When I spotted this book’s title, I assumed that it was another novelisation of Jane Austen’s life. Like most people, when I hear the words ‘Miss Austen’, my immediate thought is of the author of Pride and Prejudice. It is so easy to forget that while Jane Austen was alive, she was not Miss Austen. That title belonged to her elder sister Cassandra. So many pages and pages have been wasted on whether or not Jane Austen ever knew love, who inspired her celebrated characters. People ignore the fact that by far the most significant person in Jane Austen’s life was her beloved sister. Cassandra was Jane’s confidante, confessor, first critic and companion in all life’s trials. After death, Cassandra was also her censor, destroying mountains of Jane’s correspondence and silently shaping the narrative which we have before us. We forget Cassandra – she barely warrants a mention next to the dashing Henry or the rich Edward – but it is her shadow which guides so much of what we think we know about the Austen family. In this deeply wistful novel, Gill Hornby explores not only what Cassandra might have been trying to hide but also what it meant to be one of those women who fall within the cracks of history.
The book opens in 1840 with the elderly Miss Austen arriving at Kintbury, home of the Fowle family, the relatives of her long-dead fiancé. The Reverend Fowle has recently passed away so his youngest unmarried daughter Isabella now has the unenviable task of packing up all the family’s possessions to make way for the new incumbent. It is not a convenient time for house guests but Miss Austen is a woman on a mission. She needs to track down all of the letters she and her sister wrote to the late Eliza Fowle over the years and destroy them. Doing her best to side-step the hostile housemaid and indifferent hostess, Cassandra scours the house discreetly as long-faded memories bubble up to the surface once again.
Scholars and historians have long lamented that Cassandra Austen was such an effective gate-keeper to her sister’s memory. There is so much that we do not know because Cassandra politely shut the door in our faces. So many of Austen’s opinions are hinted at in her work but we cannot know for certain. I find myself imagining a horde of rabid Austen fans snapping at Cassandra’s heels while she ignores them entirely and steps out of their way. Somehow though, in the act of effacing her sister’s memory, Cassandra also seemed to erase herself. In Miss Austen, Hornby suggests that this was a conscious choice.
As the narrative switches back and forth between the past and Cassandra’s present as an elderly woman, Hornby examines the disconnect between the past and the narrative by which we choose to live. Cassandra remembers Tom Fowle’s proposal and her own enthusiastic acceptance. She remembers the excitement of her first visit to Kintbury as the prospective bride of one of the sons of the household, a visit which contrasts sharply with her own unwelcome arrival as an old spinster to a dilapidated establishment. This short little tragedy is all that the world knows of Cassandra Austen. She was the girl who loved Tom Fowle. He died before he could marry her and she lived the rest of her life consumed by quiet grief for his memory. There is a dignity to this, a respectability to being the loyal not-quite-widow of a good man. Hornby’s suggestion that this is a version of the narrative that Cassandra crafted herself is very thought-provoking. Cassandra had absolute faith in her sister’s creative genius. She believed in Jane’s writing and its long-term success. Is it so outlandish to believe that in censoring her sister’s letters, Cassandra was protecting her own reputation too?
Miss Austen also explores what it meant to be an unmarried woman in Regency Britain. Cassandra feels a sympathy for Isabella Fowle who as another unwed daughter has very little agency around her own fate now that her last parent has died. As the two women sit down to read Persuasion together, Isabella expresses a hope that there will be a happy ending in store for Anne Eliot. Cassandra asks her what form that might take and Isabella responds that of course it would be marriage – what other sort of happy ending could there be? Cassandra wants to protest that she has found happiness in her own unmarried state but knows that the younger woman would never believe her.
Hornby is able to take a more unflinching view of the dividing line between the wives and the spinsters than Austen herself was ever really able to do. Elizabeth Austen has long been blamed for her husband Edward’s lack of generosity towards his mother and sisters, an added cruelty since she does appear to have leaned quite heavily on Cassandra for support during her many confinements. But while Miss Austen does imagine her insensitivities rather vividly, it is as nothing to the way in which it conjures up Mary Austen, sister-in-law from Hell. That lady bursts her way into the narrative due to having been sister to Eliza Fowle, mother to Isabella. Not only does she shatter the fragile peace which has grown between the remaining women of Kintbury but she also represents all that Cassandra fears – another version of the family narrative.
