Cassandra & Jane (a review)

“When I am gone…,” Jill Pitkeathley’s Cassandra Austen muses on the letters written to her by her sister Jane. “When I am gone, perhaps before, they will want them, they will pour over them, examine them in detail and discuss them without limit.” Who would Cassandra’s they have been? She may immediately have thought of family, but how apt that they can be broadened to include, yes, this very reader. For ‘pour over’ and ‘examine’ is exactly what Austen-lovers do with her extant letters. James Edward Austen-Leigh utilized letters in his early biography; Lord Brabourne published (though not entirely verbatim) the letters in his possession; the son and grandson of Austen-Leigh included them in their family biography; Deirdre Le Faye brought out editions of both that biography and the letters themselves. Romanticists invent romances; writers cite Austen’s few references regarding writing and publishing; historians pluck from them pictures of England and London during the reign of George III and the Prince Regent. We all mine Austen’s letters for what they can tell us about what we most want to know, be it her life, her art, her world.

The most famous set of letters, surely, were those of Madame de Sévigné; they were widely read in Austen’s day. Cassandra lived to see a surge in posthumous publications of correspondence and memoirs; for instance, Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough (1838), William Pitt (1840), Abigail Adams Smith (1842), and writers such as Mary Brunton (1819), Hannah More (1835), Mrs Hester Chapone (1807), and Samuel Richardson (1804). Queen Caroline’s linen was washed in public; and, like today, everyone from courtesans and actors to tourists, politicians and intimate friends of the famous published memoirs.

Therefore, while we yearn for them, how can anyone think Cassandra wrong to destroy parts of the correspondence that she felt were especially private, the unique conversation between sisters that, because it existed on paper, could be savored later by those with little entitlement to their secrets?

So here in the opening pages of CASSANDRA & JANE, we find Cassandra, the novel’s narrator, in October 1843, explaining – to herself, to those youthful relatives who would receive a reduced correspondence, to posterity – that although “I had kept every one of the letters that Jane wrote to me. … [t]hose 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” (xii). The design behind this scheme of destruction is not only to protect her sister’s privacy, but to hide secrets of family strife, her own jealousy, and Jane’s depressions.

As one who believes Cassandra undervalued by posterity, under the shadow of her famous sister merely because she was not the writer in the family, Pitkeathley’s Cassandra is a difficult characterization to accept. This Cassandra can be petty. She is sometimes withdrawn, as she impatiently waits for Jane to ask her help, her opinion. She often denigrates herself, and blames herself for some turns in her sister’s life (like the refusal of Mr Bigg-Wither’s proposal). She is jealous of Jane‘s ‘fame’ and even some of Jane’s friendships (with Fanny Knight, with Miss Sharpe): “I had reason to think that Jane was carrying on a correspondence with Fanny … from which I was deliberately excluded. … [I]t was as I always feared – Fanny was replacing me in Jane’s confidence” (p. 194). Deliberately excluded is such a harsh phrase and intimates that Cassandra could be jealous even of her own niece. This Cassandra becomes a second-class citizen by her own making. It would be a fine position to take if Pitkeathley were not so unrelenting in pitching this concept throughout the novel. From start to finish, readers see shade, rarely sunshine, from her Cassandra.

Jane is seen through her sister’s eyes; so few new revelations. Pitkeathley has stayed true to the girl and woman recounted in letters of family members and encountered in those of hers that have come down to us. The author, therefore, makes good use of presenting Jane in the one manner we are used to: as a writer (of letters, of novels).

Given that CASSANDRA & JANE began its life in a 2004 British edition, there are errors that should have been cleaned up. For instance, “I later heard Mama explaining to her cousin Aunt Cooper…” (p. 7). At the back of the book, in an outline of the members of ‘The Austen Family,’ readers see that Aunt Cooper – Miss Jane Leigh, later Mrs Edward Cooper – was Mama Austen’s elder sister. Here, Aunt Cooper’s death is (correctly) listed as 1783; while, in the text, Cassandra goes away to school with cousin Jane Cooper in 1784 – making it impossible that Mrs Cooper dies from an illness caught at the school when tending her sick daughter (pp. 6 and 10). The estate of the Chute family is consistently referred to as the Vyne when in fact both words are capitalized, then as now. William Chute, a Member of Parliament for Hampshire, was Thomas Chute’s elder brother not his father (p. 20). Eliza Chute is spoken of as having raised her station in life by marrying into this family (p. 37); when, in fact, the Smith family were quite well off and Joshua Smith, Eliza’s father, was another Member of Parliament with a country estate of his own in Wiltshire. Mrs Lefroy was Tom Lefroy’s aunt not his mother, for it is the Hampshire Mrs Lefroy and not the Irish Mrs Lefroy to whom the author refers when casting her as Jane’s “good friend [whose] untimely death a few years later was a great distress to Jane” (p. 45). A few typos should also have been corrected.

CASSANDRA & JANE is a pleasant novel, fleshing out many of the well-known incidents in Jane Austen’s life. At the same time there are emotional moments that get too-easily dismissed. A chief loss is the little attention paid the romance of Tom Fowle and Cassandra. They are engaged; he dies; end of story.

The heart of this novel comes in the form of Jane’s romance with the gentleman who in life was only referred to once in passing, someone she met at the seaside. Pitkeathley, like Syrie James in the more recent The Lost Memoirs of Jane Austen, invents in order to fill the mystery man’s shoes. Mr Atkins is lovingly painted, but the same misstep is made in both novels: that a clandestine correspondence would blossom between Jane and her lover. The correspondence of Marianne and Willoughby is undoubted the source for both. Here, however, the wistful quality of the doomed romance gently points up a loneliness in Austen’s life, as opposed to the invention of a full-blown romance, á la Becoming Jane.

Jill Pitkeathley’s prose serves her novel well, with some nice touches, convincing dialogue and most importantly a convincing account of the life of Jane Austen, novelist. The reader is introduced to the extended family and neighborhood friends of the Austens, and a fine picture of life in rural England and metropolitan London is drawn. It is a satisfying novel, and is especially recommended for those who would like to learn about Austen’s life but would rather not read biographies.

three full inkwells.

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