Between the Lines: Sisterhood and Serendipitous Elusiveness, a Guest Post from Gabrielle Mullarkey

Between the Lines: Sisterhood and Serendipitous Elusiveness, a Guest Post from Gabrielle Mullarkey


Sisterhood and serendipitous elusiveness

Jane Austen, like many great artists, reaches out to us across time as both a living presence glimpsed between the lines of her own words and as an image orchestrated and reconstructed endlessly by others – including the woman regarded traditionally as iconographer-in-chief, her elder sister, Cassandra.

Conspiracy theories abound as to the ‘true’ nature of the relationship between Jane and Cassandra. Consider this famous extract from Cassandra’s letter to niece Fanny Knight, written in the wake of Jane’s death in July, 1817:

I have lost 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 it is as if I had lost a part of myself. I loved her only too well — not better than she deserved, but I am conscious that my affection for her made me sometimes unjust to and negligent of others; and I can acknowledge, more than as a general principle, the justice of the Hand which has struck this blow.

You know me too well to be at all afraid that I should suffer materially from my feelings; I am perfectly conscious of the extent of my irreparable loss, but I am not at all overpowered and very little indisposed, nothing but what a short time, with rest and change of air, will remove. I thank God that I was enabled to attend her to the last, and amongst my many causes of self-reproach, I have not to add any wilful neglect of her comfort.

At first glance, there’s a lot of ‘I’ going on, plus a hint of arch self-regard in my affection for her made me sometimes unjust to and negligent of others; and I can acknowledge, more than as a general principle, the justice of the Hand which has struck this blow.

This seems to recast Jane’s death as a divine reproach to Cassandra’s failings. Taken with Cassandra’s incendiary disposal of so many of Jane’s letters, she’s long been ripe for reappraisal as the patient and supportive foil to her brilliant younger sister.


I’m not one for wholesale dismissal of conspiracy theories, since they intrigue and spark the imagination. For example, ‘literary sleuth’ Arnie Perlstein (@JaneAustenCode on Twitter) sees, in Cassandra’s words I loved her only too well — not better than she deserved, an echo of Othello’s when he calls himself ‘one that lov’d not wisely, but too well’ after murdering Desdemona.

The outlandish notion that Cassandra may have murdered Jane fits into a canon of speculation that Jane was poisoned by arsenic, typified by Lindsay Ashford’s 2011 novel, The Mysterious Death of Miss Austen.

As lately as 2017, an examination of Jane’s spectacles concluded that she had very poor eyesight at the time of death, a possible side-effect of medicine she might have taken for rheumatism, which may have contained arsenic.

Notwithstanding the ‘possibles,’ ‘mays’ and ‘might haves,’ amateur detectives speculate that Jane could have been offed by arsenic cloaked in a medical application, suspects ranging from Cassandra to Jane’s brother Henry and even household cook Margaret Bigeon, all after Jane’s £800 nest egg.

Who doesn’t love such intrigue? I tapped into dramatic possibilities myself to formulate dastardly crimes in my novel Four Riddles for Jane Austen and her artful maid Tilly

But it seems to me that the more distant, elusive and reified the ‘victim’, the more such theories gain traction. We saw it as recently as 1997 in claims that Princess Diana – an image that many people projected onto rather than a person they knew – had been murdered, supported by plausibly intricate research.

Jane Austen’s elusiveness was intensified when Cassandra destroyed letters that might have enabled us to glimpse the ‘real people’ behind the screen – both herself and Jane. But should that matter?


In Lizzie and Jane Bennet, Marianne and Elinor Dashwood, it’s tempting to see hints of Jane and Cassandra, the latter reflected in the more stolid qualities of Jane or Elinor. As readers and admirers, we prefer to imagine Jane Austen as high-spirited Lizzie standing her ground, or as passionate Marianne flouting convention to pursue her heart.

But the ‘true’ nature of the Jane-Cassandra dynamic is bound to remain as elusive as the women themselves. Siblings who grow up co-dependently often become adept at hiding deep feelings from the outside world, from each other and even from themselves. As if to confirm that, in her letter to Fanny Knight, Cassandra writes self-effacingly, You know me too well to be at all afraid that I should suffer materially from my feelings.

While Cassandra was probably reassuring Fanny that she hadn’t succumbed to physical malady brought on by grief, a gentleman’s daughter in 1817 was not at liberty to rend her garments, beat her breast or declaim loudly, ‘why did she have to die?’ Or even (to acknowledge conspiracy theorists), ‘why did I have to be the unobtrusive helpmeet to the feted writer?’   

