This is the fourth Helen Ashton novel that I have read, and I have to start by explaining that my feelings about Parson Austen’s Daughter are a little mixed. Firstly, those other Helen Ashton novels concerned houses, architecture and the life of a hospital, all of which Ashton does appear to have been particularly good at writing about. Parson Austen’s Daughter is a fictional account of the life of Jane Austen – although much of the focus of the novel is on the lives of her siblings. Ashton does manage to inject some lovely architectural details into the stories of the places the Austen family live. She sets her novel firmly within the historical context of the times, and so we experience the French Terror and long Napoleonic wars though the eyes of her characters. I think one of the slight problems with this novel is that we already think we know Jane Austen – only our knowledge is from biographies and letters, so somehow even though Ashton is a very good writer – the Jane who emerges from this novel is just a little too flat. Still I don’t want to rubbish the book, it may not be her best novel, it is very readable and engaging, well written and compelling.
“When Cassandra Austen was an old woman, she would sit and remember Steventon. Whether by her own fireside at Chawton Cottage, or in the library of her nephew’s fine house at Godmersham in Kent, or in the sunny window at Portsdown Lodge, visiting her brother the Admiral, she would fold her hands on the lap of her black satin gown under her cashmere shawl, close eyes, nod her head a little and let her mind run back into the past.”
The novel takes us from the year of Jane’s birth in 1775 to her death in 1817. Jane and Cassandra are portrayed as close, quite devoted sisters, who stay pretty close to home after their brothers leave for school or the navy. Visits to family members are made frequently – but the lives of the two sisters are busy enough at Steventon, their father a much respected Parson, treated like a squire by the locals. In time Jane’s elder brother comes into the curacy at his father’s second church, and in time steps into his shoes at Steventon.
One of the fun aspects of this novel for readers who know their Jane Austen novels well is to find – in the characters of Jane’s family – the traits and likenesses of the characters she later wrote about. We see for example in the character of James’s second wife a woman at times reminiscent of Mrs John Dashwood from Sense and Sensibility. Another sister in law Eliza was such a colourful character that she must have provided Jane with plenty of inspiration. One brother is taken into the home of rich relatives, his future assured, while another – Frank Austen – goes off to sea at a very tender seeming age. So those wars which sometimes seem conspicuous by their absence in Jane’s novels obviously loomed very large in her life and that of her family.
Jane is known by her family and friends for being sharp, a good storyteller, but as she starts her writing a little more seriously, only Cassandra and one or two others know about her ‘scribbling’. Using the small amounts of spare time she has to write to the best of her ability, Jane often shares her stories with her sister and later with her adored niece Fanny. Time and again Jane would have to lay aside her writing, often for long periods, but she finished eventually reading them aloud to her delighted father. It took a long time for her books to start appearing, and despite their enormous popularity Jane remained shy of her writing and all the fuss they produced.
Ashton does do a very good job at portraying the terrible heartbreaks suffered both Cassandra and Jane – they both knew what it was to be disappointed in love, to grieve for men they had hoped to find happiness with. Here Jane is shown to have eventually become a little cynical about romance, and the realities of a woman’s lot. No one could really blame her, aside from her own and Cassandra’s heartbreak she watched sister in laws die in child birth, while she and Cassandra had to endure teasing from middle aged matrons about their own dashed hopes of marriage and motherhood. However, we also see how absolutely devoted to her family Jane was, how her nieces and nephews grew up to love and feel true pride in their beloved Aunt Jane.
Over their lifetimes Jane and Cassandra lived in lots of houses, they stayed with relatives and of course spent some years in Bath. Steventon, Bath, holidays in Sidmouth Ashton does a good job at bringing these places to life.
“They remained in Sidmouth for two weeks, until Mr Austen was fit to travel. It was a pretty innocent fishing village, struggling to turn itself into a watering place, with one or two bathing-machines and a circulating library.”
I can’t help but wonder why Helen Ashton chose to write about the Austen family – a fascination I presume – but perhaps other subjects suited her slightly better. I enjoyed meeting the other members of the Austen family who perhaps don’t feature so prominently in the biographies of Jane Austen’s life. Actually Ashton squeezes a lot of fascinating stories about this family into her novel – some stories I already knew from biographies, and others I either had forgotten or didn’t know. I still think Helen Ashton is a very good writer, and I shall continue to seek out these old books by her.