Any author taking on the legend of Jane Austen, in whatever guise, inevitably runs the risk of ruffling a few Austenite feathers, but, to my mind, Gill Hornby’s Miss Austen, whose focus is largely on older sister Cassandra, does a brilliant job of not only invoking and paying homage to Austen’s style and milieu but also of crafting a warm, witty and charming meditation on sisterly love.

Despite having studied Austen, many moons ago, aside from the fact that she had a sister, Cassandra, I wasn’t au fait with any wider facts of their lives, thus it was intriguing to delve into Hornby’s fictionalisation, which nonetheless uses many real people and contexts from the sisters’ lives as springboards in the novel. Admittedly, to those, like myself, less familiar with the historical facts of Jane’s and Cassandra’s experiences, the line between history and fiction did blur, but this did not spoil my enjoyment of the novel one jot. Indeed, it only served to increase my curiosity and encourage me to do my own cursory slice of research.

The story itself is set primarily in 1840, with an ageing Cassandra, some two decades after the death of her beloved sister, Jane, descending on Kintbury and the home of the Fowles, tracking down some of Jane’s missives, in order to get her hands on any that could compromise her sister’s reputation and dispose of them. Her journey to Kintbury, however, sets Cassandra on her own trip down memory lane, recalling some of the seminal moments that shaped her and her sister’s lives. Throughout, the portrait that emerges is of two sisters, utterly dedicated and beloved of one another, and it is a really lovingly depicted relationship.

Having admired Gill Hornby’s previous novels and her discernible skills as a writer, from the very first page of this novel, I felt a real connection and kinship between Hornby and Austen, not least in the wit and observation of the author through the characters of the sisters. Austen and her world felt in very safe and accomplished hands throughout. If I had one gripe, it would be that the present-day story did seem to lack a bit of impetus or drama, but this seemed to me because the novel is much more focused on the sororal relationship than plot per se. And it is here in the depiction of two sisters, and in particular the elder sister’s complete dedication to the younger sister, that the themes and focus of the novel lie.

As someone who loves the work of Jane Austen, I thoroughly enjoyed Hornby’s fictionalisation, as well as getting to know her version of Cassandra and Jane, and felt that she perfectly captured the tone, wit and discernment associated with the novel’s icon. And as well as surely sparking discussion in book groups, it will likely encourage individual readers to delve more into the life and works of one Britain’s most beloved authors – a triumph all round.

J Craddock 5/4

Miss Austen by Gill Hornby
Century 9781529123760 hbk Jan 2020