I had to write a few drafts of this post before I liked it. It’s too hard to concentrate on writing right now; a week ago I had a job and I lived in London, and now I’m unemployed and I’m staying with my parents in America until all of this calms down. Regardless, I’ve found that I’m still able to disappear into books to distract myself for a few hours at a time. I got Gill Hornby’s Miss Austen as a proof from the bookstore because we still had a few hardbacks from before Christmas to sell. I can’t sell them now, of course, so I read it on the plane back to my parents’ house. Any book that can hold my attention on a long-haul flight during a pandemic is clearly well-written, and this novel was helped by its connection to the Austen family. I’m not alone in my obsession with all things Jane Austen, from her novels to adaptations to films about Jane Austen fans. If you’ve just seen the new Emma film and you need more of Austen’s world, this is the book for you.
I found Miss Austen slow to get into, but I loved it by the end. It’s about Cassandra Austen, Jane Austen’s older sister. In the 1840s, Cassandra visits an old family friend’s house to retrieve letters from Jane as she undertakes the task of cleaning the Austen’s history for future Jane Austen scholars. She knows the fascination with her sister is growing, and she wants to make sure that no trace of scandal will be reported. The book is much more about her own scandals than Jane’s, though, which is why I found the novel slow to start. Once I accepted that Cassandra was the more interesting character in this novel, I was much more invested in the story.
This is an entertaining, and moving, story for anyone who loves Jane Austen or period literature. It feels a little corny at times, especially during flashbacks to family dinners with the Austens, as Jane and Cassandra’s parents are characterized as the obvious inspiration for Mr. and Mrs. Bennett in Pride and Prejudice. The book is written in the third person from Cassandra’s perspective, and since she thought and spoke in Regency-era English, some of the narration is a little old-fashioned, as well. Hornby handles the flashbacks well. All the chapters are preceded by the year in which they are set, or flashback chapters follow directly from a letter written about the events. This helps to keep time clear in a novel that’s entirely in the past tense.
I finished the book with a real sense of how difficult life was for women in the Regency Era. Without the right to property, women were completely dependent on marriage or individual legacies. After Reverend Austen retires and gives up the rectory to his oldest son, the Austens and their unmarried daughters are left homeless. They have to spend years travelling around England, renting new homes seasonally, until one of their brothers gifts them a cottage as a permanent residence. Miss Austen discusses the toll of this on Jane and Cassandra’s mental health.
Marriage is one way to escape the nomadic lifestyle that’s forced upon the Austens, and Cassandra’s romantic life is a feature in the novel. She flirts with marriage twice, but like Jane, remains single her whole life. The effect of marriage on a women’s independence varies, depending on which characters in the novel you ask. Cassandra believes that a house of women is the ultimate utopia, but there are women who view marriage as freedom, and the discussion of these two lifestyles at the end of the novel is fascinating. Miss Austen is an enjoyable read. It moves quickly, and though it takes a few chapters before you can see the characters clearly, you feel close to Cassandra and her family by the end.