Sister-Sister

Terry Castle

  • Jane Austen’s Letters edited by Deirde Le Faye
    Oxford, 621 pp, £30.00, March 1995, ISBN 0 19 811764 7

It is impossible for the lover of Jane Austen – and lover is the operative word here – to have anything but mixed feelings about Austen’s older sister Cassandra. On one hand, we owe to Cassandra the only surviving (if bad) portraits of Austen other than silhouettes: the famous, somewhat lopsided sketch of 1801, in which the novelist’s mouth is awkwardly pursed and her eyes, gazing in different directions, look like small, astigmatic raisins; and an equally inept watercolour back-view from 1804, in which nothing of Austen can be seen – Cassandra giving her all to the rendering of the complicated dress and bonnet – except the nape of a neck, the exposed back of one hand, and a tentative, slipper-clad foot. Crude they may be, yet without these sisterly gleanings we would know next to nothing of Austen’s face or figure or how she held herself in space: dead at 42 in 1817, she is part of that last, infinitely poignant, generation of human beings who lived and died before photography.

On the other hand, one can only deplore Cassandra’s high-handed actions after Austen’s death; these included burning great quantities of her sister’s letters and censoring others by snipping pieces out of them. The vast majority of these letters were written to Cassandra herself. Though Austen wrote from time to time to other members of the large Austen clan – her three brothers and their wives, various favourite nieces and nephews – Cassandra was the person around whom her life revolved, and she wrote regularly to her whenever they were separated. (Spinsters both, the two Austen sisters lived together all their adult lives – first at Steventon and Bath with their parents, then after their father’s death in 1805, with their mother and a female friend at Chawton in Hampshire.) At her own death in 1845, Cassandra bequeathed the scant batch of letters she had saved from the flames to her grand-niece, Lady Knatchbull, whose son, Lord Brabourne, had them published – like precious relics – in 1884. A number of other letters have surfaced since then; the great Austen scholar, R.W. Chapman, issued the first modern edition of the correspondence in 1932. Still, only 161 Austen letters are known to exist today, and many only in Cassandra-mangled form.

Deirdre Le Faye, editor of the excellent new revised Oxford edition of the letters, defends Cassandra somewhat backhandedly, suggesting that her weeding-out and censorship ‘shows itself more in the complete destruction of letters rather than in the excision of individual sentences; the “portions cut out” usually only amount to a very few words, and from the context it would seem that the subject concerned was physical ailment.’ Le Faye speculates that Cassandra, not wishing to cause embarrassment or ill-feeling, destroyed letters in which Austen wrote too freely or satirically about other family members. But for the reader of Austen’s fiction, hungry for a sense of the author’s inner life, Cassandra’s depredations can only seem like older-sister arrogance of the most mortifying sort: a jealous winnowing down of her brilliant younger sister’s personality in the name of a dubious decorum.

What was their relationship like? In a telling family memoir from 1867, James Edward Austen-Leigh, Austen’s nephew, described it thus:

Their sisterly affection for each other could scarcely be exceeded. Perhaps it began on Jane’s side with a feeling of deference natural to a loving child towards a kind elder sister. Something of this feeling always remained; and 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. In childhood, when the elder was sent to the school of a Mrs Latournelle in the Forbury at Reading, the younger went with her, not because she was thought old enough to profit much by the instruction there imparted, but because she would have been miserable without her sister; her mother observing that ‘if Cassandra were going to have her head cut off, Jane would insist on sharing her fate.’ This attachment was never interrupted or weakened. They lived in the same home, and shared the same bedroom, till separated by death.

Cassandra was ‘colder and calmer’, wrote Austen-Leigh; the family said that ‘Cassandra had the merit of having her temper always under her command, but that Jane had the happiness of a temper that never required to be commanded.’ When Sense and Sensibility was published in 1811, some readers thought Austen had modelled the characters of the Dashwood sisters – the sober Elinor and the sprightly Marianne – on her sister and herself. Austen-Leigh demurred, but only in order to pay tribute to the novelist’s superior moral insight. ‘Cassandra’s character might indeed represent the sense of Elinor, but Jane’s had little in common with the sensibility of Marianne. The young woman who, before the age of twenty, could so clearly discern the failings of Marianne Dashwood, could hardly have been subject to them herself.’ The entire family seems to have shared his not-so-secret preference for Jane over Cassandra: another Austen nephew, Henry, of whom Austen had been particularly fond in his teens, told a cousin after Austen’s death that whenever he visited the house at Chawton – where Cassandra and Mrs Austen lived on for some years – ‘he could not help expecting to feel particularly happy ... and never till he got there, could he fully realise to himself how all its peculiar pleasures were gone.’

