The Year of Cassandra

Cassandra Austen, Jane's older sister, was born on 9 January 1773, 250 years ago today. In her honour, 2023 will be our ‘Year of Cassandra’, featuring events and exhibitions celebrating her life.

Cassandra Austen was three years older than her sister Jane, who adored her. The two were best friends all their lives.

It is through Cassandra that we know much about Jane – both through Jane’s letters to her sister, and Cassandra’s sketches of her.

But what of Cassandra herself? She was pretty, practical and sensible, and although she is often pictured as the more solemn of the two sisters, Jane at least thought she was extremely funny.

As a young woman she suffered tragedy when her fiancé, Tom Fowle, died at sea, and she never married. Instead she devoted her life to her family, often staying for long periods at Godmersham, looking after Edward’s children. Here in Chawton she took on the household management, allowing Jane time to write. Without her encouragement, love and practical help, Jane’s writings might never have appeared in the way they did.

Cassandra was also a creative. As teenagers, she and Jane were collaborators, with Cassandra illustrating  Jane’s A History of England with characters that are funny and beautiful, if not accurate. It was said that they looked more like the Austens themselves than the Royals they were supposed to be! As an adult, she gave us the only two known portraits of Jane – a back view of her in a blue dress that tantalisingly hides her face, and an unfinished sketch that is now a treasure of the National Portrait Gallery.

Jane Austen, by Cassandra Austen. Pencil and watercolour, circa 1810
NPG 3630. © National Portrait Gallery, London. Read more…

Before her death Cassandra destroyed many of Jane’s surviving letters, an act which was much criticised by later generations of critics.  However, today it is believed that she acted in order to protect Jane’s memory and reputation. Knowing Jane’s sharp tongue, it may have also been to protect her family from hearing themselves abused or mocked. Cassandra distributed the remaining letters among Jane’s brothers’ descendants and admirers of her writings, kick-starting a mania for Jane Austen ‘scraps’ that continues to this day.

Silhouette of Cassandra Austen
© Jane Austen’s House

Join our Year of Cassandra with special events and exhibitions celebrating her life occurring throughout the year.

The year begins with Cassandra’s Orchard. We are delighted that Cassandra’s Orchard is now fully funded, and the trees have been planted! Sited in the courtyard of the House, the orchard features a tree for each of Jane’s novels, providing blossom in the spring, delicious shade in the summer, and fruits in the autumn. We can’t wait to watch it grow and become a haven for people and wildlife alike.

On 22 March join us for a special, Cassandra-themed Virtual Tour. Find out about Cassandra’s life at Chawton Cottage and discover objects related to her on a lively, fact-filled tour that you can enjoy from the comfort of your own home.

Read more about Cassandra here…

…and keep an eye out for more Cassandra-themed events, exhibitions and news throughout the year!