20 September 2023

Review: Miss Austen by Gill Hornby

Miss Austen by Gill Hornby book cover

I totally fell in love with the creative process behind the embroidered cover design for Miss Austen by Gill Hornby after watching this video created by Chloe Giordano.

I've been stitching - mostly cross stitch - on and off for years and Miss Austen was a complete cover buy. I hardly ever pre-order books, but went all out to pre-order this Waterstones signed hardback edition, with dust jacket showing the reverse of the embroidered fabric (so clever), sprayed edges and stunning endpapers. You can see a flip through of the book here.

Chloe Giordano went on to design and stitch the embroidered cover for Godmersham Park by Gill Hornby and I really admire the publisher for seeking a different design style and process for these historical fiction novels.

Miss Austen by Gill Hornby is a novel of the Austen sisters, focussing on Cassandra Austen. Being unfamiliar with the members of the Austen family and in-laws, the handy family list at the beginning of the novel was immensely helpful and I constantly needed to flip back to refer to it.
"And she decided that other families must be one of life's most unfathomable mysteries. It was no use sitting as an outsider and even trying to fathom them. One could have no idea of what it must be like to be in there, on the inside. She would share that thought later in her letter to Jane." Page 69
The primary thrust of the novel is discovering why Cassandra Austen burned so many of her sister Jane Austen's letters, thus depriving future readers and scholars from reading her words. The dialogue is witty and enjoyable, and despite only having read one book by Jane Austen, felt authentic to her writing style.
"Half of Caroline's story was plainly ridiculous. The girl had always had a strong imagination, as well as a talent for embroidery, and was employing both quite liberally here." Page 161
'Well, what a lovely confection of nothing at all that was, my dear,' she began... 'Most charming, indeed; so charming I almost wish it had happened.' Page 161
The bond between Jane and Cassandra ran deep, with both seeming to sacrifice their happiness and future prospects for one another. The lack of female agency, the bonds of family and the relationships between women formed the base of this historical fiction novel:
"Now, here, in this vicarage, Cassandra had found another; most unexpected, excellent woman. She had quite forgotten the feeling, that deep, joyful and satisfying feeling brought by good feminine companionship. What a blessing to enjoy it once more." Page 170
In reflecting on Jane's death, the author highlights the importance of inheritance and legacy, noting:
"... 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. The preserves in the larder, the stitch on the kneeler. The mark of the pen on the page." Page 20
Jane's temperament and moods were mentioned throughout Miss Austen, although I'm lacking any opinion as to how close to her true medical history the author was steering us. Having only read Pride and Prejudice, I felt somewhat ill prepared and poorly equipped to enjoy all of the subtleties and easter eggs no doubt on offer here in Miss Austen.

Fans familiar with the Austen canon or the author's life in any detail, will no doubt recognise plot points, locations (Godmersham Park, Chawton House), family members, engagements, marriages and deaths mentioned throughout, however these were unfortunately lost on me.

Not knowing how much of the narrative in Miss Austen is based on history and fact and how much was fictionalised, I wasn't able to enjoy the novel at the level it was intended. Instead, I chose to read Miss Austen as a stand-alone novel of sorts, knowing as I did so that I was missing many layers by being unfamiliar with the Austen canon. 

The constant moving of the family members was a surprise although I did enjoy Mrs Austen's dialogue, especially when it concerned her own health:
'My bowels feel much steadier now, thanks be to the Lord, after what was, as you of all people know, Cass, the most frightful evacuation. I think I shall like this apothecary. He has a good feel for my system.' Page 198
Love it! Miss Austen by Gill Hornby will be remembered by this reader for having one of the most attractive cover designs I've seen and was an enjoyable read.

My Rating:

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