Cassandra Austen: Literary Arsonist, or a Heroine in Her Own Right?
Gill Hornby on the Lesser Known Austen Sister
While her younger sister is still known and loved the world over for her writing, Cassandra Austen—the first-born daughter, and therefore the Miss Austen to their contemporaries—is known, if at all, for one thing. In the last years of her life, she sifted through all the many hundreds of letters she had received from her beloved Jane and burned nearly all of them. It is the defining act and fact of Cassandra’s life: a notorious episode of literary vandalism. And most Jane Austen fans find it very hard to forgive her.
But these fans often discount the matter of the deep love and trust between the two sisters, and the fact that Cassandra was Jane’s literary executor: the keeper of the flame. They ignore the evidence that Jane herself, had she been given the chance, would have approved of this bonfire. After all, the celebrated author was a deeply private person, who had chosen to be published anonymously in her own lifetime and not share her secret with numerous friends and neighbors, even as they were discussing her work in her presence. There is little doubt that Cassy and Jane would have been of one mind on this, as they were of one mind on most things: the novels are enough. The rest of it is none of anybody’s business. And from their own 19th-century point of view, that seems perfectly reasonable: a lady should never draw attention to herself; it didn’t do.In the last years of Cassandra’s life, she sifted through all the many hundreds of letters she had received from her beloved Jane and burned nearly all of them.
Today, however, our insatiable culture of celebrity takes a quite different position. Literary success leads to fame, and fame must lead to sharing. If we love your novels, then we want to hear about you. What was your inspiration? Who is that character based on? Where, how, and why do you write? We want to know everything. Jane Austen is one of the most loved authors of all time, and yet, because of Cassandra, we know so little about her. And we resent the surviving sister for it. Imagine if we could read all those letters: Who knows what juicy stuff went up in smoke? In the story of our blessed Jane, Cassandra is the wicked one.
I knew none of this when Cassandra Austen first came into my life. It was the early 1990s, we had just moved into the English village of Kintbury, West Berkshire, and one of the first things our new neighbors mentioned—up there with the butcher and the baker—was that our house, which sits on the site of the old Kintbury vicarage, had an Austen connection. At first, I wasn’t sure that that it was that big a deal. As an ignorant townie, I presumed most church houses had some sort of Austen connection. After all, wasn’t that what Jane did—mill around the clergy and sip tea?
I soon learned that, in fact, Jane Austen’s own geography was quite restricted, and the Kintbury vicarage was indeed a proper landmark on her personal map. A family called the Fowles had lived here for 99 years, providing three vicars to the village, the second of whom was a great personal friend of Jane’s father. The relationship deepened when this Revered Fowle sent all four of his sons to be educated by George Austen at his Steventon Rectory. The Fowle boys boarded there for most of the year; all the children grew up together like a litter of puppies. One special attachment developed between Cassandra and Tom Fowle. To the delight of all, they announced their engagement. Then tragedy struck when Tom died of yellow fever during an expedition in the Caribbean. Aged just 24, Cassy was plunged into mourning. She was never to marry. It was an event on which Jane’s own life turned.
The Fowle vicarage was pulled down in 1859, and the house we now live in put up in its place. The footprint is the same, though; the cellar is original; the garden and view are unchanged. The image of Cassandra began to haunt me: here, with her fiancé on their last Christmas together; there at the gate, watching his trap pull away from her on their last morning. Hers is the story of a young, handsome, clever woman who loved and was loved, but whose destiny was overturned by a cruel twist of fate—that is, the very stuff of 19th-century fiction. And those millions of women just like her—their lives so restricted, forced to find their way through with little money and few options—who somehow found purpose and meaning: theirs are the silent voices of history I have always longed to hear.Jane herself, had she been given the chance, would have approved of this bonfire.
I was still a long way from seeing this as a novel, though. Until I was commissioned to write a biography of Jane Austen for the children’s market and, for the first time, began to engage with the story of Jane’s life, not just her characters. In doing so, I became increasingly captivated by the elusive figure of Cassandra. Of the 160 odd letters of Jane Austen that have so far come down to us, the majority are written to Cassandra. And, although we have none of the replies—and know that these are just the ones that Cassandra would allow us to see—still we get such a strong sense of both sisters.
