood. How is that relationship portrayed in Miss Austen? How does it differ from other forms of female friendship?
  11. Cassandra reflects: "Jane's story and her own could not be separated: they were bound tight together to form one complete history. On the fortunes of the other, each life had turned." How would her and Jane's lives have been different had either or both of them married? What role does Cassandra play in Jane's writing life and success?
  12. Isabella's relationship with John Lidderdale, the town doctor, loosely follows the plot of Austen's novel Persuasion. Were you surprised to learn of their romance? What obstacles did they face in being together? How does Cassandra's misreading of Isabella's life parallel her fears about how people will misread her and Jane's lives?
  13. Dinah tells Cassandra: "The difference between you and me, Madam…is my meddling's done all to the good." What do you make of Dinah's character? Why do you think she feels so invested in Isabella's fate?
  14. Dinah says of Eliza Fowle: "She was a perfect woman, my mistress – too perfect, as I see it…Perfection brings no end of trouble. Mrs. Fowle would keep her thoughts to herself, which is a daft way to go on, if anyone wants my opinion." What does she mean? Do you have sympathy for Eliza?
  15. What is your favorite Jane Austen novel? What similarities does Miss Austen share with those classics, and how does it differ? Were you surprised by any aspects of Gill Hornby's portrait of Jane and Cassandra, based on your own preconceptions of them?

 

Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Flatiron Books. Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.

Here are some of the recent comments posted about Miss Austen.
You can read the full discussion here, and please do participate if you wish.
Be aware that this discussion will contain spoilers!

"A single woman should never outlive her usefulness." What challenges do the single women in this novel face? Are any of those challenges still present today?
Single women were at the mercy of not only men, but married women, If the family did not leave them money, they did not have many choices. Mainly, family members used them as unpaid labor. If they did not have this, they did not have many options,... - nancyh

"Men have had every advantage over us in telling their own story..." How does this novel rewrite the story? Would you consider it to be feminist?
I guess I have to agree that this is a feminist work, if only because it does present the feminine view of the situation and the strength of several of the female characters, but I'm not sure. Is that what makes a work feminist? I don&#... - susiej

After reading this novel, do you sympathize with Cassandra's actions?
I think that Cassandra was so close to Jane that she knew what Jane would have wanted. She was acting in what she thought was Jane's best interests. Things were very different back then, and what was a big concern then would not be a big deal ... - jeann

Being true to history
I agree that it cannot be a complete history if some of it is destroyed and part of Jane's history will always remain a mystery. I similar thing happened in our family when an aunt decided to burn some items. - nancyh

Cassy is struck by how different Tom seems with his family and begins to doubt their compatabiity. Is she justified?
After getting to know his family, Cassy was justified in questioning the wisdom of marrying Tom. I think she would have been miserable living that far from her family, especially after meeting Tom’s family. Tom did not appear to be a fit with... - cindyb

Dinah says of Eliza: "She was a perfect woman, my mistress – too perfect, as I see it…" What does she mean? Do you have sympathy for Eliza?
I am in total agreement with susiej and could not say it better. My parents were born at the turn of the 20th century to families in which the man was the head of the household. Something I learned at a fairly young age was that my Mother followed my... - katherinep

Discuss this line: "For whoever looked at an elderly lady and saw the young heroine she once was?"
I f is very difficult for the young to believe that elderly women were ever young and would understand what they are going though. My granddaughter had to write about her grandparents for a college project. I remember when she started talking and ... - nancyh

Do you think Cassandra succeeds in controlling her family's narrative? What is lost and gained in her "editing" of Jane's legacy?
What is lost is a well-rounded picture of Jane Austen. Cassie's care taking - in every way - of Jane has given us a very controlled view of her and her life. Jane Austen obviously had to have more diverse life experiences in order to create ... - susiej

For Cassandra, there is "no closer bond on this earth" than sisterhood. How is that relationship portrayed in Miss Austen?
Cassie appeared to me to be so closely connected to her family and especially to Jane that had Tom not been lost during his journey away, something else would surely have happened to prevent her from marrying him. The Austens appeared to be very ... - susiej

