Jane and Cassandra Austen: The Bond of Sisterhood

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: The Life and Works of Jane Austen

By Devoney Looser, Arizona State University

The 1869 reimagining of Jane Austen’s portrait, originally drawn by her sister, Cassandra, around 1810, was chosen for the Bank of England’s 10-pound note in 2017. In the brushed-up portrait, the author is shown as young, attractive, approachable, and palatable. However, one can definitely see the shadow of Cassandra’s original work in it.

A vintage artist painting a portrait of posing woman.
For years, Jane Austen’s life story has been reimagined, recast, and repeated. (Image: Everett Collection/Shutterstock)

Jane Austen’s Portrait

But this isn’t the image of Austen’s face most of us know. The most widely viewed portrait is one that was commissioned by the Austen family, 50 years after Jane’s death. Completed in 1869, by an artist named James Andrews, this portrait was used to illustrate the first biography of Austen. In it, one can definitely see the shadow of Cassandra’s original work. It has the same bonnet, with curls falling around her face in a similar way. But the face itself is changed. She’s far younger. The eyes have been softened. The mouth has curled into a little smile. It’s an image with a far different tone.

A few other portraits that some claim are Austen’s do circulate, but their authenticity is hotly debated. The silhouette often identified as Austen is said by art history experts to be only ‘possibly’ her.

This article comes directly from content in the video series The Life and Works of Jane AustenWatch it now, on Wondrium.

The Sisterhood Bond

Jane had seven siblings, and six of them were boys. She had a close relationship to several of her brothers, but she was especially close to her only sister, Cassandra, born two years before Jane. During their lives, they wrote letters to each other when they were separated, and much of what we know of Austen’s life comes from her loving, humorous letters to her sister.

Silhouette of Cassandra Austen
Much of what we know of Jane’s life comes from her loving, humorous letters to her sister. (Image: Unknown author/Public domain)

The sisters’ first school experience came in 1783, when Jane was only seven years old. The widow Mrs. Cawley took on Cassandra, Jane, and their cousin Jane Cooper as her pupils in Oxford. A short time later, she relocated her students to Southampton. That experience of school ended in disaster. An epidemic of typhus broke out in Southampton, and the three girls fell ill. Jane and Cassandra were nursed back to health, but cousin Jane Cooper’s mother, however, tragically died of the fever, caught from her daughter.

Schooling of Austen Sisters

In 1785, Jane and Cassandra were enrolled in a second school, apparently less harrowing, although little record exists of what happened at Mrs. La Tournelle’s Ladies Boarding School in Reading. What is known is that Madame La Tournelle was not French. She was named Sarah Hackit but took on a French name, apparently to impress parents. It doesn’t exactly inspire confidence in the education she was providing to her young ladies.

It’s not known why the Austen girls were removed from Mrs. La Tournelle’s by the end of 1786. One surviving comment suggests the school was sometimes an amusing experience. Jane wrote to Cassandra a decade later, “The letter which I have this moment received from you has diverted me beyond moderation. I could die of laughter at it, as they used to say at school.”

The Austen girls were schooled away from home for approximately two years, under teachers of uncertain quality. However, such little formal education was not at all uncommon for girls in of their social class.

The Horrors of Loss

Still, Jane became widely read, surrounded by books, writers, brothers, and a household filled with education and educational aspirations. She began writing comic pieces, mostly short fiction, in her teens. What’s worth emphasizing here is how steeped Austen was in the literary culture of her own day, as a result of her family and her household. The whole family was identified as great novel readers.

Although she didn’t write novels with long accounts of wars and battles, but her life was touched by crime and war. She had a wry sense of what it meant not to have to grieve after receiving news of casualties. As she wrote in a letter to her sister, Cassandra, in 1811, “How horrible it is to have so many people killed!—And what a blessing that one cares for none of them!—” Some read this line as proof of Austen’s cruelty or callousness, and perhaps it is. But we might read it, too, as her drawing on comedy as a way to cope at a moment of knowing recognition of the horrors of loss.

Her sister Cassandra understood loss firsthand. She’d been engaged to marry a young man named Tom Fowle, a chaplain who traveled to the West Indies and died there of illness. Cassandra never became engaged again. Knowing this must add another layer to any joke between the sisters about death, horror, and blessings.

Most of the letters that Jane wrote to her sister were not preserved. Family accounts report that sister and confidante Cassandra destroyed most of Jane’s letters, perhaps to preserve the family’s privacy. However, it is not known whether it was Jane’s wish or Cassandra’s wish.

Common Questions about Jane and Cassandra Austen

Q: Is there an authentic portrait of Jane Austen?

The only likeness to Jane Austen‘s face that experts agree is authentic is a small pencil and watercolor portrait drawn by her sister, Cassandra Austen, around 1810.

Q: Who was Tom Fowle?

Jane Austen’s sister Cassandra had been engaged to marry a young man named Tom Fowle, a chaplain who traveled to the West Indies and died there of illness.

Q: Are the letters of Jane Austen to Cassandra available?

Jane Austen‘s letters to her sister Cassandra were not preserved. Family accounts report that sister and confidante Cassandra destroyed most of Jane Austen’s letters, perhaps to preserve the family’s privacy.

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