Updated: Apr 20
Whoever looked at an elderly lady and saw the young heroine she once was? England, 1840. For the two decades following the death of her beloved sister, Jane, Cassandra Austen has lived alone and unwed, spending her days visiting friends and relations and quietly, purposefully working to preserve her sister's reputation. Now in her sixties and increasingly frail, Cassandra goes to stay with the Fowles of Kintbury, family of her long-dead fiancé, in search of a trove of Jane's letters. 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.
Review by Guest Reviewer, Sophia Rose:
When one sister dazzles with wit, vivacity, and pen, the other shines in her own way. Who was Cassandra Austen really? More than a sister with an intriguing heart-felt story of her own which Gill Hornby captures so ably in Miss Austen.
Miss Austen opens in 1840 on an old woman's quest that takes her into Berkshire to the grieving household of the Fowle Vicarage where she hopes to retrieve any correspondence that alters the story of her sister that she hopes will be preserved in posterity. Cassandra Austen is nearing the end of her own life, and it is time to gather up any stray notes and letters that old friends might have kept that might paint her novelist sister in a poor light. It is Cassandra's last chance to check the house before it passes out of the family's hands. In the process, she finds Fulwar and Elizabeth's youngest daughter at sixes and sevens trying to sort items for the family, pack it up, and not fret about her own future. Perhaps she now has a second mission. Meanwhile, sorting through the letters she and Jane sent to Elizabeth bring the past painfully alive.
Miss Austen is a tale told along two time lines and combines regular prose with epistolary-style. It is Cassandra's present and history, but is also the greater story of the Austens, the Lloyds, the Fowles, and their circle of acquaintance. I loved how the author spotlighted all these connections while still writing a gently emotional and engaging story.
It jumped on a few of the rumored family controversies like Edward Austen's wife's dislike of Jane and her interference in Edward supporting his widowed mother and spinster sisters and James Austen's wife, Mary, being a petulant thorn to the family. And, also the later smirking attitude of the younger generation toward their spinster aunts. It sure ramped up the conflict so the Austens seen more like a typical extended family having flaws and shining moments in their turn.
There is a bittersweet quality to this story, and it progresses with great introspection suited to a person at the end of their life reflecting back. This makes it slow at times and easy to put down, but I never lost interest and was vested in Cassandra achieving her personal goal.
Miss Austen was set in the history of the period and the true life family lore so organically that the fiction and the non-fiction blended seamlessly. It was also written in a style that favored the letters and novels of Jane Austen. The letters were brilliant and my favorite part of this book. I've always wondered what was in the letters of Jane Austen that Cassandra Austen burned. It could have been true was the feel and spirit I got from these.
In summary, this is a gentle, emotional story that spotlights a woman who had inner strength and a big heart that did her duty selflessly while considering her life quite fulfilled. I whole-heartedly recommend this for historical fiction, fictional biography, and Austen fans.
Publisher: Flat Iron Books
Rating: 4 Stars
Source: Net Galley
About Sophia Rose:
Sophia is a quiet though curious gal who dabbles in cooking, book reviewing, piano-playing, and gardening. Road trips and campouts, museums and monuments, restaurants and theaters are her jam. Encouraged and supported by an incredible man and loving family. A Northern Californian transplant to the Great Lakes Region of the US. Lover of Jane Austen, Baseball, Cats, Scooby Doo, and Chocolate.
As a lifelong reader, it was inevitable that Sophia would discover book blogs and the joy of blog reviewing.Sophia is a prolific reader and audiobook listener which allows her to experience so many wonderful books, authors, and narrators. Few genres are outside her reading tastes, but her true love is fiction particularly history, mystery, sci-fi, and romance. Though, sorry, no horror or she will run like Shaggy and Scooby.
Friend or follow Sophia at Goodreads