Born 9 January 1773 – Died 22 March 1845
Cassandra Austen is well known as the most treasured sister to Jane Austen. They were born almost three years apart, and were inseparable from birth.
Their mother Mrs Austen said that, ‘If Cassandra was to have her head cut off, Jane would insist on sharing her same fate.’
From being very young, Jane looked up to her sister and often spoke of her virtues. Jane dedicated History, part of her Juvenilia she wrote around aged 12 to Cassandra. She described her as, “a Pheonix. Your taste is refine, your sentiments are noble, & your Virtues innumerable.”
Even before then, Jane was only 7 years old when she followed Cassandra to boarding school. First to Oxford, then to Reading and Southampton. And when Cassandra returned home, Jane did too. They shared a room all their lives, and told each other everything. They gossiped, as sisters do, and had insider jokes, and wrote to each other almost every day whilst apart.
Whilst Jane’s life is well known, and her talents as a writer have been acknowledged. It was made possible by her sister Cassandra, whose personality is lesser known.
Silhouette of Cassandra Austen
Cassandra was described as ‘handsome’ by some, although in this silhouette she looks very pretty. Eliza described her cousins as, ‘two beauties’, and it was said that Cassandra was prettier than Jane. This silhouette was done whilst Cassandra was alive, in contrast to the one we have of Jane which was created after her death.
Cassandra was a talented artist and painted the only portrait of Jane we have, including a back view. Cassandra was a wonderful watercolourist, and where Jane was known as a writer, she was known as the painter.
She painted Jane’s Juvenilia, including the wonderful Mary Queen of Scotts. Although it was said that the royal characters looked more like the Austen family than the royal family.
Cassandra painted a back view of Jane whilst on holiday in Lyme Regis in 1804. Jane has her ribbons untied, so it was seen as quite racy at the time.
This frontal portrait was painted around 1810, although some Jane’s relatives thought it didn’t really look like Jane. It now sits in the National Portrait Gallery.
Cassandra was engaged only once in her life to Thomas Fowle. She knew him well as he was tutored by her father George Austen. They became engaged in 1795 when Cassandra was 22 years old. Needing money to marry, Tom went to the Caribbean to be a Military Chaplain. He would never return. He caught yellow fever and died in 1797, and was buried at sea on 13 February, although Cassandra did not receive this terrible news until the April of that year.
It was commented that Cassandra took the news of Tom’s death with great ‘self-command’, and it must have seemed so unfair that her future happiness had been cut short.
Cassandra had stayed with Tom’s family in Kintbury in Berkshire, which is 25 miles from Steventon, and upon her marriage would live in Wiltshire, 60 miles away. Letters from this period when Cassandra was staying at Godmersham have not survived, and it is speculated that there may have been a little jealousy on Jane’s part.
Jane was probably more upset that she would be parted from her sister, and this could account for her flirting so outrageously whilst staying with Madam Lefroy.
Jane wrote to Cassandra’s on her 23rd Birthday telling her all about it. In a letter dated Saturday 9 – Sunday 10 January 1796, Jane says, ‘In the first place I hope you will live twenty three years longer..’. She then continues with a long gossipy letter about her own antics whilst dancing, with friends, and her infatuation for Tom Lefroy.
Cassandra would have been related to Martha Lloyd through marriage. Around the same time, James was marrying his second wife, Mary Lloyd ( sister to Martha who lived with them). Their youngest sister Eliza was soon engaged to Tom’s brother, Reverend Fowle, which meant that Cassandra would have been the wife of her brother-in-law.
Meanwhile, there were changes in the rest of the Austen family. James daughter Anna had lived at Steventon Rectory since she was 2 years old after being consumed by grief. She was now 4 years old, and would soon be taken back to live with her father.
Henry was a lieutenant in the Oxfordshire Militia, and he would soon be engaged to Eliza, their widowed cousin. Charles and Francis were away at sea fighting France for their country. Edward was now 30 years old and settled at Rowlings in Kent with his wife Elizabeth, along with their first three children.
Cassandra was a wonderful childminder and was often called on in an emergency. Being single, she could drop everything, and take herself to where she was needed. She spent many months at Godmersham Park over the years.
Cassandra and Edward were close, and she got on well with his wife Elizabeth. She would often help his wife, especially when she was due to give birth. Sadly, Elizabeth became ill after the birth of their eleventh child, and died a few days later.
Mrs Austen herself was a good housekeeper, and whilst at Steventon Rectory had milked cows, planted vegetables, cooked, mended, sewed, and kept the house running smoothly. With four boys at home, boys her husband tutored and her two girls, she was kept very busy indeed.
Cassandra inherited Mrs Austen’s good housekeeping skills, and whilst living at Chawton Cottage she would buy supplies, allocate duties to the servants, arranging the cooking, cleaning, and generally keep the house running efficiently. This meant that Jane was free to write and practice her piano playing which she did every morning.
After Jane had died, visitors to the cottage felt that it was somehow cold and and sad, and Cassandra’s life without her beloved sister must have been lonely at times. Anna Lefroy, their niece, said their relationship, ‘passed the common love of sisters; and it had been so from childhood.’
Ten years after Jane’s death in 1827, Cassandra was fifty-four years old when her mother died. She was now living alone in Chawton Cottage and free to travel and take visitors. She did what most people do when they live alone, Cassandra got a dog and named him Scout. He would fetch the milk from Chawton House and carry it in a pail with the handle between his teeth.
In 1843, two years before her own death, Cassandra burned two thirds of Jane’s letters. She felt the contents were too personal to them both, and she was probably right. Jane was such a private person, she published anonymously, and as her fame increased, Cassandra wanted to protect her memory. None of Cassandra’s Letters have survived or are kept privately. She also burned all her own letters she wrote to Jane, so even though we can read the 160 or so that survive, we are missing the other half of Jane’s correspondence.
Cassandra spent her dying days with her two brothers, Frank and Henry. Whilst visiting Frank at Portsdown Lodge, high above Portsmouth, Cassandra had a stroke. Although Frank was in his twilight years aged 71, he had to leave Cassandra to join his ship for a North America posting.
It was their brother Henry that came to look after Cassandra in the last days of her life. After his bank failed he took Holy Orders, and we would like to think that she died in his arms, just as Jane had died in hers.
Cassandra is buried on the Chawton Estate her brother Edward inherited. She has her own memorial tablet inside St Nicholas Church. You can find it on the left side of the church and Mrs Austen’s on the right side.
IN MEMORY OF CASSANDRA ELIZABETH AUSTEN DAUGHTER OF THE LATE REVEREND GEORGE AUSTEN RECTOR OF SEVENTON IN THIS COUNTY DIED 22 OF MARCH 1845 BEING JUSTIFIED BY FAITH WE HAVE PEACE WITH GOD THROUGH OUR LORD JESUS CHRIST Rom V.I.
Cassandra is buried with a previous resident of Chawton Cottage. In the churchyard at Chawton, she rests between her mother and Bridger Seward. He was Edward Austen’s bailiff who was moved out of Chawton Cottage so the Austen ladies could move in. His faded gravestone shows he died in 1808 at the great old age of 90.