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Gill Hornby on Miss Austen: the literary mystery that sparked a novel idea

A stash of secret letters and an unexpected link between her own home and a shadowy figure in the life of one of England’s most famous authors were the inspiration for a new novel by Gill Hornby.

Based on a literary mystery that has long puzzled biographers and academics, Miss Austen is about the loves and lives of Cassandra and Jane Austen.

Gill Hornby first became interested in the Austens when she ended up moving house to a beautiful vicarage in the village of Kintbury, which she discovered - as many old vicarages in the area claimed - had a link with the Austen family.

Author Gill Hornby, who wrote the novel Miss Austen (32045449)
Author Gill Hornby, who wrote the novel Miss Austen (32045449)

“Cassandra came into my life 27 years ago when we moved into the old vicarage at Kintbury and I was told that there was an Austen connection. I was told Cassandra had been engaged to the son of the house and that tragedy had intervened and she rather haunted me from that point.

“Then coincidentally I was asked to write a biography of Jane Austen for children and from then on I think I became rather obsessed with her. The novel is set literally in my own back yard. In fact my house was built in 1860 - the one they lived in was pulled down but it is the same cellar and garden and views and position, so it's very resonant.”

The story is about an act of destruction that has troubled researchers for centuries. It starts in 1840, twenty three years after the death of her famous sister Jane, when Cassandra Austen returns to the village of Kintbury, and the home of her family’s friends, the Fowles.

She knows that somewhere in the vicarage, there is a cache of family letters which hold secrets she is desperate should not be revealed.

Jane Austen. Pic credit: iStock
Jane Austen. Pic credit: iStock

As Cassandra recalls her youth and her relationship with her complex sister, she pieces together buried truths about Jane’s history, and her own.

And she has to decide whether she should act to protect Jane’s reputation or leave the contents of the letters to go unguarded into posterity.

Gill says: “There are a lot of village myths. Everyone told me Jane Austen had stayed in their cottage and when I looked at the cottage I thought, why would she? So when I heard our house had a Jane Austen connection I thought, well, she probably visited most vicarages in a desirable village near her. I thought that was probably her lifestyle, but in fact it was a more profound link to our house.

“There are traces in all the family memoirs of how often they came here. When Jane was towards the end of her life she went around our garden and Mary Jane, the daughter of the house, wrote that Jane had looked at everything in a particular way 'as if she would not see this beloved site again'.

“So those instances of them coming here are recorded and you can see from the letters that when they were on the way to Bath or to Cheltenham they always called here on the way.”

Gill admits she became obsessed with Cassandra as someone who was the most important person in Jane's life but remains completely uncelebrated - which is the fate of many women behind the genius figures from history.

Miss Austen, the new novel by Gill Hornby about Jane Austen's sister, Cassandra (32045458)
Miss Austen, the new novel by Gill Hornby about Jane Austen's sister, Cassandra (32045458)

She says: “Everyone else is obsessed with Jane, but it is the figure of Cassandra I find very haunting and those women in history who have their destinies set. Those who are to marry to have children and then to have grandchildren and then to die and that is sort of the long forecast. It went right for so few women, actually, and when it went wrong the opportunities for them were so limited and the female life was a very precarious thing in the 19th century. There were always these cracks in the floorboards that you could fall through at any moment.

“That's what Jane Austen's novels were all about. Those Bennet girls in Pride and Prejudice are desperate really. They don't act desperate; they don't realise they are desperate. Mrs Bennet realises they are desperate. She is the hero of the book and Mr Bennet is a feckless idiot, in my opinion. He didn't care about their future - he could drop dead at any moment and they would have to become governesses or companions to an old lady and once you have put on the uniforms for one of those jobs you never got a man anyway, your life was over. And then you were a governess and you got to 45 and they didn't want you anymore.

“It was just a terrible life; it was frightening. And Cassandra had made the very nice secure match with a son of people she knew, which was a great bonus and luxury in those days when you know you could be married off to any old passing fancy who was a stranger on your wedding night.

“It was just a lottery. You could marry a man and it turned out you loved him and it would be lovely and you would know economic comfort, which couldn't be banked on. Or you could marry a stranger or death could strike."

Even if a woman made a good match, there were huge dangers ahead. Gill explains: “ All of Jane’s novels end with the proposal she doesn't dare go into marriage. I feel it's because marriage wasn’t necessarily a happy ending for most people. If you got married at 21you could have 15 pregnancies ahead of you unless you were careful. And one of them would get you. As with Jane's sisters in law, one died on the eighth birth, one died on the ninth, one died on the 11th. If you got through the first one, and that wasn't a given, you would probably be alright for the next three. But after that you are in dodge city.

“Cassandra was engaged to somebody very familiar and then it all went wrong, as so often it did and those women's lives were the unrecorded ones of history. History comes down to us through the writings and voices of men.”

