Persuasions #15, 1993 Pages 178-183
The Adventures of The Beautifull Cassandra
and The Beautifull Jane
Department of English, University of Alberta, Edmonton, AB
At the Lake Louise JASNA conference, in the splendid scenery of the Canadian Rockies, The Beautifull Cassandra, the story which Jane Austen wrote at about the age of twelve, and which I illustrated as a picture book for children, finally burst upon the astonished world. Encouraged always by Jack Grey, who believed in my picture-book project ever since I conceived the idea at the New York Conference he organized in 1987, and supported by a generous grant in aid of publication by JASNA, I was able to persist with my picture-book project until this final fruition of publication by Sono Nis Press of Victoria, in Canada.
Many members of JASNA have interested themselves in my enterprise, since I first talked about it to a receptive group at the Chicago conference of 1988. Since then I have also addressed groups in Vancouver and New York, and have shown them my slides. My last showing was at our Lake Louise conference. Now Cassandra is out, I feel I owe it to the Society, which has been so supportive, to commemorate her happy emergence.
In my title I promise “Adventures,” because I have a story to tell. In fact I have several stories. The adventures of Jane Austen’s beautifull Cassandra herself can be found in Chapman’s edition of the Minor Works, and in other reprints, so I won’t quote them all here. But I must give you a taste. Then I want to tell the story of the birth of a book; how that little tale by a long-ago child reappears today as a picture book for the children of 1993. There’s also a story about how an English professor – this English professor – comes to be illustrating a picture book – this picture book. Finally, I want to tell you the story of “the Beautifull Jane,” as the Beautifull Cassandra might have articulated it. That’s a lot of stories. But, like other stories for children of all ages, they’re all short.
Jane Austen calls The Beautifull Cassandra “A Novel in Twelve Chapters.” Cassandra is a milliner’s daughter in Bond Street. She falls in love with a bonnet her mother has made, puts it on her head, and sallies forth “to make her fortune.” She meets an eligible Viscount, but only curtseys and walks on. “She then proceeded to a Pastry-cooks,” we hear, where she “devoured six ices, refused to pay for them, knocked down the Pastry Cook & walked away.” Next she takes a hackney coach to Hampstead, “where she was no sooner arrived than she ordered the Coachman to turn round & drive her back again.” When he demands his fare, and grows “peremptory,” “she placed her bonnet on his head and ran away.” After these and other outrageous adventures, she returns home, “& was pressed to her Mother’s bosom by that worthy Woman. Cassandra smiled & whispered to herself ‘This is a day well spent.’ ”1
There is a pleasure-loving, resourceful, outgoing protagonist. She is a girl who can cope. Unlike the delicate heroines of the novels of sensibility, who live on roses and poetry, she has as a healthy appetite, and pigs out on ice cream. Unlike the genteel ladies of her day, she has no qualms about travelling alone, and takes a gratuitous joy-ride to Hampstead for no other reason than to turn round and drive back again. Faced with an awkward economic situation, she resourcefully pays off the importunate hackney coachman and discards some outworn gear in the same move. Unbonneted, she nevertheless walks through the streets of London with aplomb. And when she gets home, she isn’t scolded, but is welcomed by the affectionate mother, who is the breadwinner in that household. She has had a day of unrestrained pleasure, but is bothered by no qualms of guilt. It has been a day well spent. Hooray!
Well, that little story had lurked for years in my copy of The Minor Works without much claiming my attention. But at JASNA’s New York conference in 1987, the one on the Juvenilia that was organized by our founder, Jack Grey, Cassandra jumped off the page at me, and captured my attention.2 She reminded me of Peter Rabbit – but a Peter Rabbit feminized, urbanized, and loosed of parental and most other restraints. We have again a day’s adventures in the life of a young person, a day that offers delights and dangers; the lure of the big world and the return to the comforts of home. It seemed to me that Cassandra should be allowed an existence in pictures as well as in words; and I wanted the pictures to be mine. She would be – not a rabbit – but a mouse. (Why a mouse? you may wonder. I’ll get to that later.) And she would be dressed in the fashions of the 1780s, when Jane Austen wrote her story. I unburdened myself about my inspiration to Jack Grey. Jack loved the idea from the first; and from first to almost last he continued to feed me encouragement and hope about the ultimate realization of my conception.
