Miss Austen by Gill Hornby: Book Review
Updated: Dec 17, 2020
I recently read the novel, Miss Austen, by Gill Hornby, and it was unlike anything I've read before. At the same time, though, it was a touch reminiscent of the works of Jane Austen, which is fitting. The book centers on Jane's sister Cassandra, but Jane's life and legacy is an important narrative throughout the entire thing. Hornby managed to include some delightful Austen flavor in her book, which is based on real-life people and events rather than fiction.
As I said, the main character in this story is Cassandra Austen. She is considerably older than your average novel heroine, which I found really interesting. Oftentimes, the protagonist is somewhat young and inexperienced and therefore has to learn about the world and themselves during the events of the book. This does in fact happen with Cassandra because a large amount of the story actually takes place in the past when her sister Jane was still alive. But I also enjoyed seeing her in the later years of her life, when time and hardships and joys had shaped her into the complete, content person she was, determined to remain the most useful of relatives and companions.
I think there is a really good balance between letters/flashbacks and current events. They continually connect with each other, and you slowly get to know the characters through various means.
There are a host of other characters as well - nearly all of them related to the Austens by blood or marriage. I found it very interesting to read about these real families and Hornby's interpretation of their complicated personal relationships.
I would definitely categorize Miss Austen as literary historical fiction. The external plot itself is not especially thrilling or unique, since the book is based on true events. Rather, the novel's real value comes in its character building/relationships and heartfelt narrative.
The book begins with Cassandra Austen visiting a few friends/extended in-laws in Kintbury, wishing to stay with them for a while. She does not reveal her actual reason for this visit, which is to look through old letters belonging to her late friend Eliza, which may contain information about Jane and her family that could damage her legacy.
As executor of her sister's estate and protector of her writings, Cassandra views it as her duty to examine all traces of her sister's correspondence with others. They are physical evidence of the family's problems and Jane's state of mind which could be passed down through generations. Cassy doesn't want her beloved sister's future reputation to be affected in any negative light.
In the process of recovering these letters, she becomes involved in the personal life of her cousin Isabella and finds herself wanting to help. So the book alternates between extended flashback top chapters where you learn about the Austen family and their adventures and normal chapters that focus on Cassandra and her stay in Kintbury.
It may sound simple and not really the sort of material for a gripping novel, but I promise there is more going on here than you might expect. Hornby tugs at your heartstrings and helps you empathize with the characters, giving little bits of information at a time so you just can't put it down.
I think part of the genius of this book is how it centers around Jane Austen and her novels, and yet the story of Miss Austen is so different compared to the plotlines that witty Jane created in her imagination. It has always been somewhat ironic that someone who wrote six complete novels, in which most of the characters are married by the end, was never married herself, and it's the same with our protagonist, Cassandra.
What I found while reading the book is the recurring theme of finding your own purpose. Classic novels don't often explore the lives of "spinsters", even though in reality there were plenty of unmarried people in the world. That's why I love how this novel centers around the life of a single woman during a time when her only job was to marry.
This allows us to explore the possibilities and often difficult realities for single women in the Regency/Victorian eras. Cassandra lives through multiple heartbreaking and stressful events in her life, but through all of it grows so much as a person and learns what she wants to do with her life. Cassy starts to center her whole existence on being as useful as possible. There is something very fulfilling about being needed, and, with such a large family, Cassandra will have plenty to do. It was lovely to watch her change through each stage of her life and have a positive impact on those around her.
The book also gives us insight into Jane Austen's own life through the perspective of those who cared for her most. She could have been the main character of the story if it weren't for her early death, but I find it even more interesting to explore the great impact that she had on her family and how her legacy became a driving force for Cassandra after she was gone.
I could go on and on about the beauty of this novel and all the wonderful themes and human truths it touches on. It was funny, sad, heartwarming, and satisfying to read. The settings are interesting and cozy, and Hornby's Austen-like writing style transports you to the world of regency era England.
This wouldn't be my first recommendation for a reader who strictly prefers genre fiction since the plot of Miss Austen moves rather slowly and the focus is more on quiet moments and memories of the past. But for anyone who loves Jane Austen and her writing, I highly suggest reading it. It has all the historical flavor of her novels while giving you a look at what her family was like and how her legacy was protected after her death. It's a beautiful story with a powerful message. Hornby included the following quote as a pretext:
“Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story. The pen has been in their hands."
- Jane Austen, Persuasion
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Thanks for reading!