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Jane and Cassandra: Extraordinary Sisters

by Caroline Kerr Taylor

Their affection for each other was extreme; it passed the common love of sisters; and it had been so from childhood.  Jane’s niece, Anna

Jane and Cassandra
Anna Maxwell Martin and Anne Hathaway as Cassandra and Jane in the film ‘Becoming Jane’ (2007)

Jane Austen was born in December 1775, the seventh child of Rev. and Mrs. Austen. Mrs. Austen nursed each of her babies for the first few months before they were taken to a neighboring family (the Littleworths). Each child was looked after by this family for the first couple of years until the child could walk and talk. The parents visited regularly during this time, until the child was ready to be brought back into the Austen household. This was not a totally uncommon practice for the time, nor was it considered unfeeling. As long as the baby was well cared for, that was what mattered to the Austens. Knowing today what we know of the importance of mother/baby bonding it would have been extremely disrupting for a child to be taken from its mother after just a few months and placed with another family. (And then, later, wrenched from that family when the Austens felt the child was ready to rejoin their household.) This could be a significant reason why Jane became attached more deeply to her sister than to her mother.

The Austens had six other children at the time of Jane’s birth and only one other daughter. Mrs. Austen’s life was very busy. She not only looked after her children and household but also ran the dairy and took care of the garden. In such a home it is easy to understand how young Jane would have attached herself to her only sister. Along with his clerical duties her father had farming responsibilities as well. To help with the expenses of such a large family her father took in boys for academic tutoring. So, along with their own children, they usually had several other boys living with the family. One can only imagine how busy the day to day life was in the Austen parsonage. The two girls, less than 3 years apart in age, would have been drawn ever closer together in a house full of rambunctious boys. Cassandra became not only Jane’s playmate but a second mother.

In the 18th and 19th centuries it was common for relatives and friends to visit other family members or friends for extended periods of time.  Cassandra was invited to stay with her cousin for a lengthy visit, and Jane missed her sister greatly while they were apart. She was so excited on the day of Cassandra’s return that, on her own initiative and perhaps without her mother knowing, she took her little brother Charles, just three at the time, and walked several miles to meet her carriage.

By the time it was decided to send Cassandra off to school, Jane had formed such a firm attachment that she insisted that she go to school with her. Jane’s niece Anna recalls her grandmother saying, “Jane was too young to make her going to school at all necessary, but it was her own doing; she would go with Cassandra; if Cassandra’s head had been going to be cut off Jane would have hers cut off too.”

The Austen family was well educated. Drawing upon Rev. Austen’s library and the local lending library, they were a well-read family. They discussed ideas and read aloud to each other. Some wrote poetry. All took part putting on productions of popular plays. Even with the noise and commotion of a very hectic and busy household, this was a happy home. During Jane’s teen years she began writing stories. Since the sisters shared a bedroom it was often here that Cassandra would have heard Jane’s stories and spoken with her about her different ideas, characters, and plots. Early on, Cassandra provided some of the illustrations for her sister’s stories.  While she was the more reserved of the two sisters, Cassandra appreciated and shared Jane’s sense of humour. In a letter dated September 1, 1796, Jane tells her sister “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.”

As a young woman Cassandra fell in love with Tom Fowle, one of her father’s former pupils. They were engaged to marry, which pleased her parents, as Tom was well loved by the family. In order to have sufficient money to marry, Tom, a clergyman, took a posting as a chaplain aboard a ship going to the West Indies. Tragically, while on this mission, Tom died from yellow fever. This was a devastating loss for Cassandra and a blow for the family. Cassandra never considered the possibility of loving another. Jane and her sister, already deeply attached, drew even closer together. Fanny Lefroy, a grand-niece, wrote, “They seemed to lead a life to themselves, within the general family life, which was shared only by each other. I will not say their true but their full feelings, and opinions were known only to themselves.”

After Rev. Austen’s retirement from the Steventon parish, the sisters moved with their parents and rented a home in Bath. A few years later, in 1805, Rev. Austen died suddenly. The next years were difficult ones for the women. Generally women did not earn money. They were taken care of financially by their father, husband or brother. Struggling to make ends meet, mother and two daughters moved accommodation a number of times, in the end sharing a house with Jane’s brother Frank in Southampton. It wasn’t until 1809, when wealthy brother Edward was able to offer them a home on his Hampshire property, that the women could really settle down. It was here, in Chawton Cottage, that Jane began to revise her first books, Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice and Northanger Abbey. It was here, too, that she wrote Mansfield Park, Emma and Persuasion. Cassandra was always the first one Jane engaged to share and discuss her writing. Occasionally they even disagreed, and it is said that Cassandra wanted Fanny, in Mansfield Park, to marry Henry Crawford. However, Jane was determined that Fanny should marry Edmund.

