Jane Austen

Artwork by Leon Steinmetz

Princeton  ISBN 13: 978-0-691-181530-0

Reviewed by alan Dent


            This little novel in twelve chapters was written by Austen as a girl of twelve or thirteen. It is enhanced here by simple but effective illustrations by Leon Steinmetz. The afterword by Claudia L Johnson is considerably longer than the fiction itself, but is expertly underpinned and written. Forming part of Austenís juvenilia, this book reveals her precociousness and mischief. Johnson is interesting and informative on how Austen toys with the stock-in-trade of eighteenth century prose, showing not only that she was widely read but that she had an acute appreciation of style. In fewer than five hundred words Austen convinces that she was a writer by nature. Much of what was to follow is adumbrated in this apparently private, throw-away little effort.

            The Cassandra of the title is, presumably, Austenís sister. The novel tells of her cheeky, delinquent adventures in the course of a seven hour frolic around town. She eats six ice-creams she refuses to pay for, hires a coach and canít reward  the coachman, popping her hat on his head and taking to her heels. She is intriguingly embarrassed by an encounter with Maria. She is, in short, a heroine in the making; vut a heroine of a particular kind. She is no conformist. As Johnson points out, in later works of her teenage years, Austen will fill her writing with incident: the young woman who begins with patricide, for example, and goes on to murder her sister, her mother, to forge her own will and so on. The dead pan nature of the narration of these wild actions had a significant influence on Joe Orton. Like him, Austen seems to have recognised that people are very bad but very funny and to have spotted that there is irresistible humour in the combination of vicious behaviour and prim forms of expression.

            Itís possible, of course, to get carried away. This little book, in and of itself, is of small interest. It garners significance only because it was followed by the six novels. There is a danger, therefore, of reverse engineering from the accomplished work to this promising squiggle. Thereís nothing wrong with that in a way, so long as itís kept in perspective: this is a curiosity. Austen fans will want to have it beside the novels but they are where the real benefit is to be found.

            One point Johnson makes is worth repeating: Austen shows here that she wants to write without recourse to out-of-the-way events. She is pulling away from melodrama and the Gothic. She wants to find a means to write interestingly about the banal. Any fool can write about murder, rape and robbery. It takes real genius to write about the exchanges which constitute the bread of daily life. Johnson says Austen both parodies and valorises the Gothic in Northanger Abbey. There may be evidence for that, but the parody is more powerful than the endorsement. Austen is at her best when she is spiking. When she tries to uphold and promote, she tends to be less convincing. Anne Elliott, for example, clearly to some extent a self-portrait, is at times and in some ways, too good to be true. There is no point in Persuasion when she is seriously at fault or a serious flaw in her character exposed. Irving Howe pointed out that Hardy did something rare  in Tess of the Durbervilles: he made goodness interesting; but Tess is abused, disappointed, betrayed. Anne Elliot stands apart from all the other characters of Persuasion as a superior presence. Austen speaks through her and finally sheís a hard character to take. No one is perfect and convincing characters always have flaws. The real matter, however, is that too close an identity between a character and the narrator/implied author, when that character is presented as almost flawless feels somewhat like being compared to a favoured sibling by a disgruntled parent.

            What Joe Orton saw and made use of in Austen is the best of her: a capacity to expose pretentiousness, hypocrisy, self-deception Ė the commonplace failings of all of us. The Beautifull Cassandra shows her honing her capacity for parody and parody was her strength.