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The Austen Girls by Helen Amy

The Story of Jane & Cassandra Austen, the Closest of Sisters

The Austen Girls is a joint biography of Jane Austen and her older sister Cassandra. It traces their exceptionally close and mutually sustaining relationship throughout Jane’s life and literary career. Cassandra has always been a rather shadowy figure in the background of her famous sister’s life but, as this book reveals, she was central to Jane’s achievement as a novelist.

Steventon Rectory, a sketch by Anna Lefroy. (Colouring by the author, The Austen Girls, Amberley Publishing)

Cassandra and Jane, who were the daughters of the Reverend George Austen and his wife Cassandra, were born and grew up in their father’s rectory in Steventon in Hampshire. Their deep love for each other was evident very early in their lives. Jane always looked up to and adored her older sister. Cassandra, who adored Jane in return, mothered and protected her. The sisters spent most of their time together as children and developed a secret life of their own.

When Jane started to write as a young girl Cassandra immediately became involved. Jane read her stories to her sister who expressed her opinion on them and, no doubt, made constructive suggestions. By the age of sixteen Jane had filled three copy-books with the work now known as her Juvenilia. Some of these early pieces were dedicated to Cassandra.

The sisters had their own private sitting-room at the rectory. It was here that they enjoyed shared pastimes as well as pursuing their separate interests. While Jane wrote, Cassandra, a talented amateur artist, drew and painted water-colour pictures, which included the illustrations for a spoof history of England written by Jane.

It was in this sitting-room that Jane wrote her first three novels. In two of these – Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice – she drew on her close relationship with Cassandra when she created the Dashwood and Bennet sisters. Jane’s early novels were written to amuse and entertain herself and her family, who enjoyed reading novels aloud together. These novels were first shared with Cassandra who knew the characters from their conception in Jane’s mind until their appearance on the pages of the finished manuscript. These characters were as real to Cassandra as they were to Jane.

Jane Austen, painted by her sister in 1804. (The Austen Girls, Amberley Publishing)

When Cassandra and Jane were separated, usually when they went to stay with one of their brothers, they kept in touch by letter. There was a continual exchange of letters when they were apart because each wanted to know, in minute detail, what the other was doing.

The Austen’s, like most families, experienced difficult times. The sisters’ close emotional bond enabled them to support and sustain each other at times of crisis. Jane comforted Cassandra when her fiancé died and, with her sister’s help, she was able to endure her sorrow and carry on with her life. Cassandra similarly supported Jane, when a man she met and fell in love with one summer died before they could meet again.

The sisters supported each other when in 1801 their father retired and they moved with their parents to Bath. They were both unsettled by being suddenly uprooted from their childhood home and the Hampshire countryside which they both loved. According to her nephew it was the beautiful countryside around Steventon which first inspired Jane to write and she was unhappy about the move. With Cassandra’s help, however, she came to terms with it and made the best of her time in Bath. Nevertheless, she only managed to write a few chapters of an unfinished novel while living there.

It was not until she moved back to rural Hampshire in 1809 that Jane was able to write again. In her new home, and with her beloved sister by her side, Jane wrote her last three novels. The importance of the emotional stability provided by Cassandra cannot be over-estimated. Cassandra helped to create the peaceful and happy atmosphere Jane needed for her creativity to flourish. Jane was often lost in her imaginary world – a world only Cassandra was allowed to enter.

Jane was always modest about her achievements and was not confident about her writing ability. She had to be encouraged by Cassandra and others to seek publication and always insisted on remaining anonymous. Jane was also surprised that she made a profit from her writing. Needless to say, Cassandra was immensely proud of her sister’s success and noted when each novel was started, finished and published.

Chawton Cottage, home of Cassandra and Jane from 1809. (The Austen Girls, Amberley Publishing)

When Jane’s health began to fail at the beginning of 1816 her dependence on Cassandra increased. As her illness – believed to have been either Addison’s Disease, a disorder of the adrenal system, or some kind of lymphoma – progressed, Cassandra hardly left her side. She did all she could to help Jane, including taking her to the spa town of Cheltenham in search of a cure.

Cassandra accompanied Jane to Winchester a few weeks before she died, so that she could be near her doctor. She nursed Jane devotedly until her death on 18th July 1817, at the age of forty-one. Shortly afterwards Cassandra wrote “I have lost a treasure, such a sister, such a friend as never can have been surpassed – it is as if I had lost a part of myself.”

The Austen Girls traces Cassandra’s life after she lost Jane. Her strong Christian faith and her belief that she would one day be reunited with her sister helped to sustain her. Cassandra did her best to keep Jane’s memory alive for her nephews and nieces. These memories were used in family biographies and memoirs of Jane.

This book also follows the growth of Jane’s literary reputation and fame following her death. She was never more than a minor novelist during her lifetime. It was not until the 1860s that she was finally recognised as a great writer and readers became curious about her life and works. Sadly, Cassandra did not live to witness this. Jane herself would have been astonished at the worldwide acclaim she has achieved. She would have been the first to acknowledge the vital role played by her sister, whose love, support and belief in her helped to bring this about.

Helen Amy's book The Austen Girls is available for purchase now.