Besides, the very idea of unrestrained emotion would have struck Cassandra as self-indulgent and improper. We can muse a great deal on how 18th and 19th century propriety imposed restraint on self-expression, but to assume that women such as Cassandra chafed against decorum is to apply a postmodernist sense of individualism retrospectively; even Marianne Dashwood had a keen sense of propriety; compare her artless conduct to Mary Crawford’s ‘blunted delicacy and… corrupted, vitiated mind’ Mansfield Park, Ch. XLVII). Nor should we dismiss Cassandra’s self-effacement as insincere.

details of a Jane Austen bench

Finally, since maintaining respectability and protecting carefully fostered reputation were paramount social expectations, we shouldn’t be surprised – or censorious – that Cassandra destroyed a cache of Jane’s letters, however benign their contents might have struck modern sensibilities. Glimpses aplenty remain of Jane’s naturalism and dry wit in her surviving correspondence, eg:

I find, on looking into my affairs, that instead of being very rich I am likely to be very poor… as we are to meet in Canterbury I need not have mentioned this. It is as well, however, to prepare you for the sight of a sister sunk in poverty, that it may not overcome your spirits.

Letter to Cassandra, June 20, 1808

However, Cassandra’s actions, whatever their motivation, went beyond maintaining an image of Jane, to creating one. The very act of destroying the letters forged an abiding interest in their imagined content, feeding the mythology of ‘who’ Jane Austen ‘really’ was, and prompting the writers carrying her train to expand the possibilities exponentially. The really intriguing question is – was this done unwittingly or with a shrewd eye to wrapping Jane Austen in mystery, inside her own enigma?


The author’s persona is as much a construct as the characters they create, and it is perfectly possible that both Cassandra and Jane were aware of this. As inveterate correspondents, they had an established rhythm and frame of reference, and may well have shared coded acknowledgement of who and what to omit from their letters, Cassandra exercising the privilege of confidentiality still further after her sister’s death.

In so doing, she may (that word again!) have been keenly aware of conflating author with sister and ‘real person’, generations of Janeites ever since rushing to fill the gap and supplement known facts with their own visions of the author and interpretation of her character.

But it is reading between and behind the lines that Jane Austen wrote, as well as the ones we can only imagine, that, paradoxically, bring her to life. 

Every reader who encounters a great writer for the first time invents them afresh in their mind’s eye, just as every active imagination is constantly mining the gaps and seeing into the white spaces on the printed page, suddenly finding themselves looking at a wholly realised world – and themselves – in new and unexpected ways.   


For the past 25 years, Gabrielle Mullarkey has worked as a journalist in the UK on everything from Cosmopolitan to women’s weeklies, while also contributing over 1.300 short stories to magazines.

Having published two novels (commercial fiction) with Simon & Schuster, her 2017 novel reimagining Jane Austen as a quick-witted sleuth was borne of her abiding passion for all things Austenite.

Since gaining her MSc in creative writing for therapeutic purposes in 2014 from Middlesex University, Gabrielle balances writing for publication with work as a creative writing tutor for adult learning and mental heath groups, and writes with and for patients at local hospices.

She lives in Oxfordshire and eats too much chocolate.

Four Riddles for Jane Austen (and her artful maid Tilly) is published by Corazon Books.

Available from:



Photos: JA bench, Winchester & snail detail, JA bench – this carved wooden bench is opposite 8 College Street, the house where Jane died in Winchester in July 1817. The bench was created in the Regency style by local sculptor Nicola Henshaw. Nicola worked with fellow artist Eileen White to develop ideas for the design with local schoolchildren, using Jane’s words, “to sit in the shade on a fine day and look upon verdure is the most perfect refreshment,” as inspiration.

I was intrigued by the addition of snails to the bench’s natural imagery. They struck me as a possible metaphor for the Jane-Cassandra sisterhood: long, patient years of quietly mutual support. When I asked artist Nicola about the snails’ inclusion, she explained: “The position of the snails was to signify their love, tenderness and affection for each other. The reason they’re present is because I brought “verdure” from my garden into the school for a drawing and paper-cutting workshop with the children. In amongst the greenery were tiny, tiny snails, which the children loved. I felt that I had to include them in the work!”

Photo: Jane statue, Basingstoke – a life-size statue of Jane by sculptor Adam Roud was unveiled in the Hampshire town of Basingstoke in summer 2017 to mark the 200th anniversary of her death, Jane Austen biographer Claire Tomalin commenting: “Nothing could be better than a statue of Jane Austen hurrying across Market Square to collect library books, do a little shopping or pick up her mother from Dr Lyford’s house.” Jane knew Basingstoke well and attended social gatherings at the Assembly Rooms in Market Square, often visiting family friends at The Vyne, Oakley Hall and Ashe House.

