September 2018 Meeting: Sisters and Siblings in Jane Austen’s Novels

October 1, 2018


So many sisters to discuss. Supportive sisters, quarrelsome sisters, scandalous sisters, disdainful sisters, all distinctive and memorable.

Our research revealed a number of articles, which tackled different aspects of sisters and siblings in Austen’s novels, and informed and enriched our discussion.

1. Sisterly Affection, Sisterly Competition: Sibling Rivalry in Jane Austen’s novels by Mary Oakley Strasser focused not on sisterly devotion but rather on sisterly rivalry and competition, using Louisa and Henrietta Musgrove, Lydia and Kitty Bennet, and Julia and Maria Bertram as examples. “ In each pair of sisters, one sister dominates the other in competition for affection.”

However Strasser concludes that the women “ who seek the gentleman’s affection do not win it”. For example, although both Julia and Maria Bertram initially compete for Henry Crawford’s attention, Julia symbolically withdraws from the play and the competition with her sister . Eventually Henry proposes to Fanny and while Maria is exiled to a life with her Aunt Norris, Julia enjoys a respectable married life.

To Strasser, Austen’s claim, in one of her letters to Cassandra, that “pictures of perfection” made her “sick and wicked”, its not surprising that she would enjoy creating characters with such human flaws as Lydia Bennet and Maria Bertram.

As one member commented, the women who actively pursued the men didn’t catch them (though Lydia did, she was then exiled to the north!), jealous competitive behaviour is not rewarded, while the sincere sisters find happiness.

2. Heads and Arms and Legs Enough: Jane Austen and Sibling Dynamics by Kay Torney Souter draws upon the research of Frank Sullaway in Born to Rebel: Birth Order, Family Dynamics and Creative Lives ( 1996).

Souter aims to “tease out Austen’s treatment of family dynamics, especially in terms of sibling competition and birth order and the implications of this treatment.” For instance, the personalities and behaviour of the Bennett girls affirms this view with the older sisters conventional and cautious, the younger sisters more inclined to rebel and take risks and the middle child is ignored. Sulloway suggests that sibling problems are best understood in terms of Darwinian competition for parental “investment”.

The firstborn are sure of their parents” interest, middleborns are often negotiators, ie Elinor Dashwood and Anne Elliott (though not Mary Bennett), later borns need to “find their own special niche . . . to maximize parental interest”.

Austen’s plots usually focus not on the predictable oldest or the rebellious youngest but rather on the fortunes of the second born: Elinor Daswood, Elizabeth Bennet, Anne Elliot for instance. “Middleborns are typically skilled tacticians and observers”. Souter focusses particularly on Pride and Prejudice because it concerns “ the fortunes of a sibship disadvantaged by both the parents behaviour and the social system”. Parents are essential in the marriage market which ensures survival, in Darwinian terms, through reproduction.

Souter also comments on sibling hatred in Austen’s later novels, especially the contempt Elizabeth Elliot shows for her sisters and “the cannibalistic ferocity” of Maria and Julia Bertram.

The discussion that ensued turned to members position within their family dynamic. It was fascinating.

3. The role of Mary Bennett in Pride and Prejudice.

One member questioned why Austen created Mary Bennett as such a caricature. She appears to be a foil for her other sisters, neither attractive, nor brilliant, nor flighty and empty headed. Just Mary in the middle. Was there more to her in the original version?

The member felt that “her silent futile existence haunts the pages of P and P. She is like an automaton – no critical faculties, only recites memorized tracts in contrast to Elizabeth discovering her misjudgements”. She appears to have no interior life.

Siblings in JA divide into the good and the bad but Mary is neither. Movies make her unattractive with glasses, poor hair styles and clothing. Colleen McCulough tried to redress the balance with her The Independence of Miss Mary Bennett but Austen revealed to her family a kinder future for Mary after P and P. She married one of Mr Phillip’s clerks and “was content to be considered the star of Meryton society”.

4. Brothers, Sisters and the Idea(l) of Fraternity in the Novels of Jane Austen, by Katrina Clifford. Sensibilities, June 2009.

With this article we extended the topic from sisters to siblings and how Austen uses brother/sister relationships extensively to discuss ideas of women’s liberty and equality. She uses them to examine women’s place in society.

Ruth Perry in Novel Relations points out that in 18th century novels the main requisite of a hero was that he be a good brother, attentive, generous, protective and wise. Darcy is the ultimate example.

When her families do not have a protective brother, Austen creates the brother-substitute. The first being Sir John Middleton. To be brotherless leaves women defenceless. For instance being brotherless lies at the heart of the Bennett family’s problems. It’s even more of a difficulty when Lydia elopes. A brother would have had more chance of finding Lydia than Mr Bennett and Mr Gardiner. Darcy, therefore becomes the brother substitute.

Darcy is also a good brother to Georgiana and their relationship is characterized by provision, protection and love.

Henry Crawford on the other hand does not provide for his sister in the same way. He should have provided her with a home but, possibly because he felt he would be bored, he forces her to stay with her sister. But most telling of all is that he writes very short letters. Letter writing is an indication of affection in Austen’s novels. Henry cannot take the time or effort to write at any length to his sister.

Clifford writes at some length about Persuasion and how in this novel, “ the brother-sister relationship opens out to the world to form a new society based on the principles of fraternity enabling women, as well as men, to live as valued equals in “Jane Austen’s vision of a brave new world”’ (Auerbach), that is the brotherhood of the navy.

In marrying Captain Wentworth Anne joins this fraternity, leaving behind her familial ties to the land and “ connects with a society of brothers and sisters who love and value one another upon their merits and treat one another as equals”.

There was then some discussion about Austen’s brothers and their response to the poverty of their mother and sisters after the death of George Austen.

The meeting ended as usual with a quiz and quotes.