Perhaps because of the ambivalence Cassandra inevitably inspires – implicit in everything everyone says about her is the unspoken question, why did Jane have to be the one to die? – biographers and critics have tended to downplay her centrality in Austen’s life. Even the sympathetic Chapman sought to depersonalise the sororal relationship: defending the surviving Jane-Cassandra letters against charges of being ‘trifling’ in subject and style, he asserted that the sisters’ purpose in writing to one another was to exchange information not only ‘between themselves, but between two branches of a large family. There are indications that these letters and others like them were read by, and to, a number of people. Even if this had not been so, it would not have been consonant with the sisters’ temperament, or with their way of life, to exchange letters of sentiment or disquisition.’ Le Faye suggests we consider Austen’s letters to Cassandra ‘the equivalent of telephone calls between the sisters’ – ‘hasty and elliptical’, full of family news, but little more.

It is certainly true that the surviving letters contain their share of trivia. Whole passages can go by as a blur of names and now meaningless events:

Yesterday I introduced James to Mrs Inman; – in the evening John Bridges returned from Goodnestone – and this morn before we had left the Breakfast Table we had a visit from Mr Whitfield, whose object I imagine was principally to thank my Eldest Brother for his assistance. Poor Man! – he has now a little intermission of his excessive solicitude on his wife’s account, as she is rather better. James does duty at Godmersham today. – The Knatchbulls had intended coming here next week, but the Rentday makes it impossible for them to be received & I do not think there will be any spare time afterwards. They return into Somersetshire by way of Sussex & Hants, & are to be at Fareham – & perhaps may be in Southampton, on which possibility I said all I thought right – & if they are in the place, Mrs K. has promised to call in Castle Square; – it will be about the end of July.

Elsewhere we learn more than we want to know, perhaps, about the incessant visits of various collateral family members, the meals eaten and cups of tea drunk, whether fires have been necessary in the sitting-room, the muddy state of nearby roads and similar minutiae.

And yet reading through the correspondence in 1995 – especially in the light of recent historical findings about the psychic complexity of female-female relationships in late 18th and early 19th-century Britain (the recently rediscovered diaries of Austen’s lesbian contemporary, Anne Lister, are an example) – one is struck not so much by the letters’ hastiness or triviality as by the passionate nature of the sibling bond they commemorate. Sororal or pseudo-sororal attachments are arguably the most immediately gratifying human connections in Austen’s imaginative universe. It is a curious yet arresting phenomenon in the novels that so many of the final happy marriages seem designed not so much to bring about a union between hero and heroine as between the heroine and the hero’s sister. At the end of Northanger Abbey, while the heroine Catherine Morland is clearly delighted to marry the entertaining Henry Tilney, the most intense part of her joy seems to derive from the fact that in doing so she also becomes ‘sister’ to his sister Eleanor, whose subtle approbation she has sought – and glowingly received – throughout the novel. But even Austen’s heroes are often more like sisters than lovers in the conventional sense. The soft-mannered Henry, for example, takes a feminine interest in fabrics, and ‘comforts’ his female relations with his knowledge of muslins and chintzes; and he is repeatedly contrasted with his father, General Tilney – a far more domineering and stereotypically masculine type.

