From the earliest book-length memoir of Jane Austen comes strong testimony of her closeness and devotion to Cassandra:
"But dearest of all to the heart of Jane was her sister Cassandra, about three years her senior. Their sisterly affection for each other could scarcely be exceeded. Perhaps it began on Jane’s side with the feeling of deference natural to a loving child towards a kind elder sister. Something of this feeling always remained; and even in the maturity of her powers, and in the enjoyment of increasing success, she would still speak of Cassandra as of one wiser and better than herself. In childhood, when the elder was sent to the school ... the younger went with her ... because she would have been miserable without her sister; her mother observing that ‘if Cassandra were going to have her head cut off, Jane would insist on sharing her fate.’ This attachment was never interrupted or weakened. They lived in the same home, and shared the same bed-room, till separated by death. They were not exactly alike. Cassandra’s was the colder and calmer disposition; she was always prudent and well judging, but with less outward demonstration of feeling and less sunniness of temper than Jane possessed." (James Edward Austen Leigh's Memoir)
We touched in the last blog on the 1797 death of Cassandra's fiance, Thomas Fowle. He was a dear friend of Cassandra's older brother, the clergyman James Austen. In a poem written many years later, James ruminates on the death of his friend and on the marriage he had hoped for between his friend and his sister:
"And had I lived with confidence to join
A much loved sister's trembling hand to thine..."
What jumps out of this couplet is the juxtaposition of "confidence" on James's part to "trembling" on Cassandra's. Was Cassandra nervous--possibly uncertain--about marrying her brother's close friend? Could she have felt simultaneously cursed and yet relieved over the death of her fiance? What if we take the death as a stroke of great luck in Cassandra's (unconscious?) eye, relieving her forever of the need to marry? After all, relatives remarked that she took herself off the marriage market prematurely. Would she have done that if she truly wanted a husband?
On December 2, 1802 Harris Bigg-Wither proposed marriage to Jane Austen while she and Cassandra visited his sisters at Manydown, the Bigg-Wither estate. Jane accepted the offer, and the evening was filled, according to Tomalin, with toasts and celebration. Tomalin goes on to write as follows:
"[Jane would be] future mistress of a large Hampshire house and estate, only a few miles from her birthplace, and close to her brother James. She would be almost as grand as Elizabeth Austen [her sister-in-law] at Godmersham. She would be able to ensure the comfort of her parents to the end of their days, and give a home to Cassandra. She would probably be in a position to help her brothers in their careers. She would be surrounded by dear sisters-in-law and friends." (181)
The next morning Jane changed her mind and turned down the marriage proposal. Why? She hated Bath, missed the country and had been brought up to expect marriage and motherhood.
Who would have gotten to her if not Cassandra?
What if Tomalin's rosy picture of Jane's future life had been anathema to Cassandra? Wouldn't the haughty older sister, once the toast of the family, have been galled at the prospect of playing second fiddle to her lesser little sister, becoming, in one stroke, the poor relation to Jane, the pitied and isolated family old maid? If her plan had been to keep Jane as her subordinate life partner, two spinster sisters always together, wouldn't this new arrangement ruin everything? She had seen before how friends, like Mary Lloyd, changed upon marriage. And who could Cassandra, now almost 30, hope to wed who could rival Bigg Wither?
One can imagine the sisters rooming together at Manydown and talking far into the night. Or on the off chance they had separate bedrooms, what would be more natural than for Cassandra to join her giddy, joyful sister in celebrating the engagement? Cassandra, who knew Jane looked up to her, would have had a whole night to work on her--and would have known precisely, ala Mrs. Russell in Persuasion, what to say. Perhaps she only said wait, rethink it. Perhaps she pushed all the buttons that would have made Jane renege.
According to Tomalin, it was Jane who insisted, when the sisters arrived back at James's after breaking the engagement, on the carriage straight back to Bath the next morning. However, another memoir, Richard Arthur Austen Leigh's (RAAL), insisted it was both Jane and Cassandra who made the demand:
"Cassandra and Jane, without offering any explanation ... said that they must at once go back to Bath—the very next day—it was absolutely necessary, and (as an escort for young ladies traveling by coach was also necessary) their brother James must take them—although Saturday was a day on which it was most inconvenient for a single-handed rector to go far from his parish" he agreed.
Cassandra had to get Jane back to Bath and away from Harris--and she did. It's almost impossible to believe Jane would have been so insistent on her own.
In RAAL's memoir, niece Caroline, who would have had no first-hand knowledge of the circumstances, gropes for an explanation:
"I conjecture that the advantages he could offer, and her gratitude for his love, and her long friendship with his family, induced my aunt to decide that she would marry him when he should ask her, but that having accepted him she found she was miserable. To be sure, she should not have said 'Yes' overnight; but I have always respected her for her courage in cancelling that 'Yes' the next morning; all worldly advantages would have been to her, and she was of an age to know this quite well (she was nearly twenty-seven). My aunts had very small fortunes; and on their father's death, they and their mother would be, they were aware, but poorly off. I believe most young women so circumstanced would have gone on trusting to love after marriage."
Caroline believes rightly--but most young women did not have a Cassandra in their lives.
If the "colder" Cassandra manipulated her sister, we see hints of it encoded in the later novels, evidence that Jane came to realize she had been wrong to trust another's advice. If Jane modeled the proud, domineering and self-centered Emma on Cassandra rather than Fanny Knight, Harriet's rejection of Mr. Martin at the tyrannous behest of an older mentor woud be a devastating self-portrait of the Cassandra, Jane and Bigg Wither triangle. If Cassandra influenced Jane to reject Bigg Wither, this would also be encoded in Persuasion, when Anne later questions the wisdom of Mrs. Russell's advice to refuse Wentworth.
This scenario is as conjectural as Caroline's but makes more sense psychologically. While the two sisters remained close, necessarily co-dependent, we can imagine that Jane at some point realized she had been had. In no novel after 1802 do we see the kind of sisterly closeness celebrated in Sense & Sensibility and Pride & Prejudice. Fanny is alone, Mary Crawford her enemy; Jane Fairfax isolated; Anne Elliot stung and wary.
We might not have the novels we know and love had Cassandra strongly supported Jane's engagement that first, crucial night. But no wonder the woman who laid claim as Jane's closest friend and companion might have felt her sister's death a punishment from God.