In 1840, Cassandra Austen, a woman of a certain age, makes an unexpected visit to the vicarage at Kintbury—a place of which Cassandra would have been the mistress had life turned out differently. Cassandra is a woman with a mission: to find and destroy the many letters that she and her beloved younger sister, Jane, wrote to their friend, the late Eliza Fowle. As Cassandra goes about her task, all the while trying to evade detection by the vicarage’s suspicious, sharp-eyed servant, we are taken back decades to the Austen sisters’ youth.
This is a well-written, often quite witty novel with a sobering subtext: the precarious position of an unmarried woman, even an immensely talented one such as Jane Austen, who is forced to rely on the generosity of her male relations. Indeed, Hornby’s tale reminds us of how close we might have been to being deprived of Austen’s novels altogether.
While I enjoyed this novel, I did find that the portions dealing with the older Cassandra were less successful than those set in the more distant past. Although Cassandra is a well-drawn character (and a welcome one in a genre that tends to neglect older heroines), the other inmates of Kintbury are less so, and it sometimes seems that the author was straining to keep this part of the story moving along. On the whole, though, this is a fine addition to the world of Jane Austen fiction. with a refreshingly different perspective.