Cassandra’s fiance Thomas Fowle died of yellow fever while on a military expedition and after that she never married, instead she set up home with her sister Jane.

“There was no social cache at all for women who didn't marry,” says Gill. “That was something I wanted to turn on its head because the three Misses Austen formed this cottage together, the three flotsam jetsam of Jane, Cassie and Martha and it was looked on at the time with pity and these households are looked on historically with pity.

Social historians now call them spinster clusters where single women got a house together because if you had a pittance life was tough but if fout of you each had a pittance those would go further and you would be able to exist.

And so this cottage was a spinster cluster but actually I think they had a hoot. I think for Jane in particular it was the best result she could have hoped for. She wouldn't have been tolerant of all the strictures of marriage and she loved Cassie and Martha very much. They ran the house for her so she could write. They were all very intelligent, they all read books all the time and played games. They had a fantastic life under the circumstances compared to what might have been. The point of the novel is that women could have a happy life without a man.”

Whenever they were apart the sisters would write regularly to each other with news and gossip. Gill says: “In the 160-odd letters that Cassandra allowed to remain and didn’t burn, you get a very strong sense of the person Jane is writing to, how Jane really looked up to her and found her amusing.

“They chit chatted about bonnets and lace and hem lengths and colours of fabric and they gossiped about the parties they had been at the previous night and various relations and then towards the end there is this physical and emotional dependency Jane has developed on Cassandra.

“Jane had her on a pedestal. She was very much her older sister. She was the better looking, more capable, more competent and very wise and Jane worshipped her. She was very good at managing Jane and looking after her. Cassandra burnt all of her replies so she is a completely silent partner in those letters so we can only guess at what she said.”

Gill believes Cassandra decided to burn many of the letters between herself and Jane because Jane suffered from bouts of depression and she wanted to cover that up.

“I think Jane suffered a lot from her depression in those difficult years when they left Bath and her father died and they were absolutely pillar to post for five years. They were living in damp unpleasant rented houses in the winter, in the summers they would turn up at their relatives where they would get their washing done for free and they would get fed and they would extend their welcome until it got a bit awkward. And at that time Jane didn't write a word.

“She had this enormous creative force and in that time she had no outlet for it, there was no room in the house there wasn't a peaceful moment, she couldn't think, so she must have got hideously depressed with it and the pitiful knowledge that we have that she did carry her unfinished manuscripts around with her in a little case clutching it on every coach trip from one place to another, treasuring it through all those turbulent years, shows how much she cared about her work. But she couldn't do it and i think that must have been terrible.

“There are hints in the letters when Jane is in Southampton and Jane is with her brother, that she has the black dog. I think there must have been a lot of that. You can't be a creative genius like that and be utterly moodless it doesn't work like that.”

Jane died at the peak of her fame at age 41 and was remembered as a genius by the world. Meanwhile Cassandra grew old and history has not been so kind.

Gill says: “Then there's a family memoir written in the late 19th century when Jane's fame was beginning to build again and the nieces and nephews who knew her but were late teens when Jane died remember Jane as a figure of utmost perfection. By then she has put them on the map and can do literally no wrong. She is this perfect blessed saintly creature. And they are so disparaging about Cassandra and there is no evidence during anyone’s lifetime that anyone did feel like that.

“And the really important thing is that Cassandra was the one who became the universal aunt for a huge extended family to all these nieces and nephews.

When her sister in law was confined in pregnancy it was Cassie who was sent for. She was there at the births, she ran the nursery during the mother’s confinement, she taught the children letters, she was the one who weaned them, she went and nursed everybody when there were bouts of the measles she nursed all the old people to death.

She was an incredibly valuable member of the family. I can't find any record of anyone asking Jane to go and do anything useful. No one bothered. It was not Jane's strength. Her strength was writing novels.”

One of the themes of the novel is the value of those selfless women who care for everyone and keep everything running smoothly to allow others to have their glory.

Gill says: “It annoyed me. Of course Jane is brilliant but what Cassandra did for them was equally incredibly valuable in the context of their own family ,lifetime and the lack of respect they show for it really upsets me because there are so many people like that and I have to admit I am one of them too. The people who get the whole family together, the people who look after the mother when she is old and dying, and remembers everyone's birthdays - I am one of those.

"I'm a school governor and I've worked in the food bank and I'm surrounded by selfless women much better than myself giving their time and their care for other people and not in pursuit of their own ego and they never get any thanks and no credit at all. It's one of the things in life that drives me mad.”

As the mother of four children and as wife to novelist Robert Harris, she insists she is appreciated at home by her husband but adds: “Behind all great men or women there is always a sister, a wife or a mother who is promoting them and doing everything for them. The enablers.

“I hope those people acknowledge what they are getting and huge numbers of them do but I don't think the outside world acknowledges it. I think they assume they are operating in isolation somehow that their genius is just a natural force.”

Miss Austen by Gill Hornby is published by Penguin Random House and is available for £12.99.

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