I once swore never to read another novel that I saw as part of the Jane Austen industry. This was because most of them are so bad. I made an exception for Miss Austen and I was glad I did. It’s 1840 and Cassandra Austen, now in her sixties and without her beloved Jane, visits Kintbury, home of the Fowle family, whom she has known for years. The house is being cleared after the death of ‘father’; the work falls on unmarried daughter Isabella. Cassandra feels that she is unwelcome, a useless, interfering old woman and is shocked by Isabella’s inefficiency and her unfortunate lot as a single woman soon to lose her home. Gill Hornby cleverly manages to get in a lot of social comment of this kind without making it too obvious.
Cassandra’s real purpose in travelling to Kintbury is to seek out any letters which Jane may have written to the family and if necessary, to destroy them. It’s well known that Cassandra did destroy many of Jane’s letters but here we are given a reason for her decision: she doesn’t want Jane’s ‘melancholy’ (what we would call depression), to be revealed to future readers. The novel details her search for the letters and her attempts to hide what she is doing from the family and Isabella’s devoted and very nosy maid, Dinah, a wonderful character. These present activities are alternated with flashbacks to the happier days of the Austen family when Jane and the senior Austens were still alive.
I found all this very well written and believable. Cassandra is shown to be both intelligent and occasionally foolish but always brave in the face of the adversity she faced and able to find contentment living alone at Chawton in her last years.
I read this thanks to the publishers and NetGalley; it will be published in January 2020. My favourite Jane Austen spin-off remains My Dear Charlotte by Hazel Holt. Better still, back to the texts!