Cassandra and Jane

Written by Jill Pitkeathley
Review by Eva Ulett

One wonders what interest a fictionalized account of the life of Jane Austen might hold for any but the most enthusiastic fans of her novels, yet Cassandra & Jane is as fine a story as any devotee of domestic fiction could wish. Told in the voice of Jane’s devoted older sister Cassandra, a voice that never strays from the speech and mores of late 18th and early 19th-century England, the novel follows the life of Jane Austen from the hopes of girlhood, through the frustrations of a clever young woman at her inability to direct her own life, to the emergence of the mature individual and author.

Jane and Cassandra are raised to make “good wives for a suitable gentleman and good mothers for a large number of children,” but Jane experiences disappointment in love and is apprehensive of marriage and sex. She witnesses the repeated confinements of her sisters-in-law; of Jane Austen’s six brothers, five lost wives to complications of childbirth, and two fathered eleven children each. As is well known, Jane and Cassandra end as maiden aunts to their brothers’ large broods, and they, along with their mother and Martha Lloyd, sister to James Austen’s not-well-liked wife Mary, become dependent on the Austen brothers for their maintenance. Like Jane Austen’s novels, Cassandra & Jane is a vivid and touching portrait of family life in the England of the 1790s and early 1800s.