Jane Austen’s sister destroyed her letters. ‘Miss Austen’ imagines the reasons.

Gill Hornby’s vivid novel introduces Cassandra, Jane’s protective older sister, who has her own ideas about keeping her sister’s reputation intact.

Courtesy of Macmillan Publishing
“Miss Austen” by Gill Hornby, Flatiron, 270 pp.

Jane Austen may have completed only six major novels in her 41 years, but the sequels, spinoffs, and movies they have spawned are nearly as ubiquitous as Shakespearean derivatives. “Miss Austen,” Gill Hornby’s well-researched, slyly barbed historical novel, is a worthy addition, sure to enthrall Janeites.

The titular Miss Austen is Jane’s devoted older sister, Cassandra, who outlived her by 28 years and who, in Hornby’s telling, guarded her beloved sister’s legacy with zeal. The novel is set mainly in 1840 – when an aging Cassandra shows up at relatives’ soon-to-be vacated Kintbury vicarage, determined to rescue her sister’s letters to a favorite confidante from the prying eyes of posterity. Her baldly stated mission is “to find and destroy any evidence that might compromise Jane’s reputation.” But each letter Cassandra reads sends her – and Hornby’s narrative – back to the events it evokes, which span the years from Cassandra’s engagement in 1795 through Jane’s death in 1817.

To the lasting consternation of historians, Cassandra Austen did in fact destroy much of Jane’s correspondence – hundreds of letters between the two sisters. What did she want to hide? That question is partly what drives this novel, which attempts to render Cassandra’s actions comprehensible if not altogether forgivable.

Like Austen’s cunning social satires, Hornby’s novel works on multiple levels. On the surface, it’s the story of a smart, attractive Regency woman who, after the death of her fiancé, resigns herself to spinsterhood and a financially straitened life whose gratifications rest in being dutifully useful – to her parents, her talented sister, and her wealthier brothers’ fecund families – since fortunes “seemed only to run down the male line.”

On another level, it’s a vivid portrait of Austen and her family, based in part on Hornby’s speculative re-creation of those missing letters, which she fills with entertainingly acid commentary about various relatives and friends, and evidence of worrisome mood-swings that veer between “sullen and silent, or brittle and wicked.” In this telling, Jane is always at her lowest when circumstances thwart her writing – as when she, her sister, and their parents are forced into an unsettled, nomadic existence after their brother James and his irritating wife Mary take over the family home, Steventon Rectory.   

Dig a little deeper and you’ll find not just tonal echoes of Austen’s prose, but several borrowed plot points, including a strategically timed illness, a prejudicial misreading of character, and a protagonist who, like Emma in the eponymous 1815 novel, learns a lesson about the hubris of meddling in others’ affairs.

As in Austen, there’s lots of courtship drama, but Hornby has slyly inverted the marriage plot and the notion that for a story to end happily, it must end in a betrothal. Cassandra, who like Jane is clearly sharper than most of the men in her life, comes to cherish the freedom of spinsterhood and to realize that her “happiest moments had been passed in the company of excellent women.” "Miss Austen" celebrates not just Virginia Woolf’s room of one’s own, but a home of one’s own – and the joys of female companionship.

Hornby’s novel offers a decidedly modern, feminist slant, which is announced by its epigraph from Austen’s “Persuasion”: “Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story. ... The pen has been in their hands.” “Miss Austen,” with its jabs at doltish males and entrenched gender inequity, pointedly features the female point of view. Cassandra has to wait for her wealthy brother Edward’s “stolid mind to make its pedestrian progress” after she plants the idea that he should provide his mother and sisters with a cottage on his Chawton estate. Hornby adds bitingly, “She had to wait a good while.”

When the Austen ladies finally achieve their dream, Jane exults, “We took the sow’s ear that fate offered us, and fashioned from that something quite wonderful.” Cassandra replies, “We have found our Utopia! I can imagine no better life than the one we have here.”

A happy ending that may involve real estate but doesn’t involve marriage, we marvel! Not so fast. “Miss Austen” continues to twist and turn deliciously to expose the dangers of blindly promoting one’s own idea of utopia, whether married or single, “as the only true happiness.”

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