SCAN Book Club: Miss Austen by Gill Hornby

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Disclaimer: at risk of bias, I really like Jane Austen. Luckily for me and, possibly, for you, Gill Hornby really, really likes Jane Austen.

Her latest, though, isn’t really about the snarkiest writer of her century (you know it’s true, Oscar Wilde fans) at all. Who Gill Hornby really, really, really likes is Charlotte Austen, the real, historical “Miss Austen”, and it’s clearer after reading this why she’s barely ever heard of. As her first reader, first critic, greatest friend, and beloved sister, Charlotte’s life was to be a vital shadow to Jane. Miss Austen helps us realise that she wouldn’t have had it any other way, and explores, quietly and tenderly, what it means to fall willingly between the cracks of someone else’s life. It’s a book about sacrifice, devotion, and memory – and the price of a life in service to all three.

Beginning in 1840, Charlotte has the task of tracking down what’s left of Jane’s private letters long after her death, and on her last requests, burning them. What follows as Charlotte switches back and forth between youth and age, time with her sister and without, is very much in Jane Austen’s spirit. It’s tentative at times but pulls together as a nonetheless subtle deconstruction of what makes Jane’s novels tick: the stripping away of your self-concept and all its privilege, pride, and persistent illusions. Jumping in and out of the epistolary odyssey of Jane’s final letters like this, even invented ones, allows Hornby to tackle the ebb and flow of disconnect between a present and a past split by the narrative of your own life and the narrative you give others’ too, somehow, hold it all together. Comparable to The Remains of the Day or The Sense of an Ending in its depiction of age, dignity, and the slow fading of youth, Charlotte’s character in her sister’s literary fashioning can’t escape the plague of self-accusation that comes with untimely remembrance. 

Her life, however much she denies it, is a short and bitter tragedy. Her husband-to-be, once resident of the house she scours for the sake of Jane’s (or her own) protection, died before their marriage; as Charlotte may still choose to forget the brutality of her grief, there may be more in her sister’s letters she’d rather have her reputation kept at a distance from. The book’s edge teeters on a point between whether forgotten figures like Charlotte are, truly, guardians or gatekeepers. By its end, Miss Austen turns out to be a raw and sombre take on the “pursuit of happiness” plot that Austen’s work (especially Persuasion, which you should start with, and goes hand-in-hand as a coda to this) was so well regarded for deconstructing, reinventing, and reforming. Gill Hornby has helped us realise what goes in a “classic”, and how much we take for granted the miracle that some of them manage to survive in the way we know them – and in the ways, we never thought we could.

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