To try and get my blogging practices up and running, I thought it would be good to write some reviews of books I've read. (I'm done school! I have leisure-time for reading! I didn't know it still existed.) Please let me know what you think! I'm afraid I can feel my four years of English and History essay-writing coming into my style, so I hope it's not too long... Title: Cassandra's SisterAuthor:
Veronica BennettNumber of Pages:
[SPOILER ALERT if you are unfamiliar with Jane Austen's biography]
"Cassandra's Sister" focuses on young Jane Austen, or "Jenny," as a burgeoning writer and introduces a young, modern reader to the concerns of a woman growing up in Georgian England. The story begins on a surprising note, with the beheading of Jenny's cousin's husband (got all that?) in France and then transitions to Jenny's reaction to her glamourous cousin Eliza's widowhood. Jenny is about seventeen, and already forming her idea of the world as she begins to write "Elinor and Marianne" (later known, of course, as "Sense and Sensibility"). Throughout the novel, we see Jenny's quiet life in the country, and the social restrictions of the late eighteenth century that may seem unfamiliar to modern readers, all framed by the close bond with her older sister, Cassandra. Jane and Cassandra go to balls and meet with friends and family as they follow the "rules" and learn the harsh realities of the world — especially what it means to be a single woman in this time period, dependent on men. Jenny's lessons about love, marriage, money, and relationships become intertwined in her writings, which include her own love affair with Tom LeFroy and a broken engagement with Harris Bigg. The novel ends ten years later, after Jane puts her ideals into practice and escapes a love-less marriage/engagement with a family friend, Harris Bigg, despite the social embarrassment. We leave the heroine, herself aged only twenty-seven, before she has published any of her famous novels, though we have glimpsed into the life and inspirations of the woman who would later become the beloved author Jane Austen.
Veronica Bennett does a decent job of illustrating not only late eighteenth-century England, but specifically the countryside gentry of Jane Austen's England, as an introduction for the young, modern reader. There are many details, and yet, they bombard the reader rather than add to the authenticity of the story. It's as if Bennett tries to pack as much of her research as possible by adding time-specific terms and imagery, such as specific carriage names or how the dresses might be pressed. On the one hand, it is fascinating and meticulous, but on the other, it can overwhelm and drown the story. Connected with the details of the physical world surrounding the Austens is the overwhelming amount of characters packed into a small amount of pages. I myself am familiar with Austen's biography, but it was difficult to keep track of all the names, and why certain people were important. Bennett's research does her credit, but its full presence is unnecessary for a story directed at a younger audience.
As to the greater themes of the novel, Bennet leaves nothing to subtlety, although this could be more positive, given the targeted audience. As a lover of Jane Austen and the history of the time period, I am very familiar on the issues surrounding women — such as the limited options available to them with careers or money, and the importance of a good marriage. These ideas were cemented again and again, leaving the reader feeling bombarded with a very direct message: namely, that Jane Austen forged the way as a female
writer who valued love over money when the society in which she found herself did not. From her perspective of her cousin Eliza's heightened status as a rich widow (with both money and marriage), to her navigation of suiters at various balls, to her passionate (yet brief!) love affair with Tom Lefroy, and her sister's tragic heartbreak with Cassandra's fiançé's untimely death, Jenny makes it more than clear how important men and money are in her world. Bennett pounds this message over and over, and it leaves the story feeling jilted and preachy rather than letting it be a united narrative.
One of the biggest annoyances of the whole story is — surprise, surprise — Jenny's "passionate affair" with Tom Lefroy in the middle of the novel. Their encounter is recorded in a brief couple of pages at a ball, and before I knew what happened, Jenny was declaring herself in love with him after he had been torn away. It was as if Bennett was determined to give Jane a reason for her knowledge on love, a real encounter for her to pine away at for the rest of the novel. Now, I'm not a purist in that I don't mind fictionalizing the relationship between Mr. Lefroy and Jane as something romantic, but if it is
to be done, it should be made believable! Like I said, I almost missed the entire encounter, it was so brief, so it does not make sense that Bennett's "Jenny" mentions it for the rest of her life in the same way that Cassandra grieves for her lost Tom Fowle. And really, I think it does the real Jane Austen a huge disservice to suggest she needed a real-life love to write the way she did.
I did appreciate the way Bennett portrayed Cassandra and Jenny's sisterly relationship, as well as Cassandra's love for her fiançé. Though I knew it was coming, it still broke my heart when Tom died and Cassandra pronounced herself a widow. It was also sad to see how a young Jenny went about her daily life in expectation of eventually settling down with a husband and family, since I know the end of Austen's life story.
I ultimately have mixed feelings about "Cassandra's Sister." It could be a good introduction for any young reader into the life of Jane Austen, given its detail and its thorough explanation of the themes of love, money, and society. However, I find Bennett simultaneously simplifies Austen's inspiration and bogs down the story in facts and characters that are unnecessary, creating a jilted connection of events rather than a unified story. I would therefore not personally recommend it. (Oh, and was it really necessary to begin the story in France with a random beheading? No, it was not — we don't need random shock value for a Jane Austen story, whatever Andrew Davies might think.)
If you are interested in more fictionalized accounts of Jane Austen's life, I would recommend Just Jane
by Nancy Moser and, for a bit of fictionalized romance with the imaginary Mr. Ashford, The Lost Memoirs of Jane Austen
by Syrie James.Notes for the next time I write a review: short and concise! Bonus points if you actually read all of that.