Arts: Bonfire of Her Vanities ; When Jane Austen's Sister Burnt the Author's Letters, She Sealed Her Prim Reputation. A Novel by the Labour Peer Jill Pitkeathley Suggests a Far More Complex Character. by Duncan Wu

Article excerpt

Can we forgive Cassandra Austen for burning her sister's letters? I doubt it. Who could ever forgive a literary crime which is on a par with the burning of Byron's memoirs or that of Wordsworth's poem A Somersetshire Tragedy (the latter on the say-so of that Victorian sourpuss Tennyson)? The bonfire that Cassandra made of Jane's letters in her 70th year is the main reason that the life and personality of the author of Persuasion, Mansfield Park and Emma seems so bland and uneventful, compelling us to depend on hagiographies by other members of the Austen family. And yet this is a woman who declared: "If I am a wild beast, I cannot help it."

That wild beast is unleashed in a new novel by Jill Pitkeathley, Cassandra and Jane, which presents a speculative account of the Austen sisters' relationship, filling in the violent tempers, familial hatreds, depressive tendencies and thwarted ambitions that Cassandra expunged from the record. Baroness Pitkeathley enjoys a successful career as a Labour Peer in the Lords, and has her hands full as Chief Executive of Carers UK and Chair of Cafcass (the Children and Families Court Advisory and Support Service) and the New Opportunities Fund (which distributes Lottery income). With Cassandra and Jane, she begins a career as novelist. Why? "It's the fruit of over 40 years' thinking and research", she says. "I was bothered by the fact that Cassandra destroyed anything that would allow Jane to be viewed in any light other than what it says on her tombstone, she took a conscious decision to do that. The biographies written by members of the family make her out to have been a sweet, modest, shy person, but the waspish side of her character can be seen in the books. Jane was a difficult woman. If she was of our time, we'd say she was frustrated, constrained. And it was even worse then, because women weren't supposed to do anything other than stay at home and labour in the kitchen."

Pitkeathley's Jane is a passionate woman. She is driven by dislike of her mother, leading her even to develop "a violent hatred for Queen Elizabeth" with whom their mother claimed a "connection". For much of the novel she is filled with anger generated by a host of causes, not least long-term economic dependence on her parents. Frustration is the obvious cause - even, perhaps sexual frustration. In relation to which, it has to be said that, however good she was at writing about relationships between the sexes, Austen's own love- life seems to have been at best a non-event, at worst a disaster. For instance, it is well known that in December 1802 the Austen sisters went to stay with old friends at Manydown House, where Harris Bigg-Wither (an ass with a name to match) proposed marriage to her. She accepted only to retract the following morning. Why this happened has remained obscure - and perhaps the best way of understanding is to dramatise it, as Pitkeathley does. In the novel, Jane retires to bed having accepted Bigg-Wither's proposal, only for Cassandra to make her see him for what he is: he has, "a strange shambling gait and was shy and awkward in his bearing," with, "a tendency to colour and stammer whenever anyone paid him attention." "To be sure he is not a young man of great beauty," she says to Jane, "have you noticed how he splutters when he speaks?"

None of which is disinterested. After all, Cassandra had an interest in keeping Jane for herself. And throughout the novel, Pitkeathley's interpretations are supported by her portrayal of Cassandra's possessiveness; had it not already been in use she might have titled her novel "Possession". One of its most convincing moments is when Cassandra confesses that she resented her sister's success for the distance it "created between us". She goes on to admit that she felt, "hurt from feeling that I was less important to her, less involved with this dear sister who was the sun of my life." Cassandra is reluctant to allow anything, even literary fame, to vitiate her function as her sister's keeper. …