During these years in Chawton the brothers and their families visited the women regularly. The sisters often had their nieces and nephews staying with them. Caroline, James’s daughter, remembers Aunt Jane often saying to her “that Aunt Cassandra could teach everything much better than she could – Aunt Cass knew more – Aunt Cass could tell me better whatever I wanted to know –all which I received in respectful silence – Perhaps she thought my mind wanted a turn in that direction, but I truly believe she did always really think of her sister, as the superior to herself. The most perfect affection and confidence ever subsisted between them….”

Caroline’s sister, Anna, remembered fondly seeing the sisters walking in wintry weather: “I remember too their bonnets: because though precisely alike in colour, shape and material, I made it a pleasure to guess and I believe always guessed right, which bonnet and which Aunt belonged to each other”.

Jane and Cassandra wrote to each other just about every day while apart.  It is interesting to note that Jane’s letters to her sister, which Cassandra kept and passed down to the family, occasionally had sections cut out of them. These were obviously thoughts or comments that were deemed too personal or perhaps too gossipy to make public.

During the Chawton years Jane’s writing flourished and she began publishing and selling her books.  For the first time in her life she had money of her own. The interest from her savings was not enough, however, to support the women.  They depended on assistance from the brothers. Unfortunately, at this time a number of misfortunes struck the Austen family. A lawsuit was brought against Edward’s large Hampshire estate, which put their entitlement to the Chawton cottage in jeopardy. This legal struggle involved a claim made by a neighboring family and was not settled until after Jane died. Henry, a banker, had helped Jane enormously with her publishing, but a recession after the Napoleonic wars resulted in the failure of his two banks.  Henry lost everything and many family members lost significant amounts of money. Most of the brothers who had helped the Austen women financially could no longer afford to contribute to their welfare. It was a very stressful time for the women. Charles was captain of the ship Phoenix in 1816.While serving in the Mediterranean the Phoenix was destroyed in a storm. Although the crew was saved along with the ship’s goods, Charles was subjected to a court-martial. This news would have reached home at the same time as Henry’s bank collapse. Several months later Charles was cleared, but it was ten years before he received another commission. Then, in March, 1817, the death of James Leigh Perrot, Mrs. Austen’s wealthy brother, presented the family with another financial blow. As the Leigh Perrots had no children it was understood that his sister and family would be heirs. Instead, the will provided that all funds were left to his wife until her death.

Surely the family misfortunes during those last years would have been weighing heavily on Jane. Henry noted that Jane began to show signs of illness in l816. At this time Jane had been dealing with a painful back. In a letter dated September 8, 1816, to Cassandra, Jane says, “Thank you, my back has given me scarcely any pain for many days. – I have an idea that agitation does it as much harm as fatigue, and that I was ill at the time of your going, from the very circumstance of you going.” In another letter to Charles dated April 6, 1817, she says “I am ashamed to say that the shock of my Uncle’s Will brought on a relapse, and I was so ill on Friday & thought myself so likely to be worse that I could not but press for Cassandra’s returning….”

Jane’s health continued to decline. After relocating Jane to Winchester for medical help, the family was told that there was nothing more that could be done. Members of the family came frequently during the last days. James wrote to his son James Edward at Oxford on June 12, 1817, with the news: “I grieve to write what you will grieve to read; but I must tell you that we can no longer flatter ourselves with the least hope of having your dear valuable Aunt Jane restored to us. The symptoms, which returned after the first four or five days at Winchester, have never subsided, and Mr. Lyford has candidly told us that her case is desperate. I need not say what a melancholy gloom this has cast over us all. Your Grandmama has suffered much, but her affliction can be nothing to Cassandra’s.”

Cassandra was Jane’s ever present companion and nurse during the last weeks. In a letter dated May 29, 1817, Jane says: “On this subject I will only say further that my dearest sister, my tender, watchful, indefatigable nurse, has not been made ill by her exertions. As to what I owe to her, and to the anxious affection of all my beloved family on this occasion, I can only cry over it, and pray to God to bless them more and more.”

Jane died in the early morning of July 18, 1817, in her sister’s arms. In the letter that Cassandra wrote to her niece, Fanny Knight, on Jane’s death, we can see the depth and devotion of the sisters’ relationship. The letter, dated Sunday, July 20, 1817, reads in part: “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.”

Caroline Kerr Taylor authored many educational work books as an editor at Creative Teaching Press, Cypress, California. After some years living abroad in New Zealand, she now lives in Newport Beach, California, and enjoys freelance writing

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