How does Cassandra's misreading of Isabella's life parallel her fears about how people will misread her and Jane's lives?
Cassie's overall concern and care for others becomes apparent in this situation. She reaches out to Isabella's sisters in an attempt to procure future security for Isabella once she leaves the Vicarage. It is obvious to readers - more so ... - susiej

How is the idea of marriage being Cassandra and Tom's "one possible happy ending" complicated?
The prologue leads us to believe that the novel might be focused on the life of Jane's sister - on Cassie - how and where she lived and what was the focus of her life. Of course it does that, but just not in the way we expect that it might. It... - susiej

How would the sister's lives have been different had either or both of them married? What role does Cassandra play in Jane's writing life and success?
If either had married, this history would be entirely different, It would have been very difficult for them to be separated, however, there would now be husbands and children involved in this history I believe Cassie would have liked being married ... - nancyh

I found the author's attempts to prepare for the story helpful.
Since there were many characters and intermarried families, the list of family members and how they were related was invaluable. I'm sure I would have been hopelessly lost without those two introductory "Families" pages! I ... - viquig

Jane's (and other characters') letters are sprinkled throughout the novel. What do they add to the story?
The letters were a big part of the story. I enjoyed the letters. Letters were so important then, We did not have telephones, internet, etc. Letters was the way to keep in touch with family and friends, This was of much simpler time, people took ... - nancyh

Overall, what do you think of Miss Austen?
I liked the book I did not know much about Jane Austin so while reading the book, I had to look up more history about them. Finding out about the history of places times and people has always been something I enjoy finding out more about. This ... - nancyh

The Austens are witty, cheerful, and prefer the company of other Austens above all. How is this both a blessing and curse for Cassy and Jane?
An enviable way to grow up, for sure. I'm not sure that it really prepares one for life in the real world. Cassy was not able to understand Tom when she saw him interact with his family. - nancyread

What do you make of Dinah's character? Why do you think she feels so invested in Isabella's fate?
Dinah was an employee of Isabella's and she cared about what happened to her. She cared for her and also cared about her. - tswaine

What is your favorite Jane Austen novel? Were you surprised by any aspects of Gill Hornby's portrait of Jane and Cassandra?
I loved Emma. One of my assignments in Creative Writing was to create a new scene for Emma--how I wish I had that little piece of writing--got an A+ and stuck it in my copy of the book--both have disappeared over the past 58 years--wonder if my ... - katherinep

What is your relationship with Jane Austen?
Knowing how many readers are huge fans of Jane Austen, I feel like whispering this....I have never read one of her novels. It's the truth, and I feel somewhat embarrassed to admit it. After reading Miss Austen and enjoying ... - jeann

What were some of your favorite lines from this book?
I enjoyed Mrs. Austen's concern with her abdominal ailments: "My bowels feel much steadier now, thanks be to the Lord, after what was, as you of all people know, Cass, the most frightful evacuation." ... - viquig

Which of the story-lines did you enjoy the most (beginning in 1795) or the present storyline (1840), and why?
I most enjoyed the story line of 1840 because I could see Cassie's thoughts about the past and her hopes for protecting Jane's legacy. Certainly, both story lines are important and necessary. - djcminor

Why do you think Miss Cassandra waited so long after Jane's death to look for Jane's letters and papers in order to destroy them?
I also think that Cassie didn't think about Jane's letters until she found out that someone else was going to occupy the vicarage and she didn't want anyone else to have the information in the letters. In her opinion the information ... - tswaine

Why does Cassy vow never to marry anyone but Tom, despite his protests?
I think she meant it at the time, as an affirmation to Tom of how much he meant to her and how important it was that he return safely. But she was so young. To live her whole life alone because of that vow? Well, she certainly took it as a ... - jeann

Why is Cassy so protective of her (and Jane's) privacy? Do you feel similarly, or would you like to leave a record behind?
Cassie and Jane were very close throughout their lives; in a sense, it seemed to me that Cassie relinquished her life - or at least arranged it - in ways that allowed Jane to continue her work. It would only seem fitting then that once all of ... - susiej

A charming work of historical fiction, Miss Austen gives readers a glimpse into the world of Jane Austen's beloved sister, Cassandra.

