Due to the perennial popularity of Jane Austen, An Interview with Jane Austen, remains my most read post to date, but the topic of today’s blog is her much neglected sister, Cassandra Austen – keeper of the flame or literary arsonist, depending on your point of view.
While Jane Austen died relatively young (age 41 – 1817) after enjoying a few years of moderate publishing success, her sister Cassandra lived until old age, (age 72 -1845), long enough to know that Jane’s fame would long outlive her. Cassandra died a decade before her nephew James wrote his famous biography about his aunt which served to revive her popularity but also enshrined her reputation as a sweet and pleasant old maid. Jane’s letters told another story – witty and often full of satire and snark, they revealed a side of Jane’s personality that Cassandra felt was best forgotten….and so she destroyed 400 of them in the years before her death. One can assume that Cassandra thought she was doing the right thing in preserving Jane’s legacy, but what Janeite scholars wouldn’t give for those letters! Only 160 survive and they provide the most revealing glimpses into her personality.
But what do we know about Cassandra? Separated by two years, Cassandra was the responsible older sister, to Jane’s more sparkling and clever personality. They were close, the only girls in a large family, with her mother famously remarking that if Cassandra decided to cut her head off, Jane would too. Their father believed in education, and they spent time away in boarding schools, as well as learning at home where he ran a boy’s boarding school to supplement his vicar’s income. It was here that Cassandra met her future fiance, the young reverend Tom Fowle of KINTBURY. They were considered an ideal match, but as he was in need of money for the marriage, he signed on as a ship’s chaplain on a voyage to the West Indies and died there of yellow fever. Cassandra was heartbroken and like Jane, never married, sharing a household with her sister and parents for the remainder of her life, first in Bath and then later after their father’s death, at Chawton Cottage.
Cassandra spent a considerable amount of time at her brother’s houses assisting with childbirth (two of her SIL’s had eleven children), so the letters flew back and forth between the sisters and other family members. Cassandra was the quiet capable one. It was commonly acknowledged that she ran the Chawton household, which allowed Jane the time to write in her later years. She was also the prettier of the two (the old pretty vs smart debate), and as a watercolorist, her two drawings of Jane provide the only evidence we have of her appearance.
As for Cassandra herself, there is only a black and white silhouette, as seen in this Ten Things to Know About Cassandra article. (link)
These are the bare facts of Cassandra’s life and about all you will get in most biographies of Jane Austen, but doesn’t it leave you curious about Cassandra? Although history relegates her to a shadowy supporting figure, did she have her own story to tell, as Gill Hornby, the author of Miss Austen, writes.
Whoever looked at an elderly lady and saw the young heroine she once was?
England, 1840. For the two decades following the death of her beloved sister, Jane, Cassandra Austen has lived alone, spending her days visiting friends and relations and quietly, purposefully working to preserve her sister’s reputation. Now in her sixties and increasingly frail, Cassandra goes to stay with the Fowles of Kintbury, family of her long-dead fiancé, in search of a trove of Jane’s letters. Dodging her hostess and a meddlesome housemaid, Cassandra eventually hunts down the letters and confronts the secrets they hold, secrets not only about Jane but about Cassandra herself. Will Cassandra bare the most private details of her life to the world, or commit her sister’s legacy to the flames?
Moving back and forth between the vicarage and Cassandra’s vibrant memories of her years with Jane, interwoven with Jane’s brilliantly reimagined lost letters, Miss Austen is the untold story of the most important person in Jane’s life. With extraordinary empathy, emotional complexity, and wit, Gill Hornby finally gives Cassandra her due, bringing to life a woman as captivating as any Austen heroine.
About the Author: Gill Hornby is the author of two novels, as well as The Story of Jane Austen, a biography of Austen for young readers. She lives in Kintbury, England with her husband and children.
After noting that the author lived in Kintbury, I was inspired to find out more about her and found this fascinating article about how the book came to be. (link) After moving to the village she discovered that she lived on the site of the old Fowle vicarage, the home of Cassandra’s fiance. In a bit of serendipity, she was asked to write a book about Jane Austen for young readers and was drawn into Cassandra’s story. Enjoying the same scenery that Cassandra had once viewed, the author found she began to haunt her mind – perhaps her ghost was lingering about the place, asking for her story to be told, longing for a bit of notoriety for herself.
As a fan familiar with all things Austen, I found this book intriguing. Of course, it’s historical fiction, an imagining of someone’s life, but it was surprisingly well researched and well done, which made it a believable read.
The story is told from the point of view of Cassandra in her old age, re-visiting the Fowle vicarage after the death of her fiance’s brother in order to retrieve both her and Jane’s letters to his wife Eliza. Interspersed are flashback chapters to the time of her engagement and subsequent grief (1795), their years in Bath where her parents retired with the added hope of finding husbands for the girls (1805), and their years alone in Chawton cottage (1913). Instead of focusing on Jane’s alleged romantic affairs, this time it is Cassandra who takes centre stage, but after meeting the perfect man at a seaside resort, Cassandra turns him down. (It never fails to amaze me how three promenades in the company of family chaperones could net a marriage proposal, but for the sake of the plot it works.)
