"Miss Austen" by Gill Hornby; Flatiron Books (288 pages, $26.99)
All the time she was writing, finding fame, growing older and falling ill, Jane Austen had the company of one person who knew everything and told nothing. When she Jane died, sister Cassandra kept it that way. She burned many of Austen's letters.
Why? Author Gill Hornby's entertaining novel "Miss Austen" explores one scenario. It's 1840, decades after Jane's death, and the aging Cassandra arrives at the vicarage of family friends. Officially, she is there to help the bereaved daughter of the newly deceased vicar. Privately, she is there to snoop for letters Jane had written.
"Her purpose in coming to Kintbury had been to remove all that might reflect badly on Jane or the legacy." She has to do this quickly, yet her clandestine searches are harried by a curmudgeonly housekeeper who always seems to be sniffing just outside the door.
Hornby (sister of author Nick Hornby) whips fact, romance and a little Gothic mystery into an imaginative compote that's bound to satisfy those who hunger for more servings of Austen, and those who just enjoy a good tale. She channels Austen's wry take on women in society, with a dash of ageism to boot. "For whoever looked at an elderly lady and saw the young heroine she once was?"
Cassandra puts her frailty to good use and applies the wits she pretends to have lost to find a trove of Jane's letters. "Cassandra steeled herself, prepared her mind to be carried back through that mist of forgetting to the world that had once been their own." That world held pleasure, pain and not a little regret.
Hornby delivers an engaging plot and some lovely passages, such as when Cassandra tastes the jam made by her late friend Eliza. "She could taste her in the fruit, see her picking and stirring and laughing and pouring, and thought: These are the things by which most of us are remembered, these small acts of love, the only evidence that we, too, once lived on this earth."
As for the other evidence, she will see to it that some disappears, even as she realizes that other mementos of her sister lie far beyond her reach. "How impossible it was to control the narrative of one's family history."
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