Print Article Publisher's View   

Gill Hornby's Miss Austen did very well with our First Impressions readers, garnering an average rating of 4.4 out of 5 stars. Hornby is the author of the previous novels The Hive and All Together Now, as well as a biography of Jane Austen for young readers, The Story of Jane Austen.

What the book is about:

Miss Austen by Gill Hornby focuses on Cassandra (see Beyond the Book), Jane's older sister, constant companion and literary executor of her estate. Always concerned about the legacy that Jane will leave, when Cassandra learns that the parsonage where the Fowles—extended family and great friends of the Austens—lived is being claimed by the replacement clergyman, she invites herself to stay. She is determined to find and censor any letters that might cast a shadow on Jane's life. And as is often the case when you dig in the past, she learns some things she might prefer not to know (Dorothy M). One would assume that a book titled Miss Austen would be about Jane Austen, but Cassandra Austen, Jane's sister, is the protagonist of this well written historical novel. Jane is deceased, and Cassandra is going through old letters of hers, deciding which are important to tell the story of Jane's life (Julie Z).

Readers enjoyed delving into the life of Cassandra Austen and her relationship with her famous sister.

What a wonderful step into the world of Cassandra Austen—and sister Jane. I was thoroughly delighted with Hornby's rendering of Jane and Cassie's lives. It's fun to see Jane as a little "snarky" at times and Cassie's inner thoughts contrasting with her outward behavior (Gwen C). Very few relationships come close to the intensity of sisters. If close, there is nothing that can come between them. Such was the case with Cassandra and Jane Austen. Though more of a supporting character in a family with some very colorful personalities, Cassandra Austen proved her love and loyalty to Jane throughout their lives and after. This book focuses on the after, and the preservation of Jane's good name, though on its own it is a delightful window into Cassandra's reimagined life (Anne M).

While some reviewers found parts of the story underdeveloped, including the character of Jane,

The portrayal of Jane Austen as fragile, emotionally unstable and depressed seemed contrived and did not ring true to me (Terri O). Cassandra is a very interesting and sympathetic character but Jane remains elusive. There is a crowded cast of characters (many clearly based on Austen's) that never really catch and keep the reader's attention (Margot P).

...many appreciated the insights they gained into the experiences of women at the time...

An unflinching look at the constraints around women's lives in the 1700s and 1800s, the novel shows how bright, creative women like Jane Austen and her sister Cassandra navigated within those gender limitations and ultimately created space for themselves to live lives of their choosing (Katie V). As Jane Austen did, Hornby shows us the options open to women during the period, always limited, and the dismal opportunities for single women or women whose husbands were no longer around (Dorothy M).

...and the influences of Jane's work on the story.

In this delightful novel about Jane Austen's sister Cassandra the author deftly weaves in familiar Austen plot elements: sisters and their immediate and extended relatives; seaside visits; a public dance and a picnic; visits with friends; domestic issues and long walks; off-stage marriage proposals and their consequences; mistakes about love, some fixable and some not; and the necessity of finding one's place in the world, particularly for unmarried women (Deborah W). Those familiar with Jane's novels will enjoy the prose style, reminiscent of Austen's own, which transports the reader into the life of the early 19th-century spinsters. The story has parallels to Austen's novels, perhaps especially Persuasion. Highly recommended for Austen lovers (Rebecca H)!

Reviewed by BookBrowse First Impression Reviewers

The Guardian (UK)
The great joy of Miss Austen is that the reader feels immersed in a world that is convincingly Jane’s from the first page…It’s also extremely funny…Miss Austen is a novel of great kindness, often unexpectedly moving, with much to say about the status of ‘invisible’ older women. Above all, it’s concerned with the triumph of small acts of goodness; you can’t help feeling that Jane would have approved.

New York Journal of Books
In Miss Austen, Gill Hornby has created an exceptionally entertaining addition to the Jane Austen legacy. In this exciting new interpretation of historical fiction, fans of the genre will not be disappointed and undoubtably cheer the opportunity to revisit the grandeur and anguish of the extended Austen family. With poignant intricacy and unique perspective, Hornby gives a voice to and brings to life an extraordinarily charming adaptation of one the most overlooked and most important people in Jane Austen’s life, her older sister Cassandra.

