Cassandra and Jane: A Jane Austen Novel (Jane Austen)
by Jill Pitkeathley

Published: 2008-09-01
Paperback : 270 pages
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They were beloved sisters and the best of friends. But Jane and Cassandra Austen suffered the same fate as many of the women of their era. Forced to spend their lives dependent on relatives, both financially and emotionally, the sisters spent their time together trading secrets, challenging each ...
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They were beloved sisters and the best of friends. But Jane and Cassandra Austen suffered the same fate as many of the women of their era. Forced to spend their lives dependent on relatives, both financially and emotionally, the sisters spent their time together trading secrets, challenging each other's opinions, and rehearsing in myriad other ways the domestic dramas that Jane would later bring to fruition in her popular novels. For each sister suffered through painful romantic disappointments-tasting passion, knowing great love, and then losing it-while the other stood witness. Upon Jane's death, Cassandra deliberately destroyed her personal letters, thereby closing the door to the private life of the renowned novelist . . . until now. In Cassandra & Jane, author Jill Pitkeathley ingeniously reimagines the unique and intimate relationship between two extraordinary siblings, reintroducing readers to one of the most intriguing figures in the world of literature, as seen through the eyes of the one person who knew her best.

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Chawton, October 1843

I have kept every one of the letters that Jane wrote to me. I have read them all now and sorted them into two piles. At first, I stored them in my lacquered box and later, after her death, I transferred them to her rosewood trunk.

It has always been easy to keep them neatly stored. Her folds were so precise, her seals so well placed, her directions and dates writ so clear. I used to tease her that she made other letter writers feel ashamed of their poor efforts. I have read and re-read them all over the years, although I have let no one else see them. But all the family know I have them and I dare say that brother Henry, excitable creature that he is and unable to keep a confidence, has even told her publisher.

When I am gone, perhaps before, they will want them, they will pore over them, examine them in detail and discuss them without limit. I must never forget my responsibility to her, to her memory.

“No private correspondence could bear the eye of others,” as she said herself.

It is I, not Henry, appointed by her to do this, even though Henry now describes himself as co-owner of her property. So I cannot shirk this task, however painful it may be. At first I thought I would cut out only small parts but, as I re-read the letters, I now know it is better to destroy many of them. Am I doing it for her or for me, I must ask myself?

For us both, I suppose.

The world must see ours as the perfect sister relationship, always loving, always tranquil. She, like me, would not have wanted light to be shone upon the times we were estranged, my jealousies, her depressions. She most certainly would not have wanted her secret love, her fear of childbearing, her contempt for married women and her dislike of our mother, to be known and examined by anyone who cared to do so. Those privacies must be maintained and if others wonder about them in the future, at least they will never be able to find any proof for their speculations.

As I tie up the first bundles and write across them “to be burned,” they feel so heavy that I am reminded of the weight of her dear head as I held it on my lap that last night in Winchester. I held it propped up on a cushion on my knee all night. There are too many letters to be burned in the parlour fire, or even in the kitchen range. Tomorrow, I will make a fire in the garden and put them into the flames myself.

I shall tell no one.

“All families have secrets.” How we laughed when Jane wrote that. In our old room at Steventon, she read the passage to me as we made ready for bed and we went through our own family secrets:

Poor dear George,

Aunt Leigh-Perrot’s trial,

Who WAS Eliza’s father?

My mother’s imagined ill health.

And the many other things that we unmarried daughters were not supposed to know. This was, of course, before the tragedy surrounding her secret love and the depression which was to blight her life and mine too, for so long, but I know how concerned she was that no one should ever know about these things.

Again, I ask myself, is it Jane I seek to protect, or myself?

She always referred to me as her most devoted sister. She never condemned me for the times when I did not support her, for my occasional resentment of her success, or the way that I may have influenced her wrongly. That was between ourselves. We did not wish anyone else to know, even within our intimate circle, leave alone in the world at large.

We even thought then that no one would ever know who wrote the books. “By a Lady” is what we agreed would be on the title page. She was glad when the truth came out, even though she knew I was not. I wanted her wit, her talent, her skill, to be known in the family and among our friends, but was frightened lest wider fame would take her away from me. I suppose that I am glad that she knew the pleasure of recognition before she died, so cruelly young.

But now . . . if she should become more widely read, more widely known, what will happen then to her papers and letters? Sir Walter Scott has singled her out for high praise and Lord Macaulay has even likened her to Shakespeare.

Only last week, Henry wrote to say that all the books are to be reprinted again and I heard from Anna that, when she visited her aunt’s grave in the Cathedral, there was a party of people standing beside it, reading the inscription aloud.

In Memory of Jane Austen,

youngest daughter of the late Revd George Austen, formerly Rector

of Steventon in this county.

She departed this life on the 18th of July 1817, aged 41, after a long illness supported with the patience and hopes of a Christian. The benevolence of her heart, the sweetness of her temper and the extraordinary endowments of her mind obtained the regard of all who knew her and the warmest love of her intimate connections. Their grief is in proportion to their affection. They know their loss to be irreparable but in their deepest affliction they are consoled by a firm though humble hope that her charity, devotion, faith and purity have rendered her soul acceptable in the sight of her Redeemer.

That is how I want her to be remembered. Parties who visit her grave and everyone else are to think only good about her. If they know her as I did they may, they will, misjudge her. They may also misjudge me.

The other pile of letters, the ones to be kept, will show her only as I want her to be remembered and how I want to be remembered as her sister. No one is to know her innermost self as I did, no one is to judge too harshly the thoughts of her lively mind and no one is to know about the dark times between us. The secrets we shared will go with me to my grave.

