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Miss Austen

by Gill Hornby

Miss Austen by Gill Hornby X
Miss Austen by Gill Hornby
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  • First Published:
    Apr 2020, 288 pages

    Mar 2021, 304 pages


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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??
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.

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.
AT Mc, Madison, WI

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!
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.
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.
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.
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"

Beyond the Book:
  Cassandra Austen (1773-1845)

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