Publishers Weekly
Hornby's Cassy is convincingly sympathetic in her effort to preserve her sister's reputation, and a focus on female relationships and mutual support adds unexpected tenderness. Echoing Austen's sardonic wit and crisp prose without falling into pastiche, Hornby succeeds with a vivid homage to the Austens and their world.

Kirkus Reviews
Cassy herself never quite convinces and the business of the book can seem scattered, but the evocation of the sisters' closeness is solid. A nicely judged fictional resurrection joins the tribute library accumulating around a literary icon.

Booklist
Austen fans will enjoy Hornby’s nuanced, fresh portrayal of Jane…Cassandra herself is similarly fascinating, a woman who never ceases her efforts to carve out a life of her own in a world that is not kind to unmarried women…A worthy addition to most collections.

Library Journal (starred review)
For readers who enjoy Austen’s novels and wish to know more about her life and for those seeking excellent English historical fiction.

Author Blurb Karen Joy Fowler, author of The Jane Austen Book Club and We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves
Hornby's gift to the world of Austen lovers is to return to Cassandra her rightful recognition as Jane's most intimate and sustaining relationship, her greatest love. This is a deeply imagined and deeply moving novel. Reading it made me happy and weepy in equally copious amounts.

Author Blurb Lara Prescott, author of The Secrets We Kept
Extraordinary and heart-wrenching, Miss Austen transported me from page one. A remarkable novel that is wholly original, deeply moving, and emotionally complex. A gift to all Austen lovers.

Author Blurb Helena Kelly, author of Jane Austen, the Secret Radical
I've seldom enjoyed any Austen-centered book so much as this. Affecting and thought-provoking, it makes you think about both the Miss Austens in a new light.

Author Blurb Laurel Ann Nattress, editor of Jane Austen Made Me Do It
A joy from the prologue to the author's note. Rich in historical detail, family lore, and heart, Miss Austen will wow Janeites and enchant the uninitiated. Upon her sister's death, Cassandra claimed that she was 'the sun of my life.' Now we know why.

Author Blurb Natalie Jenner, author of The Jane Austen Society
Fans of Austen will rejoice in the chance to enter this fictional world and spend time with the extended Austen family as Cassandra and Jane navigate the demands of her genius and temperament in the face of the many pressures single women have endured throughout history.

Author Blurb Claire Tomalin, author of Jane Austen: A Life

Unputdownable. So good, so intelligent, so clever, so entertaining—I adored it.

Author Blurb Deirdre Le Faye, editor of Jane Austen's Letters
Gill Hornby places Cassandra center stage and ingeniously imagines what her own life might have been like—an approach which casts a different light on the familiar biographical picture without in any way distorting it.

Write your own review

Rated 5 of 5 of 5 by LinZ
Miss Cassandra
I enjoyed this book very much! It was like reading a Jane Austen novel! The language and characters were very much in Austen's style. That made it easier to get into Cassandra's mind set of not revealing her true thoughts and doing what society would demand of a single woman. That alone made it a bit unsatisfying for me. Single women of the time , had no rights but tons of expectations placed upon her! Her family totally controlled her daily life, from where she was allowed to live and go, how she could live and who she was beholden to. What a frustrating life!! It did make me grateful to be a woman in our times, but we women still want more! The relationship between the sisters was intense. Not having a sister made it harder for me to understand that , but in view of the entire Austen family, I know of few families that enjoy each other so much, almost to the exclusion of others! It was a simpler time, but the family was positive and negative in its influences. I asked myself several times how did Cassandra give up her own happiness for her family and her fiancé? English duty??

Rated 5 of 5 of 5 by Charla Wilson
Loved the way this book was written
I loved that this book was written from Jane's sister Cassandra's perspective. It included information from prior to Jane's death, the circumstances leading up to Jane's death and after Jane's death. I loved that the plot was centered around Cassandra's determination to get any letters written by Jane or herself that might have shined a negative light on her family or her sister. Therefore, there were many letters included in the story and I enjoyed reading it because of the letters. I think the author did a great job telling the story and although I cannot be 100 sure, I think Jane would approve. However, I was left trying to determine what disease Jane actually died of. No I didn't expect the author to answer that question, after all I don't think anyone knows that for certain. But, the story did make me think about this dilemma, as well as other ask questions. If a book sticks with me in that manner, it is because it was a well written story.

