Prepared by member Jenny.
Cassandra, as Jane Austen’s guardian? Was she “starched” or did she support Jane Austen was the fundamental question our group explored at our October meeting.
Researchers long to know Jane Austen’s private life, but very little reliable evidence is available, and, frustratingly, the very private Cassandra seems to stand at the gate.
Not only are we hampered by the cultural differences of the two-hundred-year time lapse but also by the veracity of the information that exists. What were the motives behind the various writers and family members? Was the family anxious about both Jane’s reputation and its own? Some were envious, some disapproving and some simply socially pretentious. Was Cassandra caught in the middle of those in the family who disapproved and those who supported Jane? Cassandra has been reviled for destroying so many of the letters – only 161 remain of thousands. Was she simply trying to protect Jane who often wrote outrageous things in an attempt to entertain her?
The biggest problem is that many myths and theories have developed over time and some are treated as the truth. James Austen wrote a praiseworthy poem about Jane after Sense and Sensibility appeared, but, as Judy Stove notes, he wrote, shortly after her death, another including phrases which appear somewhat disapproving, which contains hints that women’s writing may only have been tolerated if it didn’t supersede domestic duties. His son, James Austen-Leigh, her first biographer, wrote a Memoir in his old age, a long time after Jane’s death. It is likely a combination of many different memories and hearsay, and was certainly intended to polish Austen’s image. He commented that Cassandra, three years his senior, was “dearest of all to the heart of Jane.” He also noted that this might have commenced with a “feeling of deference natural to a loving child towards a kind elder sister.” He believed something of this feeling always remained. It is well-known from the letters that Jane did not get on with her mother. It appears that Cassandra was like a mother to Jane.
Many other contradictions and mysteries exist. One involves Jane writing secretly. We do not even know from whom her writing was supposedly kept a secret. Did she cover her work with blotting paper or muslin? Did she share her work with some family members as she wrote? Did they, did Cassandra, support her writing?
Several academics, Devoney Looser, Terry Castle and Judy Stove have recently challenged long held beliefs, particularly about Cassandra. Professor Looser believes Jane wasn’t shy and did not write secretly. Terry Castle in “Sister-Sister”, reviewing Jane Austen’s Letters edited by Deidre Le Faye, feels that Cassandra was “the ballast in Austen’s life.” Judy Stove, whose writing in Sensibilities inspired this meeting, concludes that Mrs Austen, James and Mary, and Cassandra may have been less supportive of Jane’s creative work than the family tradition later wished to remember. Jane’s letters to Cassandra at the time Pride and Prejudice came out, suggest a fear of a poor reaction from James. In 1844, Cassandra wrote a letter to Anna Lefroy expressing seeming surprise that Jane’s novels were popular many years after her death.
Little is known about Cassandra herself, apart from the tragic death of the man she was to marry, Tom Fowles.
We have James’ daughter, Caroline Austen, who knew her for forty years writing that:
“I did not dislike Aunt Cassandra but if my visit at anytime chanced to fall during her absence I don’t think I would have missed her.”
Henry indicates something similar when recalling visits to Chawton Cottage after Jane’s death said to a cousin that:
‘He could not help expecting to feel particularly happy…and never till he got there, could he finally realise to himself how all its peculiar pleasures were gone.’
Cassandra caused further displeasure among Janeites with her less than attractive image of Jane. Was it lack of artistic ability, or did Jane dislike having her picture painted? That might explain the expression on her face.
Cassandra appears to chide Jane’s friend, Miss Sharp, for her ardent feelings concerning the loss of Jane:
“What I have lost, no one but myself can know, you are not ignorant of her merits but who can judge how I estimated them?”
Was Cassandra jealous of the friendship? Maybe Jane’s comment to Cassandra: “I know your starched notions” wasn’t so far from the truth. However, the paragraph containing that comment was full of highly sardonic foolery, so was it meant seriously?
In fairness to Cassandra, as she said in a letter to Fanny after Jane’s death, “I have now lost two treasures…” She had reason to be wary.
And, Jane may have been a handful! While she may have wished for a sister who was akin to Jane Bennett, maybe she found Cassandra to be more of an Eleanor Dashwood. Cassandra, too, may have wished her sister was different. We agreed that we will never know!
- James Austen-Leigh, Memoir of Jane Austen, 1870
- Terry Castle, “Sister-Sister” in London Review of Books, 3 August 1995.
- Letter from Cassandra to Anne Sharp, July 1817.
- Devoney Looser, “Jane Austen wasn’t shy” in New York Times, July 15, 2017.
- Judy Stove, “‘A large piece of muslin’: Harriet Martineau, Jane Austen and the Hidden Manuscript” in Sensibilities (58), June 2019.
The meeting concluded with the usual quiz and guess-the-quote game.