July 2016 meeting: Brothers in the novels of Jane Austen

Prepared by member Marilyn

It was agreed that the topic was broad but that the definition of the brotherly qualities, as defined in Mansfield Park, be considered. That the best of brothers demonstrated filial love which encompassed provision, protection and a genuine love for family and siblings, that was beyond matrimonial love, which could be dissolved by divorce .

Austen’s family situation was one where much-loved dependable brothers provided, protected, genuinely loved and entertained their sisters and each other. Her family situation provided knowledge of men and their behaviour and knowledge of the naval brotherhood to include in the novels but Henry Austen assures us that Jane never based characters on individuals.

The family circle is seen as an innovative, social and moral power base of a fraternity of brothers and sisters.

In Fanny and William’s relationship we see

Their eager affection in meeting, their exquisite delight in being together, their hours of happy mirth, and moments of serious conference, may be imagined; as well as the sanguine views and spirits of the boy even to the last, and misery of the girl when he left her .( Mansfield Park Book 1 Chapter 2.)

Is this the brother sister relationship against which to judge others? Especially that of Henry and Mary Crawford who are cordial rather than intimate, and ultimately villains. William writes frequently but Henry rarely.

In those novels where sibling dynamics are driven by primogeniture in the case of the brothers or by brilliant marriage for sisters, where an individual’s success and that the family’s future were affected, suggests the reality of family survival in 18th century England. The narrow social group meant that lovers are often brother substitute figures, often a brother’s friend or the good brother of persons unknown. (1)

None of the heroines have effective, strong, protective brothers and all marry good brothers, dependable, intelligent, educated, sensible, morally upright and loving. Perhaps Austen is suggesting that good brothers make good husbands, as we know Robert Martin has proved himself worthy of Harriet. Henry Tilney is heroic in his devotion to his sisters, compared to the anti-hero John Thorpe in his mistreatment of his younger sisters at Bath.

Noting that the heroines of the novels don’t have wise and supportive fathers, would the addition of capable caring brothers have been an impediment to the plot?

The vulnerable women, dependent on the whims of male family members is clearly drawn and evidenced in Austen’s life experience.

Austen uses sets of brothers to contrast values and worth in drawing Edmund and Tom Bertram and the conceited younger brother Robert and Edward Ferrars who by contrast is honourable, friendly and sensible. Still family fortunes are affected by the irresponsible deeds of the less worthy. Tom’s debts affected the entitlement of his family, and Robert inherits a less desirable wife.

The actions of brothers which may appear incidental, have dynamic effects on the plot. Col. Brandon’s unnamed brother takes Eliza leaving Brandon to be Marianne’s suitor. Robert Ferrars marries Lucy leaving Edmund free to marry Elinor. Tom Bertram introduces his friend Yates with whom Maria Bertram elopes. Captain Wentworth’s brother remembered old friends and kept up a correspondence and strong friendships between himself, his sister and brother. “His inclusion in the novel provides the reason for Anne Elliot, despite her secluded life, being in a position to make the acquaintance of a dashing naval captain.” (2)

The irony of Wickham’s claim to be half-brother to Darcy suggests that breeding must be heeded. Wickham is a cuckoo in the Darcy family nest.

The financial future of the brotherless Bennet family is in jeopardy as is that of the Dashwood women as a result of negligence by John Dashwood, the weak-minded, money grabbing heir. Emma is also brotherless but is guided by the brother substitute suitor Knightley. Both George and John are ideal brothers and George as brother substitute, corrects her, guides her and shows extraordinary forgiveness and forbearance , proving himself to be an ideal brother figure and husband. Just as Edmond Bertram is a classic leading man, kind, honest, sensible, loyal, good-hearted.

It is in Emma, that the issue of incest is glossed over. Engendering discussion, it is seen that in the closed communities of the novels the security, familiarity and comparable class of cousins is an accepted pairing, given there is little chance of geographical or social mobility. In both Mansfield Park and Emma, the brother-sister relationship is shown to be a solid relationship where sisters are valued and respected.

Austen is concerned to show the home as inviolable in times of change by cementing sibling loyalty, strengthening the home and spiritual and moral values it represents and unions among relatives as some of the novels end .

The navy family is expected to provide a future brotherhood for Anne Eliot, a worthy society compared to the emptiness of the gentry about her.

  1. Souter, Kay Tomey. Heads and arms and legs enough: Jane Austen and sibling dynamics  (JASNA)
  2. Whalan P. The men in the background. Sensibilities Dec 2005 p 32
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