Perpetually popular and highly honored, Jane Austen arguably ranks second only to William Shakespeare in the pantheon of British writers.
Though she has been dead for two centuries, the sun never sets on her influence, as biographers continue to explore her life, literary novelists employ her in their works and writers of crime fiction cast her as an amateur sleuth.
She now appears in Gill Hornby’s “Miss Austen”—but this time with her beloved older sister, Cassandra, given prominence.
As the novel opens in 1840—nearly a quarter century after Jane’s death—Cassandra, her sister’s executor, travels from her home in Chawton to the vicarage in Kintbury, where she hopes to retrieve letters written by Jane to the Fowle family and “remove all that might reflect badly on Jane of the legacy.”
Daughter Isabella is packing up the Fowles’ belongings—her parents have died and her two sisters are busy with their own lives—which allows Cassandra to work without Isabella’s knowledge of the search.
A spinster in her late 60s, Cassandra must explore while also confronting the memories of her engagement to Isabella’s uncle Tom, who perished while on a military expedition to the West Indies as chaplain to an aristocrat.
After finding the letters, Cassandra reads them. And as she does, she relives her joys and sorrows, and those of Jane, as she considers life before and after her cherished sibling’s death.
Hornby, the author of two previous novels and a biography of Jane Austen for young readers, lives in Kintbury with her husband and their four children. She deftly melds the narrative and epistolary forms of fiction, and the result will surely appeal to Janeites, devotees of 19th-century fiction and anglophiles of many stripes.
Established on a foundation of fact, built with imagination and plausibility, rendered with grace and composed with the precise eloquence of the early 1800s, “Miss Austen” offers a tender and charming look at a lesser-known Austen, and through that lens, at her famous sister and the lot faced by single women of their era.
Jay Strafford, a retired Virginia journalist, now lives in Florida.