Why should an English professor be messing about with picture books? Well, lurking within this dry academic cranium of mine, I like to think, is an artist longing to be born. In my school days I was always torn between my ambition to go to university and study English, and my impulse to devote myself to art and become an art student. At my school in Kenya I specialized in both, to the extent that one can specialize in school. In the end I left it to the Fates to decide which course I should pursue: if I got in to Oxford, I decided (and that was no cinch), I would do English. If I didn’t I’d go to art school. Well. I did get into Oxford, and so that other dream I had became only one of the might-have-beens. But I did manage to go to art school in the intervals of my university life, and I spent one memorable summer vacation as an art student in Paris.
Art became my hobby rather than my career. But that would-be artist continues to be a part of me, and every so often she makes a move to get out. My picture book of The Beautifull Cassandra has been her single most extended sally into my professional life.
Another part of this enterprise that has its origins in my childhood is my choice to make the central character a mouse. I was very fond of mice. My sister Valentine and I kept about a hundred of them, of many different colours, in a huge cage with multiple floors and nesting boxes – a sort of backyard Chateau Lake Louise. But there was one particular mouse, called Douglas, who was my one ewe lamb and the apple of my eye. Douglas lived in my shirt, at least in the daytime. At this time my stepfather was due for home leave from the colonies, so the family was off for some months in England. Of course Douglas had to come too. I had to write a letter to the Ministry of Agriculture to allow me to bring him into England. (“Madam,” they wrote back, in a letter I still possess, “with reference to yours of the 15th inst., we beg to inform you that this ministry places no restriction on the importance of mice.”) The extended adventures of Douglas … I will spare you here: but there’s one incident I must tell you of.
My stepfather, even when I was fourteen, was ambitious for me to go to Oxford University. He actually set up an interview for me with the acting Principal of St. Hilda’s College. She was Dorothy Whitelock (appropriately named, by the way), the distinguished Anglo-Saxon scholar. I suppose she had nothing better to do in this summer vacation, because she agreed to interview me, in spite of my tender age. I know now that nothing could depend on such an interview; but I didn’t know it then; and I was sufficiently nervous, and on my best behaviour, as I sat in her College study, with the scholarly book she had written visible on the shelf beside me.
It was at this tense moment that Douglas, who was generally the most discreet of mice, developed an attack of claustrophobia. He wanted out. Now, though it was well known to my family and close friends that I had a mouse that lived in my shirt, it seemed to me at the time that had Miss Whitelock seen an energetic rodent emerging from my collar, my chances of ever making it into her university would be dashed forever. I moved surreptitiously to button up the top button of my collar; whereupon Douglas proceeded to leak down my right sleeve. When I firmly grasped my right cuff, he made his move down the left sleeve … and so it went. I don’t think Miss Whitelock ever did see him; but she must have thought me an extraordinarily fidgetty girl. Still, I did get into Oxford. Not into her college, though.
Douglas eventually became a father, and died at a ripe old age, after a “good innings,” as the English say. But years later, when I was pregnant with my first child, I used to have dreams about Douglas, born of anxiety about keeping a small creature safe about my body. My son didn’t actually turn out to be a mouse. But I know when my maternal instincts were born. When I think about children I have a strong tendency to think about mice.
Well, that’s the reason that Jane Austen’s Cassandra turned into a mouse. I have intimate feelings about mice, and I can identify with them.
I will condense the story of how my idea about the beautifull Cassandra became a book. It’s a long time since Jack Grey’s conference on the Juvenilia in 1987. But it wasn’t I who lingered. I took time in the summer of 1988 – just 200 years since Jane Austen wrote the story, I believe – to make my pictures. That was sweet time. But although I fully believed that everyone would be as bowled over by my idea as I was myself, I found it’s a tough competitive world out there among the producers of children’s picture books. I learned that though I have some credibility as a Jane Austen scholar, I have none as an illustrator. Even Jane Austen’s name didn’t work its usual magic.
Cassandra needed two helping hands. One was Jack’s again. A publisher who had two conflicting readers’ reports asked me to name a third reader. Nothing loth, I named Jack. He provided an assessment such as author-illustrators dream of. He also provided an anecdote from home. He had read the story to his eight-year-old niece. She responded, “I want a bonnet for my birthday.”
