by Juliet McMaster
I must take you back more than two hundred years: In the summer of 1788, young Jane Austen, who was twelve at the time, went with her family to visit her rich great-uncle, the lawyer Francis Austen, at Sevenoaks in Kent. And before they travelled home to Hampshire, the Austens went to the great city of London to visit her aunt Philadelphia Hanson and her cousin Eliza, who lived in Orchard Street. Those of you who know London will remember that if you walk southwards down Orchard Street, hang a left, then walk along Oxford Street, you come to the expensive and exclusive Bond Street, home of high fashion and resort of the rich.
Jane and Cassandra were far from rich, but they did care about clothes and fashion; and, country cousins though they were, astray in the big city, they are very likely to have treated themselves to a stroll along Bond Street, eyeing the wares, and agonizing with unsatisfied desire.
“Look, Cassanda, oh, look at that love of a bonnet!” I fancy Jane exclaiming.
“Oh, I’m in love with it!” Cassandra may have moaned.
And that’s what I guess to be the seed of Jane’s lively tale of a beautiful Cassandra who lived in Bond Street and ogled the high fashion bonnets.
Nearly two hundred years later, I fell in love with Jane Austen’s youthful story, at the JASNA conference convened by our co-founder, Jack Grey, in New York. It was a conference devoted to Jane Austen’s Juvenilia and Lady Susan; and it was in re-reading the early writings for this conference that I conceived the idea that young Jane Austen’s story deserved to become a picture book for children. She was a child when she wrote it, and I believed that children would especially enjoy a story written by one of themselves.
It is a wonderfully feminist tale, about a girl who chooses not to follow the standard direction for girls of her day, “Be good, sweet maid, and let who will be clever.” Instead she chooses as her motto, “Be happy, sweet maid, and let who will be good.” She goes on a day of conspicuous consumption, breaks all the rules, and is never punished for it. At the end she is welcomed home by a loving mother; she’s never made to feel guilty. And she ends her adventures with the satisfied pronouncement, “This is a day well spent!”