1840: twenty three years after the death of her famous sister Jane, Cassandra Austen returns to the village of Kintbury, and the home of her family’s friends, the Fowles.
She knows that, in some dusty corner of the sprawling vicarage, there is a cache of family letters which hold secrets she is desperate should not be revealed.
As Cassandra recalls her youth and her relationship with her brilliant yet complex sister, she pieces together buried truths about Jane’s history, and her own. And she faces a stark choice: should she act to protect Jane’s reputation? Or leave the contents of the letters to go unguarded into posterity …
Based on a literary mystery that has long puzzled biographers and academics, Miss Austen is a wonderfully original and emotionally complex novel about the loves and lives of Cassandra and Jane Austen.
Although I’ve read all of Jane Austen’s novels, before tonight I knew little about the woman herself – other than that, like the Brontës, she died relatively young and that my favourite novel of hers, ‘Persuasion’, was published posthumously.
The opportunity to hear Gill Hornby talk about her latest novel, ‘Miss Austen’, was therefore too good to miss – especially as her interviewer was Booker Prize judge John Mullan, author of ‘What Matters in Jane Austen’. The British Library provided the perfect setting, as the home of Austen’s writing desk, original manuscripts, juvenile writings and a number of her letters.
What I enjoyed most about tonight was that it focused more upon Cassandra, Jane’s older sister – Miss Austen – than it did upon Jane herself. In Hornby’s view it’s through Cass, or Cassie, as she was known, that we come to know the elusive author. I also appreciated how Hornby gamely talked much more about the Austen family than she did her book – in a way that was both funny and informative.
In 1840, when the novel begins, Jane has been dead for over 20 years. The setting is Kintbury Vicarage, where three generations of the Fowles family have lived across 99 years. The Fowles and the Austens grew up together and Cassandra was engaged to Tom Fowle until his untimely death aged 25. Now approaching the end of her life, it falls upon Cassandra to dispose of Jane’s meagre possessions, knowing she’ll be unable to protect her sister once she’s departed this world.
Cassandra was the elder daughter out of six Austen boys and two girls. ‘Miss Perfect’ is how Hornby describes her; she was better looking and taller than Jane, more capable, extremely intelligent and a brilliant help around the house. Their mother, also called Cassandra, idolised her – yet Cassie, and Jane, were destined to remained spinsters.
Until now, Cassandra has been harshly treated by posterity. Unlike Jane, who died in her prime, having just written ‘Persuasion’, Cassandra “outlived her usefulness and lived for too long.” Indeed, in the family memoir, their nephews and nieces – who Cassandra nurtured and taught to read & write – talk disparagingly of her, whilst praising Aunt Jane to the skies.
Hornby’s starting point for her novel was the 160 letters from Jane to Cassandra which still exist (Cassie’s replies have, sadly, disappeared). It’s obvious, Hornby told us, that Jane adored Cassandra, and looked up to her – and, as Jane grows ill, her letters grow more emotional. She is clearly distressed when, against her will, Cassandra has to travel elsewhere to care for another relative.
However, Jane’s letters furnish us with little detail – rather, they tell us what Cassandra doesn’t mind us knowing. Were they hiding something? Certainly, both women disliked their sisters-in-law, in particular Mary, who was a “horrible” stepmother to Cassandra’s and Jane’s eldest niece, Anna, who turned to them for protection.
We know that the Austen women survived a bleak five years after their father, George, died; his pension died with him – a catastrophe for Cassandra, Jane and their mother who were thrown upon the mercy of their relatives. This was a particularly difficult period for Jane; previously a prolific writer, she was unable to write a single word.
Cassandra and Jane had been devoted to their father, but found their hypochondriac mother deeply trying. And yet, Cassandra spent the final ten years of their mother’s life caring for the woman after whom she was named – a not uncommon fate for a 19th century spinster. Tellingly, the visits from her brothers grew fewer and fewer as their mother grew even more cantankerous.
Hornby is adamant that Cassandra and Jane were the loves of each other’s lives. Their letters remain the only evidence of how they intertwined and are, she says, a fascinating insight into 19th century female daily life. ‘Big’ topics, such as the war with France, are never discussed; rather, the subjects are “utterly trivial”, with a particular focus on how tricky servants were to manage.
That Cassandra burned most of the sisters’ correspondence means there is a part of Jane we will never know – disappointing for us, but what the shy, introverted author would have wanted.
In her novel, Hornby writes Jane’s letters for her – and told us that, having expected to be “battered” by Austen fans for doing so, the fans have been incredibly receptive. Transitioning from biographer to novelist has, ultimately, been liberating, Hornby concluded: “It’s much easier to make things up!”