Reviewed by Anna Hollingsworth, 3 March 2020
There’s a point in Miss Austen where I felt that my sins had been found out. Cassandra, Jane Austen’s now elderly sister, tells a younger relation off for speculating about Jane’s love life: ”When your Aunt Jane was still with us and enjoying her little burst of success, there came a few vultures who liked to feed on any scraps of her life. The stories were not enough for them. They wanted the facts about her, and she was not minded to share them. As her novels live on — and I hope and believe they will do — there may well be more in the future.” I confess, I’m a vulture, and so is Gill Hornby. Hornby can be forgiven, though, and not only because of the wonderfully self-deprecating passage. In Miss Austen she delivers a witty take in many places on what led Cassandra to burn the bulk of her correspondence with her sister.
In 1840, 23 years after her sister’s death, Hornby’s Cassandra sets out to the vicarage of Kintbury (where, incidentally, Hornby herself now lives) on a mission. It is a truth universally acknowledged that if there’s a long, shared history of friendship — and more — between two families, such as the Austens and the Foyles, the vicar’s family, the letters between them must have been many. As the old vicar has died and the vicarage is being transferred into new hands, it is Cassandra’s last chance to get hold of the letters her sister wrote to the family and destroy them before they become prey for Austenite vultures. Reading the correspondence, Cassandra is swept back to her and Jane’s youth and later years living as unmarried women. But she isn’t left alone with the past: in the present, she tries to make plans for the future of the daughter of the vicarage, Isabella, and to cope with the general annoyance and unpleasantness of her brother’s widow Mary.
The plot isn’t the most complex, but that doesn’t matter. I’m not sure if it’s Hornby’s knack for perceiving human virtues and vices with gentle humour, or her clever copying of Austen’s style, but the sometimes nearly caricature-like characters bring the story to life in a brilliantly witty way. The young Cassandra combines tragic love, a sense of duty and sisterly devotion, while the older version of her becomes more of a Miss Marple type figure with a well-meaning but grossly annoying penchant for interfering. She is convinced that her life choices are the best for Isabella, too: “So many women end up perched on the edge of their extended families, trying not to get in the way. You will have a parlour! Possibly even a garden. We have so loved our garden in Chawton. A patch of earth of one’s own, to tend as one wishes; one small corner of the glory that is an English country village: it is the most we can wish for in this life of ours.” The reader cannot but share Isabella’s despair.
Some of Hornby’s portrayals reflect Austen’s original work: Mrs Austen — Cassandra and Jane’s mother — and Mary are just as brilliantly irritating as the mother and sister in Pride and Prejudice. Indeed, Hornby alludes that Mary served as the inspiration for the sour-faced Bennett sister, while some of the exchanges between Mrs and Mr Austen bring to mind those between Mrs and long-suffering Mr Bennett: “’They have been to Europe, Mr Austen — can you imagine? It puts our own adventures quite in the shade. Although we are even now hatching a plan to go to North Wales.’ Mrs Austen paused, and then added, ‘Which is also very far away.’”
Sadly, the sparkly freshness of the characters doesn’t quite carry over to Hornby’s prose. It’s not the most inventive; it’s easy to read, but that’s because it veers more towards cliché than originality. When the young Cassandra bumps into Mr Hobday, a love interest, the scene gives the reader butterflies for all the wrong reasons: “The bell gave its tinkle, her hand chanced to touch that of another… She flinched at the shock of it, turned and looked up. She felt the world change.” Hardly world-changing writing.
At times, Miss Austen resembles its eponymous protagonist, the older, painy and achy Cassandra, in that it stumbles in its flow and isn’t quite as agile as it ought to be to achieve what it needs to in a graceful manner. Despite the simple prose, the reader has to do double takes, and some characters have an unintentional Jekyll and Hyde feel to them; Mary’s daughter Caroline, for instance, goes all of a sudden from welcomed breath of fresh air to a miniature copy of her mother, gossiping with a remarkable lack of tact.
It doesn’t make Miss Austen insufferable, though. You’d be forgiven for thinking that there’s a limit to how many Jane Austen -inspired re-imagined books, film adaptations and TV series with a twist there can be, but Hornby’s offering proves you wrong. It’s not perfect, but it’s a thoroughly enjoyable addition to the Austen franchise. Go ahead, be a vulture.
Anna is a bookworm, linguistics student and student journalist.
Gill Hornby, Miss Austen (Century, 2020). 978-1529123760, 392pp., hardback.BUY at Blackwell’s via our affiliate link (free UK P&P)