Most readers will have heard of Jane Austen, some will have read and admired her novels. Others will have read about aspects of her life – there is, of course, a blooming Austen “industry”. This new novel has as a key character Jane’s older sister Cassandra, who it is believed deliberately destroyed private Austen letters that she felt did not reflect well on the character of her sister, or the wider family. This tale is largely based in Kintbury in 1840. Cassandra, bossy and interfering, is visiting young friend Isabella who is clearing out the vicarage after her father’s death and before a new incumbent arrives. Cassandra believes that there might be letters from Jane stored among the family papers that she wishes to check and destroy if necessary. In her searches she does indeed find these (fictional) letters from both Jane and herself that invoke detailed memories of their younger lives. Young Isabella is to be left without a permanent home of her own or a sufficient income as all resources have been transferred through the men of the family – something that most readers will know was similar to the fate of Jane herself until her writing produced an income.
The letters and memories allow the author to explore the backstory of Cassandra both as an individual and in the family with Jane – together with their friendships, relationships and family lives both positive and difficult. All of these are going to be seen through the lens of Cassandra’s beliefs and standards – a challenge for a novelist who never met her. But expect the basis of her words and actions to be a reflection of actions displayed by Jane’s characters that might (or might not) have been correctly attributed to various family members. But memory may not always be true and even within a close family individual views of the past may not run in agreement. The attentive reader is, therefore, left with a constant query as to the nature of truth and the honesty of one’s understanding of other people.
The perusing of old letters allows the author to explore the back history of the Austen family – maybe not as deeply as some modern research allows one to travel, it puts some of the characters in perspective – although it should be said that Jane herself is a markedly bland shadow through much of this. The occasional hinting of an erratic personality (without fuller reference to the mental illness that ran through the family) is not explored in any meaningful way – and key disruptions to her life though mentioned in passing are virtually glossed over.
The flipping from the years of Cassandra’s early life to 1840 and back again does not always make for an easy read not helped by the host of characters (many of them poorly characterised) meandering through. So a grasp of the family’s real background is helpful to keep the story flow understandable. But one comes out of this with no real admiration or liking for any of the characters mentioned (however creative, odd or put upon) – perhaps not the writer’s intention. Are we really meant to believe that Cassandra – the lead in this novel – was really so stupid and narrow minded, either through lack of imagination or an unspoken jealousy or dislike of her sister Jane?
I would suggest that it is these questions are what make this novel worth reading – because they – rather than the storyline itself – are the hook that will hold the reader if they are interested in Jane Austen and the family background that moulded all that creativity. The story otherwise is weak. It might be a good book club choice nevertheless as it could certainly generate discussion, but as an individual reader your admiration of this book will rest on what you were hoping for in the first place.
Hilary White 3*
Miss Austen by Gill Hornby
Century 9781529123760 hbk Jan 2020