Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Cassandra: Who Is she: part III

In a letter to niece Fanny Knight in the immediate aftermath of Jane Austen's 1817 death, Cassandra writes that she loved Jane "too well." Her partiality for her sister made her "sometimes unjust to & negligent of others." Therefore, Cassandra writes, “I can acknowledge . . . the justice of the hand which has struck this blow.”

Tomalin has harsh words the religious outlook Cassandra expressed above, writing as follows: "Her submission suggests a particularly nasty view of divine justice: because you love someone better than other people, God punishes you by killing the person you love." (Jane Austen: A Life 196)

While we deplore the theology, we understand that Cassandra was trying to impose meaning on seemingly random suffering--and we wonder if she had had a similar reaction to the death of her fiance, Tom Fowle, 20 years before.

We have no words whatsoever from Cassandra on Fowle's death, but witnesses unanimously describe her withdrawing into early spinsterhood and refusing to consider relationships with other men.

Did she, one wonders, believe that Fowle's death was a punishment to her for loving too much? Is this how she made meaning of that particularly cruel blow?

Although various reasons have been given for Emily Tennyson's 15-year engagement to Alfred Tennyson, one that sticks in my mind proposes that she was trapped: a woman who had been once engaged but had broken the engagement was tainted goods other men would shy away from. Emily had no choice but to keep on keeping on and hoping Tennyson would marry her. Did Cassandra also feel this way, that she too had become tainted goods for the bad luck of having a fiance die? Did she overhear whispers that she was marked, that the death was an evil omen? Did she somehow feel responsible for Tom's death, as she did for Jane's? Did she feel cursed, especially after the second beloved in her life died an untimely death?

We have no way of knowing--except the clues that are consistent with this story. Cassandra apparently withdrew from life, entered middle age early, no longer acted the part, at least publicly, of the witty, lively young woman. If she did feel cursed, it would explain, especially after Jane's death, her attempts at self erasure.

But people are not one dimensional.


  1. this is a response to Cassandra Part 2 and this one. As I recall one of the few descriptions of we have of Jane Austen outside her family as she appeared on social occasions described her as an outrageous flirt when young and a rigid, stuck-up woman in later life (who scared the company once they realized she had written the brilliant novels). I've taken this kind of comment to be mostly spite but to have grains of truth. As they both half-chose spinsterhood and both had little money, their behavior could have had elements of noli me tangere as protection from sneers and a a signal they didn't want later in life to be seen as desperate for a man. Cassandra's comment about Jane's cruel death being a punishment on her occurs in the context of her loving Jane too much - we can speculate she similarly tried to derive some meaning from the senseless death of the young Thomas Fowle but we don't have any writing from her about that at all. Only Jane comments and says she can scarcely believe the strong endurance Cassandra is showing to the world. That's Jane speaking out of her own feeling. Cassandra tries to put up a similar front when Jane dies but she is older, weaker, more deeply attached, and knows no one else is going to replace her sister.

  2. The great problem is the lack of documentary evidence C left, but too much information, if torrents of trivia, would also be a problem. I would agree it was harder for C after Jane died, even if she was relatively young.