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
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