The life of Jane Austen, one of England's greatest novelists, is largely a mystery, mostly because her sister Cassandra destroyed much of their correspondence after Jane's death. Why Cassandra did this is just as much of a mystery, but Jill Pitkeathley tries to imagine Cassandra's rationale for doing so in this enchanting novel.
Cassandra and Jane attempts to fill in the missing gaps in our knowledge of Jane Austen by imagining the novelist from the perspective of her only sister and closest confidante. Using insights gleaned from Austen's own novels, knowledge of the era in which the Austen family lived and what few facts are known about her life, Pitkeathley puts together a narrative that is very convincing.
The novel starts the night before Cassandra is set to destroy Jane's letters. From that point, she reminisces about Jane's birth, their childhood experiences, and when the family first began to take notice of Jane's special writing talents, which flourished in her adulthood. Family drama, births, deaths, marriages: all of it is imagined here, subtly echoing the storylines in Austen's novels. But the main focus is the intimate relationship that the two sisters shared. Both unmarried, they were soulmates and the loves of each other's lives.
Jane and Cassandra wonderfully complement each other. Pitkeathley portrays Jane as a spitfire, a freethinker with a biting wit who is critical of the limitations placed upon her by society, which would dictate that she, as an unmarried woman, would have to be supported by her male family members. This isn't a huge leap, as we can read Austen's novels to get a sense of her personality and her views of the world. Cassandra, by contrast, is portrayed as a docile woman who is accepting of her lot in life and finds contentment just being in the company of her beloved sister.
While their relationship is in no way portrayed as being perfect, the sisters’ bond continues long after Jane's death. Cassandra, forced to forge a life without her sister, finds herself taking on some of Jane's more fiery personality traits. Because of Jane's legacy, she finds some of the independence for herself that Jane longed to have. The novel's ending returns, then, to the point where Cassandra, now an old woman, is determined to destroy Jane's letters.
Cassandra and Jane is a wonderful tribute and a thoroughly engrossing read. Any Austen fan can appreciate this novel. For me, Pitkeathley's depiction of Jane is much how I always imagined her to be. This book is so convincingly written that it reads more like a biography than a work of fiction and has only deepened my appreciation of Jane Austen's talents.