Posted on

Cassandra Austen, Charlotte Brontë, Queen Victoria and a Destruction of Letters

Cassandra Austen in Becoming Jane

What did Cassandra Austen have in common with Charlotte Brontë and one of Queen Victoria’s daughters?


Cassandra Austen and Jane Austen in the film ‘Becoming Jane’

Whatever possessed them to do it?  This can be a question that springs to mind when reading about the deliberate destruction of material left behind after the death of a famous person.  It doesn’t matter from what sphere of the arts the deceased came, whether the artist in question was a singer, musician, poet, painter or writer: anger is raised that part (or all) of their unreleased material has been “disposed of” or censored in some way by a third party, whether relative, business associate, or other.  We know that after Jane Austen’s death, Cassandra Austen, her beloved older sister, was no exception to destruction or censorship of this kind and quantities of Jane’s letters may have been destroyed.  Certainly many were censored by having contentious comments removed.

As the two sisters were often apart, visiting different members of the large Austen family or their connections, a considerable number of letters would have passed between the two.  Some Jane Austen commentators have vilified Cassandra for what they deem acts of wanton vandalism, and have sometimes concluded these acts were probably inspired by jealousy of her talented younger sister.  But is this really the case?  Is this vilification fair?

Two other famous women who have faced charges of wilful censoring and destroying much of a deceased relative’s work are novelist Charlotte Brontë and Princess Beatrice, youngest daughter of Queen Victoria.

Charlotte Brontë is widely believed to have destroyed the draft of a second novel written by her sister, Emily, although it is unclear what stage any manuscript second novel had reached when Emily died, in late 1848.   The accusation rests on Charlotte’s known opinion of Emily’s first work “Wuthering Heights“.  She once wrote of it as  “….a rude and a strange production”, and mentioned its’ “….harshly manifested passions”, so it seems quite possible that she feared this second book would be even more controversial than the first.  A published author herself at the time of Emily’s death and understandably anxious to continue to sell her work to the public, she may have felt that any impropriety would reflect badly on her own reputation.

Princess Beatrice with her mother, Queen Victoria

Princess Beatrice, youngest daughter of Queen Victoria, was the recipient of a sacred charge left to her by her mother, compelling her to go through Victoria’s voluminous diaries, kept since childhood, and to expunge anything considered unfit for eyes other than those of the Queen and her daughter. It appears that Beatrice had received strict instructions on exactly what she was to censor, and the instructions were faithfully followed and carried out over a period of many years.

We who come later may criticise the decisions of Cassandra, Charlotte and Beatrice, but we need to try to put ourselves in their situation:  not long after Emily’s death in 1848, Charlotte Brontë became the last surviving child of the Reverend Patrick Brontë and at the time of Emily’s death, her widowed father was in his seventies.  By 19th century standards, it was quite likely that within the next 5 years he would die, leaving her completely alone with no blood relatives apart from distant cousins in Cornwall, on whom she had no claims. As her father was a clergyman from a humble family background, little money would be forthcoming from his estate, and Charlotte hoped she could continue to earn her own living by her writing. The success of her writing depended on the public’s reception of her work and their view of her as a novelist. Can we blame her for taking the long view and being anxious to maintain her reputation and that of her sisters’ work?

There is another aspect that also warrants consideration:  the temperament of Emily herself.  Always a fiercely private person, and protective of her writing against outside eyes until she deemed it right to be revealed, it was perhaps Emily herself who exacted a solemn promise from Charlotte that on the event of her death, Charlotte should ensure that any remaining manuscripts were destroyed before there was any chance that they might come to public attention.

Were these actions partly motivated by self-interest?  Perhaps we’ll never know, but I think if they were, we should be tolerant, considering the realities of life for a woman in the 19th and early 20th centuries, including the need to preserve an unblemished reputation.  There was also the feeling that the deceased would not be able to answer any criticisms that arose as a result of further material coming under public gaze.

Princess Beatrice as a child

Princess Beatrice, always the shyest, most deferential and malleable of Victoria’s five daughters and the one who, even after her marriage, still lived in her mother’s home, is likely to have been deliberately selected by Victoria to access her private diaries and follow her wishes to the letter.  Obedience was bred into Beatrice, and as an archetypal Victorian lady and Princess of Great Britain to boot,  it would not have occurred to her to refute what would be looked on as a sacred task and her mother’s final wish. The fact that she was leaving large ‘holes’ that later historians would attempt to fill in probably did not occur to her, nor was it likely to have made much difference if it had, in the face of her mother’s royal command.

It is quite possible that Cassandra Austen was in a similar position to that of Princess Beatrice, albeit 84 years earlier. As Jane’s adored only sister and confidante, Cassandra was the recipient of all Jane’s confidences, whether written or spoken, and was the usual first audience for her manuscripts.  With Jane’s talent for lively social commentary about family, friends and acquaintances (and her sometimes forthright and acerbic comment at that), Cassandra may have wished to avoid anything that might later taint the memory of her adored sister or cause upset within the family and we remember how ‘prickly’ her sister-in-law, James Austen’s second wife, Mary (nee Lloyd) could be. Within the family circle of brothers, sisters-in-law, nephews and nieces there was plenty of material for observation, comment and the forthright views Jane was never reluctant to express in letters to her sister (their brother Henry’s failed banking venture, which occurred about 3 years before Jane’s death, and which necessitated yet another change of career for him, would have caused the whole Austen family much grief and surely much comment).  Dearly as she loved her family, Jane is likely to have wanted to spare them any unnecessary pain after her death.  Fully aware that she was dying, Jane may have herself tasked her sister with undertaking the melancholy duty following her death, and exacted her promise that this would be done.

To inflict charges of wanton destruction and jealousy on Cassandra – or Charlotte Brontë and Princess Beatrice – without any apparent evidence to support the charges is, I believe, too harsh and simply unfounded.  What we can say about Jane Austen is the same as can be said about Emily Brontë and Queen Victoria:  we can only speculate about possible evidence of uninhibited comment on joy, passion, unhappiness, disappointment and so on, which has been denied to posterity by the absence of part of their legacy.


This ‘Cassandra Austen, Charlotte Brontë, Queen Victoria and a Destruction of Letters’ article was written by Margaret Mills
About the author:
Margaret’s admiration for Jane Austen began many years ago in her early teens, when she was inspired by a wonderful English Literature teacher who introduced her to ‘Pride and Prejudice’ and the wit and wisdom of Jane Austen. She still re-reads the novels at least once a year, finding new insights every time and admiring Jane’s brilliant writing.
History and literature are her passions and she teaches part-time in adult education. Needless to say some of her courses are on the subject of Jane Austen!
Posted on

Jane and Cassandra: Extraordinary Sisters

Jane and Cassandra

by Caroline Kerr Taylor

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.

Continue reading Jane and Cassandra: Extraordinary Sisters

Posted on

Cassandra Austen: Jane Austen’s Beloved Older Sister

Cassandra Austen

Cassandra Austen, Jane’s beloved sister

If Cassandra were going to have her head cut off, Jane would insist on sharing her fate.”
Mrs. Austen

Cassandra Austen silhouette Cassandra Austen – middle name Elizabeth  – was born January 9, 1773, two years before her famed sister Jane. In a family of 6 boys, the girls became fast and close friends.

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.

Steventon Church Jane and Cassandra Austen 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.

Chawton Cottage

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.