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By Jill Pitkeathley William Morrow, 2008, ISBN: 0-0614-4639-4
Baroness Jill Pitkeathley was in the midst of a six-month stay in a cancer ward when she said to herself, “If not now, when?” During her treatment, Austen’s novels were familiar friends, so upon recovery, she set about to give new insights into Jane Austen’s character and offer her own answers to questions each Austen enthusiast eventually asks: “Was she ever in love? If so, with whom? Why did she never marry? Why did she accept a marriage proposal, only to reject it immediately afterward? Who was Eliza’s father? Why was Jane silent, writing nothing, for ten years?” As a trained counselor, Pitkeathley was equally intrigued by Jane Austen’s personality and relationships. Pitkeathley wished to answer: “Was Jane a difficult character? How did she behave within her family? Why did Cassandra destroy some of Jane’s letters?”
Once more in good health, Pitkeathley took up the task and, using her experience as a counselor, enhanced by imagination, cast light on Austen’s character through her relationships with others, especially Cassandra. Dedicating the resulting novel, Cassandra and Jane, to “my family and friends, who would not let me go,” Pitkeathley created an engaging and plausible story that answers each question in full—as well as fleshing out Cassandra’s jealous guarding of their relationship, Jane and Mrs. Austen’s mutual irritation, and which persons and events echo in the novels. Such is Pitkeathley’s skill that at no time did I doubt Jane’s life could have happened that way— not surprising for a first-time novelist whose “writing buddy” is Ruth Rendell.
Yet, because the work is fiction, its plausibility is the book’s chief weakness. While Stephanie Barron’s Jane stumbles upon corpses enough to overcrowd the Chawton graveyard to the point of a health risk, everything that happens to Pitkeathley’s Jane and Cassandra could be real or imagined, and the author provides no means of discerning the difference. In the fictional autobiography Just Jane, Nancy Moser informs us at the end what is quotation or invention, fact or fiction. Pitkeathley provides no such help, and it’s help I crave!
True, “A little inaccuracy sometimes saves tons of explanation” (Saki), but I find it distracting to wonder if intriguing details really happened, such as Jane’s father handing her a copy of Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Woman. In finding well-known phrases from Jane’s correspondence, the reader might assume all the letters are Jane’s actual words, but they are not. The choicest bit of fiction (Jane’s seaside romance and clandestine correspondence with “Mr. Atkins,” the clergyman who dies before they can meet again “same time, next year”) is told in letters to Cassandra.
Of course, the more you learn of Austen’s real life from the biographies Pitkeathley suggests, the less you’ll confuse counterfeit details for the real. But in the meantime? For days after seeing Amadeus I thought Salieri caused Mozart’s death.
When Orville Vernon Burton, author of The Age of Lincoln, was bemoaning the fact that he could not include a wealth of primary sources in his book, I said, “That’s why God invented the Internet.” His answering smile told me he was already starting down that path. I invite Baroness Pitkeathley to follow Dr. Burton’s fine example by establishing a website that would allow her readers to tease out the strands of fact from the intricate strands of fiction, to get to know Cassandra and Jane Austen even better.
Errata: Anne’s friend Mrs. Lefroy is referred to as Tom’s mother, not his aunt. On the Vermont JASNA website, “Janeite Kelly” lists further errors I didn’t notice. www.janeausteninvermont.wordpress.com/20 08/10/12cassandra-jane-a-review/
--Lori Davis, Letter from Chicago, Winter 2009