Part of the What We Are Reading Now collection of Book Reviews by friends of Essex Book Festival

A Book Review by Sandy Norris

Any fan of Jane Austen will be intrigued by this novel. Told through the fictitious voice of Cassandra Austen, the story line is set 23 years after Jane – her famous sister has died and tells of Cassandra’s search among family possessions to find a cache of letters, written through the years, by Jane to her cousin Eliza. As a successful female author at the beginning of the 19th century, Jane Austen is always going to be considered unusual. Hornby develops her as an eccentric, to the point where her reputation might even be sullied, were her letters and opinions to be found and published. Cassandra wishes to protect her famous sister.

One of the most fascinating qualities of the novel is the way in which Hornby creates real-life relations in the guise of characters from Jane’s books. Only, of course in Jane’s case, as she wrote, it would be the other way round. So Persuasion’s fussy, self-centred Mary Musgrove allegedly appears as Mary Lloyd, a cousin to Jane’s; Mr Bennett, while not a reverend seems to spring from Mr Austen. While Cassandra in real life did marry, the fictitious elder sister remains a maid, holding many of the gentle qualities of Miss Jane Bennett.

Miss Austen is a happy/sad read, one that is hard to put down until the very last page is reached, with the self-sacrificing Cassandra’s failure to marry. It fits neatly as a backdrop to all Austen’s novels and gives us a completely believable early 19th century world where men still have every advantage – and women, unlike the fictitious Jane, just wait and hope.

Sandy Norris is a Festival Bookie. Festival Bookies are what we call our volunteers. They’re an important part of the festival family and play a crucial role in ensuring our events run smoothly. Find out more about becoming a Festival Bookie.

Read other book reviews in the What We Are Reading Now collection.