Conjugal Beneath the Fraternal:
Jane Austen’s Understanding of Love
“even the conjugal tie is beneath the fraternal. Children of the same family, the same blood, with the same first associations and habits, have some means of enjoyment in their power, which no subsequent connexions can supply; and it must be by a long and unnatural estrangement, by a divorce which no subsequent connexion can justify, if such precious remains of the earliest attachments are ever entirely outlived.”
This contradicts the entrenched cultural message, which was already prevalent in Regency England, that romantic love is the central connection to promote emotional well-being and happiness. Why was Austen willing to buck the norm and take a stance declaring familial affection as the epitome of happiness?
In part, it was the result of Austen’s upbringing. Her parents’ social position relative to their closest physical neighbors resulted in a type of isolation for the Austen children, particularly for the girls. While other boys attended the Rev Austen’s school and formed friendships with his sons, his daughters would have been discouraged from rough-housing with the ‘strangers’ among them. Jane Austen’s earliest playmates were her siblings, her best friend was her older sister, and as an adult she appeared to find it difficult to form strong emotional bonds to people whom she had not known most of her life. Even her closest friendships were overshadowed by her family attachments, and her first instinct was to seek companionship within her kinship network.
Although the theory that Jane Austen had a sexual relationship with her sister, Cassandra, is nothing but prurient malarkey, her affection for her siblings was never challenged by a romantic attachment of sufficient duration or intimacy to displace familial love as her strongest emotion. Thus, Austen’s only experiences of profound, long-term love with the opposite sex were with her father and her brothers, who (without the sexual overtones that would imply incest) were the role models for her heroes. This does not mean that Jane Austen felt romantically toward her brothers; there is no hint of a Lannister kind of relationship in the Austen family. It is simply that when she thought of what love was, and love felt like at its strongest, she thought of her love for her family.
Austen’s first two books, Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice, were written when she was a young woman, and still enjoying the heady feelings of courtship and a reasonable expectation that she would marry. The protagonists of those novels typically come from outside of the familial framework. Edward Ferris was a stranger, in spite of his connections to the Dashwood family, while Col Brandon, Willoughby, Bingley, Darcy, and Wickham were all completely exterior to the heroines’ families. In Northanger Abbey, which was published last but written earlier than any of her other works (circa 1803), the hero was so unconnected to the heroine’s family that he was introduced to her at a public ball in Bath.
In contrast, the romantic interests of her third and fourth novels, Mansfield Park and Emma, which were written after Austen was a determined spinster with no intention of marrying, are men who are practically the heroines’ elder siblings. Edmund Bertram is both Fanny Price’s first cousin and her de facto brother, the one who had “formed her mind” as a girl, while Mr. Knightly is Emma’s much-older brother-in-law who has known her since her birth, indulged her as a little sister, and guided her understanding.
Mansfield Park, in particular, is a psychologist’s paradise of subtextual, subconscious, supplanting of familial bonds in the place of romance. Fanny has been in love with Edmund since she was a child, and they display all the attachments of siblings. When Edmund is devastated over his actual sister Maria’s disgrace and his disappointment over his love interest, Mary Crawford’s, lack of delicacy, he came to Fanny and “pressed [her] to his heart with only these words, just articulate, ‘My Fanny, my only sister; my only comfort now!'” He would shortly thereafter discover that in this ‘sister’ was the adhesive he needed to mend his broken heart: (emphasis mine)
“Scarcely had he done regretting Mary Crawford, and observing to Fanny how impossible it was that he should ever meet with such another woman, before it began to strike him whether a very different kind of woman might not do just as well, or a great deal better: whether Fanny herself were not growing as dear, as important to him in all her smiles and all her ways, as Mary Crawford had ever been; and whether it might not be a possible, an hopeful undertaking to persuade her that her warm and sisterly regard for him would be foundation enough for wedded love … With such a regard for her, indeed, as his had long been, a regard founded on the most endearing claims of innocence and helplessness, and completed by every recommendation of growing worth, what could be more natural than the change? Loving, guiding, protecting her, as he had been doing ever since her being ten years old, her mind in so great a degree formed by his care, and her comfort depending on his kindness, an object to him of such close and peculiar interest, dearer by all his own importance with her than any one else at Mansfield, what was there now to add, but that he should learn to prefer soft light eyes to sparkling dark ones.”
