Persuasions #10, 1988 Pages 99-103
“The Beautifull Cassandra” Illustrated
English Department, University of Alberta, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada T6G 2E5
My idea for an illustrated version of “The Beautifull Cassandra” was born at the 1987 conference in New York on the Juvenilia. I had read the little story before, but it hadn’t really registered with me until I reread it for the conference. And then I was struck all of a heap by its charm and its cheek.
“Cassandra was the Daughter & the only Daughter of a celebrated Millener in Bond Street,” the story begins.1 Her mother is the family bread-winner, and her father, who claims to be “of noble Birth,” is a mere layabout, a childhood version of Sir Walter Elliot. Cassandra’s day of adventures begins when she falls in love with one of the bonnets her mother has made, and elopes with it. Her adventures include the conspicuous consumption of six ices at a pastry-cook’s, and a trip to Hampstead and back in a hackney coach: her progress there is rather like that of the grand old Duke of York with his troops in the nursery rhyme: “He marched them up to the top of the hill, / And he marched them down again.” When the coachman demands his pay and she can find no money in her pockets, Cassandra resourcefully plonks her bonnet on his head and runs away. When she gets home to her welcoming mother, she “smiled & whispered to herself, ‘This is a day well spent.’ ”
Between the New York and Chicago conferences I stole odd hours, indeed days, to work on my pictures. And in Chicago I had the chance to share them with the most knowledgeable and sympathetic audience I know, the members of JASNA. Here I can’t present the pictures, which are many and coloured. But I can talk about my idea.†
Jane Austen describes “The Beautifull Cassandra,” rather grandly, as “a Novel in Twelve Chapters.” But in fact it is a brief and contained tale, only about 350 words without the chapter headings. It appears in Volume the First, and occupies 5 pages in the manuscript (which is now in the Bodleian Library in Oxford), and only about 3 pages in Chapman’s edition. It has so far received hardly any attention (the most extended commentary on it I know is Ellen Martin’s, published in the last Persuasions2), and it is seldom mentioned in biographies or critical studies. But the young Jane Austen herself evidently had a developed sense of its place in her oeuvre: In “Catharine,” another work dedicated to her sister, she jokingly referred to it as having “obtained a place in every library in the Kingdom, and run through threescore Editions” (Minor Works, p. 192).
“The Beautifull Cassandra” is different from the other juvenilia: it is less sophisticated, in that it depends less on effects of burlesque and the in-jokes of the literati. It has a simple story line, a journey from home to the big world and back. In fact (I thought when I first pondered it seriously) it’s like Peter Rabbit, and many another story for children. My inspiration was to present it as a story for children, in the manner of Beatrix Potter. And so I envisage the characters as small animals, dressed in clothes of the period. My beautiful Cassandra is a mouse, and her adventures include encounters with a lizard, a guinea-pig, a squirrel and a cat. The hackney coachman is a frog, and his horse a tortoise. This may be taking an unwarrantable liberty with Jane Austen’s text. But I don’t think children would think so.
When you illustrate a story you have to think hard about it. I think I can now claim to be the world’s expert on “The Beautifull Cassandra”! I have deeply pondered its relation to Jane Austen’s life and other work. Consider the dating of it, for instance. Brian Southam, the major authority on Jane Austen’s literary manuscripts, assigns the story to any time between 1787 and 1790.3 But he overlooks what I take to be a suggestive piece of internal evidence, the fact that the heroine has just “reached her sixteenth year.” Now I wouldn’t want to claim that Jane’s sister Cassandra, to whom the story is dedicated, is the same Cassandra who is the heroine of the story, the milliner’s daughter. But all the same, the joke between the two sisters partly depends on the outrageous doings of the beautiful Cassandra as the possible doings of the actual Cassandra. As a working hypothesis, then, let’s say that both Cassandras were in their sixteenth year when the story was written. Cassandra was born on January 9, 1773, nearly three years before her younger sister. Jane would have been in her thirteenth year: that is, twelve. This would make the year of composition 1788.
“She next ascended a Hackney Coach & ordered it to
What else was Jane doing in 1788? Well, that summer she went to Kent with Cassandra and her parents to visit her great-uncle, Francis Austen of the Red House in Sevenoaks. Philadelphia Walter met them there, and wrote that Jane was “not at all pretty and very prim unlike a girl of twelve.”4 On the way home to Hampshire the Austen family stopped in London, and had dinner with Eliza de Feuillide (or Eliza Hanson, as she was then) and her mother in Orchard Street. Now Orchard Street is just round a couple of corners from Bond Street, where the beautiful Cassandra’s mother has her milliner’s shop. Isn’t it likely that the two sisters went window-shopping in the street famous for elegant clothing? (You will remember that the old mare driven by the Watson sisters stops at the milliner’s quite automatically! – Minor Works, p. 322.) On such an occasion sister Cassandra could well have declared herself in love with an irresistible bonnet, so providing the seed of the tale that Jane was to dedicate to her sister. It’s still only a hypothesis, but I think it’s a probable one. If Jane was for once to renounce her principle of writing about those three or four families in a country village, it’s likely to have been after a stimulating visit to the metropolis. And if I’m right, that makes this year, 1988, the bicentenary of the composition of “The Beautifull Cassandra.”
