Cassandra Elizabeth Austen was born January 9th 1773 in Steventon, Hampshire to Reverend George Austen and Cassandra nee Leigh. She was the fifth child of eight and the Austen’s first daughter. Her sister Jane was born almost three years later and being the only girls amongst six brothers, Cassandra and Jane remained exceptionally close throughout their whole lives.
This is evident from the numerous letters that have survived addressed to Cassandra from Jane during their limited time spent apart from each other.
When Cassandra was ten and Jane just seven, they were sent to a family member, Mrs Cawley, in Oxford who was going to educate them. She moved to Southampton and took the girls with her. An epidemic of ‘putrid fever’ forced the girls back to Steventon to their family. Two years later the sisters were again sent away but this time to Reading Ladies boarding school to be educated.
During the early years when Jane started writing her Juvenilia, Cassandra would begin what was to be a very supportive, stable role to her most beloved sister. Cassandra has repeatedly been described in biographies of Jane as caring, gentle, selfless and a woman of ‘extraordinary emotional control’ (Spence). She even aided Jane’s The History of England by providing the illustrations of the famous monarchs. Cassandra is known for her talent in art. She is famous for producing two paintings of Jane. In 1804, she depicted a back view of Jane sat by a tree. The second, and most famous, was created around 1810 and is a frontal portrait which now can be seen at the National Portrait Gallery in London.
Cassandra fell in love with Thomas Fowle in 1794 when she was 21 years old and they became engaged. Thomas became a chaplain with the military and was sent to the Caribbean on a mission to earn an income to be able to marry Cassandra. Utterly devastating Cassandra, Thomas Fowle died in 1797 in San Domingo in the West Indies from yellow fever. She inherited a sum of £1000 (around £50 a year) from his death but she never married.
I think a quote that summarises the relationship between Jane and Cassandra can be found in the Memoir of Jane Austen. The extract is from Anna Lefroy's letter to James Edward Austen Leigh (JEAL), p. 160.
"Their affection for each other was extreme; it passed the common love of sisters; and it had been so from childhood. My Grandmother talking to me once [of] by gone times, & of that particular time when my Aunts were placed at the Reading Abbey School, said that 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 her's cut off too' - "
Jane died in 1817 in Winchester with her head placed in Cassandra’s lap. Writing to her niece Fanny, Cassandra said: “I have lost a treasure, such a Sister, such a friend as never can be surpassed, - She was the sun of my life….I had not a thought concealed from her, and it is as if I had lost a part of myself” (Letter, July 20th 1817).
After Jane’s death, Cassandra made it her duty to ensure that the last of her sister’s works made print; she organised the two remaining novels, Persuasion and Northanger Abbey, to be published. Cassandra lived the rest of her days alone in Chawton Cottage until her death on 22nd March 1845. She was 72 years old. She is buried at St Nicolas church in Chawton with her mother (who died in 1827).
There is much negativity directed towards Cassandra. This is either due to the unattractive painting of Jane which people have argued was inaccurate (supported by Jane’s niece Anna) and created out of jealousy, or the way she criticised Jane for being less sensible than herself. What must be remembered, however, is that Jane clearly adored her sister and that the letters which do remain gives us insight into the mind of Jane Austen- this is only made possible by Cassandra who was, of course, the recipient but also perhaps the most important person in Jane’s life. She also made sure that their nieces and nephews learned about their aunt Jane. The respect that Jane felt for her sister is clear from another quote found in Austen-Leigh’s memoir of his aunt: “even in the maturity of her powers, and in the enjoyment of increasing success, she would still speak of Cassandra as of one wiser and better than herself.”
Austen-Leigh, J. E. (1871) A Memoir of Jane Austen and Other Family Recollections (2002 Oxford edition), Oxford World's Classics, Oxford.
Copeland, E., and McMaster, J. (1997) The Cambridge Companion to Jane Austen, University of Cambridge.
Ray, J. K. (2006) Jane Austen For Dummies, Wiley Publishing Inc, Indiana.
Spence, J. (2003) Becoming Jane Austen, Continuum International Publishing Group, London.
Pic 1: Silhouette of Cassandra Austen. Taken from The Jane Austen Society Website http://www.janeausten.co.uk/
Pic 2: The watercolour of Jane Austen painted by Cassandra.
Pic 3: A family picture: Mrs Austen, Eliza, Jane, Cassandra, Mr Austen and Thomas Fowle in Becoming Jane. Taken from http://www.annie-hathaway.com/
Pic 4: Cassandra and Thomas Fowle in Becoming Jane. Taken from the Jane Austen Regency World Magazine
Pic 5 and Pic 6: Jane and Cassandra in Becoming Jane. Taken from http://www.annie-hathaway.com/