The next best thing to reading the classics themselves is reading novels that vividly re-imagine the lives of famed authors. The Dante Club by Matthew Pearl immediately comes to mind, as does a new book out this week, Cassandra & Jane by Jill Pitkeathley, who is a guest blogger today on ReadingGroupGuides.com. Her novel illuminates the extraordinary bond between Jane Austen and her beloved sister, Cassandra, who nursed her through ill-health and later (much to the lament of today’s literary biographers and Jane fans) destroyed much of the great author’s correspondence to protect her privacy.
Though there were eight Austen siblings, there were only two girls, and Jane, like a typical younger sister, doted on Cassandra. As their mother once ruefully commented, “if Cassandra’s head had been going to be cut off, Jane would have hers cut off too.” Though not a writer, Cassandra also had a creative bent, and her watercolors graced the pages of Jane’s early parody, The History of England, written when she was just fifteen years old. (You can virtually turn the pages of this youthful literary gem by clicking here on the British Library’s website.)
Most importantly, Cassandra is responsible for the only reasonably certain portrait of the author from life, which is on display in England’s National Gallery. The portrait dates from 1810, a year after the two sisters had moved with their mother into a small cottage in Chawton, England. After the death of George Austen in 1805, the three women were dependent on the charity and goodwill of the Austen brothers for their survival, but nonetheless, the years they spent in Chawton were largely happy ones. (One of my favorite mementos from their time there is a quilt the three women stitched together, which you can check out if you visit the cottage today.)
Unfortunately, a cloud marred their shared happiness in 1816, when Jane’s health started to rapidly decline from a mysterious illness (suspected to be either Addison’s Disease or Hodgkin’s Lymphoma). She died in her sister’s arms a year later on July 18 at the age of 41.–Joni Rendon