Miss Austen

Written by Gill Hornby
Review by Douglas Kemp

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a female author in possession of a good literary heritage is never in want of present-day writers to develop and extend her oeuvre. What a delightful novel this is! I had perhaps been expecting yet another mass-produced addition to the already over-supplied Jane Austen industry, but I was most agreeably surprised. We start in 1845, and Cassandra Austen, Jane’s literary executor and now an old lady (for then!) of 67, goes to the village of Kintbury, the home of the now-deceased Eliza, who was the sister of Cassy’s former fiancé. Cassandra’s intention is to locate the letters that her sister Jane wrote to Eliza, with the nefarious (to us, leastways) determination of ensuring that nothing survives that would damage her sister’s posthumous reputation. She finds the bundles of correspondence, and we see some fictional letters that the younger Jane wrote at the end of the 18th century and later in her short life. Eliza’s daughter Isabella must clear her home, the rectory, following the death of her clergyman father Fulwar, and Cassy engages herself in attempting to help her uncertain future while carrying on the business with her sister’s letters.

The narrative is told mostly from Cassy’s perspective, with sister Jane seen as more of a secondary character, but Gill Hornby has made a fine stab at re-creating her luminous prose in her letters. There are incidents and scenarios from Jane Austen’s fiction, with a sparky observation of the complications of family life, seen with Jane’s own waspish, but nonetheless affectionate humour in her correspondence. Beneath the Austen undercurrent of sharp humour, we see the unhappy position that genteel spinsters suffered in English society at the time – financially precarious and dependent upon family members to provide a home and acceptable standard of living. It is a most entertaining read.