In 1843, two years before her death at the age of seventy-two, Cassandra Austen told her brother Charles that she had been ‘looking over & destroying some of my Papers’, but was keeping ‘a few letters & a few Manuscripts of our dear Jane, which I have set apart for those parties to whom I think they will be mostly valuable’. What survived the bonfires makes pretty thin reading, and Jane Austen devotees have often speculated about the lost bits of the record. Was the great satirist really such a bland homebody? How could she have concocted some of the world’s favourite love stories and never been passionately in love herself? Was there not a Darcy, a Knightley, or (more likely) an Edmund Bertram or Captain Wentworth lurking in her own past?
Gill Hornby has taken these questions and turned them, delightfully and ingeniously, into a novel written from the point of view of the lesser-known Miss Austen, using the relationship between the sisters as a key to the novelist’s sensibility. The story starts with, and circles around, Cassandra’s engagement to Tom Fowle in 1795, when everything looked on course for a traditional happy ending. But Tom’s sudden death in the West Indies plunged Cassandra into a sort of singleton widowhood, following which her sister Jane, equally loyal and intransigent, resolved to remain her companion. They stayed together ever after, an arrangement that proved more successful than most marriages; Cassandra had a small legacy that made her almost independent and Jane was able to pursue in peace her strange desire to write novels.