Deborah Yaffe

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Miss Austen disposes

By Deborah Yaffe, Feb 10 2020 02:00PM

Another day, another Jane Austen event I wish I could attend.


Tomorrow, Gill Hornby, whose new novel Miss Austen explores the relationship between Jane Austen and her older sister, Cassandra, will discuss the book with Helena Kelly, the author of 2016’s controversial Jane Austen, the Secret Radical.


The event will take place in Hungerford, a town in the south-central English county of Berkshire. Hornby -- who is also the author of an Austen biography aimed at tweens, Jane Austen: The Girl with the Golden Pen -- lives in Kintbury, a nearby village the Austen sisters visited. The Kintbury vicarage was the childhood home of Tom Fowle, who was engaged to Cassandra before his tragic death.


Miss Austen sends Cassandra on a visit to the Fowles’ vicarage decades after Jane’s death to hunt down – and possibly destroy -- a trove of her sister’s revealing lost letters. (Don’t we already know how that turned out? Well, I’ll have to read the book to be sure, I guess.)


Perhaps Kelly, whose own book suggests that Austen was a closet subversive who smuggled her incendiary political beliefs into her novels, imagines that the letters Cassandra consigned to the flames contained irrefutable proof of her own thesis.


Personally, I’ve always suspected that there was less to Jane Austen’s burned letters than we’d like to think. Much as we enjoy imagining hidden romances, explosive family scandals, or problematic political opinions, it’s likely that all they contained were some uncharitable remarks that Cassandra feared would hurt the feelings of surviving friends and relatives.


Since we’ll never know for sure, though, it’s fun to conjure up a more exciting explanation, and I’m looking forward to reading Hornby’s book when it’s published here in April.


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