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I have the pleasure of hosting Gill Hornby today to celebrate the release of her new novel, Miss Austen. Flatiron Books has kindly shared the following Q&A, in which Gill talks about finally shining a light on Cassandra Austen, living in the shadow of a famous sibling, and what Jane Austen means to her. Please give her a warm welcome.

Q: Readers the world over know the story of Jane Austen, but few know much, if anything, about Jane’s oft-forgotten older sister, Cassandra. Miss Austen casts Cassandra in an entirely new light, and as a heroine in her own right. What made you want to finally pull back the curtain on the life of the lesser-known Austen sister, and what are some of the most surprising things you learned about her while writing this book?

A: My first encounter with Cassandra was hearing the tragic story of her engagement to Thomas Fowle, and she had my sympathies from that moment. The story of a young, handsome, clever woman, who loved and was loved, but whose destiny was overturned by some cruel twist of fate…. It’s the very stuff of novels. Then I read Jane’s letters to her sister, and although we have none of Cassy’s responses, we still get such a strong sense of both sisters, the jokes they shared, and Jane’s love, admiration, and respect for Cassy—Jane was famously intolerant of the failings of others, but she placed Cassandra on a pedestal, and as character references go, that’s a good one.

But then, when we read the family memoirs, a different picture of these two women emerges. The nieces and nephews seem to remember another Cassandra entirely. Where Jane found wit and humor, they only found joylessness. Where Jane saw Cassandra’s brilliance, they saw only boring sensibility. How can we reconcile this conflicting evidence? It seems to me obvious. Every family, especially large ones like the Austens, have their own ecosystem: there is a pecking order, each member has a position. But when fame strikes just one of them, then that whole ecosystem is upended. The world peers in on you, and makes a quite different judgement. I have had some small experience of this myself, when my brother, Nick Hornby, enjoyed huge literary success in his thirties and I was knee deep in nappies and small children. I was amused to find myself an object of pity when I was really quite cheerful, and to find that I was supposed to be riven with jealousy when I was actually thrilled.

Cassandra was the eldest daughter—the more handsome, the most reliable and efficient, a credit and support to her mother, a mentor to the younger, friskier Jane. She made an excellent match in Tom Fowle, at the right age. She would have been an excellent vicar’s wife and a fine mother. But when unforeseen tragedy closed that option to her, she became the helpmeet of the wider family. She was there at the births and the deaths. She gave her time willingly and tirelessly. She supported her sister, Jane, and served as a kind of midwife to her novels. Those nieces and nephews—and all Janeites, indeed—should be on their knees with gratitude.

But poor Cassandra: she is only ever perceived in the light of Jane’s star. She can only ever be the less interesting sister. I know the feeling! Perhaps that’s why I became so obsessed with giving her the credit she was due. Of course, she has never been forgiven for burning so many of Jane’s letters. That is also unfair, to my mind. Jane chose herself to publish anonymously. She was a very private person, with a small circle of confidantes. It’s plausible that Jane and Cassandra would have been of one mind on this one. We have the novels; the rest of it is none of our business. And, personally, I am grateful for all those gaps left in the story. They gave me this novel, which hopes to answer the questions: Who was Cassandra Austen, and what was it that she was trying to hide?

Q: Much of this novel takes place at the Kintbury vicarage, which was once home to the family of Cassandra Austen’s late-fiancé, Thomas Fowle. Both Jane and Cassandra visited Kintbury and the vicarage several times, and in Miss Austen, it is where Cassandra finds a trove of her sister’s lost letters. You yourself live on the site of the old vicarage in Kintbury today—did you know about the area’s history and its connection to the Austen family when you moved in, and what was it like to write a novel set in your own back yard?

A: We moved in to Kintbury back in 1993, and the Austen connection was always the first thing our new neighbors mentioned. I was never terribly sure if it was that big of a deal (surely Jane Austen must have visited several vicarages in her day), but I soon found that, in fact, Jane’s geography was quite restricted, and her ties with the Fowle family of Kintbury were very strong. A few years after moving to the area, quite by chance, I was commissioned to write a biography of Jane for the children’s market, and that was when I first read the letters that Jane wrote from Chawton to Cassandra in Kintbury and realized that the Kintbury vicarage was an important place on the Austen landscape. I was haunted by the image of Cassandra, standing here in our garden on that last Christmas with her fiancé, watching his trap drive away from her on their last morning… Surely, there was a novel in there somewhere?

Our house is very Victorian, built in 1860, but it has the same footprint as the original Fowle vicarage, the cellar is still there, and the view hasn’t changed a bit. When I needed inspiration, all I had to do was look out of my study window. I am acutely aware of how fortunate I have been, and that I will never again have another project as close to my heart and my life. To write about it, to imagine and inhabit the lives of those who were here before us, has been an especial joy. 

Q: One of the most exciting elements of Miss Austen is Cassandra’s discovery of Jane’s lost letters, which you’ve brilliantly reimagined and brought to life on the page. Not only do the letters capture Jane’s voice and wit, but they also illuminate the extraordinary bond between the Austen sisters and show readers a new side to their favorite author. Did you feel any pressure when crafting these letters that have been lost to time, and how did you go about inhabiting Jane’s voice?

