What was Jane Austen really like? Reading Cassandra & Jane

Reading Jill Pitkeathley’s biographical novel Cassandra & Jane has prompted me to find out what Jane Austen was really like.  The persona depicted in her book is so different from what I had conjured up while reading Austen’s six novels.  Upon finishing Pitkeathley’s fictional account, I could not wait but delve right into Claire Tomalin’s Jane Austen A Life, and Carol Shields’ Jane Austen.  So, kicking off my fall reading, I have devoured, back to back, three biographical works on a woman writer who is more popular today than she was in her time two hundred years ago.

Jill Pitkeathley’s Cassandra & Jane is a fictitious rendering of Jane Austen’s life. It is based on historical facts as recorded in biographies; in fact, it reads like a fictional illustration of Tomalin’s work.  As a novelist, Pitkeathley takes the liberty to fill in the gaps and offers imagined scenarios of events. That is the fun or ambiguity of reading a historical novel.  The intermingling of fact and fiction has spurred me on to explore what actually happened, above all, what kind of a character Jane herself truly was.

I was surprised to find that behind the romantic book cover shrouds a very sombre portrait of Jane Austen.  What is most intriguing is the revelation that, unlike the sanguine ending in Austen’s novels, the very author of these works had led a life filled with misfortunes and disappointments.  And unlike Austen’s heroines, females who could impact and influence those around them, Jane was often bound by powerlessness and subjugated to consequences of familial and social disparities.  For most part of her life until she received the meager profits from her books, she was solely dependent on her father and later her brothers financially that she could not make any travel plans or purchases on her own.

Written from the point of view of Cassandra, who was the sole person privy to the intimate and private side of a beloved sister, the novel depicts a discontented soul, at times critical, at times bitter, and poignantly resigned at the end. Unlike her own novels, which end on a high note with exhilarating conclusion, Jane Austen’s life was far from fulfilling for her in love, in health, and in career.  Within the confines of late 18th and early 19th century England, the lively and soaring spirit of Jane Austen was kept distressingly in check.  What Pitkeathley has chosen to present to us therefore is a multi-layered persona, deep and intriguing.

“Hers was such a complex nature that it was not possible to explain to those who did not love her that she could be cruel and kind, disparaging and compassionate, bitter and hopeful, almost in the same breath.”

Considering the complex character of her beloved sister, her sharp wit and critical eye, her cutting comments on the people and circumstances around her, Cassandra had a very legitimate reason to burn the intimate correspondences she had with Jane, knowing that Jane would easily be misunderstood and even judged by posterity if they were released to the public. Pitkeathley had taken full advantage of this void to fill in the gaps and offer her own renderings of the events and motives marked by silence, albeit based on historical evidences.

The account of the romantic episode with George Atkins is an example.  Regarding the Rev. Atkins, whom Jane met in Lyme, and who received a passing mention in her letters anonymously, Pitkeathley has painted a star-crossed love affair, adding colours to a life that is thought to be devoid of romance.

Considered by some who think her life as uneventful,  and indeed, she may not have travelled far from her home in her short 41 years of life, Jane had had her share of life experiences. First off, from infancy, she had the taste of banishment as all Austen newborns were sent off to be raised elsewhere from home, coming back only as they entered childhood.  Her childhood days with her siblings were probably the most joyous period of her life, growing up in a literary household, devouring books in her father’s library and participating in theatrical gigs her brothers organized. Her strain relationship with her mother however remained a dark spot most of her life.

Jane’s young adulthood saw disappointment of lost love and opportunities, or the lack thereof. Nevertheless, married life to her may not be that appealing, after witnessing two sister-in-laws die at giving birth to their eleventh child.  She had felt the grief of the death of Cassandra’s fiancé days before the wedding.  She was dislocated from home beyond her own choosing, moving to Bath and thus triggering a long period of depression.  She had led a life of poverty, suffered the loss of her dearly beloved father, endured familial and social disparities first as a female, then as an unmarried female, and later as an unmarried female writer.  She had seen her own works rejected, and later even with some of her novels published, had to remain anonymous to avoid social deprecation.  And finally, she saw the bankruptcy of her brothers, jeopardizing her mother’s, her sister’s and her own livelihood, and lastly, faced an untimely death at age 41 after a debilitating and painful illness.

What is left that makes life meaningful and fulfilling?  How can a spirit confined to so many limitations break through and soar?  Pitkeathley has painted a Jane who was resilient and determined.  Choosing a life of literary pursuit over a loveless marriage to Harris Bigg-Wither, Jane was ready to take on the social denigration of spinsterhood and the working woman.  From her writing, Jane had found release from her entrapment. She had created stories wherein heroines were passionate and free like Marianne Dashwood, intelligent and self-assured like Elizabeth Bennet, adventurous and imaginative like Catherine Morland, persistent and morally upright like Fanny Price, lively and mischievous like Emma Woodhouse, and patient and long-loving like Anne Elliot.  From her writing, Jane had opened a way for her own self expression, channelled her indignation of injustices, and found a platform to proclaim her ideals.

At the end, with Cassandra, we lament the short life of Jane Austen, but we cherish a literary talent whose resilience and ideals have inspired readers through the centuries.  Considering the numerous film adaptations today and the proliferation of fan fiction, Jane can finally impact and influence, an ideal she could only imagine in her novel writing.

You are invited to vote on the poll question:  Which Austen heroine do you think Jane was most like? Find the Poll on the top of the side bar. Just check your answer and click “Vote”.


Cassandra & Jane by Jill Pitkeathley, first published 2004, reprinted 2008 by Harper Collins, N.Y.  270 pages.