Series Alert! I am so excited to start my first series on the blog. Since my birthday just went by on Christmas Eve, I received several books as gifts (which is honestly the best gift you can give me) and, reading them and reviewing them feels a lot more special than it normally would. So, let this review mark the beginning of the series- Birthday Bookshelf! Shoutout to my dad for this book:)
At first glance, my brain automatically thought of Jane on reading Austen. But, the book is in fact about Jane’s sister- Cassandra Austen: The dutiful, compassionate, often undermined eldest daughter of the Austen clan. I love reading about the sidekicks of history’s heroes- the shaping factors and often only supporters in the idols’ lives. Like Patroclus for Achilles and in the case of this book, Cassandra for Jane. The book is told from Cassandra’s point of view. Cassandra and Jane were very close, they had the kind of bond that even reading about makes you smile, they were each the other’s confidante and best friend. So, it was pretty much decided that Cassandra was to be the executor of Jane’s literary estate.
The basis of the book was one of Cassandra’s doings as executor, which was that she burned some of Jane Austen’s letters. This is something that has set historians and scholars against her for years because those letters would be priceless in this day and age. The book revolves around a few months in Cassandra’s life as an old woman, where she comes to her (and Jane’s) best friend’s home to find the letters. As she reads them, they take her back to her youth and bring back fond memories of her life and her sister as well as some painful memories she’d wished to forget. Towards the end of the book, it’s understandable why Cassy chose to burn those letters. You resonate with her as she simply performed her duties as executor and chose to maintain her sister’s perfect image at a time when her novels were just beginning to flourish and a lot of vengeful folks would do anything to bring her down using somewhat controversial aspects of her life.
That being said, this book is an ode to the Jane Austen style of writing and the setting and way of life described was exactly like the kind in her novels. Throughout the book, I drew many parallels between the happenings of the life of Jane Austen and that of her characters. For instance, Cassy and Jane Austen’s relationship and their personalities seemed immensely similar to Jane and Elizabeth Bennet from Pride and Prejudice. It goes to show how she took inspiration from her world and expressed it so well.
The main focus of the book is Cassy though, and I adored her. Cassandra Austen was the more popular sister in society. She was ever-ready to help anyone who needed it and being dutiful and loyal towards her family was what she took pride in. She did have her share of difficulties though and there was this phase in the book where it felt like nothing seemed to work out in her favor and she became a pushover of sorts. It saddened me to see that even though she helped everyone, she never received any gratitude in return. However, things did pick up towards the end and I could not put the book down. The best part of the book was seeing the situation through the hopeful perspective of Cassandra. Making the reader feel what you’re writing about is hard, so kudos to the author for making me nostalgic when Cassy thought of her family and pensive when she described what women, especially unmarried women went through and how she wished people understood that she was happy even without a husband.
The book dwells upon themes of family, love, faith- which we often forget how simple yet fulfilling can be. Another theme that the book often mentioned but didn’t entirely focus on was that of women, especially in the Austen sisters’ time being ignored. Cassandra talks of how she read novels of men and their terrible lives but never of the difficulties in society or even in their homes that women went through. To an extent, I think the popularity of Jane Austen’s novels increased for that reason. Women longed to be represented, to see main characters they relate to. Jane Austen gave them that, she told their story for a change.
The letters included in the book are fictional and written by Gill Hornby. This was a fact I did not know until I read the Author’s Note at the end and I was surprised that Jane’s essence was captured so well, the words felt real. I adored the Austens as a family, they supported Jane and Cassandra in every way and were in general a vibrant family. I will admit though, that at some points this book was slow and there wasn’t anything interesting happening. Some parts just seemed unnecessary.
There have been many retellings about Jane Austen’s life but this was a fresh perspective because Cassandra saw Jane’s mistakes, saw everyone’s mistakes but remained admiring of them. They don’t become lesser in her eyes, or yours instead you resonate with them. That’s what I found unique about Cassy’s character.
Final thoughts- This book answered many questions about the misses Austen’s lives. It showed us why Cassy burned some of her sister’s letters, it showed us how Jane became what she became and who got her there. Cassy was defined (back then) by the fact that she never married, so were a lot of the other characters we read about. The book shows us that there was so much more to her, to them than that. Lastly, Miss Austen shows us why Jane called Cassandra the sunshine of her life. It also highlights how you can find perfection in imperfection, happiness in mundanity. Even if this book, doesn’t scream a strong message, it makes you smile and is the perfect light and winter read. If you’re looking for a book to snuggle up with, this one’s for you!
“Happy endings are there for us somewhere, woven into the mix of life’s fabric. We just have to search the detail, follow the pattern, to find the one that should be our own. ”
~ Gill Hornby, Miss Austen.
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