In every Jane Austen novel—they total six—the heroine has at least one biological sister, sometimes a whole slew of them. In addition to blood relations, many a heroine has—or gains in the unfolding plot—a sister-in-law or two, referred to as sisters with no qualifying laws. Additionally, a few girlfriends are usually on hand to give us more of the dynamics of relationships among women. It’s safe to say that the theme of sisterhood was of some importance to Austen.
Austen herself had one sister: Cassandra Elizabeth, her senior by two years. She and Jane were the only girls among eight siblings; amid so much testosterone, they kept each other close, and remained best friends and confidantes throughout their lives. Over 100 letters from Jane to Cassandra survive, and have assisted historians and biographers constructing the details of Austen’s life. In some ways Jane seems to have been a typical younger sister; their mother once noted, “If Cassandra’s head had been going to be cut off, Jane would have hers cut off too.”
No wonder that in Austen’s first novel, Sense & Sensibility, the relationship between Marianne and Elinor, grown sisters, is central. Oh, sure, the plot revolves around the bumpy road to love and the men they hope to marry—but the sisterly relationship carries the emotional weight of the story, more than all their love affairs combined. Though devoted to their baby sister Margaret as well as to their mother, Marianne and Elinor are each other’s primary relationship in life.
Marianne spends most of her time enjoying—some say wallowing—in sensory reactions to the world around her. She frequently mocks Elinor for being, in her estimation, far too sensible—which in Marianne’s worldview means stodgy. After her devastating affair with Willoughby, however, and her return to good health, she comes to see her big sister much differently, and examines her own behavior in a harsh and glaring light. She confesses to Elinor, somewhat as apology, that she’s ashamed when she compares her behavior to her sister’s lonely fortitude under similar tribulations, and finally sees her as a worthy role model.
Though the demonstrations of love and tenderness between Elinor and Marianne are rarely exhibited in contemporary relationships, their sisterly dynamics are familiar to modern readers. Jane Austen’s insights, rendered two centuries ago, still hold the ring of truth.
Pride & Prejudice—In Austen’s second book she pulls out all the sister stops, giving us the five–count ‘em, 5!—Bennett sisters: Jane, Lizzy, Lydia, Kitty and Mary, who range from early teens to 20’s. To spice up the pot, she adds Lizzy’s best friend Charlotte, and a pair of sisters the likes of which haven’t been seen outside of Cinderella (the Bingleys), who sabotage their brother Charles’ love affair with Jane Bennett at every turn.
While Austen doesn’t delve deeply into each of the sisters’ relationships with one another, she’s the kind of writer who imparts a great deal of information about her characters with elegant economy, painting a full and vivid picture. The elder sisters, Jane and Lizzy, are close, like the real-life Jane and Cassandra. Both are sensible girls, especially compared to their mother and younger sisters. Jane sees the best, and only the best, in people, while Lizzy is much more discerning, and mentally sharper than any one of the Bennetts, including her intellectual father, who’s clueless when it comes to relationships among humans. Lydia would be considered a slut even by today’s standards, though not so harshly judged for it; Kitty worships and emulates Lydia. Mary is possibly the only brainiac character in history without a brain. She escapes their chaotic family life holed up in her room studying, emerging on rare occasions to exhibit her questionable talents and deliver philosophical opinions. Each sister manages, in her own way, to publicly mortify Jane and Lizzy, outdone only by their mother, who talks about people right in front of them, and blurts inappropriate announcements and impertinent questions.
Mr. and Mrs. Bennett are without parenting instincts or skills. Each makes no secret of their favorite child: Mrs. B. adores Lydia for her gay, party personality, while Papa B. favors Lizzy for her intelligence and wit. Austen doesn’t say how the girls feel being aware of this, but it might be partly responsible for much distress and confusion.
When Lydia scandalizes the Bennetts by running off with the dastardly Mr. Wickham, she gloats as if it were a great accomplishment. In the recent past Lizzy had herself been enamored by the same man, before learning of his disreputable character. Knowing what we do of sisterly competition, we have to wonder if Lydia boasts so immodestly for managing to snag a man once prized by an older sister. Having no real knowledge of Lizzy’s reasons for turning against Wickham, she might even assume Lizzy still cares for him. A baby sister trumping one several years her senior—now that is an accomplishment!—or at least it is to a girl who, while favored by her mother, never won the same from her father, who reserved that position for Lizzy, turning the two of them into unspoken rivals.
That’s just a smidgen of the sisterly dynamics among dozens in P&P, but to analyze them all is beyond the scope of this blog. Time to go to…
Mansfield Park. This is Austen’s third novel, deemed a literary comedown by most critics and fans after the miracle of Pride & Prejudice. Here is yet another retelling of the Cinderella story, played out in hundreds of movies, plays and novels across time and cultural variations. Fanny Price is the girl in the cinders of Mansfield Park, dragged out of her dirt-poor family home to be raised by wealthy relatives, who imagine themselves magnanimous. Cousins Maria and Julia stand in for the wicked stepsisters. Sir and Mrs. Bertram are too clueless or lazy to play stepmother, but not to worry: Aunt Norris is, conveniently, a secret sadist next to whom the typical fairy-tale stepmother appears angelic. Fanny’s fairy godmother is Mary Crawford; unfortunately, she fails to recognize her as such. Worse yet, Fanny mistakes the younger Bertram son, Edmund, as her Prince Charming just for being kind to her. Meanwhile she lets the real Prince—Henry Crawford—slip right though her fingers.
In Mansfield Park female competition for male attention is overt: Maria and Julia, normally close, both fall in love with Henry Crawford, giving rise to jealous hostility and almost open warfare. Similarly, Fanny and Mary Crawford are both in love with Edmund. Mary, being unaware of Fanny’s feelings for him, extends genuine sisterhood to her; Fanny is, however, engaged in a life-and-death battle for Edmund’s heart, and cannot reciprocate.
It’s not just love for Edmund that interferes with Fanny’s ability to form a friendship with Mary: abused by Aunt Norris and belittled by her girl cousins, Fanny harbors a deep distrust of women, and might never be able to form any decent sisterly relationships. She does extend herself to a younger sister when visiting her birth family, but exhibits little love towards the girl, particularly compared to her feelings and behavior towards her brother William.
End Part One. Sisterly connections in Emma, Persuasion, and Northanger Abbey will be analyzed in Part Two.
- Does the World Need Another Jane Austen? (teleread.com)
- Will The Real Jane Austen Please Stand Up? (marcys.wordpress.com)
- Revisiting Austen’s Tale of Two Sisters, Marianne and Elinor in ‘Sense and Sensibility” (Review) (popmatters.com)
- Mansfield Park by Jane Austen (thebookstop.wordpress.com)