Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Cassandra and Jane by Jill Pitkeathley

I was so excited when I won this book on Fly High, when Laurel Ann of Austenprose was featured as one of Maria Grazia's "Blogger Buddies" and offered an amazingly generous giveaway, listing several Austen based books from which the winners could choose. I was only vaguely familiar with Casandra and Jane, so it was particularly gratifying to get my hands on a book that had pretty much slipped beneath my radar. Based on Austen's biographical information, Jill Pitkeathley (a real live Baroness, so I can relish all the joy and affectation of calling her Lady Pitkeathley throughout the remainder of this post) creates a fictional account of Jane's life, told from Cassandra's perspective. Overall I found the book rather more charming than not, particularly as it is structured around Cassandra's decision to burn most of Jane's letters (an action that will continue to torment  Janeites ad infinitum). However, anyone with the vaguest familiarity with Austen's bio will quickly realize that the entire tale is fantasy - modern fantasy, at that - portraying Jane as a determined feminist with abolitionist leanings.

Much has been made in recent years of the "real" Jane: not the kind and devoted maiden aunt her family wanted to portray, but an artistic genius struggling discontentedly against the strictures of her society. Lady Pitkeathley fully endorses this modern take on the great authoress, taking clues like the presence of The Vindication of the Rights of Woman in Mr. Austen's library and using them to endow Jane with modern sensibilities. The problem is that she goes too far, at least from my perspective. Of course, as the entire exercise is speculative (and done in a very loving and respectable manner, I should add), there is plenty of room for creative license, but Lady Pitkeathley attributes such remarkably modern notions to both Jane and Cassandra that it almost undermines the validity of the project. Some of this can be accounted for by her profession - Lady. Pitkeathley was at least trained to be a "counsellor", what we here in the States would probably call a therapist - which particularly comes through in her depiction of the troubled relationship between Jane and her mother. It is amusing, no doubt, to consider the dysfunctional aspects of the Austen family, to paint Jane as a repressed feminist, and credit her with those sympathies that modern political correctness demands of our heroes, but the result is not a better understanding of Jane's life and times, just a flight of fancy (which is not necessarily a problem).

The structure of the book is also problematic. While I find the idea of exploring Cassandra's motivation for destroying Jane's letters intriguing, there is something unsettling, almost hypocritical, about beginning a story with that act of destruction and then presenting the entire tale - exactly what she was trying to keep from public knowledge - with Cassandra in the place of a first person narrator. It just feels inconsistent, for in one moment Cassandra is cast as the stalwart defender of Jane's privacy and in the next she is exposing all the most intimate secrets they shared. I know this is a fictionalization of Cassandra's character, but let's just say that I found very little to like in Lady Pitkeathley's depiction. Her portrait of Jane is far more appealing.

But you know what? I'm really just struggling here to come up with some rationalization for the prejudice I have taken against this work. Shall I admit the real reason why I am dwelling on the problems with this book, when I am usually far kinder in my reviews, even to far worse books? The truth is that Lady Pitkeathley set my back up against the wall. Yes, there were bits and pieces of text here and there that I found lacking, but it wasn't until this line that I began to get angry, spoken by Cassandra after Jane's death:
"Someone else complete her work? Have you taken leave of your senses? Is the work she laboured over when she knew herself to be dying to be so treated, offered for completion by an amateur writer whom, however high his opinion of himself, she did not value?" 
To all of those out there who have had the audacity to pick up the pen and make something new, or continue, or rewrite Austen's novels, do you not feel like this is a rebuke for those efforts? In other moments in the book I felt the same sense of disapproval from the author, who obviously sees her own attempt as an academic endeavor, of far superior worth than the mere scribblings of fan fiction writers. As she states in the afterward: "Initially, I dismissed the idea of writing a fictional account through Cassandra's eyes, as that would mean devising words to put into the mouths of both Cassandra and Jane." Obviously, she realizes that she too is trespassing on Jane's legacy, but somehow finds this "fictional memoir", as she calls it, a more legitimate medium than JAFF, providing insight into "the wonderful interaction, devotion and the occasional problems between Cassandra and Jane Austen." This just strikes me as infuriatingly arrogant. She also says, "Some of the conversations I have suggested could have taken place, may indeed have happened; others may not have done." Have humble of Lady Pitkeathley to acknowledge that her suppositions may not be accurate!

I think I am now officially ranting. I will stop and school myself into more positive thoughts. For Austen fans, Cassandra and Jane offers a new perspective on the events of her life, but just like when watching Becoming Jane, it behooves the reader to remember that this is fiction and not in any way a substitute for a real biography. It was, overall, a fast and easy read. The prose are not of a style to enthrall, but all lovers of Jane will find Lady Pitkeathley's speculations intriguing. I usually avoid star rankings, but I will say on this occasion that Cassandra and Jane warrants about a three out of five in my book, just to balance out the enormous amount of criticism I have heaped on it. Overall, I really did enjoy the book, but it sure did rankle.

Note: If you would like to read a less partial and prejudiced review of this book, I refer you to my friend Meredith's at Austenesque Reviews.    


  1. How interesting is it that we focused our reviews so differently! The comment about completing one of her books didn't really stand out to me much, but then again I am no writer. It also was immediately after her death that such a suggestion was made, perhaps Ms. Pitkeathley was trying to portray Cassandra's possessive devotion to her sister? I'm sorry it ruffled your feathers.

    I did enjoy Jane's romance in Lyme though, how about you?

  2. Hi Meredith - Maybe I'm just turned curmudgeon (the past six months could do that to a girl) because no, I really didn't get that excited about the Lyme romance. I found the "incident at Manydown" far more interesting. Perhaps I am just too rigid for this kind of speculative history. It's very possible. Your review was much better - as I said in my comments, I feel rather ashamed of my negativity. I'm usually better at focusing on the positive.