Title: Miss Austen
Author: Gill Hornby
Narrator: Juliet Stevenson
Publisher: Flatiron Books
Publication date: January 23, 2020
Print length: 288 pages
Audio length: 10 hours, 56 minutes
Genre: Historical fiction
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.
What a lovely book! I have to admit that prior to reading Miss Austen, I’ve never really spent much time reading about Jane Austen’s life beyond the occasional article or Wikipedia page. I love her novels, but somehow never found myself wanting to look beyond into the author’s actual life.
In Miss Austen, we learn about Jane and the larger Austen family through the eyes of Jane’s older sister Cassandra. As the story begins, Cassandra journeys to Kintbury in 1840, ostensibly to help Isabella Fowle pack up the vicarage after her father’s death, but in reality, Cassandra has a different mission: She knows that Jane frequently wrote to Isabella’s mother Eliza, and she worries that unless she intervenes, potentially damaging personal correspondence of Jane’s may end up in the wrong hands, possibly tarnishing her public reputation.
Note: Throughout this book, lines from Hamilton kept popping into my head: Who lives, who dies, who tells your story? Who gets to tell a person’s story, who decides what to keep private and what to make public — these questions are very relevant to Cassandra’s main plot arc in the 1840 chapters of the book.
Using a split timeline, we follow Cassandra’s quest as an older woman to retrieve Jane’s letters. Through flashback chapters, we also see Cassandra’s journey from young woman to older spinster, always with Jane first and foremost in her mind.
As a younger woman, Cassandra became engaged to Tom Fowle (Eliza’s brother). Over the moon in love, the two were eager to wed, but agreed that a long engagement would be prudent. However, tragedy prevents the marriage from taking place, and from that point forward, the course of Cassandra’s life is set.
As the years progress and the fortunes of the Austens rise and fall, we see Cassandra’s devotion to Jane, as she protects her, nurtures her, and cares for her during her spells of melancholy (which today would likely be diagnosed as depression). The sisters’ love is quite beautiful to read about, and eventually, they and their cousin Martha find happiness in their lives as three single women setting up a home together.
I won’t go into a ton of detail here, but suffice to say, the characters are well-drawn, and the circumstances of Jane and Cassandra’s life together invokes some sadness, even during their happier years. There were moments when I almost wished I wasn’t reading historical fiction about real people: Certain plot points had me practically begging for a different outcome, but knowing that key elements of the Austens’ lives really couldn’t be changed (you know, since they were real people!), it was frustratingly sad to see possible love and joy slip away time after time.
Still, I was also captivated by the sisters’ wit and humor, by the clever dialogue created for Jane, and by the family’s tradition of having Jane read her works in progress to the family each evening. Again, seeing how I’d never read an actual biography of Jane Austen, the depiction of her writing challenges and successes was quite informative, and based on what I’ve looked up since, largely sticks to the facts as they’re known.
I need to give a huge hurrah to the terrific audiobook narration by Juliet Stevenson. What a treat! A few years ago, I went on an Austen audiobook binge, and five of the six I listened to were narrated by Juliet Stevenson. She’s amazing. Having her narrate Miss Austen made this an especially delightful experience. Because I’m used to hearing her narrate Austen’s characters, it felt like slipping back into those worlds listening to her voice this story as well. And I had to chuckle when certain obnoxious family members (especially a self-satisfied sister-in-law) were voiced so similarly to particularly annoying Austen characters. (Mrs. Elton from Emma is one who came immediately to mind… which made me wonder, was that character perhaps inspired by Jane’s real family member?)
I’ve had my eye on Miss Austen since it came out in 2020, but hadn’t gotten around to it until my book group selected it for this month’s group read. So, once again, enormous gratitude to my book group for leading me to yet another terrific reading experience!
I very much enjoyed Miss Austen. Highly recommended for Jane Austen fans!
PS – Now that I’ve read Miss Austen, I’m much more interested in a good Jane Austen biography! Any recommendations?