The dialogue and letters captured the spirit of a Jane Austen novel, and in some cases exceeded it. Here are a few excerpts. “ Once home, Jane at once sat down to her writing with an air of great satisfaction. She had repulsed Mr. Hobday with an expert efficiency. She could return to her invented world.” Of course ,Jane knows it is really Cassandra he is interested in. “What matters a bad sister off in the background.…I am quite sure I saw sparks flying off him. I think one caught my bonnet. Because of you and your charms, I might have gone up in smoke.”
The author presents some perfectly plausible explanations for certain episodes in Jane’s life, such as her one and only marriage proposal. (see link to post by Caroline, JA’s great niece). When Cassandra refuses her suitor, Jane accepts a marriage proposal from Mr. Wrong in Every Way, hoping that seeing her settled will free her sister to marry herself, but changes her mind when she realizes Cassandra has no wish to marry. This decision, hastily reversed the following day after a sleepless night, has long remained a puzzle considering Jane’s well known opinion on marrying for love.
Why did Cassandra reject Mr. Right’s proposal? After the death of her fiance she had made a pact with a vengeful God never to marry again. While spending a very quiet Christmas with her mild-mannered fiancé and his family at the Fowle rectory she realizes she has doubts, and after his death, felt those doubts were a curse of sorts. (Her fiancé had left her a small legacy which might have compounded her guilt). Or was the pledge just an excuse when the truth was she missed her sister and her boisterous Austen family and didn’t want to be so far away from home. Perhaps it was not true love after all but a long held expectation?
Although marriage might have been an ideal and an economic necessity for women of the time, it also meant motherhood and a high risk of death in childbirth. Two of her SIL’s died shortly after birthing their eleventh child and Cassandra was often called in to help care for the children. Being an aunt in those days might have seemed the safer occupation.
The sub plot of the novel concerns what will happen to the three spinster Fowle daughters after their father’s death when they must vacate their own vicarage. The plight of the spinster in Austen’s world was often the centre of Jane’s books, but wasn’t it possible to forge a purposeful, happy and contented life without a husband or children, as the author illustrates?
As an aging and joyless spinster Cassandra knew well that she was made fun of, but perhaps she destroyed the letters, as much to protect her own story as to hide certain aspects of Jane’s. The other spectre raised is that of Jane’s moods and bouts of melancholy, and this is surely an interesting aspect and pure conjecture as I have never heard reference to such, but it has been the downside of many a brilliant and creative mind, particularly those who seek fame and success.
“Of course, their cottage (Chawton) had been a place of great joy when they had lived there together. But that joyfulness was Jane’s natural and dominant emotion was far from the truth. Oh the power upon reputation brought by an untimely death and a modicum of fame and success! Still, she thought as she gathered her things, she would not contest that legend, if that was what they chose to send out to posterity. The moodless Jane Austen. What a splendid image. She rose from her chair. Now it only remained to destroy all evidence to the contrary.”
Reading through the letters she notes, “She stumbled across references to Jane’s high spirits, remembered and smiled. That those spirits were, sometimes, perhaps too high, that the happiness had an almost hysterical edge to it, that this tended to happen when they were in the comfort of the stable established homes of their family and friends, these were not observations that Cassandra had shared with Eliza. She had chosen to keep them to herself. But the other extreme of Jane’s temperament, the seemingly endless days in the darkness, these she had written of, for she had to tell someone. Cassandra licked a finger and flicked through, searching for the letters of danger. There. January 1805. That was where it all began…..” According to the book, their father’s death started Jane’s downward spiral into despondency, and indeed those were years when she wrote nothing at all.
As a beloved and devoted sister and best friend, Cassandra knew that Jane would not, could not write again, until she was settled into a home of her own, so she hinted to her rich brother Edward, who owned several estates, including Godmersham Park, that they needed a place of their own – Chawton Cottage was offered and accepted, and Jane began to write and revise and publish, and the rest is history.
After Jane’s death, Cassandra wrote, “I have lost a treasure, such a sister, such a friend as never can have been surpassed. She was the sun of my life, the gilder of every pleasure, the soother of every sorrow; I had not a thought concealed from her, and it is as if I had lost a part of myself.”
Such a close sisterly bond is a rare and wonderful thing, so perhaps that fateful bonfire was Cassandra’s final gift to Jane after all. They were private people, and would remain private for eternity, and doesn’t that add to the mystique?
Author’s Note: “It is a matter of family record that, in the last years of her life, Cassandra Austen looked over the letters that she and her sister had exchanged. All those she found open and confidential – the majority of them, then – she burned. We cannot doubt that there would have been a long and deep correspondence between both Cassandra and Jane, and the Fowle family at Kintbury. None of this has, as yet, come to light. The letters in this novel are entirely imagined. The beneficiary of her will was Isabella, now married – she left 45 pounds, and to Elizabeth, the only one left unmarried, she bequeathed the extraordinary sum of one thousand pounds – presumably in reparation of that bequest she herself had received so many years before.”
Of note, this novel is being developed into a four-hour Masterpiece miniseries. (link) Just my cup of tea!
The author also just released a new book, Godmersham Park (link) in June – might as well ride the Jane Train while you can. Of course, it’s all pure speculation, as the best of historical fiction is, but I’ll be ordering it anyway.