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Art and Culture

Likely Stories: Miss Austen, by Gill Hornby


Jane Austen is one of the most beloved writers of the late 18th and early 19th centuries.  Her novels have been widely admired read, re-read, and read again.  Gill Hornby, in his book, Miss Austen, has taken up the threads of the works of Jane. 


Cassandra Austin travels to the Vicarage of the Austin family, which came to the Fowles family.  That family has disappeared since the only remaining members were all now single women. Cassandra believes her sister’s letters are hidden somewhere in the Vicarage.  Hornby writes, “Cassandra sat still and listened until the footsteps diminished and the door shut on the offices.  Seizing the moment, she fastened her needle into the fabric, struggled out of the sofa, and moved toward the corner. // Miss Austen was not used to intruding upon the privacy of others.  Her heart hammered at her ribs.  The unfamiliar discomfort of guilt was enough to halt her in her tracks.  For a moment she stared at the bureau. This delicate piece of walnut, with a lid that folded out into a table and three draws below, had been Eliza’s only private corner in these big, busy rooms” (19-20).  I was surprised at the ease with which Casandra riffled through the remains of what she needed to complete her hunt for the letters of Jane Austen.

Hornby continued, “How many words of advice had been dispatched from that desktop?  How many personal matters had been read about there?  […] Both she and Jane had once written many intimate letters to this vicarage.  They could still be there.  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” (20). 

Finally, alone, Cassandra “crossed the room, took the long flat cushion from the seat, put it on the floor, and with some awkwardness, knelt on it.  The strain if lifting the lid was almost too much for her.  She had to pull hard. Harder than she once believed herself capable.  Her pulses throbbed.  Then, suddenly, her struggle was rewarded.  With a loud creak, it surrendered and revealed to her its contents.  The search was over.  She gripped the wood and looked down.  // Laid out before her were the letters of a lifetime” (24). 

Gill Hornsby has written a fascinating and gripping story of the missing letters of Jane Austen.  His book, Miss Austen is an excellent addition to the life of one of the greatest women writers of the early 19th century.  Lovers of Miss Austen will be greatly rewarded. 5 Stars!

Likely Stories is a production or KWBU.  I’m Jim McKeown.  Join me again next time for Likely Stories, and Happy Reading!