Title: Miss Austen: A Novel
Author: Gill Hornby
Publisher: Flatiron Books
Copyright: April 7, 2020
Format: Hardcover, 288 Pages
Genres: Historical Fiction, Women’s Historical Fiction, Biographical Historical Fiction, Historical Fiction Inspired by Real Historical Figures
Whoever looked at an elderly lady and saw the young heroine she once was?
England, 1840. Two decades after the death of her beloved sister, Jane, Cassandra Austen returns to the village of Kintbury and the home of her family friends, the Fowles. In a dusty corner of the vicarage, there is a cache of Jane’s letters that Cassandra is desperate to find. Dodging her hostess and a meddlesome housemaid, Cassandra eventually hunts down the letters and confronts the secrets they hold, secrets not only about Jane but about Cassandra herself. Will Cassandra bare the most private details of her life to the world, or commit her sister’s legacy to the flames?
Moving back and forth between the vicarage and Cassandra’s vibrant memories of her years with Jane, interwoven with Jane’s brilliantly reimagined lost letters, Miss Austen is the untold story of the most important person in Jane’s life. With extraordinary empathy, emotional complexity, and wit, Gill Hornby finally gives Cassandra her due, bringing to life a woman as captivating as any Austen heroine.
Gill Hornby’s Miss Austen is a historical fiction book that centers around famed author, Jane Austen and her lesser-known sister, Cassandra. In Spring of 1840, Cassandra arrives in Kintbury with a mission that she has secretly undertaken to protect the legacy of a beloved sister. This involves searching for letters that have been long forgotten in the vicarage of the Fowle family, letters once written by Jane. In this desperate search, Cassandra encounters a past that is long gone and memories of her youth that come back to haunt her. This story is told not only in prose but in epistolary form as well, including letters and flashbacks from previous decades such as the 1790s, 1800s, and 1810s.
What ultimately made me pick this book up was the fact that it was about Cassandra Austen, who I have always found to be an interesting figure. For those of us who love Jane Austen, Cassandra has always seemed like a distant figure in the background of her sister’s life. So, a book with her as the protagonist was a fascinating concept to me.
The overall tone of the novel was elegiac and thoughtful. In some ways, this story felt like a love letter to the Austen sisters. Ms Hornby’s prose was gorgeous and this was my favourite aspect of the book. There were points where her writing was poetic and lyrical, almost taking my breath away. Similarly, the dialogue was well-written and seemed accurate for the Regency era. I liked how the author illustrated the scenes and described the world around the characters. It felt like the world of early nineteenth-century England came to life.
The pacing of the story was slow and it seemed like there was no discernible plot. This was a huge drawback that resulted in a somewhat tiresome reading experience. There were a couple times where I almost put the book down but I was interested enough to read to the end. If the story moved at a steadier pace and had a more interesting plot, I would have rated this novel more highly.
The overall characterisation was good. Ms Hornby depicted her characters in a way that made them come across as human and believable. There were a couple characters (such as Cassandra) who I developed a connection with but found the rest of them to be dull. Another thing I struggled with was the narrative constantly moving back and forth between different time periods. This may just be my own bias as a reader. I found it disorienting and had a difficult time staying interested.
One final aspect I would like to discuss is the research. It is obvious in the writing and knowledge contained in the novel that Ms Hornby must have done considerable research. This is something that added a lot to the story.
I wanted so much to like this story, especially since it was about Cassandra and Jane Austen. Unfortunately, this was not my cup of tea.