If little is known about Jane Austen, even less is known about her sister Cassandra Austen, aside from the fact that she sketched the only portrait we have of Jane and never married. Jill Pitkeathley assumes Cassandra’s viewpoint in this historical novel, imagining the close relationship between the sisters from childhood until Jane’s early death. Together, the sisters experience the pain of lost loves, the struggles of unmarried daughters reliant on their brothers’ wealth, jealousy, and a variety of other trials, never losing their faith in each other.
I try to avoid “sequel” type books for most of my favorite literature. I make an exception here; I have no problem with historical fiction imagining the lives of these authors, as that’s on a different plane from ruining one of my favorite books, so I was eager to read this book. I’d never heard of the author before, but it sounded lovely and I was right, it was worth my time. I felt that this novel evoked a perfect late 17th/early 18th century England. Pitkeathley never slips, never introduces any anachronisms; I feel that she must know Austen’s novels very intimately to make this one feel like it’s drawn straight from that era.
Moreover, you can see that she’s drawn on those novels to produce Jane’s opinions and her personality, and I love that Pitkeathley gives tribute to Jane’s brilliance, when she is so frequently downgraded by people who dismiss her novels as early chick lit. Jane here is a great, multi-faceted character, frequently discontent with her lot and determined to express the problems inherent in society in her writing.
Unfortunately, there is one downside to this novel, and that is Cassandra. She is, simply, dull. It’s clear that she is just a mirror held up to Jane’s brilliance, and while the real Cassandra may have had some personality of her own, this one doesn’t. She only expresses an opinion twice, when she becomes engaged and when she is jealous of Jane. Otherwise, she is far too complacent and colorless. She could almost have been an omniscient 3rd person narrator for all I cared about her; the sisters’ relationship is nice, but it is Jane that this novel is clearly about and all the other characters fade before her.
I’d also like to mention this novel’s genesis. Ms. Pitkeathley had cancer twice, and the second time, she determined that if she lived, she would write this novel. It’s incredibly admirable of her not only to determine that and follow through on her promise to herself, but to deliver a book that is a very good read. She’s done a great job here and I will give her a lot of credit. I hope she writes another novel, as she definitely has talent.
I would recommend Cassandra and Jane to those who would like to read more about Jane Austen; who would like to, in a sense, get more of the feel of her novels without ruining them. It’s a good read, but it could have been more. Buy this book on Amazon.