Just as an unedited email or fast tweet might came back to bite you today, letters in the nineteenth century (snail mail) could be documents of dread for the writer. Famously protective of her sister, Cassandra Austen burned all of Jane Austen’s correspondence after her death, spinning her own legacy for future Janeites, without contradictory proof available in writing. In Gill Hornby’s Miss Austen, the author offers a fictional spin on how those letters might have changed future generations’ perspective on a beloved author.
Cleverly combining well known facts of Jane Austen’s life with imagined secrets and opinions conveyed through private letters, the author offers an undocumented but very possible view of Jane Austen’s personal life. Alternating between Cassandra and Jane’s lives as young adults, secure in the family parsonage, and their later trials after their father dies, as unmarried women dependent on their brothers’ goodwill to house and support them, Hornby reveals women’s dependence on marriage to sustain them in that era. Jane, of course, became the exception, bringing in her own income as a writer and dying in her forties, but what fears and insecurities really haunted her?
Cassandra lost her opportunity for the good life when her fiancée Tom Fowles died before they could be married. Unlike her sister, she lives on into her sixties and in this story, she is visiting Tom’s family, in search of Jane’s old letters. She knows the letters reveal private details of both their lives as well as her sister’s moodiness; she remembers how scathingly critical of others Jane could be. In the wrong hands, Cassandra is convinced the letters will change the legacy of Jane Austen, and not for the better. Eventually, she finds the letters tied in blue ribbon. As Cassandra rereads the letters, she relives past moments of both their lives, wondering if she made the right choices, and finally revealing Jane behind the public facade.
The imagined lives are entertaining and charming, and Horby writes in the Jane Austen style of Regency era literary England, carefully giving the dialogue intelligence as well as wit. Fans of Jane Austen novels will appreciate the slow-moving narrative, with references to her novels as she wrote them.
Austen’s Persuasion has a special place in Hornby’s story, motivating me to reread this tale of renewed love after all seemed lost. In Miss Austen, Isabella finally finds happiness with a Doctor, only after her father, who thought him socially inferior, dies. Isabella is the niece of Cassandra’s late fiancé Tom Fowle. Isabella’s brother, a local clergyman has recently died, and she has to vacate the home she shared with him. Suddenly, Isabella seems without prospects or a place to live, and the correspondence hidden away for years will be unearthed with packing for the move out of the parsonage. Cassandra is visiting supposedly to help with the packing, but her real motivation is to find those letters. All ends well with Isabella marrying her secret love, and Cassandra finding the letters.
If rereading Jane Austen’s novels gives you some comfort these days, you might try Gill Hornby’s Miss Austen. The story can gently carry you back to Jane Austen’s time with a realistic twist and a few bon mots to sustain you.
And if you cannot get enough of speculating about Jane Austen, try: