Cassandra and Jane by Jill Pitkeathley

The Prologue establishes Cassandra Austen, Jane’s beloved older sister, as the narrator of our tale—just as she is about to begin the burning of the letters, an event that, even 200 years later, makes Janeites angry, sad, irritated, or some combination of these feelings. Cass says she’s burning the letters to protect Jane’s secrets (which makes her subsequent delineation of what those include a bit difficult to understand). The sensitive reader can simultaneously sympathize with this choice, and bemoan it. Thus begins a narrative not only of Jane Austen’s life, from the person (besides Jane) best able to describe it, but also of Cassandra, made a public name because of her famous sister.

At first, Cassandra & Jane is more an interesting, than a fun, read. We learn that newborn babies in families of the Austen ilk were sent away to be nursed, and often returned home only when a new baby necessitated the nurse. Cassandra becomes almost immediately protective of baby Jane as she becomes aware that their mother (also named Cassandra, but here called Mrs. Austen) doesn’t much like the newcomer. We learn why the girls were sent away to school (Mrs. Austen caught Cass riding a horse by straddling it, so, concerned lest her daughter continue to manifest boyish behavior, Mrs. Austen resolved to send her to a finishing school of sorts, only to have young Jane beg to accompany her elder sister). The instructor tells Cass, with no small degree of irony, that she should care for Jane if Jane longs for her mother (which we already know is highly unlikely). When the girls get sick, their cousin Jane has to sneak a letter home to inform their families, which ends up saving them (and killing cousin Jane’s mother). What Cassandra & Jane does, then, is not present new information as much as it provides reasons, background information, as to how the facts that we know occurred, happened to occur.

There are a few awkward moments in the text: At one point, Cassandra seems to slip into conversation directly with Jane (p. 14) and to ask rhetorically if Jane praised her because Jane knew how much “less a person” Cass was. In what way was Cassandra less a person? This moment feels unnecessarily dramatic. Cass later discusses their rustic ways as being a problem for the girls once they were made aware of their relative lack of sophistication; I don’t think most readers would suspect Jane Austen as having any lack of sophistication, so this reading posed some problems for me. At another time, the narrator calls Eliza, Aunt Philly’s daughter, “my Eliza,” which seems odd given Jane’s much closer relationship to Eliza and Cass’s distance from her. After losing Tom, Cassie declares she will never love again; how can she know such a thing? And if it’s just her dramatic feelings in the immediate aftermath of the loss, why does she never again attempt love? With respect to Jane, immediately after accepting Harris Bigg-Wither, she chats with Cassandra about it and seems to be struck—for the first time—by the loathsome task of sharing a bedroom with Harris; how could this occur to her only for the first time? Did young ladies know so little about marital relations? Later, when Jane is a successful writer, Cassandra worries about Jane having her own house, but why is unclear since, no doubt, Cassandra would live with her sister. (Jane says as much almost immediately, so what is the foundation for this concern?) The text also makes Jane out to be sometimes annoying centered on her own problems and emotions, so while her intellect and sensitivity at some times appear to flatter her, those former characteristics certainly don’t; if that’s the case, and if Cassandra wanted to burn letters that make Jane look less than stellar, why share these thoughts with us now? Is this supposed to be a diary, or a tell-all? Whom does our narrator think she is addressing?

Despite some awkwardness, the text soon shifts from merely interesting to almost fun. We are, after all, hobnobbing with Jane Austen, through a medium I don’t think we’ve seen before: the perspective of her older, quieter sister. We see how much happiness theatricals bring to the family circle. We can laugh that Jane actually instructs Cass to cut out the racier parts of her letters. And certainly we enjoy the multiple lines from Austen’s works appearing in her life, both before and after they appear in her journals. The texts then, seem to come from her life, but also to inspire new parts of her life. Or maybe the revisions of the early works include material that, by the time of the revisions, had happened in her actual life, and those changes make the books the best-sellers they become?

Jane Austen voices Mr. Bennet’s line about enjoying “sport” from our neighbors. Eliza seems to be a Charlotte figure with marriage #1, marrying more for convenience than for anything else; so, too, does Jane Cooper summon visions of Charlotte in being pretty but not too clever (rather the reverse of Charlotte, but with the same approval by people close to her as a result of this lack of competition). Eliza later seems to be the model for Elizabeth Bennet, in terms of her feisty spirit, and for Mary Crawford (the latter speculation comes from my analysis, not Cassandra’s, which only proves that the spirit of the book’s narrator has pulled me in J). Mr. Fowle, Cassandra’s fiancé, inspires Edmund Bertram. The Reverend Austen’s reaction to Mr. Fowle’s proposal strongly resembles Mr. Bennet’s to Darcy’s. Mr. Atkins seems to be responsible for Edmund, too, and Charles Austen’s amber crosses to his sisters get echoed in William Price’s to Fanny. Jane longs for control over her own life, and so gives it to Lady Susan. Jane also fears, and regularly contemplates, becoming a governess, much as Jane Fairfax does in Emma. She, unlike her more conventional sister, imagines other career options for women besides wife and mother, and Cass doesn’t realize until later that Jane might have done quite well as a mother, despite early irritation at the hypochondria of their mother (nicely echoed in Mary Musgrove and Lady Bertram, and many characters in Sanditon). The grand estates of the novels, including Pemberley and Hartfield, owe a lot of Godmersham, where Jane and Cassandra spent time while tending to Edward’s wife and children. Anna marries a Lefroy, and even her grandma, Mrs. Austen, is not invited to the wedding; certainly her stepmother and weak father are the models for Fanny Dashwood and whatever her husband’s name is.

The bonds between sisters in the novels are even more fascinating if we examine them with the additional lens of the Jane/Cassandra relationship. Cassandra has a strong negative reaction to the nasty sisters in “The Watsons,” a fragment Jane never finished because, according to this text, she received such negative feedback. Jane bases Marianne Dashwood on herself and Elinor on Cassie, which seemed initially anathema to all I had assumed about Jane, but which works with the development Pitkeathley gives it (Jane looks rather selfish but also romantic and passionate). Jane becomes a prototype for Jane Bennet after Bingley leaves her, and her disappointed hopes lead to public discussion; Cassandra asks Jane to name this character after Jane herself, though it soon seems clear that the personality that most resembles Jane Austen’s is Elizabeth Bennet (of the daughters, and Mr. Bennet, of them all). Cassandra, of course, is the Austen sister who likes everyone and who quietly reflects on what her younger sister more boldly states, much more like Jane Bennet than Jane Austen herself. So this novel, then, offers some new and some familiar takes on who was the model for each of our various characters.

The various lovers of Jane and Cassandra have been explored in other books and films, but I enjoyed Pitkeathley’s handling of both Tom Lefroy and George Atkins. Cass brings up the possibility that Jane might more readily never marry once she knew Cassandra would never leave her, but this reader suspects that fear of childbirth and desire to stay by Cass’s side would not have completely squashed Jane’s romantic spirit had other circumstances been conducive to a companionate, comfortable marriage.

At times, especially towards the beginning, I found myself assuming the narrator was Jane and then had to remind myself that she is a very different creature—certainly a new twist in our world. Cass’s narrations provide a different sort of information than Jane herself might have provided. Cass, for instance, explains why none of Jane’s compositions was dedicated to their mother, and is a witness to history when Jane predicts her success with the mahogany writing desk her father gives her.

As Jane and Cassandra age together, we see the changes that befall our Jane through Cassandra’s eyes. Looking back on her sister’s life after her sister’s death, Cassandra regrets leaving Jane at home alone to cope with the news that the family was moving to Bath. This disaster for Jane affected her writing, which we already know, but also her spirits, which Cassandra’s tale helps us imagine more clearly. The absence of letters from this time is explained by Cassandra’s describing Jane as more depressed and bitter than usual because of this disruption in her life with no voice in any of it. Cass didn’t want other people to see this “private” side of Jane. Jane’s character sees things differently during this dark time, so much so that, according to Cassandra, Jane called Elizabeth Bennet “stupidly” confident (I’m more motivated to reread the letters to investigate this claim).

The move to Chawton, by contrast, brings with it hope and some degree of control over their own lives. We are reminded that Cassandra and Jane both escape the fate of so many women (Edward was the only healthy brother not to marry twice? That’s how common death in childbirth was?) of their era. Henry pays to have Sense and Sensibility published, which leads to mixed feelings in Cassandra once again; she is happy for Jane and relived at the restoration of Jane’s spirits, but she is also concerned about the apparent widening gulf between them. Jane, in fact, quite enjoys the accidental revelation of her identity to the adoring public, for many reasons, not least of which is the likelihood that Tom Lefroy will hear of her success. When the Prince Regent requests Jane’s dedication and writes it for her, she is not thrilled except that the request will impress her mom (with the aristocratic nose) and probably sell more books. At this high point in Jane’s career, Cassandra tells us they have about two years of happiness left.

The dying scenes are heart-wrenching. When Mrs. Austen speaks kindly to Jane, Jane jokes with Cassandra that she won’t speculate as to why now; Jane knows she’s dying, and she stays funny, despite her pain. Jane Austen dies with her head on a pillow in Cassandra’s lap, and if you aren’t crying when you read this scene, you don’t love Jane the way you should.

In the aftermath, Cassandra explains why Winchester Cathedral instead of Chawton, next to the places for her sister and mother; how the burning of the letters becomes a gift of “control in death that she lacked in life”; and the ironic heartache that Cassandra was not even permitted to attend the funeral. When Cassandra speaks of seeing Jane’s face for the last time, the reader cannot help but be struck that no one will ever see Jane Austen’s face again on earth. Cassandra does leave open the possibility, however, that, somewhere, in the collections of the descendants of the Austen boys and of the women Jane Austen befriended, there may exist a lock of her hair.

Published in: on July 20, 2010 at 3:57 pm  Comments (2)  

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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Wow! I thought my review were detailed. You put me to shame.

    I read this about 2 years ago and enjoyed it. You discovered its flaws too. Regarding Cassandra proclaiming never to love again after the loss of her fiance, it does seem overly dramatic for someone of her temperament, but she was a young women in love and in loss. (one never expects Cassandra to pull a Marianne Dashwood)

    Thanks for sharing, Laurel Ann

    • Thanks, Laurel Ann!

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