Mary Austen’s status as villain of the family has been unassailable for years. She captures so many character aspects that we love to hate. She was of the Lloyd family, sister to long-term stalwart Martha Lloyd. Miss Austen suggests that the Austen women were fond of her and supported her as a prospective second wife to James Austen. That she should then turn on them once she had achieved the status of wife implies a back-stabbing personality for which few could feel sympathy. It also suggests that achieving wifedom could bring out the very worst elements of someone’s personality. Mary was the cruel stepmother, the inconstant friend, the shrew and all-round viper in the nest. As Austen fans we can rejoice in the delicious irony that it is the sister-in-law who Mary treated with such contempt who has managed to posthumously trash her reputation. I loved Hornby’s implication that Mary was the inspiration for Pride and Prejudice‘s Mary Bennet – it seems entirely plausible.
I found myself thinking about all that Mary Austen represents. Her character type is so recognisable. She is the woman who has little to offer in herself and so takes undue delight in her relationship status. Bridget Jones decried the Smug Marrieds – these are Marys too. In my own single days, I met several Marys. They were the friends who would ask me what was going on in my life and when I explained that I had visited this place or gone to that event, they would give me a patronising smile and say things like ‘Still single then?’ or the more ‘encouraging’ – ‘Well, that’s how you meet people, by going out and doing interesting things’. All the time, that strange implication that single women must go about their business with the one-track obsession ‘I Must Find A Man’. As someone now in a long-term relationship, I try to make sure that I never become a Mary – she really is incredibly offensive.
Yet in other ways, I wonder if Mary Austen gets an unfair press. Well, I don’t wonder it. I think that part is obvious. She was even portrayed as a serial poisoner in The Mysterious Death of Miss Austen, bumping off a significant percentage of the Austen family to clear the way for her affair with Henry Austen. Biographies often put the blame on Mary for encouraging her husband to ask his father to retire so that they could take over the living, putting Jane out of her childhood home and dooming her to an itinerant existence in Bath for over a decade. No fictional portrayal of Mary ever forgets to put in plentiful smallpox scars. The woman gets away with nothing.
But then I remember the friend I had at university who sobbed uncontrollably that being single was a state of limbo. Ten years later, her viewpoint does not appear to have shifted. I can think of several extremely dear friends who have stuck it out with partners who came nothing near them in terms of intelligence or wit because the alternative was unappealing. If a capable, talented and charismatic twenty-first century woman can be afraid to go it alone, what must it have been like for Mary Austen, who was none of those things and stuck in the nineteenth century to boot? What if Mary was just insecure, knowing herself to be less intelligent than her sisters-in-law and thus forever on the defensive? One of the many beautiful things about Hornby’s novel is that she both holds Mary to account but also allows space for a more nuanced reading of her character.
Miss Austen is a miniature masterpiece, rich in detail and emotional complexity. Cassandra reflects on her life, on her younger self who accepted Tom Fowle’s proposal with such high hopes and looks down at the woman she is now, full of aches but still as determined as ever to fulfil her duty. In a strange way, its title tells a lie. It actually is all about Jane Austen despite being set decades after her death. She is so clearly alive in her sister’s love for her. Hornby’s Jane Austen is quick-witted and sharp-tongued but also prone to low moods, particularly around her own uncertain fate. She was in need of protection. As Cassandra carefully edits the trace that the two of them will leave behind, she keeps tight hold of Jane. Ever the adoring elder sister, she keeps Jane safe from harm even after death. She watches in amusement as Jane’s character defects are smoothed away by her nieces and nephews, noting the ‘power upon reputation brought by an untimely death and a modicum of fame and success’. Not a word of protest will ever cross Cassandra’s lips, even if it results in herself being dismissed as dull.
Miss Austen is a book of huge warmth and real emotional depth. I loved that this was a novel that could celebrate Jane Austen without ever suggesting that she was incomplete due to being unmarried. Through Cassandra, Hornby even suggests that Austen was not particularly cut out for matrimony and all that went with it. Miss Austen celebrates the cathartic power of being in the company of good women. It is women who will clear up the house at Kintbury so that the new vicar can take up his post. It is another of the Fowle women who runs a creche for the children of the local villagers. It is women who care for Cassandra when she falls ill. The world may be run by men but it is carried by women.
Of all my Austen in August reads, there was no other that made my nose tingle with tears like this one. There have been so many representations of Cassandra Austen as a life-long mourner with her face turned prematurely to the wall, someone who just gave up on life. Miss Austen reveals her strength, a woman who followed her conscience and followed her duty even as it rendered her invisible. She is only one of untold numbers of women who did their best for their families for little reward. Yet while most of those knew that they could hope for no more than to be remembered with kindness by the next generation and then to pass into oblivion, things were different for Cassandra. Hornby’s novel made me see that Miss Austen had her eye on us, the future readers. She knew we would come and when we did, she was prepared. It feels only right that her valour be celebrated at last.
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Published by Flatiron Books on April 7th 2020
Genres: Fiction, Biographical, Historical, General, Romance, Regency, Literary
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