To the modern reader the relationship between first cousins, even barring the fact they regarded each other as sister and brother, is incestuous and disconcerting. However, marriages between cousins were considered normal – even desirable — in Austen’s time. The idea of siblings marrying, though, was just as revolting in that era as our own, and Austen would have been horrified if anyone had suggested she felt romantic love or sexual attraction toward one of her brothers. There is every likelihood that Austen was completely oblivious to the implied incest in Mansfield Park. I also have strong doubts that Austen understood how awkward, how unsatisfying, it would be to have sex with a partner whom one regarded as a sibling. She probably didn’t give much thought to Fanny and Edmund’s marital bed. In Austen’s works, that kind of heated passion between lovers seems to have been for “impure” and lesser forms of affection, such as Maria and Henry Crawford’s liaison, or Lydia’s marriage to Wickham. Lust seems to be almost wholly unconnected to true love in Austen novels. The closest she comes to a hero’s desire is his admiration for a heroine’s “fine eyes” or “delicate features”, and even then the heroine’s physical attractions are secondary to her appealing personal characteristics.
The last novel that Austen wrote, Persuasion, featured a hero, Captain Wentworth, who once more came from outside the web of family connections, but the objections from within those connections, in the form of disapproval from her substitute mother, Lady Russell, are the reasons why his suit was initially unsuccessful. Anne Elliot considers her affection for Lady Russell – as demonstrated by taking Lady Russell’s advice to end the engagement – to be more important than her feelings for Captain Wentworth. In short, she chooses familial love over romantic love. She later regrets it, discovering that her affection for Wentworth is stronger than any of her other attachments, but she is the only one of Austen’s heroines to have no family bonds to replace Wentworth in her heart. She is not close to either of her sisters, has no brothers, and the parent whom she could love and respect is dead. Anne Elliot’s only ‘family’ in the way that Austen understood family was Lady Russell, but she was a close family friend rather than a blood relative. It is almost as if Austen subconsciously thought romance was only truly important when there was no superior, familial love to be had. At the end of the novel, Anne’s biggest regret was that she could not offer Captain Wentworth any relatives:
“which a man of sense could value. There she felt her own inferiority very keenly. The disproportion in their fortune was nothing; it did not give her a moment’s regret; but to have no family to receive and estimate him properly, nothing of respectability, of harmony, of good will to offer in return for all the worth and all the prompt welcome which met her in his brothers and sisters, was a source of as lively pain as her mind could well be sensible of under circumstances of otherwise strong felicity.”
It is also interesting to note that Captain Wentworth was a sailor, rather than the gentleman of fortune or a reverend, as her former heroes had been. By the time she was writing Persuasion, both of her two younger brothers were naval captains, giving her a firsthand experience with a new ‘type’ of masculinity. Her former heroes were either clergyman/landowners like her father and eldest (healthy) brothers, but with Persuasion she had unknowingly chosen a hero that allowed her to symbolically marry – via her heroines – a final representation of her brothers.
Austen was wise enough to always “write what you know”, and what she knew was that she loved her brothers and trusted them to support her emotionally and financially. It was therefore natural that they, the most important men in her life, would be romantic surrogates in her novels.
Kyra Cornelius Kramer is a freelance academic with BS degrees in both biology and anthropology from the University of Kentucky, as well as a MA in medical anthropology from Southern Methodist University. She has written essays on the agency of the Female Gothic heroine and women’s bodies as feminist texts in the works of Jennifer Crusie. She has also co-authored two works; one with Dr. Laura Vivanco on the way in which the bodies of romance heroes and heroines act as the sites of reinforcement of, and resistance to, enculturated sexualities and gender ideologies, and another with Dr. Catrina Banks Whitley on Henry VIII.
Ms. Kramer lives in Bloomington, IN with her husband, three young daughters, assorted pets, and occasionally her mother, who journeys northward from Kentucky in order to care for her grandchildren while her daughter feverishly types away on the computer.