She knew herself that sometimes she overstepped the proper boundries and could only do so safely with me. In later years, when she wrote something particularly scandalous she would urge me, ‘Take the scissors to this at once.’ She was right to surmise that others might judge her comments more harshly, but with me she knew she could be frank and that I understood her turn of mind. Cassandra Austen on her sister Jane, Chapter Two
What is the most tragic and disappointing thing you know about author Jane Austen’s life? My immediate choice would be that she died too young and wrote too few novels, and at a close second would be that after her death in 1817, her sister Cassandra destroyed many of her personal letters to protect her privacy. This act of sisterly devotion is greatly lamented by historians, biographers, scholars, and Austen enthusiasts, limiting what information that we do know to her edited letters and family recollections. The complete reason why they were destroyed will always be a mystery, but one can imagine from Austen’s surviving letters and novels that her keen sense of social observation and biting irony played a key factor in her sister’s decision to remove them forever from family and public scrutiny.
In author Jill Pitkeathley’s recently re-issued 2004 novel Cassandra & Jane, we are offered a chance to explore that chasm left by Cassandra Austen’s bonfire of humanity as Pitkeathley imagines the back story of two beloved sisters who were the best of friends, honorable confidants and devoted to each other through all the ups and downs of their heartbreaking life in rural 18th-century England. This bio fic is told from the viewpoint of Cassandra’s experience of their life together, as only she would know, and is a creative blending of historical fact with a fictional narrative that is both believable and compelling.
The story begins with a prologue to their story. It is 1843, and Cassandra Austen now seventy years old is still residing at Chawton cottage in Hampshire, the house where she and her sister Jane lived together until her untimely death at age forty-one in 1817. She has kept everyone of the letters that her sister ever wrote to her safely stored in her sister’s rosewood trunk after her death. Her family has known of their existence, but she has safeguarded them for twenty-six years from their perusal. She fears that when she is gone, that they will pour over them examine and discuss every detail and then publish them for posterity, and profit. She has now re-read them and sorted them into two piles. She must not forget her responsibility to her sister, and to her memory, as Jane had previously warned her “No private correspondence could bear the eye of others.”
As we are transported into Jane Austen’s world, Cassandra shares their story together in an honest and open manner, dropping her protective older sister mantle for glimpses of the influences that shaped Jane’s personality through her family, social sphere, environment and 18th-century social stricture that bound her financially and emotionally. Their remarkable friendship is the highlight of this novel as they suffer and survive together through romantic aspirations and disappointments, frustration on their financial dependence on their relations, and rejoice in Jane Austen’s early success as a writer.
Austen enthusiasts will recognize many historical facts known of their lives that permeate through the novel, and in turn revel in the allusions from their real lives that are transported into Austen’s novel’s. Life imitating art, or art imitating life? Without overt sentimentality, author Jill Pitkeathley has skillfully blended the tragic and joyful lives of two remarkable 18th-century women who chose different avenues to leave their footprint on posterity; – one who would become a literary legend by remarkably revealing social foibles through wit and guile in her novels, and the other renowned for what extreme measures she took not to reveal them in her own sister. This moving and enjoyable rendering of biography and fiction tops my list of favorite Austen inspired novels for this year, and I highly recommend it.
Rating: 4 ½ out of 5 Regency Stars
Cassandra & Jane, by Jill Pitkeanthley
Harper Collins, New York (2008)
Trade paperback, 270 pages
Leave a comment by October 31st. to qualify in a drawing for a new copy of Cassandra & Jane, by Jill Pitkeanthly. The winner will be announced on November 1st.
I’m usually not a big fan of fan fiction, but this book seems very nice actually.
It really is a shame all those letters were burned, it almost makes you want to go back in time and prevent it!
Sadly that would be a bit tricky to do, luckily there are writers like this.
Cant wait to read it.
This book sounds fantastic, I’d love to read it! I am always so heartsick when I read that letters of such great authors or artists are burned or destroyed. Much of Margaret Mitchell’s work (she wrote Gone With The Wind) was destroyed too. I find that the destruction of their ‘real voice’ makes others feel free to ‘put words in their mouths’ so to speak, and guess what kind of character they had instead of relying on facts, so i dont know that the burning of such evidence helped the authors’ cases as much as they’d hoped!
However this books sounds very well done and thoughtful. I’d love to see how the author reveals Cassandra as well, who so often was in the background of her sister’s amazing life.
On one hand it’s a pity that the letters are gone, but on the other hand I’m glad that Cassandra was loyal to her sister and best friend. Since the book is not available where I live (Brazil), I’m hoping I’ll win it here. :)
I too cannot say I am a big fan of all this additional “Jane Austen-inspired” work, but then again I have not ever read any, but with a recommendation like this, I guess I have to try!
I’d love to be entered. I have no idea why, but I’m addicted to these spin-off type books!
I think it’s a good idea to get to know and read about Cassandra who’s always has been over-shadowed by her sister even if it’s just fiction. I hope I’ll be able to buy and read this book coz not all Austen-inspired are available in my country.
this book looks truly touching. altough it’s annoying that all of Jane Austen’s letters were destroyed, it’s great to read/see about how loyal Cassandra was towards Jane and her wishes. I’d love to read this book :) !
I always try to find more information on their relationship. this book sounds really interesting! To read anyhting about jane austen is always fascinating, but to read it through cassandra’s eyes would be even better!
I love these kind of historical ‘re-tellings’, like “Mrs. Shakespeare”, this sounds right up my alley!
Oh, this sounds really great. :)
This one sounds like a keeper! I’d love to win this book!
I’m really intrigued by this book. One of the major problems I had with “Becoming Jane” – well, one of the bazillion problems I had with “Becoming Jane” – was how carelessly they tossed aside the sisters’ relationship, as if Austen cared more about boys than her beloved sister.
I’ve never been one of those Jane-ites upset at Cassandra for destroying so many of the letters. I’m just glad she saved as many as she did. I’d be really curious to read this book.
Hello and best wishes to Jill Pitkeathley, from Richard Leinonen (Marquette, Michigan, USA). I met Jill at the Delfin Seminar in Long Beach, CA in Sept 1997.
I will get a copy of your book for my wife and daughter. They enjoy reading this type of material.
Congratulations to Katie for being the giveaway winner of one copy of Cassandra and Jane. Please contact me to claim your prize.
Cheers, Laurel Ann