Miss Austen by Gill Hornby
|Miss Austen by Gill Hornby|
|Category: Historical Fiction|
|Reviewer: Sue Magee|
|Summary: A quite amazing read: a lightly fictionalised 'lives' of Jane and Cassandra Austen, where the telling puts you in mind of ... Jane Austen. It's almost surreal! Highly recommended.|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 416||Date: January 2020|
|External links: Author's website|
It's long been known that Cassandra Austen burned most of the letters which she and other members of the extensive Austen family had exchanged with or about her sister Jane. What is not known is why she did this and at this stage - more than two hundred years after Jane's death - a definitive answer is unlikely to forthcoming. Gill Hornby has provided us with some possible answers in a book that proved to be far more emotionally complex than I was expecting.
Historical fiction is not usually my bag - lightly fictionalised history even less so - but six years on I still have vivid memories of reading The Hive. They were strong enough to tempt me into reading Miss Austen, without really knowing what it was to be about. Which 'Miss Austen'? The family was extensive and there was no guarantee that Jane would be taking centre stage.
In the event centre stage is taken by Cassandra, Jane's elder sister and close confidant. When we first meet her she's just got engaged to Tom Fowle, a curate still awaiting his first parish. They can't marry until he has an income of £250 a year, but Cassandra is patient: almost too patient, you might think. But Tom has found a benefactor who is going to take him on an expedition and then see that he has a parish when he returns. Circumstances will work against the couple though: Tom finds himself terrified of the sea and eventually dies of yellow fever before he returns home. Cassandra is left in limbo - having promised that she will never marry anyone but Tom. To all intents and purposes, she's a widow who has never been a wife.
But she wasn't without purpose, as no unmarried woman of this age could afford to be if she was to avoid the workhouse. Cassy was the perfect aunt, the woman who was called on to run the house when another baby put the wife out of action for a while. She had a way with children. Jane, on the other hand, suffered from what we would now call depression and was only really happy when she was writing. The women in the family largely supported what she was doing and enjoyed her stories: the men - the ones who inherited the wealth, demanded respect and ordered affairs - were less so.
The unmarried Austen women were not alone in having to live a precarious life and Hornby captures their predicament perfectly and does it with humour and affection. As I read I was put in mind of the writing of Jane Austen, but this isn't a pastiche. It's an emotionally complex exploration of what it was like to be an unmarried woman in the middle of the nineteenth century. I laughed, I cried and I finished the book all too quickly. It was superb. I'd like to thank the publishers for making a copy available to the Bookbag.
If you'd like to read more about Jane Austen, we can recommend The Missing Manuscript of Jane Austen by Syrie James.
You could get a free audio download of Miss Austen by Gill Hornby with a 30-day Audible free trial at Amazon.co.uk.
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