We all know that Jane Austen adored her older sister, Cassandra. They were two sisters with six brothers – a family dynamic that I share with Jane and Cassandra. Knowing what we do of the closeness of the female siblings of the Austen household, one would expect their relationship to serve as the model of sisterhood in her novels. It is hard to miss these connections in the two closest sister bonds of Austen’s novels – Jane and Elizabeth Bennet and Elinor and Marianne Dashwood. The sensible and compassionate elder sister to a younger sister who is lively and extroverted.
Austen placed her heroines in a number of different situations, yet she always gave them at least one sister. It is the nature and morality of the individual sisters that determines whether the structure of their sisterhood will be for their mutual good or ill.
Interestingly, outside of the core sisterhood—that of the heroine and her sisters—we see supporting and pseudo sisterhoods. That of the mothers and aunts, the in-laws, and future in-laws, the friends and neighbors are illustrative of additional sisterly configurations that play a direct role in the life and fate of the heroines.
Elinor and Marianne Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility, mirror the closeness of the Austen sisters, with a younger sister, Margaret, who is something of a third wheel. The two eldest counsel one another, but also judge one another somewhat harshly on the differences in their temperament. Marianne would have Elinor less pragmatic while Elinor would have Marianne be more so. In spite of this, they are truly loyal to one another, and when Marianne falls desperately ill, Elinor will not leave her side. It is this dynamic that creates the theme and title of the novel.
In Pride and Prejudice, Austen has given us a five-pointed star of sisters, with the two eldest as the foundation. Jane and Elizabeth’s relationship is also a reflection of that of the Austens, but arguably shiner than that of the Dashwoods. They share little in the way of criticism but deeply admire one another instead. Elizabeth frequently expounds on Jane’s goodness, and Jane admires Elizabeth’s intelligence and wit. They are protective of each other and make some attempts to amend the behavior of their younger sisters. They recognize Lydia in particular as being wild, but without parental authority, they have no power.
Austen also gives us a preview of the future dynamic for Jane and Elizabeth with their sister-in-laws, and a retrospective of the previous generation of sisters with Mrs. Bennet, Mrs. Phillips, and Mrs. Gardiner.
In Persuasion, our heroine, the unselfish Anne Elliot, is sandwiched between the vain and selfish Elizabeth and the hypochondriacal and selfish Mary Musgrove. Anne is treated as a second-class citizen by her father and elder sister, and used by her younger, married sister as free household help. Within the confines of her family, she has no respect. She is expected to do as she is bid, and she has always done so, at the expense of her happiness. She has no sister to look out for her well-being; and the only person in her life who has done so, Lady Russell, has provided counsel that has led Anne into her current faded existence.
The first sister-figure who throws a rope to Anne is the sister of Captain Wentworth. While there is no evidence provided that Mrs. Croft is aware of Anne’s short engagement to her brother, if you read Persuasion with the thought that she does know, there are multiple comments and actions that are indicative of her personally courting Anne’s sisterhood, working in tandem with her husband, Admiral Croft. They are awkward in the pursuit, but the things they do are so pointed that one cannot help but be happy that Anne will gain such a sister.
Emma provides us with a twist. Although Emma Woodhouse has a sister, they are separated by years and distance. One never gets the sense that they have much of a sisterly bond. Emma certainly became close to her governess, but Mrs. Weston is now wed and gone, although she continues to serve as a mother-figure when Emma needs counsel. Emma seeks a sort of misguided sisterhood by becoming a mentor to Harriet Smith, whose social position is far beneath Emma’s. There is no opportunity for equality in this relationship, meaning it stands no chance of emulating a sisterhood, let alone a true friendship. Her marriage to Mr. Knightly brings her full circle back to her biological sister, Isabella, to whom she is now also a sister-in-law.
Mansfield Park is a tale of sisters, beginning with the Ward sisters. We know them as Mrs. Price, Mrs. Norris, and Lady Bertram; and their lives have taken such divergent paths that any hint of tender feelings among them seem lost. When Mrs. Price is afflicted by too many mouths to feed in the midst of crushing poverty, her sister, Lady Bertram opens her home to one of her children, and Fanny Price is taken in at Mansfield Park, tearing her away from her sister, Susan. She gains, in Susan’s stead, two “cousin-sisters,” Maria and Julia, who are both vain, shallow creatures. The threesome is reminiscent of Cinderella and her two step-sisters. Fanny is repeatedly reminded of her “place” in the family by her aunt, Mrs. Norris, as well as Maria and Julia.
In the end, however, it is all inverted. By their own faults, Maria, Julia and Mrs. Norris are demoted. Fanny’s marriage to Edmund legitimizes her place as a daughter of the Bertram family. Fanny’s sister Susan becomes the next Mansfield Park foster child, restoring their proximity to one another.
In Northanger Abbey, although Catherine Morland has sisters, we don’t see much of them. The first sister-figure we see is a new acquaintance, Isabella Thorpe, who takes Catherine under her wing to introduce her into Bath society. There initially appears to be the potential for Isabella to become her sister-in-law through one of multiple channels. Isabella’s myriad character flaws are continually exposed and in the end, it is a relief that Catherine won’t be related to Isabella after all.
Catherine soon meets Eleanor Tilney, who is reserved and kind, though shy. The sisterly connection is assured when her brother Henry and Catherine wed, but we never really get to see it in full bloom.
Do you have a favorite set of Austen sisters? Which ones do you despise?