Skip to main content

Cassandra's Sister: Growing Up Jane Austen

Review

Cassandra's Sister: Growing Up Jane Austen

2007 already has been Jane Austen's year, and it looks like 2008 will be as well. Never mind that the beloved author of such novels as pride and prejudice and mansfield park has been dead since 1817. With feature films like Becoming Jane and The Jane Austen Book Club, a plan for TV's “Masterpiece Theatre” to broadcast adaptations of all of Austen's works, and countless novels inspired by Austen's life and fictional achievements, this 19th-century novelist is as relevant and popular now as ever before.

Into this atmosphere of Jane Austen adoration steps Veronica Bennett, whose previous novels include ANGELMONSTER, an exploration of the life of young Mary Shelley, the author of FRANKENSTEIN. Bennett notes in an afterword that the compelling absence of biographical and personal details about Austen's short life is a boon for novelists, who, lacking factual evidence, have free rein to let their imaginations run wild.

Bennett's Jane (known as Jenny to her family) is 17 when we meet her. Fiercely devoted to her entire family, but especially to her only sister, 19-year-old Cassandra, Jenny continually wavers between two poles: Should she marry and find love (and financial security) in the arms of a husband? Or should she pursue her writing, composing fiction that mirrors the real-life concerns of herself, her family and her acquaintances? When love --- through betrayals, deaths and misunderstandings --- continually evades the people she cares for, Jenny's choice seems clear, only to be thrown into question again by an unexpected proposal.

Bennett does a creditable job of introducing young readers to Austen's world. Creating characters whose wit and wisdom often seem straight out of Austen's novels, Bennett uses Jenny, her friends and her family members as mouthpieces to discuss literature, women's rights and other concerns of the day. Considering the sophistication of the dialogue, however, many of Bennett's descriptions often seem childlike in comparison: "Jenny loved dancing…. She loved the tramp, tramp of shoes on the wooden floor and the swish, swish of gowns as the ladies turned at the end of the set." Such simplistic descriptions stick out when Bennett clearly expects her audience to understand authentic 19th-century dialogue and to keep track of a couple-dozen major and minor characters.

Most fascinating is how Bennett explores the relationship between Jenny and Cassandra, particularly the parallels between these sisters and the fictional sisters who populate the pages of PRIDE AND PREJUDICE and SENSE & SENSIBILITY. In addition, Bennett credits Jenny's more conventional older sister with granting Jane the courage to make her final, life- (and literary history-) changing decision. This aspect of the book, more than anything else, will be likely to lead young readers to the novels of Jane Austen herself, where they can discover for themselves why devoted Austen fans continue to celebrate the author's enduring --- and escalating --- popularity.

Reviewed by Norah Piehl on August 14, 2007

Cassandra's Sister: Growing Up Jane Austen
by Veronica Bennett

  • Publication Date: August 14, 2007
  • Genres: Historical Fiction
  • Hardcover: 240 pages
  • Publisher: Candlewick
  • ISBN-10: 0763634646
  • ISBN-13: 9780763634643