By Brenda S. Cox
“Cassandra was the executor of her sister’s estate: the keeper of her flame; the protector of her legacy. In the time that was left to her, she was determined to find and destroy any evidence that might compromise Jane’s reputation. It was simply imperative that those letters did not fall into the wrong hands.”–Miss Austen, by Gill Hornby
Miss Austen: A Novel, by Gill Hornby
Cassandra Austen was Jane Austen’s dearest friend and only sister. Much of what we know about Austen’s life comes from her letters to Cassandra. The oldest sister in the family, who never married, would always have been called “Miss Austen,” while her younger sister was “Miss Jane Austen” or “Miss Jane.”
Gill Hornby retells Cassandra’s life, intertwining fact and fiction. Miss Austen is an imaginative but serious novel. It shows us the life choices available to clergymen’s daughters like Jane and Cassandra.
In old age, Cassandra is frail and not totally clear in her mind. She goes to visit the family of her former fiancé, Tom Fowle. Her goal? To find Jane’s letters and destroy any that might hurt Jane’s reputation.
Cassandra finds and reads some of the (fictional) letters. As she reads, she remembers important events in her life: Her own courtship and engagement. Tom Fowle’s death. Her brothers’ courtships, marriages, and children. The move to Bath. An aborted seaside romance. Jane’s death. Cassandra reflects on the choices she made, and her relationship with her beloved sister.
A Clergyman’s Daughters
In the meantime we see Cassandra’s friends, the Fowle sisters, soon after their father’s death in 1840. Their father, Rev. Fulwar Craven Fowle, was the brother of Rev. Thomas Fowle, Cassandra’s deceased fiancé. Fulwar was a clergyman, and the new clergyman will arrive soon. Therefore Fulwar’s daughter, Isabella Fowle, has to vacate the parsonage she has lived in all her life. Hornby tells us:
“How the village would miss having this family at its center. To lose a much-loved vicar was one blow; to lose his womenfolk quite another. Fulwar was a popular preacher, an active and, on the whole, fair politician, but he had spent much of his week riding to hounds. It was the women who provided the vital care the parishioners needed: the broth for the sick, the clothes for the poor, the basic education.”
Hornby is describing Rev. Fulwar Fowle as a country “squarson,” a combination of squire and parson. Fowle lives a squire’s life, hunting and probably serving as local magistrate. On Sundays he leads services and preaches. The women of the family provide for the poor and the sick. These are roles of both the clergyman’s wife and the squire’s wife (as we see in Emma).
Fowle’s three sisters choose different life roles. One finds fulfillment in caring for the children of factory workers while their mothers work long hours. Another had married and lived in India. She is now a widow with her own home. Isabella has devoted herself to caring for her irascible father. But by the end of the novel, Isabella has a new hope.
Cassandra connects with these women. She looks back at her own life, as the unmarried daughter of a deceased clergyman. In the process, she finds peace with her own life choices. (She died five years later, in 1845.)
In the middle of the novel, during the frustrated romance, I felt this book was too sad for me, and I almost stopped reading. However, I’m glad I pressed on, as there were many treasures still in store.
I recommend this novel as a moving portrayal of Jane Austen’s family and friends, and the possibilities and realities of Cassandra’s life. We also get a deep personal view of the challenges and joys of clergymen’s daughters like Jane and Cassandra.
Favorite Quotes from the Novel
“Happy endings are there for us somewhere, woven into the mix of life’s fabric. We just have to search the detail, follow the pattern, to find the one that should be our own.”
“There was an invisible line between usefulness and intrusion and she well knew the perils of crossing it.”
“Cassandra was dutiful, had possibly been born dutiful, certainly could only be dutiful: She knew of no other way. In her own—for want of a better word—virtue, she had found an endless reward. She was not unique in this. The world, she well knew, was full of good women like her, who dedicated their time, their bodies, their thoughts, and their hearts to the service of others. And if they, and she, were rendered invisible: Well then, what of it? Let us just pity those who had not eyes to see.”
Gill Hornby has also written a children’s biography of Jane Austen, Jane Austen: The Girl with the Golden Pen, which is now available for Kindle.
How do you feel about the life choices you have made? I have been reading* about discernment, trying to see what God’s will may be for us and make right choices. In the end the author says, sometimes we just don’t know the best course, but we choose as well as we can, wanting God’s will, and God honors that. Even when we make choices that are not the best, God can bring good from those as well. Have you seen in your life that God has brought good things even from a choice with painful consequences?
*The book I’ve been reading is God’s Voice Within, by Mark Thibodeaux. An interesting perspective.
I have lost a treasure, such a sister, such a friend as never can have been surpassed. She was the sun of my life, the gilder of every pleasure, the soother of every sorrow; I had not a thought concealed from her, and it is as if I had lost a part of myself. I loved her only too well — not better than she deserved, but I am conscious that my affection for her made me sometimes unjust to and negligent of others; and I can acknowledge, more than as a general principle, the justice of the Hand which has struck this blow. You know me too well to be at all afraid that I should suffer materially from my feelings; I am perfectly conscious of the extent of my irreparable loss, but I am not at all overpowered and very little indisposed, nothing but what a short time, with rest and change of air, will remove. I thank God that I was enabled to attend her to the last, and amongst my many causes of self-reproach I have not to add any wilful neglect of her comfort.