Rated 5 of 5 of 5 by Djcminor
A Must-Read
When I have an opportunity, I enter to win books—single books and books for a whole book club. I am sometimes lucky. Recently, I won a copy of Miss Austen: A Novel of the Austen Sisters by Gill Hornby from BookBrowse. In exchange for receiving the book, I will participate in a discussion on BookBrowse along with other avid readers. The book was originally published in hardback in April 2020; the paperback version will be available in April 2021.

Miss Austen, the main character of the story, is Cassandra, Cassy, Austen, Jane’s sister. Jane died twenty-three years before this story takes place in 1840. We find Cassy in the village of Kintbury, home to family friends the Fowles. Fulwar Craven Fowle, vicar of Kintbury, has just died. The connections between the Austens and the Fowles run deep. Cassandra had been engaged to marry Tom Fowle, Fulwar’s brother. Sadly, Tom died of yellow fever on an expedition with a wealthy lord. He, also planning to be a vicar, had gone on the expedition to earn enough money so he and Cassandra could marry.

Cassy has made the journey from her home in Chawton with a distinct purpose in mind. She hopes to retrieve letters from Jane to Eliza Fowle, Fulwar’s wife, also deceased. Cassy must decide whether to share those letters should she find them or destroy them to protect her sister and the family name.

Hornby has captured the style of the time in her depiction of Cassy and the other characters involved in the story. Those who love Jane Austen will find characteristics similar to Jane’s own writings.
Before he leaves on the expedition, Tom tells Cassy that if he should not return that she should marry someone else. Cassy adamantly proclaims she will marry no one if she cannot marry Tom. That promise made in a church is sacred to Cassy and she remains single the rest of her life, serving her family in a variety of ways.

Besides the current story of 1840, Hornby takes us back to the time when Jane and her parents are still living. Cassy remembers fondly the times they spent together. She also recounts the ups and downs of their fortunes. By taking readers back in time, Hornby gives readers a more complete picture of the family and its ties with the Fowles.

Hornby also provides a map of the village of Kintbury and a family tree at the beginning of the book. Both of those additions are invaluable in keeping members of the family and long-time friends clearly in mind. Too, readers should remember that Edward Austen was adopted by wealthy distant relatives who had no children. They changed his name to Edward Knight because he would inherit the estates of his adoptive father.

In the backstory and the current story, Hornby goes into the fate of unmarried women and the real need for them to marry and marry well. As I read, I could not help but think of The Glass Menagerie and an exchange between Amanda Wingfield and her daughter Laura. Amanda chastises Laura: “What is there left but dependency all our lives? I know so well what becomes of unmarried women who aren’t prepared to occupy a position. I’ve seen such pitiful cases in the South – barely tolerated spinsters living upon the grudging patronage of sister’s husband or brother’s wife – stuck away in some little mousetrap of a room --- encouraged by one in-law to visit another --- little birdlike women without any nest – eating the crust of humility all their life.”

In fact, that is Cassy’s plight in life, helping other family members, particularly her brother Edward and his wife Elizabeth when their children, eleven in all, were born. Still, Cassy feels satisfied with her life and has benefited from her longevity by inheriting sums of money upon the deaths of other family members. She lives comfortably in Chawton.

Readers will find Mary Austen, widow of James Austen, a caricature of a person who downplays Jane Austen’s worth as a novelist and touts her late husband’s poetry, calling him the real genius in the family. Readers quickly see she is given to exaggerating stories and, in some cases, flatly making them up. James’s poetry cannot hold a candle to Jane’s delightful work. The humor in Mary’s character is also repeated in Caroline’s nature; she is James and Mary’s daughter.

Cassy goes to Kintbury to find Jane’s letters and she is successful. She also does some meddling in the life of Isabella, the daughter of Fulwar and Eliza Fowle. Isabella is almost forty and unmarried. She must vacate the vicarage so that the new vicar can move in and start to minister to his flock. Cassy thinks Isabella should move in with one of her sisters, both of whom live in the village. Elizabeth and Mary-Jane Fowle are odd creatures, both unmarried and set on their own courses. As a reader, I could not see Isabella being happy with either sister or the sisters with her, for that matter.