It is a fine early autumn evening. It will be dry enough tomorrow for a large fire. view abbreviated excerpt only...

Discussion Questions

1. How would you characterize the sibling relationship between Jane and Cassandra? To what extent does their attachment to one another seem entirely mutual?
2. How does Jane experience her lot as an unmarried woman in her society, and how does the financial uncertainty of her situation propel her to become an author?
3. How does Jane's reliance on Cassandra's editorial feedback change over the course of her writing career, and what does this change reveal about Jane's opinion of her work?
4. How do Cassandra's and Jane's respective disappointments in love affect each of them individually?
5. How does Cassandra understand the tension between Jane and their mother, and to what extent do you agree with her assessment of their strained relationship?
6. How did the details of the publication of Jane's works inform your appreciation of her difficulty in becoming an author?
7. At any point in your reading of Cassandra & Jane, did you question what aspects of the work were historically true, and which were entirely fictional? Which ones?
8. What do the hardships endured by the Austen family reveal to you about everyday life in late eighteenth- and early-nineteenth century England?
9. To what extent do you agree with Cassandra's decision to burn her letters from Jane? Would you have made the same decision, if the choice were yours?
10. What aspects of Jane Austen's character came alive for you in reading Cassandra & Jane, and how did they connect you with her literary works?

Notes From the Author to the Bookclub

Q: How faithful is your rendering of the relationship between Cassandra and Jane Austen to their real-life attachment as siblings?

A: Very faithful indeed in my view. Each was the most important relationship in each other's life. They always shared a room and clearly missed each other greatly when they were separated. As first, the only two girls in a family of boys and later as two maiden aunts in a family where children were plentiful, they occupied a special place for the rest of their relations who often saw them as a couple rather than as two separate people in spite of their very different personalities.

Q: How much of Cassandra & Jane is the work of your imagination? For example, were the sisters' love affairs grounded in actual encounters?

A: It is a novel, not a biography so of course some of it is imagined-the content of the 'missing' letters for example. But I believe I have been faithful to known facts in so far as they exist. Cassandra's romance and engagement with Tom Fowle is well documented, as is his subsequent sad death and the fact that Cassandra never sought another suitor. As for Jane we certainly know about her flirtation with Tom LeFroy and its unhappy outcome. We also know that as an old man Tom confessed he had been in love with Jane but realized it was impossible for them to marry because they were both poor and he had a duty to marry well. This theme is so re-current in Jane's work that it was clearly something understood in society at the time and no doubt for Jane had been emphasized by this early experience.

The Bigg-Withers proposal, acceptance and subsequent rejection is also well documented but I have of course imagined Cassandra's part in helping Jane to decide to reject such an advantageous proposal of marriage.

The Reverend Mister Atkins, the encounter at Lyme and its consequences is imagined though one of Jane's nieces did say in later years that her Aunt Cassandra had spoken of a clergyman who admired Jane whom they had met at a sea side resort. I have always been intrigued by Mansfield Park and the fact that its morality theme is very different from the rest of Jane's work so I tried to weave the reason for that into the story and made it the consequence of her brief love affair with Mr. Atkins.

Q: As an ardent admirer of Jane Austen, how did you feel as a writer of historical fiction about taking liberties with her life?

A: I try to take as few liberties as possible with her life-I ensure for example that all the dates are accurate and I would never have her visit a place to which I know she did not travel. But I do try to imagine her feelings and of course I do not actually know what those were. I do not know for example that she suffered a depression during the ten years in which she wrote virtually nothing but I can readily imagine that for someone like her, all the moving about they did at that time, having no settled place and therefore no opportunity to pursue the writing which was so important to her, might well have led to a depressive illness. So I suppose I use known facts and then expand on them to suggest what might have been. If I need an excuse for what may seem improper, it is that I do it always with great admiration and love for her as a woman and as a writer.

Q: To what extent do you think Cassandra's decision to burn Jane's correspondence was a sage one?

A: Well, it was a sage one to her, however hard it may seem to her sister's devoted admirers. I believe she was determined to keep to herself the parts of Jane's character which she herself perceived as 'difficult'. She had been very reluctant for Jane's identity as a writer to be known at all but once it was she wanted to guard her from any kind of 'warts and all' analysis. In fact all the family colluded in that as will be evident from Henry's preface to the last publication and the wording on Jane's tomb in Winchester Cathedral. We should not forget that being a 'lady writer' was still not seen as entirely respectable in the early eighteen century and I think Cassandra's instincts were entirely about protecting Jane's memory.

Q: How do you explain Jane Austen's continued popularity with readers from all walks of life?

A: Looked at dispassionately, her popularity is astonishing. She lived a modest life in rural England two hundred years ago; never travelled more than 30 miles from her home and died unmarried at 41. She kept no diary and we do not even know for certain what she looked like. Yet for so many readers, to read one of her novels is to be 'hooked'. We love her for her wit, for her elegant and sparing prose and for her sharp-occasionally very sharp indeed-observations on human behaviour. Perhaps most of all we love her for the romanticism of her stories. We love to read of a poor heroine marrying a rich man, of misunderstandings being overcome, of devotion being eventually rewarded. I think we love her subtlety too-whether the way she pokes fun at the ridiculous or the way she evokes passion and commitment by a glance , a gesture, a word. In these days when emotion is always on display and life long commitment in short supply perhaps we all yearn a little for the refinements of that bygone age.

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