When I spotted this book on the shelves of a charity shop, I knew immediately that it had to be Austen-related. Does that make me an Austen nerd? But in terms of biographical facts about Jane Austen, surely this is the most well-known? Austen’s sister was her closest confidant in life, her best friend and her confessor. It was Cassandra who destroyed so much of her sister’s correspondence, shielding her personal life from the scrutiny of the world. They were each other’s companion in life, shouldering the weight of spinsterhood together. I was more intrigued therefore by this novel than I would normally be – if Bennett was approaching Austen as a sister first, this had the potential to be a different type of story. Alas.
I should probably have seen it coming with the book’s tagline, ‘Was the love Jane Austen wrote about to be hers in real life?’ I mean – where do I start? First of all, we know she never married so there’s no point hanging that one out there as a hook for readers. And if you’re picking up the book, we know you’re an established fan. So straight away, Bennett’s book seems to be setting out to make her look tragic and that’s just … rude. Then there’s my personal pet peeve. Jane Austen was not a romance novelist. She was ironic. She was comic. She was having a laugh. Please don’t come and claim that she was writing love stories while gazing out the window waiting for Prince Charming.
Beginning the book, it immediately became clear that this was a young adult novel. Further research into the author revealed that she is a children’s writer. I will happily read children’s literature all day long but I admit to feeling disappointed by how simplistic Bennett made her story. Even with the way that Austen is referred to as ‘Jenny’ rankled. This is a very dumbed down interpretation of Austen’s life. It was also structured in quite a strange way, opening with a vivid account of the death of Cousin Eliza’s husband, a man Austen never met. He had no connection to the rest of the story and beyond a brief mention in the opening chapter that he had died, he is then barely mentioned again. It really was a curious choice.
The characters feel rather like cardboard cut outs and have few distinguishing features. We get little of Eliza’s glamour or Mary Lloyd’s grumpiness. The warmth that existed between Austen and Mrs Lefroy is extinguished in favour of the latter becoming a cringe-making Mrs Jennings figure. More worryingly, although Austen is charmed when she meets Tom Lefroy, the reader gets to see little of it. Most of their meetings are only reported rather than described so although we are supposed to believe that Austen is sincerely in love, the whole romance feels rather ‘blink and you’d miss it’. This in turn makes it difficult for us to feel disappointment when he vanishes. We barely even noticed he was there in the first place. There would be some good ground to mine here in exploring how Austen was ‘ghosted’ by a guy but Bennett does not make use of it.
The book does have its stronger moments, particularly in how it captures Cassandra’s hopes for a happy married life with Tom Fowle, so that when the tragedy strikes, the reader does truly feel it. The finale was also quite effective in showing Austen consciously decide against a pragmatic marriage with Harris Bigg-Wither. Unfortunately though, there were too many other niggles around the rest of the book for me to really enjoy it. Bennett’s makes clunky attempts to force “Jenny” into mirroring the heroines who Austen later created. This felt very forced and then to make matters worse, she has Austen begin her first draft of Northanger Abbey with the heroine already called Catherine. Most Austen fans are aware that Miss Morland was originally called Susan so this felt like quite a basic error.
More than that though, I think that Bennett tried to make Austen seem ‘sweet’. Relatable. Like any other teenaged girl. Because of that, her wit and sharpness of expression is utter extinguished. While I can imagine that a younger reader might possibly enjoy this as an introduction to Austen’s life, it always depresses me when I see an interesting story ground down into easy-to-digest pap. Jane Austen led an interesting life but you’d barely know it from Cassandra’s Sister.
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Published by Walker on 2006
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