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Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Book Review: Miss Austen by Gill Hornby

Late in life, twenty-five years after her sister Jane Austen died, Cassandra Austen systematically destroyed (or edited by cutting out parts) many of her letters. Jane Austen had not yet achieved the literary status she holds today, but she was well on her way, and Cassandra had hopes. It's a tragedy for literary historians, but a boon for other novelists. In this book, Gill Hornby (yes, wife of Nick Hornby) imagines Cassandra going to visit a relative in hopes of recovering some of Jane's more open and honest correspondence--and getting rid of it.

Cassandra has outlived her parents (her mother lived to 87 though!), her sister, a few brothers, and while she's always, always made an effort to be exceptionally helpful, as she knew an unmarried female relative was a burden, she's also mostly outlived her helpfulness. But when her brother dies and his daughter has to pack up and move out of the vicarage, she uses her reputation for helpfulness as an excuse for a visit in order to hunt for more of Jane's letters. Throughout the book, we get flashes back to Cassandra's own engagement which ended in tragedy, to missed romances for both Jane and Cassandra later, to Jane and Cassandra's life together, and to Jane's final days. As Cassandra reflects on her (and Jane's) life choices and the results, she consistently declares herself to be incredibly happy with how things turned out and that she wouldn't have it any other way. And yet, when she sees her niece, a fellow spinster who is about to be homeless, Cassandra can't help but try to help. Is it possible she does regret some opportunities not taken? She'll never admit it to herself, but we readers can perhaps see alternate paths that would have also lead to happiness.

This novel is contemplative, quiet, about looking back on a life well-lived, but not the traditional path taken. There are hints here and there of where bits of their own lives were appropriated by Jane, or perhaps inspired certain scenes or language. Had Cassandra married, would we not have Jane's novels? Or would they have been different? Ms. Hornby really gets into the mind of a nineteenth-century woman, who doesn't even consider most options a single woman would these days, and it's just fascinating how burdensome and guilty they felt about what was only partly a choice and partly circumstance. There is a distinct feeling of failure throughout, despite achievements and happiness. As if shepherding six spectacular novels that will one day enter the canon of English Literature, to fruition, were naturally a much lesser accomplishment than marriage and children. The assumptions of gender roles are both expected and sad.

That said, the book isn't sad. Jane is a feisty and sharp observer, and Cassandra as our narrator, softens her a bit, at least with us. It's interesting to see their parents as lighter, less extreme versions of the elder Bennets, and to finally notice that Emma and Mansfield Park are opposites of each other based on a single line of dialogue (one book is about a girl who is rich in material good but poor in values, and then the reverse. How did this never occur to me before?) It was hilarious to hear James Austen's wretched poetry (which is all real, direct quotes of Jane's brother's dreadful attempts, which were lauded at the time.) And to wonder at Jane Austen's life turning out rather like how we imagine Mary Bennet's future, of all people. Was Austen to cruel to Mary because she didn't want to acknowledge their similar circumstances?

This book will make you think a lot about Austen, her works, and the actual human everyday life of writers outside of their books. Ms. Hornby seems to have done extensive research which all rang true (Ms. Hornby actually lives in one of the houses where the Austens once lived!) A must-read for any Austen fan.

This book is being published by Flatiron Books, a division of Macmillan, my employer.

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