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.
CASSANDRA THE CRIME QUEEN?
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.
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.
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?
BEHIND THE LINES
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.
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.