The only picture we have of Cassandra Austen is a silhouette portrait; a shadow. This seems appropriate because Cassandra has lived for so long in the shadow of her more famous sibling. Indeed, Cassandra once wrote that Jane was the ‘sun of my life’ perhaps implying that she was the moon, reflecting the light of her much brighter sister. Without Cassandra, though, it is doubtful that Jane Austen would have written those six wonderful novels for which she is famous. For when they moved to the house in Chawton which was to be their final home, it was Cassandra who assumed responsibility for the housekeeping duties, leaving Jane the time and space to write. Considering the Austen ladies employed three servants at the cottage, these duties may not seem onerous. But there were meals to plan, the household accounts to be written, the servants to be tasked with instructions, including the cook who needed to be told which meals to prepare; perhaps one of those apple pies that Jane Austen once said were ‘a considerable part of our domestic happiness.’ Cassandra had other responsibilities too; Mrs Austen, their hypochondriac mother, needed to be dosed with medicine, there was the patchwork quilt to collect pieces for, there was sewing and mending to be done, both for themselves and for their poorer neighbours in the village whom Cassandra often visited as part of her Christian duty. When Cassandra spent time away from home, Jane Austen would assume these responsibilities and she recognised the huge contribution that her sister made to her writing when she said ‘composition seems to me impossible with a head full of joints of mutton and doses of rhubarb…’
My Dear Cassandra. Out of all the words which Jane Austen wrote during the course of her life, these are the words which she wrote most frequently, and which, perhaps, were the ones imbued with most meaning. My dear Cassandra…. Written at the beginning of the many hundreds of letters that she wrote to her sister over the years, years when they were frequently parted owing to family duties elsewhere. Either Cassandra or Jane often went to stay with their brothers in Kent or London, leaving the other behind, and so the letters were a lifeline between the sisters; they imparted news, relayed gossip, reflected on events, and sometimes, although these letters have not survived, we can be sure that they shared secrets with each other too.
But let’s start at the beginning. On 16th December, 1775, the wife of a Hampshire clergyman gave birth to her seventh child. It was her second daughter and the next day, the baby’s father, the Reverend George Austen, wrote to his sister in law that his new daughter was to be ‘a present plaything for her sister Cassy, and a future companion.’ His prediction proved to be accurate; many years later, in 1813, JA wrote to Cassandra that ‘I…would not say thank-you for any companion but you’.
The sisters grew up together at the parsonage in Steventon, sharing a bedroom, a practice that continued all their lives. We can be sure that they played together too, very probably rolling down the grassy slope that lay at the back of the house and which you can still see if you visit the site of their birthplace today (the house no longer exists). They went to school together too, sent away from home at a young age to schools in Oxford, Southampton and then Reading. Years later, Mrs Austen recalled that Jane was so attached to her older sister that she insisted on going away with her, even though at the time she was considered too young to go. Mrs Austen said that ‘if Cassandra’s head had been going to be cut off, Jane would have her’s cut off too.’
By the time the girls were in their teens, JA had discovered her gift for writing and storytelling. One of her early works was entitled A History of England – a parody of the rather boring and earnest histories of England that could be found on the shelves of the circulating libraries that were so popular then. Jane Austen’s history was full of jokes and she wrote it in collaboration with her sister – it was a joint production, Jane producing the text, Cassandra the pictures. The work was dedicated to Cassandra, as was another early work; Catherine, or The Bower.
And then, in 1795, when Jane Austen was nineteen, she started work on a novel called Elinor and Marianne, later to become her first published novel, Sense and Sensibility. It tells the story of two sisters who are without money and ready to fall in love. It is very tempting to see reflections of the Austen sisters in their fictional counterparts. Elinor, the older, quieter, more sensible sister, and Marianne, the younger, more impulsive artistic one who flirts inappropriately with a man in public. Like Marianne, Jane Austen also flirted with a young man in public, a man called Tom Lefroy. We know, because she tells Cassandra all about her ‘shocking’ behaviour in a letter. But Jane was not rich and Tom Lefroy needed to marry money; he left the neighbourhood and she never saw him again. Meanwhile, Cassandra had also fallen in love, with a neighbour called Tom Fowle. Neither of them was rich, and they postponed their marriage while he went away to the West Indies to work as a chaplain. Over a year later, news came of his death, of yellow-fever. Although no letters survive from this period, we can be sure that Jane supported her sister at this sad time. A family member wrote years later that ‘they alone fully understood what each had suffered and felt and thought.’
