I’ve always been a little skeptical of Jane Austen retellings — fictional biographies, dramatic novelisations, parodies, you name it. Although it is never my intent to condemn a work before even having read it, given the sheer volume of Austen-inspired works (read: wild embellishments and misrepresentations) in the world today, I’ve turned into a pretty suspicious reader.
So of course, when a friend sent me a copy of Gill Hornby’s new book last month, I stared at it for a few minutes, unsure as to whether this would just end up being another lesson in literary heartbreak. Eventually, the gorgeous cover drew me in, and I opened to Page One.
I devoured the rest of the book overnight.
Miss Austen shines the spotlight on Cassandra Austen: sister, confidante, and fierce protector of Jane’s works. The book attempts to fill in the blanks and answer the many questions both readers and biographers have harboured since Jane Austen’s passing in 1817 — chief among them being the mystery of why Cassandra burned Jane’s letters, and the secrets they contained. Yet this story strives to be so much more than just that.
The novel chronicles Cassandra’s return to the grieving household of the Fowle Vicarage in Kintbury and her quest to find her late sister’s letters, offering a rare glimpse into the oft-overlooked Austen sister’s life. Through these (fictional) letters, flashbacks, and a leisurely paced regency-romance style narrative, readers learn of the Austen sisters’ relationship through some clever yet sensitive intertwining of fact and fabrication. Although Cassandra’s monologues can sometimes feel a little dull and drawn-out, for fans of Jane Austen’s works, this book is well worth a read.
From the moment my eyes flew across the first page — that sweet, timorous moment that bound Cassy to Tom Fowle — I was struck by how beautifully written it all was. Miss Austen features beautiful prose, delightful imagery, and an almost knowing sense of nostalgia. It is also a profoundly revelatory glimpse into gender politics in the 1840s, an element that gives this story some much-needed depth and nuance. To me, Miss Austen felt like the perfect blend of pastiche and originality.
While Gill Hornby’s novel provides some plausible revelations, it of course cannot offer any definitive answers, which likely contributes to its delightfully nostalgic charm. It is a searing yet gentle, impeccably well-researched journey into the life and loves of two sisters.
Click here for a video of this beautiful book cover!
It’s rare for a fictional biography to have filled me with such warmth, yet that is precisely what Miss Austen did. The writing was spot-on: so much like Jane Austen’s own voice, yet just different enough to make one believe it is Cassandra at the helm. To the quintessential Jane Austen fan, it was, in many ways, almost like coming home.
As I sat there with my dogs curled up by my feet, a cup of hot chocolate in one hand and tissues in another, I realised that Miss Austen did in fact break my heart — in the only way a good book can.