250 years ago, on 9 January 1773, Cassandra Austen was born. To her sister Jane, she was a beloved companion, supporter, correspondent and, at the end, nurse. Almost certainly, Cassandra had the inestimable privilege of being the first person in the world to hear the stories that Jane was writing – she was the first to meet Elizabeth Bennet, Mr Darcy, Emma and Mr Knightley, and the other brilliant creations of her sister’s pen.
Cassandra Elizabeth Austen was born on 9 January 1773, at Steventon, the first daughter for the Austens and a sister to James, George, Edward and Henry. With Jane, she shared a small amount of formal education. In 1794 she became engaged to family friend Thomas Fowle. He was not rich enough to marry her, so went on a voyage to the Caribbean as a chaplain. He died there in 1797 and Cassandra seems to have decided that she would not consider any other suitors.
She was with her adored sister when Jane died in Winchester and outlived her by many years. Cassandra suffered a stroke when visiting her brother Frank in Portsmouth and died there in March 1845, at the age of 72. Her body was taken to St Nicholas’ Church in Chawton, where she was buried next to her mother.
Before she died, Cassandra destroyed many of Jane’s letters (it is thought perhaps two-thirds of them), an action which many of us (and all biographers) deeply regret. It would also be wonderful to have her letters to Jane (who once described her as “the finest comic writer of the present age”), so as to have a more complete picture of both personalities. Those too were destroyed.
This important anniversary of Cassandra’s birth is a date to be marked and celebrated. She was the most important and most loved person in Jane Austen’s life, she encouraged Jane’s writings and surely laughed in all the right places when the emerging chapters were read aloud to her in their shared bedroom, and she gave Jane unwavering love and support. Happy 250th birthday, Cassandra!