A: Pressure like I have never known! In fact, I can’t now believe I ever had the nerve. At the outset, I didn’t intend to write so many letters in Jane’s voice. I thought there might be a couple towards the end, and I would worry about that when I got there. But, of course, I was fooling myself: Jane had to turn up quite early on, as she and Cassandra were rarely apart. So even without the letters, I had to somehow create my Jane Austen, and she had to walk and talk and think.

I kept putting it off, delaying her appearance. And when it got to the point when she really must show up, I would write a sentence, delete it, then go for a walk….write, delete, walk…. Then I tackled her, and once I’d invited her in, I really couldn’t shut her up! The key to finding Jane’s voice was her own letters. She says somewhere in her earliest correspondence that she has learned to write as she talks. I took her at her word, and found my own pattern from there. 

Q: Cassandra was a steadfast advocate for her sister’s writing, and some of the most delightful scenes in Miss Austen are when Jane shares new chapters of her latest novels with Cassandra. You yourself come from a family of writers (your brother, Nick, is a novelist and screenwriter, and your husband, Robert Harris, writes thrillers and historical novels). Did you draw on your own family dynamics when crafting this part of Jane and Cassandra’s relationship? And are you, like Jane, eager for feedback on your writing from siblings and family members?

A: It’s very clear that Jane trusted, even prized, Cassandra’s literary judgement, as well as the feedback of her whole family. The fact that she first read her works aloud in the family circle is, I think, one of the keys to her success. It’s just like screen-testing a movie: have we had too long without a laugh? Are they starting to fidget? Did they cry at the end? Jane went through that process with a great gathering of fine Austen minds, and the novels emerged with perfect pacing.

I can’t say we do that in our house—we’re all far too prickly! But I always read Robert’s novels in chunks—quarters or fifths—as he’s going along. And with my first two novels, he did the same for me. But this one was different. I didn’t show it to a soul until it was finished. Cassandra and I were cloistered together for months, and I didn’t want to let anyone else in. I have never known such vulnerability, though, when the time came to share it. I had no idea if it was a disaster or a triumph. At that point, I was very lucky and grateful to have Robert and Nick, and my daughter who now works in publishing, to deliver their trusted judgements. 

Q: This book is, in part, a product of your longtime fascination with and love for Jane Austen. How has she helped inspire your writing over the years, and what does being a Janeite mean to you?

A: When I set about writing my first novel, The Hive, I had no idea how I was supposed to go about it. I had done no creative writing since school, had never done a course—all I had done was read a lot of books and developed a lot of strong opinions. So who should I turn to? It was obvious. “Three or four families in a country village is just the thing to work on,” Jane told me. So that’s what I did. “Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery.” Okay, then. And when I got stuck? “I am in no mood for writing. I must write on until I am.”

Over the years, I have evolved as a Janeite. It used to mean what it means for so many. When we’re down, bored, unchallenged, disconnected or when we just have a free moment, we turn to the novels. They are always there, and we will always find something. But for the last ten years at least, my fascination has included both Jane as an individual and the whole Austen clan. Nothing, to me, is as interesting as family, and the bigger the family, the more interesting it is. You have all the dramas, the alliances, the love, and the heartbreak that you could get from any box set, and the Austens are extraordinary. 

Q: We have to ask—what are you working on next? Are there any other Austen-related projects in your future?

A: I do have a project, which I am quite excited about, but it’s too early in the pregnancy, as it were, to share it at the moment. In the meantime, Miss Austen is being developed for television, and I am involved with that, which means—thank heavens—I don’t have to say farewell to my dear Cassandra quite yet.

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About Miss Austen

For fans of Jo Baker’s Longbourn, a witty, wonderfully original novel about Cassandra Austen and her famous sister, Jane.

Whoever looked at an elderly lady and saw the young heroine she once was?

England, 1840. Two decades after the death of her beloved sister, Jane, Cassandra Austen returns to the village of Kintbury and the home of her family friends, the Fowles. In a dusty corner of the vicarage, there is a cache of Jane’s letters that Cassandra is desperate to find. Dodging her hostess and a meddlesome housemaid, Cassandra eventually hunts down the letters and confronts the secrets they hold, secrets not only about Jane but about Cassandra herself. Will Cassandra bare the most private details of her life to the world, or commit her sister’s legacy to the flames?

Moving back and forth between the vicarage and Cassandra’s vibrant memories of her years with Jane, interwoven with Jane’s brilliantly reimagined lost letters, Miss Austen is the untold story of the most important person in Jane’s life. With extraordinary empathy, emotional complexity, and wit, Gill Hornby finally gives Cassandra her due, bringing to life a woman as captivating as any Austen heroine.

Buy Links

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About the Author

Gill Hornby

Gill Hornby is the author of the novels The Hive and All Together Now, as well as The Story of Jane Austen, a biography of Austen for young readers. She lives in Kintbury, England, with her husband and their four children.

Thanks to Gill Hornby and Flatiron Books for the Q&A, and a big congratulations to Gill on her new release!

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