Friday, August 8, 2014

Cassandra: Who is she?

Joshua Wolf Shank, who is authoring a book on the John Lennon-Paul McCartney collaboration, wrote a piece for The New York Times, "The End of Genius" (July 20, 2014) arguing that art best occurs in collaboration with another person. People spark each other, people push each other, people compete with other, people help each other refine their ideas. If this is true, I began to wonder if the common characterization of Cassandra as a wooden block of conventionality yoked to a sister of extraordinary genius might not underrate Cassandra. Was Cassandra just the woman who made the puddings, managed the Chawton household and kept visitors at bay so her sister could write or have we missed a richer, more intellectual collaboration?

As I began to gather information, I found the following in Kenneth Johnston's superb literary history of the Romantics, Unusual Suspects: "Yet the sense that there is something 'missing' in Austen's stories often gives rise to, or provokes, parodies or critiques of her novels in which the 'blank' spaces in her novels are filled up with grotesque monstrosities like zombies and serial murderers--which symbolize, to sophisticated critics, the return or the revenge of the sexually or politically repressed."

Johnston's is an insightful comment, and I would argue that these gaps account for much of what pull people into Austen. Positive stories as well as zombie tales fill the gaps too, such as the collections Diana contributes to that I dip into every so often: Pride and Prejudice: The Scenes Jane Austen Never Wrote and Jane Austen Made Me Do It.

The gaps in Jane and Cassandra's lives tantalize us as much as do the gaps in the novels and almost seem a case of life imitating art: the three-year absence of letters after Jane moves to Bath, the lack of rough drafts of the novels, the missing link of any letter whatsoever from Cassandra to her beloved sister.  In fact, Cassandra seems to have done her best to scrub herself from the historic record. Not only does she seem to have destroyed all her letters, but, argues Arnie, she probably destroyed the vast majority of her artwork too. Frustratingly, we have no photograph of her, even though she lived into the 1840s. All that has come down is a severe silhouette. I count seven extant letters from her: three to Mrs. Philadelphia Whitaker, a cousin, a postscript to a letter to her sister-in-law Mary, two letters to her niece Fanny Knight and one to Jane's friend Anne Sharp. 

Cassandra in silhouette

I am juggling three biographies as I write this: Jane Aiken Hodge's The Double Life of Jane Austen, Paula Byrne's The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things, and Tomalin, books that span 40 years. All necessarily use the same handful of primary sources-- the always suspect, but still informative recollections of nieces and nephews, a few contemporary letters from other people and Austen's own letters.  

We learn that Cassandra and Jane were inseparable and that Jane looked up to Cassandra. Both her cousin Philadelphia and Nancy Mitford, one writing at the time, one recollecting years later, found Jane "affected" and either "whimsical" or "silly." The idea of being affected, of not quite knowing how to behave naturally, may support Ellen's notion of an autistic Jane Austen. Hodge, however, sees the affectedness as the defense of a highly intelligent girl playing an expected role. Philadelphia describes the young Jane as "not at all pretty and very prim, unlike a girl of twelve,”  supporting Arnie's notion of Mary Bennett as a self portrait of Austen. Philadelphia initially found Cassandra more attractive and socially adept: Gracious might be another way to understand her. Or she might be proud: Proud of being the beautiful elder daughter in a respected family. In his memoir, James Edward Austen-Leigh writes, "Cassandra’s was the colder and calmer disposition; she was always prudent and well judging." A few years later, in 1791, Philadelphia would find both Jane and Cassandra "perfect beauties," and Jane much improved, at this point preferring Jane for her greater warmth and partiality. Cassandra was cooler.

Philadelphia also describes a close, happy family. In one letter, both the parents and daughters  were “in high spirits and disposed to be pleased with each other." The family members thought well of each other: they were brimful of life, with status in the community, respected, intelligent, accomplished and attractive. Like Emma's Miss Bates once, people were proud to know them. 

A few bits of evidence from this time point to Cassandra having a fully developed sense of humor and fun: she illustrated Jane's History of England with kings and queens whose faces were comic versions her own brothers' and sister's. Further, in her  letter of Sept 1,1796, Jane writes: "The letter which I have this moment received from you has diverted me beyond moderation. I could die of laughter at it, as they used to say at school. You are indeed the finest comic writer of the present age." The rest of the letter moves directly into Jane’s own concerns, revealing an intense self-centeredness she will later shed. Jane only returns to Cassandra at the very end, writing, “I am glad to hear so good an account of Mr. Limprey and J. Lovett. I know nothing of my mother's handkerchief, but I dare say I shall find it soon.”

Some of Cassandra's illustrations for Jane's History of England

Without Cassandra's letter, how can we know what in it made Jane Austen "die of laughter." Did Cassandra write comic portraits of Limprey and Lovett, and/or perhaps the lost handkerchief? Or perhaps she wrote seriously on a topic Jane was determined to ignore and treat as comedy? Or perhaps the letter was not as funny as intended, evoking mockery? We just don't know. But it's at least possible a bright, comic, high-spirited Cassandra bubbled up beneath the cool facade, at least to those who knew her well. 

Cassandra's circa 1810 portrait of Jane reveals understanding and insight. Rather than draw a prettified picture, Cassandra captures Jane's weariness, astringency and defensiveness in her tired eyes, tight mouth and crossed arms. This is the year before Jane publishes her first novel, and thus it documents her strain before any compensations have come. Would that we had a front view portrait by Cassandra of Jane from 15 years earlier for comparison. For what happened to both Jane and Cassandra between 1796 - 1810? To be continued.


  1. Beautifully written. I thought I would say that I didn't say Austen was autistic but rather showed some Aspergers traits in her letters, and this seems confirmed by some of her central non-comic characters' traits, Darcy among them; we cannot label Mr Collins anything psychologically nuanced as he is a caricature and seen morally.

  2. Thanks Ellen. Point taken. It is so easy for nuance to slide away.