We hear the teasing between them: “I am getting very extravagant and spending all my money, and what is worse for you, I have been spending yours too.” We know they shared the same jokes: “You really are the finest comic writer of your age,” writes the finest comic writer of her age. The young Jane clearly looks up to the older Cassy: “I should not prosper if I strayed far from your direction.” Jane loves her—“Take care of your precious self”—and, by the end, that love reached the point of dependence: “I was ill at the time of your going from the very circumstance of your going.”
Jane Austen, famously, had a heightened awareness of the failings of others, but she placed Cassandra on a pedestal. As character references go, that’s a pretty good one. From that point, I decided that I loved her, too. And yet… when we read the family memoirs, a different picture emerges. The nieces and nephews seem to remember another Cassandra entirely. Where Jane found wit and humor, they only saw joylessness. While Jane thought her sister the superior, they found her wanting: merely clever, compared to Jane’s brilliance; boringly sensible, when Jane was such fun. I found myself resenting them for it.
How could I reconcile this conflicting evidence? The first and most obvious reason is age. Jane died at the height of her powers: she was just 41 and had recently finished Persuasion. Her death was a terrible blow to the whole family. Poor Cassandra, on the other hand, made the mistake of limping on to her seventies—no doubt growing whiskers on her chin, saying “Oof” when she got out of a chair, and getting a bit grumpy. As I approach a certain age, I have every sympathy.Jane Austen, famously, had a heightened awareness of the failings of others, but she placed Cassandra on a pedestal.
But the most obvious cause is the distorting effect of celebrity. Every family, especially large families like the Austens, develop their own ecosystems: there is a pecking order, each member has its own position. But when fame strikes just one of them, then that whole ecosystem is upended. The world peers in on you, and makes its own judgement. And here, too, I found a connection. My brother, Nick Hornby, and my husband, Robert Harris, both hit literary success in their thirties. Don’t all jump! We are all quite well aware that they are nowhere nearly on Jane’s level. But still, I’ve often been amused—and, yes, sometimes irritated—by the assumptions made by those outside our unit. If you’re not the famous one, well then: you must be the dud.
Cassandra was a fine woman, and to the Austens she was the textbook eldest daughter: the more handsome; the most reliable and efficient; a credit and support to her mother; a mentor to the younger, friskier Jane. She made the perfect match in Tom Fowle, at just the right age. She would be an excellent vicar’s wife, a fine mother. When that option was closed to her, she became the helpmeet of the wider family. She was there at all the births and the deaths. She gave her time willingly and tirelessly.
And that is not all. If you value Jane Austen’s novels, then you should value Cassandra. She was crucial to the development of Jane as a writer. Because if Cassandra had married her Tom Fowle, then her sister would have had to marry, too—or what would have become of her? And Jane was never likely to make a good match—she had no money, was never more than averagely good-looking, and could be very awkward and prickly. If she had found a husband, he would be no Mr. Darcy. Her life would have been hard, full of risky pregnancies and domestic hardship. She wouldn’t have had time to write more than a letter.
But with her spinster sister, Jane found safety in numbers. Cassandra had a little inheritance; Jane had precisely nothing. Cassandra managed Jane’s moods and encouraged her and took her writing extremely seriously. When their rich brother—at last—gave them a cottage of their own in Chawton, Cassandra ran the house so that Jane could get down to work. Cassandra was midwife to the novels, and as proud of them as if they were her offspring. When Jane fell ill, she devoted herself to finding a cure. And when the end finally came, Jane died in her arms.
Those churlish nieces and nephews—and all Jane Austen fans, indeed—should be on their knees in gratitude. But poor Cassandra. She can only ever be perceived in the light of Jane’s star: the less interesting sister. That wicked arsonist who destroyed all those secrets of our beloved Jane.
It is high time she received the credit that she is due. And, personally, I am grateful to her for burning those letters and creating those gaps in their story. It gave me the stuff of my own novel: what was it exactly that Cassandra wanted to hide?
Miss Austen by Gill Hornby was recently published by Flatiron Books.
Previous ArticleOur Personalized Quarantine Book Recommendations,