Reading Austen’s letters to Cassandra, one cannot help but sense the primitive adhesiveness – and underlying eros – of the sister-sister bond. The first surviving letter dates from 1796, when Austen was 20 and Cassandra 23. From the start the tone is rhetorical, literary (not like a phone call at all), and one of whimsical yet fierce attachment. Austen wants more than anything to make her older sister laugh. As in her novels, she uses first lines flirtatiously, like comic bait, to catch Cassandra in webs of mock-heroic invention. From 1801: ‘Expect a most agreeable letter, for not being overburdened with subject – (having nothing at all to say) – I shall have no check to my Genius from beginning to end.’ ‘This will be a quick return for yours, my dear Cassandra,’ she begins a missive from 1813, ‘I doubt its’ having much else to recommend it, but there is no saying, it may turn out to be a very long, delightful Letter.’ ‘Here I am, my dearest Cassandra, seated in the Breakfast, Dining. Sitting room, beginning with all my might.’ And again, from 1814: ‘Do not be angry with me for beginning another letter to you. I have read the Corsair, mended my petticoat, & have nothing else to do.’

Once Cassandra is ensnared, Austen holds her fast with in-jokes and sisterly games of style, complete with loveable misspellings. For all the family gossip they impart, Austen’s letters remain intensely scripted: full of parodic references to shared reading and the cherished (or maligned) books of female adolescence. ‘So much for Mrs Piozzi,’ Austen concludes after a passage of ludicrous Miss Bates-like ramblings on the salutary effects of the Bath waters, ‘I had some thoughts of writing the whole of my letter in her stile, but I beleive I shall not.’ She parodies Pope’s comic catalogues (‘In a few hours You will be transported to Manydown – & then for Candour & Comfort & Coffee & Cribbage’), Johnsonian lapidary pronouncement (‘I am looking over Self Control again, & my opinion is confirmed of its’ being an excellently meant, elegantly written Work, without anything of Nature or Probability in it’), the effusions of Mrs Radclyffe (‘the shades of Evening are descending & I resume my interesting Narrative’) and the twee Caledonian jests of Sir Walter Scott (‘I do not write for such dull elves!’). Elsewhere she announces: ‘I am going to write nothing but short Sentences.’ The result – rather more uncannily – is like proto-Gertrude Stein:

There shall be two full stops in every Line. Layton and Shear’s is Bedford House. We mean to get there before breakfast if it’s possible. For we feel more & more how much we have to do. And how little time. This house looks very nice. It seems like Sloane St moved here. I believe Henry is just rid of Sloane St – Fanny does not come, but I have Edward seated by me beginning a letter, which looks natural.

One can imagine the pleasure-addiction such writing engendered. For the reader, like Cassandra, is seduced by the constant foolery:

I will not say that your Mulberry trees are dead, but I am afraid they are not alive.

What dreadful Hot weather we have! – It keeps one in a continual state of Inelegance.

So much for that subject; I now come to another, of a very different nature, as other subjects are very apt to be.

Where shall I begin? Which of all my important nothings shall I tell you first?

And what of these important nothings? It is frequently said of Austen’s letters that they ‘illuminate’ the world of her fiction. This is certainly the case, though to say so is hardly to say very much. Sometimes, it is true, Austen comments directly on work in progress – in particular, on the earlier novels, Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice and Mansfield Park. (In a famous letter written just after the publication of Pride and Prejudice in 1813, she tells Cassandra that she is ‘vain enough’ over her book, but thinks it ‘rather too light & bright & sparkling; – it wants shade.’) But what advocates of Austen’s correspondence usually mean is that the letters deal in a general way with the same topics explored in the fiction: marriages and family life, parties and balls, domestic entertainments and the now-antiquated courtship rituals of the early 19th-century provincial English gentry.

Yet with Cassandra in mind, one wants to put a finer point on it. Both Austen and Cassandra received marriage proposals at different points in their lives; Cassandra was in fact engaged to be married in 1797, only to have her fiancé die of a fever in the West Indies. Austen received at least two proposals in her youth, both of which she turned down. Biographers have made much of a mysterious ‘gentleman’ at Lyme Regis in 1804-5 who, according to Austen’s niece Caroline (who heard about it from Cassandra), had ‘seemed greatly attracted by my Aunt Jane ... I can only say that the impression left on Aunt Cassandra was that he had fallen in love with her sister, and was quite in earnest. Soon afterwards they heard of his death.’ Whatever one makes of the story (and Austen’s own part in it goes unrecorded) neither she nor Cassandra showed much real inclination for matrimony later in life. One can’t help but feel that both found greater comfort and pleasure – more of that ‘heartfelt felicity’ that Emma Woodhouse finds with Mr Knightley, or Elizabeth Bennet with the handsome Darcy – in remaining with one another.

