Saturday, 11 January 2014

Cassandra Austen

Jane Austen. Cassandra Austen. Watercolour. Private Collection.

Jane Austen’s beloved sister Cassandra was an amateur watercolorist. A few of her works survive today. Most notable are her two portraits of her famous literary sibling, which are the only images of the author that survive and have been made much of as a result. 

Jane Austen. Cassandra Austen. Pencil and watercolour, circa 1810. 114 mm x 80 mm. National Portrait Gallery, London.
Question remains as to whether or not this portrait - the only showing Jane's face - is a fair likeness however. Apparently other family members declared the painting “hideously unlike her.” Very supportive! 

Cassandra also illustrated the book the Jane Austen wrote as an unruly fifteen year old, The History of England by a “partial, prejudiced, & ignorant Historian.” The book, currently housed in the British Library, is a mockery of the dour textbooks the Austen girls were subjected to in the schoolroom such as the Goldsmith’s History of England from the Earliest Times to the Death of George II. It laughs at such authors’ pretensions to objectivity, Austen using ‘references’ of her family members, and their way of taking themselves far too seriously. 

Her histories are as light and sharp as one might expect.

Jane and Cassandra Austen. The History of England. British Library. 

Henry the 4th

“HENRY the 4th ascended the throne of England much to his own satisfaction in the year 1399, after having prevailed on his cousin & predecessor Richard the 2d to resign it to him, & to retire for the rest of his Life to Pomfret Castle, where he happened to be murdered. It is to be supposed that Henry was married, since he had certainly four sons, but it is not in my power to inform the Reader who was his Wife. Be this as it may, he did not live for ever, but falling ill, his son the Prince of Wales came and took away the crown; whereupon the King made a long speech, for which I must refer the Reader to Shakespear's Plays, & the Prince made a still longer. Things being thus settled between them, the King died, & was succeeded by his son Henry who had previously beat Sir William Gascoigne.”


Jane and Cassandra Austen. The History of England. British Library.

Henry the 5th 

“THIS Prince, after he succeeded to the throne, grew quite reformed & Amiable, forsaking all his dissipated Companions, & never thrashing Sir William again. During his reign, Lord Cobham was burnt alive, but I forget what for.”

Sadly for Cassandra her artistic productions were once again little praised of by the Austen family who opined the portraits looked a great deal more like members of her family than any monarch. Either her talent did not lie towards capturing the true looks of her subjects, or her family was not the most encouraging in the county!

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