Sophia Hillan begins each chapter in her study of Jane Austen's extended family and its connection to nineteenth-century Ireland with a quotation from one of Austen's novels, often using it as a clue to the drama that will unfold. She goes on to make parallels between many of the experiences of Jane Austen's nieces, Marianne Knight, Louisa Hill, and Cassandra Jane Hill (known as May, Lou, and Cass respectively) with characters from Austen's Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, and Persuasion—and in doing so, highlights the claim that fact can often be stranger than fiction. Hillan is an accomplished fiction writer, and as such, she is sensitive not only to the inspirational give-and-take between reality and invention, but also to the challenges and joys of being a writer—both as a novelist as Jane Austen was, and also as a "lay writer" like her nieces, who composed witty, heartfelt letters to numerous family and friends. Hillan's biography of the Austen family reads like an epistolary novel where the reader can hear the distinct voices of each "character."
Hillan's introduction creates the "Janeite" base for the biography by revealing details about Jane Austen's final eight years at Chawton Cottage in Hampshire, and the close ties she had with her nieces and nephews to whom she devoted herself during visits. Alongside these idyllic memories of a fun and talented "maiden aunt," Hillan simultaneously shows the precarious existence of many unmarried women who were at the financial mercy of their male relatives. For Austen, the decision of where to live and with whom fell to her brother Edward Austen (who changed his name to Knight in 1812). While Edward settled at the Godmersham estate near Canterbury with his wife, Elizabeth Bridges, to start their prolific family of eleven children (including the three who are the focus of this book), Austen was situated at Chawton after many uncomfortable and uncertain years of roaming. Austen spent much time entertaining Edward's children, more so after Elizabeth's death in 1808, occurring when the oldest daughter Fanny was barely into her teens. In addition to comforting them in their grief, Austen took the children on trips to the theater in Covent Garden and to the dentist—bowing out herself in the latter. Austen is remembered fondly by her nieces for the occasions when she would read to them from her manuscripts, a privilege Marianne and Louisa were unfortunately too young to enjoy.
As Austen grew older, and her health became increasingly frail, the visits from Edward's family became fewer. Edward, dealing with his own financial hardships, focused more attention on his eldest children entering the marriage market successfully—that is, marrying into money. Although Jane Austen was ill and near death, the Godmersham family prepared for the holidays [End Page 155] or traveled to Paris. Despite this seeming indifference to Austen's decline, the nieces felt the loss of their beloved aunt keenly, and in the next decade their lives would uncannily parallel those of the characters their aunt so poignantly captured in her prose.
In the second and third chapters Hillan examines a dizzying array of proposals, rejections, courtships, and marriages for the Knight nieces. The courtships are frequently juxtaposed with scenes and characters from Austen's novels, and this is where a devoted Austen fan will have their reading pleasure intensified by being able to recognize the parallels and then create some of their own. Yes, readers may well find themselves nodding, "this is exactly like Captain Wentworth and Anne Elliot." Marianne, or May, was courted by a cousin James Edward, but could not marry him due to his lack of money. While Hillan compares Edward James to Edward Ferrars from Sense and Sensibility, Marianne is contrasted with both Elizabeth Bennet from Pride and Prejudice and eventually Anne Elliot of Persuasion as marriage proposals for her slow, and she takes on the responsibility of running the Knight household, looking after...