Issue 33: A Most Beloved Sister - Cassandra Austen

MUCH HAS BEEN WRITTEN ABOUT THE RELATIONSHIPS BETWEEN JANE AUSTEN AND THE PEOPLE AROUND HER.

Because of the extant letters, the contemporary opinions of her family and acquaintances that have survived in biographical format, and the scholarly analysis of her novels and juvenilia, there are many Janeites today who feel as though we know her. Who feel that, had she been born two centuries later, she surely would have been our friend.

Of course, these opinions (incorrect or not) are rather harmless. But the fact remains that, short of acquiring a time machine, none of us will ever be able to claim we knew her properly. That honour, without a doubt, fell to her sister and closest friend, Cassandra.

Cassandra Elizabeth Austen was born January 9, 1773, the fifth child and first daughter of her parents, named after her mother. She allegedly looked a lot like her elder brother Edward (later adopted by the Knight family).

For a time, Cassandra and her younger sister, the famous Jane, were sent to a relative to be taught, first in Oxford, then in Southampton. Both girls were brought swiftly home when an infectious disease broke out in Southampton.

In 1785, she was sent to Mrs Latournelle’s Ladies Boarding School in the Abbey House School in Reading along with Jane and their cousin, Jane Cooper. According to Mrs Austen, Jane Austen was actually thought too young to benefit from this type of formal education at her tender age, but the young girl had insisted on accompanying her elder sister – in her mother’s precise words, "if Cassandra's head had been going to be cut off, Jane would have hers cut off too".

 Silhouette of Cassandra Austen

Silhouette of Cassandra Austen

Nevertheless, the two girls’ formal education didn’t last long, with both of them being back in Steventon by December 1786. It is not long afterwards that Jane begins to write in earnest, composing much of the juvenilia that survives today. Her devotion to her elder sister is evident in the humorous and playful dedication to her piece “The Beautifull Cassandra” (likely written in 1788):

Dedicated by permission to Miss Austen.

MADAM

You are a Phoenix. Your taste is refined, your Sentiments are noble, & your Virtues innumerable. Your Person is lovely, your Figure, elegant, & your Form, magestic. Your Manners are polished, your Conversation is rational & your appearance singular. If, therefore, the following Tale will afford one moment's amusement to you, every wish will be gratified of

Your most obedient

humble servant

THE AUTHOR

The two sisters even collaborated on work, with Cassandra providing illustrations for Jane’s “The History of England from the reign of Henry the 4th to the death of Charles the 1st, By a partial, prejudiced, & ignorant Historian” (1791). This work was also dedicated to Cassandra.

In August 1791, the two sisters were described by their cousin, Eliza de Feuillide, as ‘perfect beauties’ who capture ‘hearts by dozens’.  Later in the year she alludes further to Cassandra’s success with besotted young men – ‘some Son of Neptune may have obtained [Cassandra’s] Approbation as She probably experiences much homage from these very gallant Gentlemen during her Acquatic excursions. I hear her Sister and herself are two of the prettiest Girls in England’.

By the end of 1792, Cassandra had indeed got herself engaged. A young curate from Kintbury named Tom Fowle who was a former pupil of her father’s was the lucky man, but unfortunately the wedding had to be put off until he had enough money. He went to the Caribbean as a military chaplain in order to earn the money, but died in 1797 of yellow fever in Santo Domingo. He was buried at sea on February 13, but Cassandra did not find out until April.

Cassandra inherited £1000 from him, which must have been useful even in her heartache – like her sister, Cassandra Austen remained single for the rest of her life. Subject to the same dependencies as her mother and sister, she lived more or less on the goodwill of her brothers and their families, finally settling into Chawton Cottage in 1809 where she lived for the remainder of her life. It was Cassandra who spent the night with Jane after the infamous proposal from Harris Bigg-Wither in December 1802. Who knows what words were exchanged between the two sisters that night? Either way, both Jane and Cassandra forsook marriage from that moment.

She was the main heiress when Jane died, and the executrix of her will, responsible for the protection and distribution of everything Jane had left behind, including the letters that she later decided to destroy. Mercifully though, there are a huge range of letters extant that have survived precisely because Cassandra chose to give them away as mementoes. It will always be a source of frustration to Austen scholars that we will never know what was contained in the destroyed letters, but as Jane’s dearest and closest friend, we must respect that it was up to Cassandra to make that judgement call.

Like most of her siblings, Cassandra lived into old age. Ten years after the death of her sister, Cassandra lost her mother. Shortly after this, their close friend, Martha Lloyd, who had been living in Chawton Cottage also, moved out in order to marry Cassandra’s younger brother Frank. From this point, Cassandra lived alone in Chawton Cottage.

 Gravestones of Cassandra Austen and her mother.  Credit: Julia Grantham.

Gravestones of Cassandra Austen and her mother. Credit: Julia Grantham.

Due to her large extended family, it is likely that she continued to lead a busy life. On May 9, 1843 she made her will, but was still travelling just under two years later at the age of 72. In mid-March 1845 on a visit to Portsmouth to see her brother Frank (who had been widowed once more by Martha’s death two years previously), she suffered a stroke and was cared for by her brother Henry, before dying several days later on March 22, 1845. According to a letter from her nephew Charles, she died at roughly 4 o’clock in the morning - about the same time as Jane had died so many years previously. Her body was taken back to Chawton and she was buried next to her mother at St Nicholas Church within the grounds of Chawton House.

Immortalised in fiction and on screen, Cassandra Austen will forever be famous as the sister of one of the greatest writers Britain has ever seen. But she lived a full life of her own, beloved by her family and blessed with a long life that she she used to care for others and preserve the memory of her sister. We can only thank her and honour her memory alongside Jane's. 

© Emily Prince - writer, librarian, and editor of Pride & Possibilities

References:

Hillan, Sophia. (2011). May, Lou and Cass: Jane Austen’s Nieces in Ireland. Blackstaff Press.

Le Faye, D. (2002). Jane Austen’s Outlandish Cousin: The Life and Letters of Eliza De Feuillide. British Library

Le Faye, D. (Ed.). (2011). Jane Austen’s Letters (4th ed.). Oxford University Press.

Le Faye, D. (2013). A chronology of Jane Austen and her family (2nd rev. ed.). Cambridge University Press.

 
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