The letters from Austen that Cassandra allowed to survive testify to such a primordial bond. Virginia Woolf observed of Austen’s fiction that ‘it is where the power of the man has to be conveyed that her novels are always at their weakest.’ Perhaps this is because men are inevitably inferior to sisters. Even more so than in the fiction, Austen displays a remorseless eye in the letters for male fatuousness. It is as if she were at once trying to reassure Cassandra – no one is good enough for me but you – and inviting her complicitous laughter. Men are fools and imaginists and know nothing of the droll, shared cynicism of intelligent women. Thus of one admitted suitor, gone out of Hampshire to practise law in London, she writes sardonically in 1798:

It will all go on exceedingly well, and decline away in a very reasonable manner. There seems no likelihood of his coming into Hampshire this Christmas, and it is therefore most probable that our indifference will soon be mutual, unless his regard, which appeared to spring from knowing nothing of me at first, is best supported by never seeing me.

‘Your unfortunate sister was betrayed last Thursday into a situation of the utmost cruelty,’ Austen begins another letter from 1801; ‘I arrived at Ashe Park before the Party from Deane, and was shut up in the drawing-room with Mr Holder alone for ten minutes.’ A flirtation with the silly, would-be alluring Mr Evelyn is endured for the sake of his shiny new phaeton: ‘There is now something like an engagement between us & the Phaeton, which to confess my frailty I have a great desire to go out in; – whether it will come to anything must remain with him. – I really beleive he is very harmless people do not seem afraid of him here, and he gets Groundsel for his birds & all that.’ The comically appended ‘all that’, with its sly echo of an appropriate line from The Rape of the Lock (‘Snuff, or the Fan, supply each Pause of Chat, / With singing, laughing, ogling, and all that’), is Popean indeed in its brisk satiric dismissal.

When Austen encounters, rarely, a man who disturbs her sexual self-possession, her protestations of dislike are liable to become spinsterish and strident. The handsome, unfriendly Henry Wigram ‘is about 5 or 6 & 20, not ill-looking & not agreeable. – He is certainly no addition. – A sort of cool, gentlemanlike manner, but very silent ... I cannot imagine how a Man can have the impudence to come into a Family party for three days, where he is quite a stranger, unless he knows himself to be agreeable on undoubted authority.’ But for the most part she retains her levity – to the point of joking with Cassandra about various possible (impossible) matches. One James Digweed, she teases her sister, ‘must be in love with you, from his anxiety to have you go to the Faversham Balls, & likewise from his supposing that the two Elms fell from their greif at your absence.’ ‘Was it not a galant idea?’ she asks. ‘It never occurred to me before, but I dare say it was so.’ She imagines herself married to certain literary men of the day. After reading of the death of the poet Crabbe’s wife, she writes: ‘Poor woman! I will comfort him as well as I can, but I do not undertake to be good to her children. She had better not leave any.’ And elsewhere, listing some favourite comic fantasies – which include having her portrait painted for the Royal Academy – she announces she will marry ‘young Mr D’arblay’, the adolescent son of Fanny Burney.

If men are ultimately insignificant, women, by contrast, are a source of unending sisterly preoccupation. Austen’s physical descriptions of women – their faces, voices, hair, clothing, comportment at balls and in sitting-rooms – are funny, complex, often poignant, and as exquisitely drawn as any in her fiction. Yet they inevitably reveal, too, what can only be called a kind of homophilic fascination. Unlike men, women have bodies – to be scrutinised and discussed, admired or found wanting. Thus Mrs Powlett, seen at a dance in 1801, ‘was at once expensively & nakedly dressed; – we have had the satisfaction of estimating her Lace & her muslin.’ Of a Mrs and Miss Holder: ‘it is the fashion to think them both very detestable,’ but ‘their gowns look so white & so nice I cannot utterly abhor them.’ ‘Miss looked very handsome,’ she says of another plausible young lady, ‘but I prefer her little, smiling, flirting Sister Julia.’ ‘I admire the Sagacity & Taste of Charlotte Williams,’ the novelist writes approvingly in 1813; ‘those large dark eyes always judge well. I will compliment her, by naming a Heroine after her.’

