No. 33: The Beautifull Cassandra, Jane Austen

It was appropriate that my sister chose The Beautifull Cassandra as my third read, the short story having been written by Austen for her own sister, Cassandra.

I like Austen, and Sense and Sensibility is my favourite of her works. It’s not as happily tied up as her others – you’re left with a bit of an uncomfortable feeling as Marianne Dashwood marries a man almost twenty years her senior, her first love marrying another for her money.

But my chief reason for loving Sense and Sensibility is that the Dashwoods make me think of my Mum and sister. Mrs Dashwood, worried for her girls, the apples of her eye, wanting what’s best for them and, at the same time, whatever will make them happy – the two not necessarily marrying. Elinor Dashwood, the older sister, down-to-earth, sensible, thoughtful, wise, fiercely protective of her younger sisters, Marianne and Margaret. Marianne, next in age, is more innocent, idealistic, prone to dramatise, putting her heart on the line more readily.

Many parallels can be drawn between the Dashwood women and the Richards!

I was really excited about reading The Beautifull Cassandra, and getting a sense of the young Austen sisters.

This Little Black Classic consists of six short stories, written by a teenage Austen for the amusement of her family.

If I’m totally honest, I struggled with them. As a said before, I like Austen but I don’t love her like I do Hardy. And I didn’t find she was teaching me anything, as with Mayhew (click for previous blog links). I really had to make myself read these short stories, which was a shame. I was genuinely desperate to enjoy them but alas I found myself a bit bored and rather ashamed of this.

I guess I find Austen’s writing… well… a bit samey. (I can hear the gasps of Austen fans as I type this.) I know, this is a terribly narrow-minded, uneducated conclusion. But despite my love for Sense and Sensibility, her writings are remarkably similar and I can get them confused.

The collection in this Little Black Classic includes all those Austen traits that we’re now so familiar with – family, money, love, class, humour. It is striking that these were clearly the seedlings that would grow into her renowned repertoire.

For example, I could see Mrs Dashwood (Elinor and Marianne’s sister-in-law) in Lady Greville in ‘Letter the Third,’ and Lydia Bennet in Henrietta in ‘From a Young Lady.’

Austen’s wit and turn of phrase can be found throughout, emphasising that she was a clever wordsmith even as a teenager. Take the quote that Penguin used for the opening, which I have paused to drink in (pardon the pun) several times when seeing it plastered across the wall of the Underground.

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It did pass briefly through my mind that perhaps my celebration of this read would involve downing pints, but I am the world’s slowest drinker. And, more to the point, I didn’t think Jane would have approved.

It was, however, obvious that I needed to get my sister, Katy, involved in this week’s Little Black Classic activity, particularly because this story written for Austen’s own sister was undoubtedly my favourite in the collection.

As with all of these short stories, she opens with a dedication. Here is the dedication for her sister, Cassandra:

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This exaggerated (I hope) description sets the tone for the following story…

Cassandra is from a prosperous family of milliners, based in London. When Cassandra is 16, she puts on a beloved bonnet and ventures out in to the city. Here she finds a coffee shop and devours six ices (SIX!) and refuses to pay, knocking out the pastry cook when they demand she fronts the bill. She hails a taxi and orders him to drive her about town, refusing to pay when he finally drops her off at the same point they started at, instead placing her bonnet on his head. She then ignores one of her friends in the street, before returning home and concluding ‘This is a day well spent.’

The scandal! The horror! I couldn’t possibly ask my sister to mirror such behaviour.

Instead, I requested my sister don her best bonnet and meet me outside Jane Austen’s brother’s house, on Henrietta Street, Covent Garden. (Alas a lorry was parked slap bang in front of the building and its plaque commemorating her stay here, hence the illegible image below).

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We proceeded to eat just one cake each, not six, before heading for a drink in the piazza, determined NOT to have sobriety classed as one of our weaker qualities.

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What I really liked about this story was Jane’s evident affection for her sister. The sycophantic dedication and sensationalist story are clearly world’s away from her relationship with her respectable and humble sister – Austen’s best friend and lifelong confidante.

Jane never married. Cassandra, the older of the two, was engaged but alas her fiancé passed away, leaving her some money. Otherwise they were at the mercy of their brothers.

This is undeniably poignant – neither finding love, living as spinsters.

But I confess I find it touching and heart-warming that they had each other. It clearly provided Jane with a lot of inspiration and material. Sisters are essential to her writing. Dashwoods, Musgroves, Elliots, Bennets, Bingleys – the list goes on.

Speaking for myself, I find having a sister by my side is a bit like having a magnificent shield on my arm. I can personally recommend a sister – they take all sorts of hits for you, and you feel rather invincible when you’re together.

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Perhaps I am feeling sentimental about the Austen sisters, and my own, because my Katy is, rather excitingly, engaged as of three weeks ago!

In actual fact, my family raised a glass to the happy couple at Dungeness, in the last blog post. We provided a fleck of joy on an otherwise soulless landscape.

I’m incredibly excited for my sister, who will be gaining another two sisters of her own and I, brilliantly, will be getting a brother! This calls for six celebration ices…

A huge thank you to The Beautiful Katy for choosing this Little Black Classic. Next week I will be blogging about The nightingales are drunk.

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Footnote: People have been asking me a lot of questions about the Mrs Beeton pie I made in week one. In hindsight, I think I was censoring my writing, not wanting to scare anyone away from the first blog post. For the record, it was vile. Looked great, smelt lovely, tasted awful. The issue undoubtedly lay with the liquid. Mrs B recommended filling with water before cooking, and pouring the gravy in post-bake. At the time of reading the recipe I thought it was odd, but as Mrs B says, I does. I learnt my lesson – sometimes it is best to go with your gut.

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