Luckily, through some machinations, Dinah, the servant, engineers a new path for Isabella, and Cassy sees the error of her ways in trying to impose her will.

Readers will find Miss Austen a satisfying read. Those who love Jane Austen will enjoy the backstory of Jane and Cassy when they were young ladies. Throughout the story, readers will delight in the letters Cassy reads from Jane to Eliza Fowle. Hornby points out at the end of the book that she made up the letters, but they do fit nicely into the scheme of the book and sound as if Jane Austen herself wrote them.

Gill Hornby, a journalist, published her first book, The Hive, in 2013. It created quite a stir when Little, Brown UK purchased the book in an auction. Her second novel was All Together Now in 2015. Miss Austen is Hornby’s first historical novel. The novels reveal Hornby’s diversity of talents.

Rated 5 of 5 of 5 by AT Mc, Madison, WI
Sisters
Very few relationships come close to the intensity of sisters. If close, there is nothing that can come between them. Such was the case with Cassandra and Jane Austen. Though more of a supporting character in a family with some very colorful personalities, Cassandra Austen proved her love and loyalty to Jane throughout their lives and after. This book focuses on the after, and the preservation of Jane's good name, though on its own it is a delightful window into Cassandra's reimagined life. This is more than a good read; it is as entertaining as one of Jane's own novels, and gives Jane's beloved Cassandra the depth and independence she has always deserved!

Rated 5 of 5 of 5 by Patricia G. (Dyer, IN)
Walk Into an Austen Novel
Reading this book is like taking a step back in time to Jane Austen's England. As her beloved sister, Cassandra, now an elderly spinster, tries to retrieve old letters to protect Jane's legacy, we follow her into a world with all of the personalities, romantic intrigue, near tragic events, and brilliant caricature that fans of Austen novels enjoy. I would highly recommend this book for all who have experienced that world and all who have not yet met Miss Austen--Cassandra or Jane.

Rated 5 of 5 of 5 by Kathleen B. (Las Vegas, NV)
Great Read
If you are a fan of Jane Austin, I'm sure you will enjoy this book. This book starts out in March of 1840. A family friend has died and his belonging need to be gone through so the house can be emptied. Cassandra Austin shows up uninvited and proceeds to search the house top to bottom to find the letters. Eliza was Jane's close friend and they had written to each other for many years. While reading the letters Cassandra's mind would go back to the early 1800's and that is were the chapters went also. I always enjoy that back and forth with between time. This books really touches on Women's place in society. How restricted it was, How unmarried woman were women were considered a burden on the family. I enjoyed the book and recommend it.

Rated 5 of 5 of 5 by Melissa S. (Rowland, NC)
The lost art of letters. An entire novel devoted to past letters and their significance to the present.
“Let us take that path.” The first words of Gill Hornby’s "Miss. Austen" provide a foreshadow of the “path” Cassandra ends up taking on her journey to preserve her sister’s reputation posthumously. As an avid Jane Austen fan, I admit I have never given much thought to her family and the effects of her talent and notoriety within their lives. Hornby beautifully reveals Jane’s devoted sister, Cassandra, who is ironically, still living for her beloved sister. As a never married woman in the early 1800’s, Cassandra should be spending her remaining days in peace and reflection. However, in true “Austen” fashion, the ever-doting older sister is determined to ensure, through any means possible, the preservation of Jane’s upstanding reputation.

Hornby’s ability to stay true to the setting, customs, and fashion of the 1800’s gives this historical fiction a definite believability. The switching from past letters to present life guides the reader to a better understanding of the context in which Cassandra is so desperately pulling from and why she is determined to make sure Jane’s reputation remains intact. As with most families, there is always that one relative who would love nothing more than to create strife and watch while others try to hold it together. The Austen family is no exception. Cassandra not only must find and destroy the potentially damaging letters, but she also must contend with an ornery relative who is itching to retrieve the letters. Cassandra is in the race of her life with many obstacles lying in wait.