And a few years later, we can be sure that Cassandra, in turn, supported Jane when she accepted a proposal of marriage from a young man who had money and a large estate, but for whom, we can assume, she felt nothing. After what must have been an agonising night, Jane Austen retracted her acceptance. Cassandra must have helped her to come to this difficult decision and we think at once of Jane Bennet advising her younger, much loved sister, Elizabeth to ‘do anything, rather than marry without affection!’ The outcome of that, of course, was rather different, but then, as Oscar Wilde said, that is what fiction is for, for the good to end happily. As they all do in Jane Austen’s novels.
And so the two sisters settled down to spinsterhood and a life shared with each other rather than with a husband. And the letters continue. Whenever they are apart, they write to each other. Some 160 letters survive, as Cassandra burnt the others after her sister’s death. It is thought she did this to protect the memory of her sister; it is likely these were the letters that were the most intimate and revealing. We can also presume that she destroyed the letters that she wrote to Jane as none of these survive either.
But we do have a couple of letters written by Cassandra. They survive because they are letters she wrote not to Jane, but to one of their favourite nieces, Fanny Knight, daughter of their brother Edward. These letters are perhaps the best proof of the very close bond that the sisters shared. And in these letters, Cassandra comes out of the shadows and we hear her voice at last.
The two letters that survive were written just after Jane Austen’s death in July, 1817. Her health had been indifferent for some months and Cassandra had accompanied her to Cheltenham, to take the waters there in the hope she would regain strength. But eventually, Jane moved to Winchester, to be nearer to her doctor. Cassandra went with her, and it was she who tenderly nursed Jane through the final weeks and days of her illness, she who sent letters to family members informing them of Jane’s death. It was in one of these letters, written to Fanny, and now in the collection of the Pierpont Morgan library in America, that Cassandra referred to Jane as the ‘sun of my life.’
I have lost such a treasure, such a sister, such a friend as never can have been surpassed. She was the sun of my life, the gilder of every pleasure, the soother of every sorrow. I had not a thought concealed from her and in losing her it is as though I had lost a part of myself.
And after the burial, Cassandra writes again to Fanny. It is this letter that is currently on display at Jane Austen’s House Museum, on loan from a private collection. We are hoping to buy this rare survival so that it finds a permanent home in the very home that the sisters loved so much. In this letter, Cassandra thanks Fanny for her kind praises of her sister, whom she describes as a ‘dear angel’. She recounts the day of the funeral to her and how she watched the procession of mourners leave the house in College Street; in those days it was not considered appropriate for female members of the family, however close, to attend a burial.
Thursday was not so dreadful a day to me as you imagined. There was so much necessary to be done that there was no time for additional misery. Everything was conducted with the greatest tranquillity, and but that I was determined I would see the last, and therefore was upon the listen, I should not have known when they left the house. I watched the little mournful procession the length of the street; and when it turned from my sight, and I had lost her for ever, even then I was not overpowered, nor so much agitated as I am now in writing of it. Never was human being more sincerely mourned by those who attended her remains than was this dear creature.
This would be moving if it was fiction; that it was fact makes it even more so.
Although grieving, Cassandra stoically reassures Fanny that she is tolerably well: I get out of doors a good deal and am able to employ myself. But she goes on to say that those employments suit me best which leave me most at leisure to think of her I have lost, and I do think of her in every variety of circumstance. In our happy hours of confidential intercourse, in the cheerful family party which she so ornamented, in her sick room, on her death-bed, and as (I hope) an inhabitant of heaven. Oh, if I may one day be re-united to her there!
Anyone who has ever known the grief of being parted from a loved one will know how she is feeling at this moment. And that is why this letter is so important. Not only does it help tell the story of the relationship between one of our greatest writers and the sister she loved so much, but it also tells another, more universal one; that is, that grief is the price we pay for love.
Cassandra lived on for several years at Chawton after Jane’s death. Mrs Austen died first and, finally, Cassandra in 1845. She is buried alongside her mother in the village churchyard, separated several miles from her sister who lies in splendour at the cathedral in Winchester. Despite this physical distance, it is to be hoped that the sisters are, as Cassandra wished in her letter, re-united at last. Perhaps in the heaven they both believed in; perhaps, on occasion, at the house in Chawton that was their home. Sometimes, in the early morning, or in the evening, when the house is silent, it is easy to imagine they have returned home; that they sit together, as they used to, sharing confidences, laughing at a private joke, content in each other’s quiet companionship and love.
If you would like to ensure that Cassandra’s letter is brought home to Chawton, do please donate to our campaign. We have only three months to raise the money needed. Details of our campaign can be seen on our Support Us section of the website.
Annalie Talent - Learning Officer