The other helping hand came from JASNA. The Board generously provided a grant in aid of publication. Among those who love Jane Austen, you can count on magnanimity.
Now at last, after a gestation period more appropriate to an elephant, I have finally delivered my mouse. The Beautifull Cassandra was published by Sono Nis Press just in time for the Lake Louise conference. For me and for beautifull Cassandra, that was our happy-ever-after.
The colour slides I showed at the confrence can’t be included here. But I can reproduce one sample, in tone, and my most recent picture, a line drawing, which goes with the Afterword I supply for the child readers and their parents about the relation of this little childhood story to the rest of Jane Austen’s works. It is my version of young Jane writing.
If I am the mother of Cassandra, sharing her with that brave and supportive milliner-mum, her godparents are Jack Grey and Joan Austen-Leigh. Without them, without JASNA, there would be no Beautifull Cassandra picture book. My little book is dedicated to the memory of Jack, as was the Lake Louise conference.
I have one more story, if you will bear with me. We all know and love our Jane Austen, and her witty, moving, wise and responsible novels. She is famous for her restraint, her attention to decorum, and her capacity to draw fine moral distinctions. All the more is it a pleasure to read Jane Austen with her gloves off, so to speak, in her unguarded moments, as a child, when she threw decorum to the winds and produced a rambunctious, irresponsible protagonist who frankly loves pleasure and frankly pursues it. The story of that Jane, a Jane who was more like the wild and self-indulgent beautifull Cassandra than the picture the biographies give us, has yet to be told. Let me tell it to you now, in the manner of her own juvenile work:
The Beautifull Jane
A BIOGRAPHY IN TWELVE CHAPTERS
1 Jane was the daughter, but by no means the only child, of a celebrated wit and poetess in a country village. Her father was a parson and a teacher, and sometimes got in the way. Her brothers thought they owned the world, and they patted little Jane on the head. They told her she was a clever girl but her life would be uneventful.
2 Jane said, “Though everywhere beloved for the friendliness of your hearts, your talents could not recommend you at any time. Some day people will remember you for no other reason than that you are my brothers.”
3 One day Jane took time off from making a rhubarb pie to write a novel. “Upon my word!” said the world, “you give your opinion very decidedly for so young a person. What is a lady doing writing a novel?”
4 Jane wrote and wrote. When the door hinge creaked, she knew someone was coming, and hid her writing under the blotter.
5 Her brother Henry said, “I must put some oil on that hinge.”
“No, you don’t,” said Jane. “If you do that I won’t hear in time when the world comes to interrrupt me. My novels are nobody’s business but mine.”
6 Hardly had she ceased speaking when the refined and elegant Mr. Bigg-Wither proposed to her. “Marry me, Jane,” he said, “for I have a big house, and you are only a penniless spinster, so you have no choice.”
7 “If I must, I must,” said Jane, and thought about a trousseau. But coquelicot was not in fashion that year, so she ran away in a coach and six.
8 One day the Lord Chamberlain came with a sealed letter on a velvet cushion. “Amiable Miss Austen,” said the Lord Chamberlain, “His Highness the Royal Prince graciously gives you permission to dedicate your next work to him.”
9 Jane said, “Do I have to?”
10 The Lord Chamberlain went on, “Moreover, I shall tell you what your next novel should be about. I have the ideas, and you can write them down.”
11 “I have my own ideas, thank you very much,” said Jane. And she lit a fire with the sealed letter, and sat comfortably by the fire on the velvet cushion.
12 Jane had six beautiful children, with lovely names like Emma and Persuasion. She took a long view of history – all the way to October, 1993, and 600 people assembling in the mountains to celebrate Persuasion. Jane smiled, and whispered to herself, “This is a life well spent.”
1 Jane Austen, The Beautifull Cassandra, with illustrations and afterword by Juliet McMaster (Victoria: Sono Nis Press, 1993).
2 I told some of this story in “The Beaulifull Cassandra Illustrated,” Persuasions, 10 (1988), 99-103. The present paper is an update for the many people who have asked me, over the intervening years, for news of my picture books’ progress.