I rejoice in the story for various reasons, but one of them is for its cheerfully liberated heroine. The young Jane is evidently reacting against the conventions that confine women. The genteel female, we know, was supposed to have a delicate appetite; but Cassandra “devoured six ices” in quick succession. Ladies were expected always to have their heads covered (one scholar speculates that Dr. Johnson himself may never have seen a woman without either a bonnet or a cap; and he was a married man); but Cassandra, after she has cleverly used her bonnet to pay her coach bill, still confidently walks through the streets. Women weren’t supposed to travel alone, and we know from Jane Austen’s letters that she constantly had to make arrangements to travel under other people’s escort. Fanny Burney’s Cecilia, for instance, has to call for the protection of an utterly incompetent man, Mr. Simkins, “for her dread of being alone … in an hackney-coach, was invincible.”5 But Cassandra goes alone on an impulsive pleasure trip to Hampstead and back. Women were economically dependent on men, and even when they were paying the shot themselves would customarily hand over their purse to some man to do the paying for them. At the climax of Cecilia (which young Jane knew well) the heroine actually goes mad during the difficult business of paying off an importunate hackney coachman. But Cassandra manages her “peremptory” hackney coachman with great aplomb.
This isn’t a moral story. It’s a story of pure self-assertion and self-gratification, as are many stories about boys. To use a modern analogy: Maurice Sendak’s famous trilogy, Where the Wild Things Are, In the Night Kitchen, and Outside Over There, has as protagonists two boys, Max and Mickey, and a girl, Ida. The boys are allowed to be authoritative and self-assertive: “Let the wild rumpus start!” says Max to the Wild Things; and it does. “Cock-a-Doddle Doo!” proclaims Mickey, with unabashed frontal nudity. But Sendak’s girl, Ida, has a moral lesson to learn. While she is self-indulgently playing her horn, the goblins steal her baby sister and leave an ice-baby changeling in her place. Ida, haunted by guilt, has to go on a quest to recover the baby and placate her authoritative father.
Cassandra is more like Max and Mickey than Ida. She goes off on a self-indulgent binge, and copes resourcefully with her world and its economy, and is never made to be sorry or learn lessons. Her day has been “a day well spent,” and highly satisfactory.
“The Beautifull Cassandra,” like the other juvenilia, contains intimations of the great novels to come. Catherine Morland, who travels alone in an emergency, proves herself not to be a mere “shatter-brained creature.” Elizabeth Bennet is a descendant of Cassandra in being energetic and self-assertive, and we often see her running, or “jumping over stiles and springing over puddles with impatient activity.”
I think of Cassandra as the Mouse That Walks By Itself. She doesn’t need anybody else. She only curtseys to the eligible Viscount, who might have turned out to be the hero of one of the novels. She passes by the trembling Maria and the inquisitive widow, and gets on with her own affairs. So much for Love and Freindship. She has a brief romance with a bonnet, but she’s ready to part with that too without regrets. Her love for the bonnet turns out to be only a matter of First Impressions.
The bonnet, besides Cassandra herself, is the most important character in the tale. And I have followed up Jane’s and Cassandra’s relations with bonnets through the Letters. She writes to Cassandra of one particular bonnet “on which you know my hopes of happiness depend.” Sometimes she imagines a bonnet as alive, with its own personality. “I took the liberty a few days ago of asking your black bonnet to lend me its cawl, which it very readily did, and by which I am able to give a considerable improvement of dignity to my cap” (Letters, p. 37). She may not have been a milliner, like the beautiful Cassandra’s mother in the story, but she seems to have been a real pro at putting together the decorations for her headgear. “Instead of the black military feather I shall put in the Cocquelicot one, as being smarter; – and besides Cocquelicot is to be all the fashion this winter” (pp. 37-38). That was the passage that decided me to make one of the feathers in my Cassandra’s bonnet cocquelicot (or scarlet, the colour of a poppy).
One day Jane went shopping for her sister to buy decorations for another bonnet. Flowers and fruit were in fashion, but she found the fruit was more expensive, so she had to consult Cassandra anew: “I cannot decide on the fruit till I hear from you again,” she wrote. “Besides, I cannot help thinking that it is more natural to have flowers grow out of the head than fruit. What do you think on that subject?” (p. 67). That was the passage that decided me to have flowers on the beautiful Cassandra’s bonnet. I chose daffodils because they are funny and expressive, and I wanted to show them sharing Cassandra’s experience – curtseying when she curtseys, and getting fat when she eats six ices.
I have enormously enjoyed working in collaboration with the young Jane, as her team-mate. My version of “The Beautifull Cassandra,” as a 32-page picture book for children, including an afterword addressed to children on the relation of this story to Jane Austen’s major novels, is currently under consideration by a publisher. I envisage it as a little book, like Beatrix Potter’s. And I hope that one day we’ll have the chance to give it to our nieces and nephews, our godchildren, children and grandchildren. I think they’ll like it. After all, it was written by one of themselves.
† The color images have replaced the original black and white images for the on-line edition of this essay, courtesy of Juliet McMaster and Sono Nis Press. – C. Moss, JASNA Web Site Manager
1 “The Beautifull Cassandra” appears on pages 44 to 47 of Chapman’s edition of The Minor Works.
2 Ellen E. Martin, “The Madness of Jane Austen: Metonymic Style and Literature’s Resistance to Interpretation,” Persuasions, 9 (1987), pp. 79-80.
3 B.C. Southam, Jane Austen’s Literary Manuscripts (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1964), p. 16.
4 Quoted by David Waldron Smithers, “Jane Austen’s Visit to Kent,” Kent Companion, 3, June/August, 1988, p. 7.
5 Frances Burney, Cecilia (1782), ed. Peter Sabor and Margaret Anne Doody (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988), p. 890.