If Cassandra were going to have her head cut off, Jane would insist on sharing her fate.”
Education was extremely important to the Austens. The girls’ father, Rev. George Austen, ran a boarding school out of their home, the Rectory, in Steventon. In 1783, Jane and her older sister Cassandra went briefly to be taught by a Mrs. Cawley (the sister of one of their uncles). They were brought home after an infectious disease broke out in Southampton. In 1785-1786 Jane and Cassandra went to the Abbey boarding school in Reading, which apparently bore some resemblance to Mrs. Goddard’s casual school in Emma. (Jane was considered almost too young to benefit from the school, but their mother is reported to have said that “if Cassandra’s head had been going to be cut off, Jane would have hers cut off too”.) This was Jane Austen’s only education outside her family. Within their family, the two girls learned drawing, to play the piano, etc.
The girls returned home and lived at the Rectory, an integral part of their community until their removal to Bath in 1800. With the older brothers marrying and moving on to careers in the Church or military, room was made available for the two of them, who shared a room all their lives, to appropriate a sitting room next door. With its two windows, fireplace and brown patterned carpet, it was here that they kept their books, piano, sewing, drawing and writing materials. It was also in these rooms that Jane first experimented with her writing and penned The History of England (By a Partial, Prejudiced and Ignorant Historian) which Cassandra, ever the artist in the family, illustrated with portraits of the various kings and queens mentioned there (but who curiously resembled members of the Austen family.)
In about 1794, Cassandra became engaged to a former student of her father’s, Thomas Fowle. This engagement carried on for some time as Tom was waiting for a family living in Shropshire to become available. Eventually, he decided to join the military as an army chaplain and was sent to the Caribbean. Unfortunately he contracted Yellow Fever and died there in 1797. It was some time before the Austens heard the news and while Cassandra benefited from an annuity left in his will (she inherited Tom’s savings of £1000 which yielded about £50 per year.) she never recovered from this blow and, like Jane, never married.
Perhaps because of this connection the sisters remained each other’s closest confidant and friend. Cassandra (like Jane) frequently visited her brothers and their families, and other relatives and friends. It was the separations between herself and Jane, resulting from visits on which they did not both go, that necessitated the letters between them. The sisters wrote each other nearly every day while apart and over 100 of these missives survive today giving us a better picture of both Jane, the author, and the sister she loved so much.
In January 1805, during their lengthy stay in Bath, the Reverend Austen died. As would have been the case for the Bennets in Pride and Prejudice if Mr. Bennet had died, the income due to the remaining family (Mrs. Austen and her two daughters, the only children still at home) was considerably reduced — since most of Mr. Austen’s income had come from clerical “livings” which lapsed with his death. So they were largely dependent on support from the Austen brothers, summing to a total of about £450 yearly. Later in 1805, Martha Lloyd (the sister of James Austen’s wife, Mary) came to live with Mrs. Austen, Cassandra, and Jane, after her own mother had died.
In 1806 they moved from Bath, first to Clifton, and then, in autumn 1806, to Southampton. Two years later, Jane remembered (in a letter to Cassandra) with “what happy feelings of Escape!” she had left Bath. Southampton was conveniently near to the navy base of Portsmouth and the naval brothers Frank and Charles.
In 1809 Cassandra Austen, her mother, sister Jane, and Martha Lloyd moved to Chawton, near Alton and Winchester, where her brother Edward provided a small house on one of his estates. This was in Hampshire, not far from her childhood home of Steventon.
Life in Chawton was pleasant and not unlike that which they had led early on in Steventon. Unfortunately, this respite, with Jane writing furiously (five of her six novels were written here) and Cassandra overlooking the housekeeping, was not long to be enjoyed. Cassandra’s beloved Jane had fallen ill with what doctors now believe to be Addison’s disease. In early 1817, the sisters moved to Winchester, in Alton, so that she could be under a physician’s care. Jane died there on Friday, July 18th 1817, aged 41.
Jane Austen was buried in Winchester Cathedral, near the centre of the north aisle. “It is a satisfaction to me to think that [she is] to lie in a Building she admired so much… 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” Cassandra later wrote. Cassandra destroyed many of her sister’s letters; one hundred sixty survived but none written earlier than her twentieth birthday.
Cassandra was destined to long outlive her sister Jane. She continued on at Chawton with regular visits to her brothers, nieces and nephews. In 1827 Mrs. Cassandra Austen, the girls’ mother, died and was buried in the Chawton cemetery. Soon thereafter (in about 1828) Martha Lloyd also left the household, this time to marry Cassandra’s younger brother Frank, then Admiral Sir Francis Austen.
Cassandra continued living alone until her death at the age of 72, in 1845. Many people blame Cassandra for the way she handled Jane Austen’s estate after her death. Others find her to have been the prudish, stiff elder sister who looked down on Jane’s flightiness and gaity. Still others balme her for what they consider to be her unflattering watercolor portrait of her sister. In reality, most of what we know of Jane Austen today, we owe to her sister Cassandra. It was she who filled in gaps in her sister’s life for generations after, leaving an oral record to supplement the written. It was she who gave us the only two authenticated likenesses of her sister. It was she who, while she did destroy many of the letters, preserved the majority of her sister’s extensive writings and most importantly, it was she to whom the letters were written, without which we might never have known the human side of one of the world’s favorite authors.
As with all those she knew, Jane Austen included sketches of Cassandra in with her characters. Discerning readers think they can catch glimpses of her in Jane Bennet and Elinor Dashwood, beloved elder sisters who bravely bear the loss of love. Others find her in the sentiments of Mrs. Croft in discussing engagement and marriage, “I would rather have young people settle on a small income at once, and have to struggle with a few difficulties together, than be involved in a long engagement.” No doubt, with the death of her fiancée fresh in her mind, the issue was much discussed between the sisters.
Excerpts from the Jane Austen Information Page, Jane Austen’s World by Maggie Lane, and other sources.
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