Much like most of Jane Austen’s novels, Hornby weaves relationships between the proper, sarcastic, noble, and eccentric characters to form a beautiful tapestry of life and customs during the 1800s. The secondary plot of forbidden love finally allowed to flourish adds an unexpected twist the reader will not see coming.

Rated 5 of 5 of 5 by Margaret R. (Claremont, CA)
A Great Read
I loved this book and not only because it made me guffaw. Hornby has written this little masterpiece in a slightly edgy 21st century Jane Austen voice to create a new perspective on the Austen family story. Needless to say, all the themes are there: financial vicissitudes, spinsters and wives, the power of the male, too much sense and too much sensibility, bad judgment, hubris, and enlightenment. What Hornby has added and what is especially fresh and delightful is a more contemporary voice. We hear it through Cassandra for most of the novel but we also delight in it through the beautifully composed letters and lesser characters, my favorite being the maid, Dinah, who add a great deal to the narrative.
A triumphant novelty in this story? No happy denouement with wedded bliss the highest achievement. No, Reader, Cassandra does not marry and, as she says, "A patch of earth of one's own, to tend as one wishes; one small corner of the glory that is an English country village: It is the most we can wish for in this life of ours." And "…with the true bonds of sisterhood…the happiest of all possible happy endings"

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Cassandra Austen (1773-1845)

Silhouette of Cassandra Austen Gill Hornby's novel Miss Austen explores Jane Austen's life through the point of view of her beloved older sister, Cassandra. Cassandra is thought to have been Jane's closest companion and confidante. The two were inseparable to the extent that their mother reportedly once commented, "If Cassandra's head had been going to be cut off, Jane would have hers cut off too." While Cassandra clearly had interests and a life of her own, her relationship with her now-famous sister was of great importance to her, and she had a significant influence on Jane's work and legacy.

Cassandra Elizabeth Austen was born on January 9, 1773 to Reverend George Austen and Mrs. Cassandra Leigh Austen. Her sister Jane was born two years later, and the siblings remained the only girls in a family of six brothers. As Reverend Austen ran a boarding school in their home in Steventon, Hampshire, both girls received education from an early age, studying art, music and other subjects. They also briefly attended Mrs. Latournelle's Ladies Boarding School in the Abbey House School in Reading between 1785 and 1786. According to their mother, Jane insisted on going along with Cassandra to the school, even though she was considered too young for the level of education it offered.

Shortly after returning home from Reading, Jane began to write her first stories, one of which was The Beautifull Cassandra, a short, humorous novel dedicated to her sister. Cassandra, who had taken up drawing and painting, contributed illustrations to Jane's fictional work The History of England, providing portraits of historical figures for the book. Cassandra also went on to complete pencil and watercolor portraits of Jane.

Sometime in or around the mid-1790s, Cassandra became engaged to Thomas Craven Fowle, a former student of her father's. The marriage was postponed for quite a while due to Fowle's lack of money, and on a trip to the West Indies, where he was serving as a military chaplain, he contracted yellow fever and died. Cassandra supposedly never recovered from his death, and never considered marriage again. Some have speculated that Jane's own decision to remain unmarried may have been influenced by her sister's experience, and that the happy endings Jane created for some of her novels, such as Pride and Prejudice, were shaped by her sympathy for Cassandra's loss.

Portrait of Jane Austen by Cassandra Austen After Reverend Austen's death in 1805, which occurred when the family was residing in Bath, Cassandra continued to live with Jane and their mother. In 1809, the three women moved to Chawton, near their former home in Stevenson, settling into a small house on an estate owned by Cassandra and Jane's brother Edward. Cassandra outlived her sister, who died in 1817 at 41 (possibly of tuberculosis), and continued to live in Chawton after her mother's passing in 1827 until her own death in 1845 at the age of 72.

Cassandra has received much criticism for her handling of Jane's estate, particularly for her decision to burn some of her sister's letters, a subject covered in Miss Austen. However, Cassandra is also responsible for the preservation of many of Jane's letters, as well as the only two surviving firsthand portraits of the famous author.

Silhouette of Cassandra Austen by unknown artist
Portrait of Jane Austen by Cassandra Austen, circa 1820

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