Gill Hornby’s new novel Miss Austen was one of my favourite reads of this year’s Austen in August & Autumn, shining a light on one of the most forgotten figures within Jane Austen’s life. There have been so many attempts to retell the life of Jane Austen and so few leave the reader feeling any closer to the subject – I was delighted to discover Hornby’s spectacular novel and even more delighted when she agreed to answer a few of my questions.
What first drew you to tell Cassandra Austen’s story?
Cassandra came at me from two directions. The first was when I moved into the village of Kintbury 27 years ago. Neighbours told us that Jane’s sister had once been engaged to the son of the vicar, and had visited here once or twice. Soon after, I was commissioned to write a biography of Austen for children and, as I researched Jane’s life, I found that there was more to it than that: the bond between all the Austens and the Kintbury vicarage family was a deep one. I read the family reports of the engagement and the tragedy, and Cassandra’s story began to captivate me. I pored over all of Jane’s letters to Cassandra, and could feel how much she admired – adored, even – and became increasingly dependent on her elder sister. And then I read the family memoirs – written later in the 19th century and in the light of Jane’s increasing fame – and became increasingly irritated by how dismissive they were of their Aunt Cassandra. At all moments of family crisis – births, illnesses, deaths – it was always Cassandra who was summoned to the bedside. She gave years of service to them all, and was a crucial support to Jane. I felt we needed to hear her side of the story. I wanted to defend her.
Cassandra is famous (and to some people infamous) for having destroyed so much of her sister’s correspondence. What do you believe motivated her to do so?
They were two rather private women. They didn’t have a large circle of confidantes beyond their own family; they didn’t really know that many people beyond their own family. But that family was large, so had all the personality clashes and alliances that any large family has. Jane and Cassandra were, of course, completely frank with one another, and there would have been a lot of passages in those letters with indiscretions – about Mary Austen in particular – that they would not want other eyes to see. Beyond that, we don’t know what else she was trying to hide. I have my own theories, which I expand on in my novel.
Also, managing the legacy of a famous life was and remains a very sensible thing to do. Cassandra would have had no idea how intrusive society would become but, even then, she knew enough to believe that Jane’s private and possibly negative thoughts were absolutely none of anybody’s business. Do remember that, during her lifetime, Jane chose to be published anonymously and did not confess her authorship to anyone outside the trusted circle. There seems no doubt that Jane herself would have approved of the burning of the letters.
Cassandra was simply protecting Jane after her death, as she had done all through her life.
Biographical fiction around Jane Austen tends to concentrate on her finding romance. To what extent were you motivated to seek out a fresh narrative?
I think that because of the romances in the novels, there is an automatic presumption that Jane herself was a romantic. And that leads to the narrative that she was a poor, miserable spinster who wrote the stories that she herself wanted to live. In fact, there is no biographical evidence for any of that. A couple of isolated brushes with the opposite sex – the flirtation with Tom Lefroy, the aborted engagement with Harris Bigg-Wither – have come down to us, and been made much of. But they don’t really bear up to much scrutiny. For example, we only know about Tom Lefroy from two letters that Cassandra left to posterity. If that young man had really broken Jane’s heart, then would Cassandra have left the evidence there? Of course not. We know about it because it did not matter in the first place.
The truth is that Jane was never likely to make a good match. She had noughtpence, she was tricky, she wasn’t particularly good looking. She didn’t meet that many people. Had she married, it would have probably been to a curate or someone like that – hard up, and only able to give her a hard life. She would have been running the house, pushing out endless children, dicing with death in childbirth. She wouldn’t have had time to write more than a letter.
Not marrying certainly created difficulties for the two sisters. They had a tough few years. But in the end, they had independence and Jane got to write and we got the novels. That’s everybody’s happy ending.
Your character Cassandra observes at one point that the happiest moments of her life have been spent in the company of ‘excellent women’. In our current climate, the single positivity movement is popular with celebrities such as Emma Watson using the term ‘self-partnered’. Do you believe that being a single woman in Regency Britain could be positive?
Being a single woman could be hard, but being married could be extremely hard, too. Women were often married off on the basis of nothing more than an acquaintanceship. They may never have been alone with their husbands before for more than a few hours. They surrendered their rights to him. Love was a lottery. Unless they were lucky enough to marry someone very local, they had to move away to from their families. Of Jane’s sisters-in-law, three died in childbirth with their eighth or eleventh child; another one died suddenly from what was most likely some pregnancy complication.
The key to being single, of course, was money – or a supportive family. And if Cassandra had married, then Jane would probably have had to marry someone – however unsatisfactory – just for some sort of security. But together, they could get through it. There was safety in numbers. And they took in another single friend, Martha Lloyd, which made them all safer still.
That is the other part of the established biographical narrative that I wanted to challenge: the image of these three tragic women washed up in a country cottage together, without – poor dears! – any men. I firmly believe that that’s nonsense. It would have been a hoot!
Cassandra remarks to her sister-in-law that ‘Surely our history is all in our minds, in our memories’. The expectation seems to be that the stories of women will fade from history. How do you believe that we can connect with the lives of these women? Do you feel a responsibility to tell their stories?
History then was written entirely by men, and it is their voices that come down to us. I am fascinated by the lives, thoughts and conditions of the other 50% and yes: it feels important to break their silence.
Do you believe that Cassandra Austen would feel satisfied with how the world remembers her and her sister?
She would be thrilled and delighted by the popularity of the novels. They weren’t all successful even in Jane’s lifetime, and then fell out of print soon after her death. Cassandra lived long enough to witness occasional new bubbles of interest and seized upon all of them, and recorded them, too.
The new adulation of Jane that goes on would probably amuse her. And as for my novel? I think about that a lot. I hope she wouldn’t throw her hands up in horror, and that she could see that I just want to give her the credit that she’s due.
Do you have any future projects?
Yes, but not telling. Sorry!
Miss Austen by Gill Hornby is released on 23 January 2020 – mark your calendars!