17 Responses to Between the Lines: Sisterhood and Serendipitous Elusiveness, a Guest Post from Gabrielle Mullarkey

  1. A child saw her aunt tossing paper into the fire and Cassandra has been vilified ever since. Perhaps they were Cassandra’s letters to Jane. Cassandra gave away letters to family members and cut up others to give them the signature. Some letters would have been lost in the ordinary moving from one place to another. Also. Jane only wrote to Cassandra when they were apart. She didn’t write when they were together so the absence of letters about a man she met at the sea side doesn’t mean they were destroyed but that Cassandra was there at the time.
    Not every one saved letters nor did everyone believe that the letters belonged to the sender. Rather than vilifying Cassandra because some letters were lost she ought to be honored for preserving as many as she did. Jane left her all her l writings including her letters so she would have been perfectly within her rights to have destroyed them all. Instead she kept many . others were given to friends and family– not all of those have survived. Most people do not save letters from acquaintances or even siblings or parents.
    Cassandra was Jane’s sounding board, her alpha and beta reader, the one with whom to discuss her characters– when Cassandra was at home with her.
    Jane Austen had a remarkably supportive family for her writing. Far from being censored and circumscribed Austen was helped and encouraged. One biographer has Cassandra as a wet blanket and a voice urging caution and conformity but there is no evidence for that. Cassandra and her family should be recognized as encouraging Jane to write. Cassandra saved most of Jane’s letters. Cassandra kept the memory of Jane Alive for the nieces and nephews. Jane loved Cassandra better than anyone else and would be sorely displeased to hear the unkind remarks directed towards her sister.

  2. Coming to the conversation late: I found this very interesting. I am always attempting to “guess” the perpetrator of crimes when I read a mystery story. Here I would rather think that Cassandra was simply keeping precious and personal information from the prying eyes of those who would examine and dissect and speculate to Jane’s discredit if the public were allowed to view what was only intended as correspondence between sisters. I would not like my journals to be read by the public. They might help me cleanse my mind and soul from angst but no one can determine the primary goal and/or motivation to anyone’s private thoughts. I do not blame Cassandra for her action. I believe she loved her sister and that the novels Jane wrote shared much of her soul with the public. Love it. Leave it!

    Thanks for sharing.

    • Hi Sheila. I suppose it comes back to what I say in the piece – that we are imaginative creatures who read into the gaps and between the lines, and often project onto historical figures. The really intriguing thing is that we’ll never know what motivated Cassandra or what she might have agreed/pre-arranged with Jane. Some of the letters that do survive show Jane’s caustic, sometimes bristly side, which Cassandra didn’t mind leaking into the public domain, so that compounds interest in the omissions. I’m so glad you found the post interesting.

    • Thank you so much, Jennifer. As Cassandra lived until 1845, it’s poignant to think of all those years without Jane’s sisterly company (a bond that is echoed, I think, in the strong mutual dependence between the Dashwood sisters in Sense & Sensibility).

    • Thank you so much, Sharon. I must admit, I’m one of those people who can’t watch or read a ‘whodunit’ without making increasingly wild speculations as to who actually ‘dunit’!

  3. Thank you for this delightful post on Jane and Cassandra. Though the letters may have told us much more about Jane, she still lives on through her books and those who continue to expand on her characters. For that, I am very thankful…

  4. Thanks for guest posting today. I had not seen the photo of the statue before; thanks for sharing it with us.

    I cringed at the thought of all those letters… however, in a pique of anger or despair… I set to the fire twenty-years of journals. Do I regret it? No, not really. I caught myself reading through them and would become upset at what I had written… it was an especially difficult time in my life. So, I removed that irritant from my grasp and found that it was rather liberating. I didn’t want anyone reading them if something happened to me, so I can understand torching something you don’t want anyone else to read. I try to not judge her too harshly.

    • That is so interesting, J W. In therapeutic writing, it’s sometimes suggested to clients that they consider committing to ritual bonfire ‘unsent letters’ to a person or situation that has caused them grief, for the very reason you give here – that it’s liberating.
      I was in Basingstoke the weekend following the statue’s unveiling, thanks to a tipoff from a local Jane Austen aficionado. The sculptor posted stills of his progress on

  5. I have always been disappointed that many of the letters were destroyed as I would love to have had more information about the real Jane Austen and more insight into the relationships that she had during her life.

    • I know what you mean, Darcy. As Jane and Cassandra wrote to each other so regularly – sometimes daily when apart – it’s possible that some of the letters were destroyed because they were perceived as being packed with ‘dull’ domestic detail – which, of course, would now strike us as fascinating.

  6. Thank you for being our guest today, Gabrielle. The idea of Cassandra’s destroying Jane’s letters always strikes a discordant chord for me. Then again, perhaps Austen mystique would be destroyed.

    • Thank you for having me, Regina! As you say, the missing letters do add to the Jane mystique. As humans, I guess we can’t help intriguing – witness the ongoing contention among some Shakespeare scholars that Shakespeare wasn’t ‘educated’ enough to have penned the sonnets and plays attributed to him.

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