Cassandra and Jane by Jill Pitkeathley is a fictionalized account of the life and times of Jane Austen, told from the point of view of her sister Cassandra. So, while it’s about Jane and her life and writing it’s a step removed and filtered through Cassandra’s feelings and beliefs. I’ve read all but one of Jane Austen’s novels — some several times over — but other than an occasionally link to a letter on the Pemberly site, I haven’t read any biographies of her life. I thought this fictionalized account would be a good introduction, better than the two movies I’d seen (Becoming Jane and Miss Austen Regrets).
For the purposes of the book, Cassandra is looking back over her life with Jane and wanting to make sure that Jane is seen as she should be, as Cassandra wants her remembered. It’s a given that Cassandra burned most of Jane’s correspondence prior to her own death. Cassandra didn’t want to leave any possibility that people would see Jane’s rapier wit and misunderstand her gentle nature. It’s tragic that Cassandra didn’t put the letters in trust to be opened and seen at sometime in the future so instead we’re left with bits and pieces of Jane’s life and her view of her world.
Told from Cassandra’s point of view, beginning with Jane’s birth, then using bits of letters and other material with fictional narrative to tie the bits together, we get a look at these two sisters — their lives, their loves, hopes and dreams. Cassandra is definitely a woman of her times. Jane on the other hand is a woman out of time. She’s very aware of the unfairness of being a woman in a world run by men. In another 70-80 years she’d probably have been active for votes for women. Without making an advantageous marriage, the sisters would be at the mercy of their brothers and their brothers wives for their home, money, comfort, and there was little to no chance of independence.
Jane chaffed at this while Cassandra tried to help Jane come to terms with her view of the unfairness of the world. Cassandra, much like Jane Bennet, is willing to be used by her family as they feel is best because that is her duty. Luckily, or unluckily depending on your point of view, neither sister married. I find that lucky since if Jane had married it would be unlikely to say the least that we’d have ever have had her novels.
While I enjoyed the tale and the history behind the story, the narrative structure gives us a deep look into Cassandra’s thoughts and feeling and while she never does anything to hurt Jane or put obstructions in her path, she’s jealous of the time Jane spends away from her and is hurt when Jane turns to others for discussions of her works in process. The relationship between the sisters is believable and has all the expected ups and downs of family relationships. Even though I found I didn’t care for Cassandra much, I do have to respect her and her defense of sister and her works.
A worthy addition to anyone’s Austen collection.
Tags: Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey, Persuasion, Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility