Monday, January 10, 2011

The Beautifull Cassandra

With all the Heyer I've been immersed in (and I'm not done yet!), I thought it appropriate to take a break for the main lady herself, Miss Jane Austen. I recently flipped through some of my favorite of her Juvenalia, and upon looking for a post topic that pays honors to my muse, it seemed appropriate to settle upon The Beautifull Cassandra, in no little part because it is short enough for me to transcribe the whole here, in case any of my readers haven't had the delightful experience of reading it themselves. Short and sweet, this piece always makes me laugh, no matter how many times I turn to it. The tale is excellently derisive of that type of silly, ignorant, and selfish young woman who appears so often in Austen's earliest work. Being a teenager herself when she wrote the piece (somewhere between 1787 and 1790), we can marvel at the maturity she displayed in being able to reflect so critically on the antics of her age group while still a part of it, a thing I certainly would not have been able to do at such a time of life. It also demonstrates the young Jane's strong appreciation for the ridiculous, as well as her developing satiric prowess. As suggested by the title, the story was written for Jane's older sister, Cassandra, who we can be certain never behaved so ridiculously. I will save all further thought on it until after the text, when I can comment with impunity.

The Beautifull Cassandra

a novel in twelve Chapters

dedicated by permission to Miss Austen


     You are a Phoenix. Your taste is refined, your Sentiments are noble, and your Virtues innumerable.  Your Passion is lovely, you Figure, elegant, and your Form, magestic. Your Manners are polished, your Conversation is rational and your appearance singular. If therefore the following Tale will afford one moment's amusement to you, every wish will be gratified of

Your most obedient
humble servant
The Author

Chapter the First

Cassandra was the Daughter and the only Daughter of a celebrated Millener in Bond Street. Her father was of noble Birth, being the near relation of the Dutchess of -----'s Butler.

Chapter the 2d

When Cassandra had attained her 16th year, she was lovely and amiable and chancing to fall in love with an elegant Bonnet, her Mother had just compleated bespoke by the Countess of ----- she placed it on her gentle Head and walked from her Mother's shop to make her Fortune.

Chapter the 3d

The first person she met, was the Viscount of ----- a young man, no less celebrated for his Accomplishments and Virtues, than for his Elegance and Beauty. She curtseyed and walked on.

Chapter the 4th

She then proceeded to a Pastry-cooks where she devoured six ices, refused to pay for them, knocked down the Pastry Cook and walked away.

Chapter the 5th

She next ascended a Hackney Coach and ordered it to Hampstead, where she was no sooner arrived than she ordered the Coachman to turn round and drive her back again.

Chapter the 6th

Being returned to the same spot of the same of the same Street she had sate out from, the Coachman demanded his Pay.

Chapter the 7th

She searched her pockets over again and again; but every search was unsuccessfull. No money could she find. The man grew peremptory. She placed her bonnet on his head and ran away.

Chapter the 8th

Thro' many a street she then proceeded and met in none the least Adventure till on turning a Corner of Bloomsbury Square, she met Maria.

Capter the 9th

Cassandra started and Maria seemed surprised; they trembled, blushed, turned pale and passed each other in a mutual silence.

Chapter the 10th

Cassandra was next accosted by her friend the Widow, who squeezing out her little Head thro' her less window, asked how she did? Casandra curtseyed and went on.

Chapter the 11th

A quarter of a mile brought her to her paternal roof in Bond Street from which she had now been absent nearly 7 hours.

Chapter the 12th

She entered it and was pressed to her Mother's bosom by that worthy Woman. Cassandra smiled and whispered to herself 'This is a day well spent.'


This short "novel" is a lesson in a tendency Austen maintains throughout her writing career: not to believe a word stated about a character unless his or her actions support it. Cassandra is neither "amiable" nor is her day "well spent", and one has to wonder, especially in light of the many virtues attributed to Cassandra Austen in the dedication, if Jane wasn't angry or frustrated with her sister in some way to write such a piece in her honor, especially as this outrageous heroine is named for her. That we can only speculate upon. What is certain is that the fictional Cassandra is a hoyden and a thief (bonnet, ices, cab fare), engaged in antics that landed many a more honest person (including Austen's own aunt, Mrs. Leigh-Perrot) in the goal, or worse.

I must bring particular attention to the first chapter, as I think the second line of it is the most hilarious of the entire tale, and because it is unusual for Austen to write about the merchant class. Perhaps this is why young Cassandra can wander all about London unchaperoned without sacrificing her purity, or can she? She certainly should not have brought herself to the attention of the Viscount, and the discomfort displayed by both Maria and herself upon meeting in fashionable Bloomsbury Square indicates that both are completely aware that they had no business being there, especially alone. Certainly any mother would be relieved at having her only daughter returned after a whole days absence, but if the woman is as "worthy" as Austen claims, we must assume that Cassandra's smile will not long adorn her lips as relief is replaced by outrage, which is certainly only to increase when the complaints pour in from the pastry cook, the Countess, the widow, and, if he can trace her, the hackney driver.

There is so much subtly embedded in these very few lines that it is easy to recognize emerging literary greatness in them. In such sparse space Austen makes us laugh, worry, disapprove, and marvel. Have you long read and enjoyed this piece, or is it your first time encountering it? Either way, please share your thoughts. It is ripe for discussion.    

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