A Study of Sisters

A Study of Sisters

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 iSense 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.

Elinor and Marianne
Elinor and Marianne

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.

Elizabeth and Jane

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.

Fanny Price and Susan
Fanny and Susan

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?






21 Responses to A Study of Sisters

  1. Excellent! I love your point regarding how harsh Elinor and Marianne can be on each other. This is a dynamic in my family, which is maybe why I’ve been blind to it before. Lovely piece! Thank you!

  2. While my favorite JA novel is P&P I like Elinor’s and Marianne’s relationship. While they kept feelings secret they cared deeply and when dreadful events occurred they both were open in expressing their love and caring for the other sister. Jane was just too good, never being angry, never losing her temper, never screaming at anyone over Bingley’s desertion or even Caroline’s lies. She was not even portrayed as giving a look at Caroline when she shows up weeks later in London to return a call. Show some feelings, Jane! Marianne and Elinor both suffered heart break but ended up with the right man and we read how happy this made each sister for the other.

    Thought provoking topic, Diana.

    • Thank you for responding, Sheila! I love that you compared Jane Bennet’s apparent lack of emotion to the Dashwood sisters. In many ways, Elinor and Jane are cut from the same cloth, with the biggest differences being that while Jane never actively demonstrated any anger, she did become deeply depressed. We didn’t know Elinor’s emotions about the horrible situation she was in until the end of the story when happiness was finally within her reach. Both Jane and Elinor suffered in silence, but Austen chose to reveal their sorrow and pain in two completely different ways, and I think your reaction to Jane is shared by many. Jane’s behavior is certainly less relatable to modern women, but I have come to a belief that she was acting in the way respectable young women were expected to act in her time.

  3. I loved your post Diana! I have often wondered if Jane and Elizabeth’s relationship bore any resemblance to Jane and Cassandra’s. I cannot imagine that she did not use her own life as an inspiration for many of the twists and turns in her story. Thank you for including all of the sisters in her books, for I know a lot less about those not in P&P. 🙂

  4. Thank you for the great review of the sisters in Jane Austen’s novels. I sometimes wonder when she wrote, did she base her stories on some part of her life or wished it were her life???? I wasn’t blessed with any sisters and God gave me three brothers. My sister-in-laws were distant not only in space but in relationships with our family. Such a tragedy because they missed so much joy. I would say my favorite sisters in her novels tend to be Elizabeth and Mary. I like the liveliness of Elizabeth with always had a soft spot in my heart for Mary being the introvert that she was and wished she were more outgoing.

    • As I wrote this post, I pondered the same question you articulated. Austen never duplicated any of the sister dynamics, in spite of working so many variations into her novels. They never feel formulaic or redundant. Your choice of Elizabeth and Mary as your favorite sister pair is intriguing! I am the third of eight, and the two who are older than me are brothers. I personally felt the pain of being shut out by the closeness of my older siblings and have speculated that if a sisterhood like Jane and Elizabeth had opened itself to Mary – becoming a trio rather than a duo, Mary would have turned out very differently. Excellent comment, MaryAnn. Thank you!

  5. This is another great analysis of JA’s work. Thanks for the insight. I must say that I lean toward the Elinor and Marianne sisterhood as my favorite, although Jane and Lizzy are not far behind. As already mentioned, it is the marked difference in personality that draws my attention to Elinor and Marianne, and in the end, they both move a little closer in their character arc to each other – Not completely, but they understand and accept each other’s personality more, as well. As far as least liked sister – Lydia and Lady Katherine top my list. The first is almost a moron (Lydia was old enough to know better) and they are both so incredibly selfish – no one could stand to be in the same room with them. But they add conflict to the story, so serve their purpose.

    • I agree that Elinor and Marianne’s love and acceptance of each other in spite of the aspects of the other’s personality being so opposite is a beautiful and compelling thing. And you’re right – in the end, each adopts just a bit of the philosophy of the other. Thank you for the insightful comment!

  6. Love Jane and Lizzy, probably because my older sister is like a Jane in the flesh. (Truly, she is so perfect you can’t even dislike her for it.) I have always loved how JA makes her characters so real, flaws and all. The sisterhoods always seem to me to both point out the flaws and compensate for them. I also think it is interesting how the sisters seem to choose men who compensate for their greatest flaws just as their closest sisters do, but without being just like them. Thanks for the great post!

    • That’s a great description of both your sister and Jane: “So perfect you can’t even dislike her for it.” I’ve known a few people like that, and they are rare gems indeed.

      The first time I experienced a relationship that was mutually balancing was with a college roommate, and it was wonderful to realize that both of us were better people when we were together. You don’t realize what a powerful thing that is until you experience it for yourself, but as you said, Austen managed to repeat that formula over and over. Excellent comment!

  7. Thanks for a great post, Diana! What a thoughtful analysis.
    My favourite sisterly bond has to be Elizabeth and Jane, they are closer and on more of an equal footing than all the others in my opinion. I love to hate the Bingley sisters but I think the trio Mrs Norris – Lady Bertram – Mrs Price is the saddest. They don’t seem to have anything in common.

    • It’s an excellent point you make about the equal footing of Jane and Lizzy. I hadn’t considered that, but it is absolutely true. I also find the Bingley sisters hard to take but have to concede that although they are petty and vain, they aren’t malicious to the point of being evil. Mrs. Norris, on the other hand, is cruel, vengeful and yes, evil to a degree. The lives of her sisters are, I agree, very sad, one marrying down so far that she is living in poverty, the other so addicted to opiates that her life is a fog. Three sisters whose lives went in vastly different directions, all based on their choices. Thank you for commenting, Joana.

  8. I love Elinor and Marianne because it always feels a closer representation of myself and my younger sister. I love the relationship between Jane and Elizabeth. Elizabeth Elliott/Mary Musgrove, The Sisters Steele and of course Caroline Bingley/Louisa Hurst are those sisters that I am thankful I do NOT have. LOL As someone who has quite a collection of sisters, I have always loved the sisterly relationships in JA novels. Great post!

    • I think it’s wonderful that you actually relate to Elinor and Marianne. I admire their ability to love each other so deeply in spite of how different their perspectives are. I’ve heard it said that this relationship is the one that most closely resembles the dynamic between Cassandra and Jane Austen. Austen did such a great job nailing the “superior sisters” as well as some of the other not so wonderful sisters, I have to wonder if she actually knew some sister pairs where were like them. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  9. Diana, thanks so much for your post. I love all of the sisterly bonds that JA wrote into her works. I wonder how our poor Georgiana would had turned out if she had had a sister in addition to her older brother. Love the older Bennet sisters and the Dashwood sisters. Can’t stand the Bingley or Steele sisters. There you have it. Jen

    • The more I pondered this topic, the more genius I saw in how Austen portrayed sisters. I think Georgiana was born under a lucky star in the sibling category, with Darcy as a brother and gaining Elizabeth as her sister. Caroline Bingley didn’t deserve to get Jane as a sister, but there was no getting around it if she was to be with Bingley. I left out the Steele sisters, but I can’t stand them either!

  10. My favorite Austen sisters are Jane and Elizabeth, no surprise I am sure. The ones I dislike….Caroline Bingley and Elizabeth & Mary Elliott. I’d like to add Lydia, but with a caveat, she is an unruly child with no guidance but, there is the slight possibility her eyes will be opened.

    • Debbie, I concur with what you’ve said, even about Lydia, who is actually the most like Elizabeth personality-wise, in my opinion. If Lydia had a little less liveliness and a bit more intelligence, things would have worked out so much better for her. Thanks for commenting.

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