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
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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."

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. And when, many years later, she comes to reassess her role in Jane's rejection of Bigg-Wither, she senses that her motives were impure: "I hope and pray I was not influenced by thoughts of myself, or fear of losing her to the Bigg-Wither family. I have tortured myself over the years with the thoughts that I may have been motivated only by my own selfishness... I still, even at the distance of so many years, can give no positive answer to the question of whether I acted in my interests or hers."

"She was jealous of Jane," Pitkeathley tells me, "resentful of the relationships Jane had with other women, jealous of Jane's relationships with their nieces. That may be why neither of them ever married." It is no surprise when, towards the end of the novel, Cassandra claims that, "the life I shared with Jane was infinitely superior to that which any marriage could have provided... No woman of my acquaintance had enjoyed the level of intimacy which had been vouchsafed to my sister and me." Earlier she remarks, "I enjoy holding to myself the real Jane and I know that it was I who encouraged her to hide from others what I thought of as her dark side."

Oddly enough, it's the apparent absence of a dark side in the sanitised Austen of family myth that has made her such a well-loved literary personality. It allows us conveniently to reaffirm an image of Englishness which we covet, revealing our deepest prejudices as well as our insecurities. It's why Angus Wilson could claim in 1962, without irony, that most of her defenders, "belong to the upper middle class and have gone on living in a country way." And when in 1975 her unfinished novel Sanditon was "completed" by a "collaborator", its preface remarked that, "we turn to her for relaxation on plane journeys, in family crises, and after the sheer physical exhaustion of a servantless world." You can't blame Morris Zapp, the Professor of English from Euphoria State University in David Lodge's Changing Places, who despite having enjoyed a long and successful career writing about her, admits to finding her "a pain in the ass".

And yet Pitkeathley reminds me that Austen's dark side is evident in her writing from the first. "It's clear that from an early age she wrote quite raunchy stuff," Pitkeathley says, "stories with drunken heroines, people having serial adulteries. It's quite lusty. And all the family read it and enjoyed it. It was more robust than her mature work." Speaking for myself, her continuing appeal as a writer must have something to do with her profound understanding of human nature. Mansfield Park is a masterpiece not because it affirms social convention, but because it shows how easily virtue may be lured into the maw of evil. Persuasion, particularly in its concluding act, is as suspenseful as Hitchcock at his best. And while it may be true that madwomen in attics have no place in her books, she gets under the skin of those who have eluded diagnosis and pretend to be sane - Catherine Morland as she suspects Colonel Tilney of wife-murder; Emma Woodhouse ridiculing Miss Bates on Box Hill; and, perhaps, Anne Elliot, encouraged by Lady Russell to reject Captain Wentworth. These women are full of energy (much of it sexual) that has become deranged, leading them to behave with passion, but in a way that is misjudged.

The ability to act passionately but without judgement was something Austen must have observed in herself. That's why it seems right for Pitkeathley to portray her as cranky to the point of near-insanity. So uncomfortable was she when living with her parents in Bath that for much of that period she was (according to Pitkeathley) clinically depressed, incapable of writing. Far from liking the place (as is sometimes thought), she described her removal there as "the worst and greatest distress of my life". The acid side of her wit came to the fore when describing Bath acquaintances in letters to Cassandra: Miss Langley was, "like any other short girl with a broad nose and wide mouth, fashionable dress and exposed bosom"; Admiral Stanhope suffered by the fact that, "his legs are too short, and his tail too long." This sardonic vision (another surprise for some of her readers) was the product of an increasing sense of powerlessness, something Pitkeathley evokes particularly expertly, not least when recounting Austen's departure from Hampshire with her parents and the surrender of the family home to her brother, which caused Austen "only resentment and anger". It was also the product of poverty, as Pitkeathley reminds me: "Cassandra had a small income from the legacy of her fiancé, Tom Fowle; Jane had nothing."

Bitterness and anger. Pitkeathley's Jane is angry with Cassandra for failing to respond to her letters; angry with her mother for feigning illness; angry with Bath. She may well have fallen into depression, as Pitkeathley (and several biographers) have suggested - we will probably never know how close she came to the abyss. What Pitkeathley can affirm is that Austen's emotions are mediated to us through Cassandra, who managed first to possess and then, years after her sister's death, censor them, obscuring from view whatever might have confirmed the existence of that "wild beast". After her death Cassandra even takes credit for her novels: "I helped Jane with her writing whenever required, not just as a listener but also with copying and correcting." There's something chilling about the control she sought over Jane's memory, completely refashioning the sister she idealised: "Hers was such a complex nature that it was not possible to explain to those who did not love her that she could be cruel and kind, disparaging and compassionate, bitter and hopeful, almost in the same breath. We must paint a simple picture - a life 'by no means of event' - and the real Jane would remain known only to me. I was content with that."

Keepers of the flame have those tendencies: in an equally blatant act of censorship, Wordsworth's descendants attempted to suppress evidence of his French girlfriend and illegitimate daughter, conceived at the height of the French Revolution. Austen did nothing so intemperate (so far as we know), but one of Pitkeathley's more adventurous speculations is to give her an unconsummated love affair with a clergyman she meets while on holiday in Lyme Regis. For the intense, sensitive, impulsive character Pitkeathley creates, it is wholly in keeping - as it is that Cassandra should have reacted badly: "I could see how taken Jane was with him and that made me even more anxious." Cassandra and Jane is the imaginary chronicle of that anxiety.

'Cassandra and Jane: a personal journey through the lives of the Austen sisters', by Jill Pitkeathley, is published by Copperfield Books (£9.99)

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