While on and between planes, I got two books read the weekend before last: Cassandra and Jane by Jill Pitkeathley and Charlotte and Leopold by James Chambers. (I didn’t mean to pick books with parallel titles like that, but that’s how it works out sometimes.)
Cassandra and Jane is a historical novel about Jane Austen and her older sister, Cassandra. Told in the first person by Cassandra, it takes the sisters from early childhood to the aftermath of Jane’s death, as Cassandra seeks to protect her sister’s privacy as well as her literary legacy.
Cassandra sees herself very much as being in Jane’s shadow, and save for Cassandra’s brief engagement, which ends tragically with the death of her fiance, this is essentially Jane’s story. We see her romantic entanglements, her fraught relationship with her mother, her resentment at her economic dependence on her brothers, her sometimes touchy relationship with Cassandra, and, above all, her growth as a writer. Pitkeathley’s great respect for both sisters is obvious, as is her familiarity with and love for Austen’s works.
I was curious about the historical basis for one incident in the novel, where Jane and a clergyman meet and court, mostly by letter. To my disappointment, though Pitkeathley does include an author’s note, she doesn’t discuss that particular episode there. (In an interview, however, she notes that she based it on a reference by one of Jane Austen’s relations.) This omission in the author’s note didn’t at all detract from my enjoyment of the novel, but as it’s the sort of question a reader is likely to have after reading the novel, it’s a pity it wasn’t addressed. This aside, I thoroughly enjoyed this novel and recommend it to both Austen fans and Austen novices alike.
My second Regency read was a book of nonfiction, Charlotte and Leopold: The True Story of the Original People’s Princess, which tells the story of Charlotte and her marriage to Prince Leopold, which was soon tragically followed by Charlotte’s death from complications of childbirth.
Charlotte was the daughter of the Prince Regent, later George IV and Princess Caroline, as ill-assorted a royal couple as one could possibly hope for. In medieval times, one of the spouses would have probably found a way to get rid of the other; as it was, the warring spouses fought out their differences through their subordinates, the press, Parliament, and through poor Charlotte. When not being used to score points by one parent or the other (neither of whom is depicted here as having very many redeeming qualities), she was pretty much forgotten. Nonetheless, she did not grow up to be a neurotic wreck or a libertine, but a lively, spirited young woman with a warm heart and sound morals. She and her somewhat stodgy husband loved each other dearly, and her untimely death marred his personality for life, though he had the satisfaction of seeing his beloved niece Victoria come to the throne.
Chambers’s short biography is eminently readable and full of interesting details. I was particularly relieved to hear of the happy fate of Charlotte’s parrot, who was neglected by Leopold after her death but who found a happy future with Leopold’s equally neglected mistress. Incidentally, Charlotte (like her father, who cannot be faulted for a lack of taste) was an early fan of Jane Austen’s novels. Referring to Sense and Sensibility, which at the time was published anonymously, she said, “I think Maryanne & me are very like in disposition, that certainly I am not so good, the same imprudence, &c, however remain very like.”