At times the sexuality of women’s bodies elicits oddly visceral effects: ‘I looked at Sir Thomas Champneys & thought of poor Rosalie; I looked at his daughter & thought her a queer animal with a white neck.’ ‘I had the comfort of finding out the other evening who all the fat girls with short noses were that disturbed me at the 1st H. Ball. They all prove to be Miss Atkinsons of Enham.’ ‘I have a very good eye at an Adultress,’ she boasts in 1801, after seeing a well-known demirep at the Pump Room in Bath, ‘for tho’ repeatedly assured that another in the same party was the She, I fixed upon the right one from the first.’ Even unseen women can be arousing; witness the peculiarly proprietorial fantasy inspired by the news that an Austen family friend is to marry a Miss Lewis at Clifton. ‘I would wish Miss Lewis to be of a silent turn & rather ignorant, but naturally intelligent & wishing to learn; – fond of cold veal pies, green tea in the afternoon, & a green window blind at night.’ It is as if Austen were first conjuring the woman up, then projecting herself, shamanistically, into the role of tutor-husband.

Yet two female bodies are even more insistently ‘present’ in the letters – Austen’s and Cassandra’s own. The extraordinary number of passages in the letters devoted to clothing, for example – on her trips to London and Bath Austen often bought fabric, pieces of trim and other items to be used in the making or refurbishing of her own or her sister’s dresses – bespeak the close terms of physical intimacy on which she and Cassandra lived and the intense psychic ‘mirroring’ that went on between them. A passage like the following, in which Austen’s wish to have Cassandra ‘see’ a gown being made up for her in Bath – and by implication the body that will wear it – is so fantastically detailed as to border on the compulsive:

It is to be a round Gown, with a Jacket, & a Frock front, like Cath: Bigg’s to open at the sides. – The Jacket is all in one with the body, & comes as far as the pocketholes; – about a half a quarter of a yard deep I suppose all the way round, cut off straight at the comers, with a broad hem. – No fullness appears either in the Body or the flap; – the back is quite plain, in this form; – trapezoid symbol, longest edge at top – and the sides equally so. – The front is sloped round to the bosom & drawn in – & there is to be a frill of the same to put on occasionally when all one’s hand kercheifs are dirty – which frill must fall back. – She is to put two breadths & a half in the tail, & no Gores; – Gores not being so much worn as they were; – there is nothing new in the sleeves, – they are to be plain, with a fullness of the same falling down & gathered up underneath, just like some of Marthas – or perhaps a little longer. – Low in the back behind, & a belt of the same. – I can think of nothing more tho’ I am afraid of not being particular enough.

Such passages remind us strikingly of how important a role clothes have played in the subliminal fetish-life of women – how much time women spend looking at one another, dressing one another and engaging in elaborate and mutually pleasurable ‘grooming behaviour’. Austen and Cassandra were hardly exempt: indeed, the conventions of early 19th-century female sociability and body-intimacy may have provided the necessary screen behind which both women acted out unconscious narcissistic or homoerotic imperatives.

But the desire to be seen and imaginatively embraced – to be held in Cassandra’s mind’s-eye – is everywhere in Austen’s letters. ‘Ownbody’ references (to borrow a term from the sociologist Erving Goffmann) are frequent in her correspondence and carry a powerful existential charge. She constantly invites her sister to think about her – about her precise location in space, or about the various physical sensations that either soothe or discomfit her. ‘I am in the Yellow room – very literally –,’ she tells Cassandra on arriving at their brother’s estate in Kent, ‘for I am writing in it at this moment.’ ‘How do you do to day?’ reads a somewhat plaintive missive from Bath; ‘I hope you improve in sleeping – I think you must, because I fall off; – I have been awake ever since 5 & sooner, I fancy I had too much cloathes over my stomach; I thought I should by the feel of them before I went to bed, but I had not courage to alter them.’ Far from being trifling, such details bring to life the phenomenology of the novelist’s emotional life. Cassandra was indeed the person she slept with, we realise with a start, and without her sister’s comfortable warmth, slumber itself was altered.

