After Jane Austen’s death in 1817, her beloved sister, Cassandra, burned all Jane’s letters that she had judged too indiscreet.
Gill Hornby’s novel imagines Cassandra, now in her 60s, arriving at a vicarage in the Berkshire village of Kintbury. She and Jane had first visited the vicarage as young women, when Cassandra had been engaged to the son of the house, Tom Fowle...
Hornby combines a moving portrait of sisterly devotion with a comic depiction of the provincial life so brilliantly evoked in Austen’s own novels.
The television rights to this novel were sold at birth. No surprise: the dialogue is ready to roll, there’s a treasure hunt, carriages and libraries, dogs and swishing canes, and even a girls’ hair-brushing scene. People are going to love it, but I wonder if any screen adaptation will be able to convey the hidden treasure within this thoughtful story: the powerful, barely expressed knowledge of each other’s characters that both the Misses Austen took to their graves.
Hornby’s portrayals of Cassandra and Jane are tantalising. The elder sister is seen to be an obsessed, manipulative old woman, though seemingly well-intentioned. Dinah thinks her meddlesome; but she is a figure to be pitied for her lot in life. Jane is clever, single-minded, perceptive and sharply intelligent, her talent arming her against a world dominated by men.
All devotees of Austen’s novels will want to join Hornby, and Cassandra, in this enjoyable act of piety to Jane.
The great joy of Miss Austen is that the reader feels immersed in a world that is convincingly Jane’s from the first page. Austen’s style is superficially easy to pastiche, but deceptively hard to do well (as ITV’s recent tone-deaf Sanditon attests); many have tried, but few have managed anything approaching her lightness of touch and swift, caustic wit. It’s testament to Hornby’s skill, then, that I had to turn to the author’s note at the back to check how many of the letters included here were invented. It’s also extremely funny; figures in Jane’s life who might well have provided models for some of her more bumptious, self-important characters are fleshed out here with a comic relish that feels entirely Austenian.
Historical fiction is difficult. One phrase can catapult the reader back into the present. The writer must avoid pastiche at all costs. I balked at a couple of phrases — “it was her truth” and “his otherness” — but these are tiny aberrations in an otherwise fine novel. Hornby’s most effective feat is to tackle the problem of family memory — each one of us has our (often misguided) reading of family history. Familial relations are complicated, and fraught, subject to misinterpretations and misunderstandings. Motives are complex and layered.