Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Cassandra: Who is she, part II

We talked in the last post about Cassandra's attempts to erase her own existence.

As Johnston notes of Austen's novels in his book Unusual Suspects, the blank spaces in the Austen sisters' lives invite us to fill in the gaps.

 Fortunately for us, Austen's great grand-nephew, Richard Arthur Austen-Leigh (RAAL), happened to read of a cache of letters pertaining to the family in a footnote to an article called "A God-daughter of Warren Hastings" in the May, 1905 edition of Temple Bar. A Mr. John Guy Nicolson gave him family correspondence. That RAAL stumbled on this information through happenstance underscores how much primary source material the immediate family destroyed.

We learn from these letters that the baby Cassandra was, according to her mother, "very healthy and lively," and that the very young Cassandra "talk[ed] all day long and in my opinion is a very entertaining companion."

As a teenager, Cassandra met her cousin Philadelphia Walter, who wrote "I can't help thinking her very pretty." Cassandra and Philadelphia were taken to resemble each other closely, but Philadelphia "fancied ... she [Cassandra] was not so well pleased with the comparison," a hint of Cassandra's early hauteur. All the same, Philadelphia preferred the "amiable" Cassandra to Jane: "The more I see of Cassandra the more I admire." Cassandra, she wrote, "keeps up conversation in a very sensible & pleasing manner."

From little chatty Cassy to the gracious, attractive and socially adept Cassandra, we catch bright and personable glimpses of the oldest daughter of well-respected and well-connected family. In the last post, we saw evidences of her wit.

What happened to this witty, lively woman to turn her into the forbidding presence her nieces and nephews remembered-- as well as a woman who tried to erase herself from history?

One common answer is the 1797 death of her fiance, Tom Fowle. Fowle, a clergyman, had agreed to go as chaplain on military expedition to the West Indies because, in exchange for this duty, his cousin, Lord Craven, had offered him a living in Shropshire that would allow him to marry. Instead, Fowle died of fever in St. Domingo.

“This is a very severe stroke to the whole family, & particularly to poor Cassandra, for whom I feel more than I can express,"  Eliza de Feuillide wrote to Philadelphia Walter." Indeed, I am most sincerely grieved at this event & the pain it must must occasion for our worthy relations. Jane says that her sister behaves with a degree of resolution & propriety which no common mind could evince in so trying a situation.”

In that last sentence, we catch a glimpse again of Cassandra's pride and hauteur: she was going to, as little as possible, show her feelings to acquaintances or allow anybody to pity her. What relation might this have to her much later letters on the occasion of Jane Austen's death? 

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