In their own way the letters to Cassandra may ultimately say more of Austen’s fiction – the inner sensual content of the works – than other seemingly more relevant or better-known pieces of Austeniana. Besides the Cassandra letters, the new Oxford edition includes two famous shorter correspondences: a series of letters Austen wrote to her novel-writing niece, Anna Austen, in 1814 (Anna had sent some chapters-in-progress to her aunt for criticism) and a set from 1817 to her niece, Fanny Knight, who was debating over several marriage proposals. The former correspondence contains a number of much-quoted pieces of authorial advice (‘3 or 4 Families in a Country Village is the very thing to work on’) and displays all of Austen’s characteristic humour and taste: ‘Devereux Forester’s being ruined by his Vanity is extremely good; but I wish you would not let him plunge into a “vortex of Dissipation”. I do not object to the Thing, but I cannot bear the expression; – it is such thorough novel slang – and so old, that I dare say Adam met with it in the first novel he opened.’ Yet the flippancy sometimes borders on condescension and was perhaps not entirely helpful: Anna ended up burning the work in question after developing a painful creative block.

As for the letters to Fanny, though one might expect them to shed light on the novelist’s powers of empathy (Fanny’s predicament is one that occurs often in Austen’s fiction) they make for rather unpleasant reading. Were one wanting to make the vulgar case for Austen’s homoeroticism, here would be the place to look: the tone is giddy, sentimental and disturbingly schoolgirlish for a 42-year-old woman. Austen was in fatuated with Fanny and slips often into embarrassing coquetries: You are inimitable, irresistable. You are the delight of my Life. Such letters, such entertaining letters as you have lately sent! – Such a description of your queer little heart! ... I shall hate you when your delicious play of Mind is all settled down into conjugal & maternal affections.’ As a love adviser she is dithery and contradictory – sometimes fearing the hold Fanny has over men (‘Mr J.W. frightens me. – He will have you’), at other times breathlessly suggesting new lovers for her. She is rather like her own Emma Woodhouse, who, in an excess of displaced amorosity in Emma, persuades her dim-witted little protégée, Harriet Smith, quite wrongly, that three different men are in love with her – with comically disastrous results.

What one ends up realising is that more than anyone else Cassandra provided the essential ballast in Austen’s life – was the caretaker of her mind and body, and guarantor of her imaginative freedom. (‘Aunt Cassandra nursed me so beautifully!’ Austen wrote to Fanny near the end of her life. ‘I have always loved Cassandra, for her fine dark eyes & sweet temper.’) It is always surprising to realise that Jane Austen had a mother, who indeed outlived her: when she is mentioned, rarely, in the letters, it is only as a kind of background presence – someone there, but half-forgotten. (The ailing Mrs Austen is recorded as saying to a grandson some years after Austen’s death: ‘Ah, my dear, you find me just where you left me – on the sofa. I sometimes think that God Almighty must have forgotten me; but I daresay He will come for me in His own good time.’) Cassandra, one might say, was her real mother. And to the degree that Austen’s fictions are works of depth and beauty and passionate feeling – among the supreme humane inventions of the English language – one suspects in turn it is because she loved and was loved by Cassandra.

Can we forgive Cassandra her jealousy? Reading the last, wrenching letters in the new Oxford collection – those written by Cassandra herself to their nieces after Austen’s agonising death from Bright’s disease in 1817 – there is nothing for it but to do so. Cassandra sat by her sister’s bedside all of the long final evening and night, at one point supporting Austen’s dying head, which was ‘almost off the bed’, in her lap for six hours. ‘Fatigue made me then resign my place to Mrs J. A. for two hours & a half when I took it again & in about one hour more she breathed her last.’ ‘I have lost a treasure,’ she wrote to Fanny Knight a few days later, ‘such a Sister, such a friend as never can have been surpassed. – She was the sun of my life, the gilder of every pleasure, the soother of every sorrow, I had not a thought concealed from her, & it is as if I had lost a part of myself.’ She had a ring made up with a lock of Austen’s hair set in it – she wore it for the rest of her life – and dreamed of meeting her again: ‘I know the time must come when my mind will be less engrossed by her idea, but I do not like to think of it. If I think of her less as on Earth, God grant that I may never cease to reflect on her as inhabiting Heaven & never cease my humble endeavours (when it shall please God) to join her there.’ If such prayers are ever answered, one can only hope that she did.