Book Review - Cassandra & Jane

Those of us who love Jane Austen are frustrated that our beloved authoress only wrote six complete novels.  However, with access to the Internet, you can quickly discover the world of fan fiction, books written by fans that involve the characters of Jane's novels.  Biographies of Jane also abound, and, as an avid "Janeite," I have read more than my share.  So I was cautious about approaching the book, "Cassandra & Jane," by Jill Pitkeathley.  It's non-abashedly fiction, but surprisingly accurate, filling in the facts with fictional dialogue between the sisters, while using actual letters written back and forth between the sisters - they were prolific correspondents. 

Pitkeathley delves into the little known episodes of Jane and Cassandra's life.  She fleshes out the scanty outlines of Jane's romance with a mysterious man they met at Lyme and does a very satisfactory job of filling in the blanks in what has been an unexplored area of Jane's life.  Much has been written about her romance with Tom LeFroy, who loved and left Jane to marry an heiress.  Also, her one day engagement to Harris Bigg-Wither has been well documented.  Pitkeathley treats both these incidents with sensitivity and imagination, brining new insights to both relationships.

The sisters were very close.  The family was renowned in their neighborhood for their amateur theatricals and Jane started writing at an early age.  Her juvenalia features her trademark wit and incisive character sketches.  The author speaks with Cassandra's voice and her (Cassandra's) affection for her sister is very evident.  But, unlike the public record, the little resentments, differences and misunderstandings that come into play between sisters, however mutual their love for each other are explored and inserted at believable times in their lives.  For instance, when Jane become close with her beloved niece Fanny, Cassandra can't help being hurt.  When Jane achieves fame, finally, Cassandra feels left behind.  But, the intense bond between the sisters can't be denied and is given full acknowledgement.  Jane so trusted Cassandra that she left her all her property, including profits from her books, her unfinished and unpublished manuscripts and of course, the voluminous correspondence Jane left behind.  Cassandra burnt many letters, not willing to show any printed material that showed Jane in less than a perfect light.  Jane was sharp-witted and might be perceived as unkind in some of her comments but she was adored by family, friends and all who knew her. 

Jane never traveled more that 30 miles from home, but her appeal is universal.  Her books have been translated in every known printed language, and movies are made and remade of all her novels.  If you want to know more and speculate about her life, I can heartily recommend "Cassandra & Jane."