The Beautifull Cassandra – Jane Austen

This is number 33 of the Penguin Little Black Classic books, featuring 6 short stories by Jane Austen. All of these stories come from Austen’s juvenilia, written around the time when she was 17 or 18. They are all parodying the stories that are shown to women as the right way to live their lives and they feature things that would not be expected of Austen’s characters nowadays. 

Jack and Alice – 15 minutes

This is a love story following a young girl’s first love and how things don’t always seem to go to plan when you fall in love. Alice falls in love with Charles Adams, only to discover that he has a list of things which he wants his future wife to have; “Youth, Beauty, Wit, Merit & Money”. Alice’s brother is entitled to inherit their family fortune which would leave her with money, the only thing she considers to not possess, and on his passing asks her father to contact Charles Adams to see if he will marry her. She’s rejected and from there things seem to get better for some characters and some, driven by love or the lack of it, are driven to some really dire circumstances. 

Austen’s characters in this story are much more unreserved than those in her later works. Alice for example is described as “dead drunk” through most of it, even to the point where after her rejection, “she flew to her bottle & it was soon forgot”. In fact most of the characters react irrationally to the situations, which could be explained by it being some of Austen’s earlier, juvenile, work. It does still however read like an Austen novel, with a lot of characters put together which can be difficult to remember. 

Henry and Eliza – 10 minutes

This story also follows an unreserved woman in comparison to Austen’s later protagonists. Eliza is bought up by a wonderful family but when she turns 18, she steals £50. When the family find out she is cast out and left to live her life alone. She comes across an old friend and, on her kindness, she is acquainted with another rich family. She is taken in as one of their own and treated like a sister to the daughter of the couple who take her in. Within days she runs off with this girls husband before she is reunited with her family once more. 

It feels as though it should be a Hardy novella, instead of Austen (despite the time difference in writing), purely for the content in the story. It’s very family orientated and focuses on doing that which makes you happy over that which is deemed right. Sometimes it doesn’t end happily but in this case it does. It’s also another display of a woman doing what she wants with her life and making her own way, happily. 

The Beautifull Cassandra – 5 minutes

Cassandra’s misadventures in London after being given a bonnet, claiming to make her fortune. Presented in 12 chapters on 2 or 3 lines each. All of her actions are particularly unfeminine and unexpected of Austen’s protagonists

She relies on the reader’s prior knowledge of the literature during her period of writing. The description of Cassandra being “lovely & amiable & chancing to fall in love” is deemed to be a real pre requisite in literature of the era, but Austen is parodying that literature by readjusting the motifs to give them a new perspective. Her actions are typical of the actions of literature’s heroines, yet she chooses not to pay for pastries and she heads out on a coach, only to get it to turn around and return back. 

Some of the moments bought about in this small story are things which you can pick up in later Austen novels, like the idea of friends turning against one another and the closeness of family. 

Letter the Third; From A young Lady in distress’d Circumstances to her friend – 5 minutes

A young woman writes to her friend to discuss the events of an evening at a dance under the scrutiny of Mrs Greville. 

There’s a lot of focus in this story on the differences in social classes, and the upper class trying to diminish those beneath them. It’s also showing us another strong willed protagonist in Austen’s early work as Maria refuses to be hurt by the actions of Mrs Greville, which is admirable and it works in her favour when she’s invited for dinner at her home. It feels very much like reading an early version of Pride and Prejudice in the similarities between Elizabeth Bennett being told by Catherine de Bourg that she should come to tea, before being told over and over that it is important she knows how to play piano. 

From a Young Lady very much in love to her Friend – 10 minutes 

This is Henrietta’s letter to a friend discussing a man’s love for her, and his wish to marry her when she is finally able to manage her own estates. It’s very lyrical and poetic, letters within letters and gorgeous proclamations of love, to the point of being willing to die for it. 

It’s the only really romantic work in this collection by Austen and it features dialogue between characters which is beautifully poetic. Sometimes the meanings are lost but this feels like it also links well with Pride and Prejudice; the word ardently showing up a lot within the declarations of passionate love. 

A Letter from a Young Lady, whose feelings being too Strong for her Judgement led her into the commission of Errors which her Heart disapproved. – 2 minutes

This is a fun little jump back to the unnatural portraits of women in Austen’s juvenilia. This woman is a murder, having killed both her parents and wishing to kill her sister. She is however going to avoid being prosecuted by marrying Colonel Martin. 

It feels very different from Austen’s other work. It’s not full of decorative language and comes across as a rather masculine point of view through very harsh, blunt language. It feels like there is no remorse, which is what we are used to seeing from male characters in literature. The juxtaposition in the last two lines of the letter also make it feel strangely other worldly.

Total pages – 64 

Total read time – 47 minutes

Rating /10 – 5

Recommend – Yes for a commute or if you’ve got some time to kill


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