For Gill Hornby the inspiration for her novel ‘Miss Austen’ began at home since she lives in the vicarage in Kintbury which has strong connections with Jane Austen’s family. Cassandra Austen, Jane’s sister, was engaged to Tom Fowles, the son of the vicar, and the Austen family frequently stayed at the vicarage.
Hornby also holds a lifelong interest in Austen’s work. She told Marlborough Litfest audiences (in the Town Hall and online), “When I don’t know how to start a novel, I think to myself, what would Jane do? Three or four families in a country village, jokes, drama, tragedy. You don’t need panoramic novels.”
In ‘Miss Austen’ Hornby focuses on Cassandra Austen, who twenty-three years after Jane Austen’s death in 1817, and not long before her own, set about burning a significant number of Jane’s letters. The novel explores what might have been Cassandra’s motives and Hornby imagines what those letters might have contained.
Hornby skilfully weaves fact and fiction and vividly recreates Jane Austen’s world, the character of Cassandra and the relationship between the two sisters. It is a fact that Cassandra spent her first Christmas away from home as an engaged woman at the Kintbury Vicarage. In January she sees her fiancé Tom Fowles sail off on a ship to the other side of the world and never sees him again.
“I found this so haunting. Women were so powerless and if their lives went wrong there were so few options and they were dependent on fathers, brothers, communities – just terrifying. Cassandra went through this in her early 20’s and yet survived until 75.
Women lived a very sequestered life. You lived in your neighbourhood.
Cassandra has always been a shadowy figure but the letters that do exist show that she was very much the older sister to Jane who respected her and asked her advice. She became a help-meet universal aunt who went to help out her brothers’ families when children were born or an aged relative was dying.”
Hornby believes that Cassandra destroyed Jane’s letters to preserve what she believed Jane would have wanted, her privacy. “In those times legacy management was practised. It was possible to burn letters and edit a life. Cassandra destroyed the letters on behalf of Jane who would not publish under her own name during her life-time. Even her nephews and nieces didn’t know she had written novels. From Jane’s Christian point of view ‘fame’ was ghastly. Cassandra was doing what Jane would have wanted.”
Cassandra’s own legacy to Kintbury was to leave £1000 to start the first Kintbury village school.
Hornby’s fascination with Jane Austen continues and she is publishing another book in 2022 set in Jane Austen’s brother’s great house in Kent – Godmersham Park.