By Gill Hornby
Published by Century, 23rd January 2020
What it’s about?
Academics have long speculated about the Cassandra Austen’s reasons for burning the letters of her literary sister, Jane. This is a fictional exploration of the Austen family that sets out to answer the question.
Set in 1840, Cassandra Austen is an old spinster, returning to the home of her friends in Kintbury to help pack up the vicarage and retrieved a cache of letters that she does not want other people read.
Re-reading the letters and reconnecting with friends and family, Cassandra recalls her youth and reflects on the choices she mad and her relationship with her sister.
Some of the letters reveal personal secrets and a darker side to Jane. Cassandra has to choose between the literary value of the letters and protecting her sister’s legacy.
What I think:
As the elder sister and Miss Austen, Cassandra is the focus of this novel and a worthy study she is. Cassandra relieves her love for fiance, Tom Fowle and her devastating grief when he dies before they marry. She sees herself as a widow, and subsequently ends up as a spinster.
The book explores the very limited choices available to unmarried women in Regency England. Cassandra and Jane struggle to accept the roles that society expects from them and the burden they feel they are to others. Independence and security can only come through marriage, but Cassandra considers herself married to Tom and Jane thinks domestic life incompatible with writing.
The book explores a less flattering side to Jane. Her passion for writing makes her selfish and thoughtless. Her wit and sharp tongue hurt people she she loved. Cassandra devotion to her, even years after her death, drives the narrative but in the past and present.
I really enjoyed this book. Despite having read all of Jane Austen’s novels, I have never really read much about her life and her relationships with her family.
Cassandra is both sympathetic and empathetic and while I didn’t agree with all of the choice she makes I can fully understand them. Her love for her family is so deep that she willingly sacrifices a different future for herself. She is contrasted with her sister-in-law, Mary Austen who is portrayed as relentlessly persuing her own ends.
This is a beautiful book that Austen fans will love, but anyone will enjoy as at its heart it is about female relationships and family.
Thank you Netgalley for the advanced copy in return for an honest review.
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