Siblings in Jane Austen’s novels: a Thanksgiving special

Every week I spend a minute of unbridled joy answering the quiz sent out by the Jane Austen Centre in Bath. It’s always challenging, even for seasoned Janeites, so I was delighted to get a full 10/10 on the last one. It was about families, and specifically siblings, in Jane Austen’s novels.

I had never considered the siblings that feature in Austen novels to be a topic on its own right, but following the quiz, I have been mulling over it and have reached the conclusion that there is a lot more than meets the eye. As someone qualified to speak on the matter of sibling love (I have, after all, a brother and a sister), here is what I think Austen’s novels tells us about the matter.

Sibling harmony in Jane Austen

Many of the sets of siblings we meet in Austen’s novels have an excellent relationship, regardless of their age and number. The Morlands of Northanger Abbey, not just Catherine and James, but all the others as well, all seem to get along (and there quite a few of them!). In Persuasion, Charles Musgrove enjoys the company of his younger sisters, Louisa and Henrietta, although they are very different in age and disposition. The same can be said of Mr Bingley of Pride and Prejudice, whose sister Caroline goes everywhere with him. She’s not everyone’s favourite character, and we all know what Darcy thinks of her, but generous Mr Bingley seems blind to his sister’s faults.

But getting on well is not the same as being friends. Perhaps due to Austen’s personal experience and her well-documented affection for her sister Cassandra, two years her senior, in her novels siblings close in age tend to be best mates. Perhaps the best example of sibling harmony found in Jane Austen’s novels is Jane and Elizabeth Bennet of Pride and Prejudice, who share a very strong bond. For their part, Kitty and Lydia Bennet are also best pals, although closeness between siblings is not limited to those of the same sex, as Fanny Price and her brother William, of Mansfield Park, may attest.

The complicity between brothers and sisters in Austen’s novels tend to weaken as the age gap widens. In Emma, Emma Dashwood has a good relationship with her older sister Isabella Knightley, but they are not on intimate terms, to a large degree because the disparity in their ages means they are in completely different life stages. Where Isabella is a busy mother of young children, Emma is relatively carefree. The same can be said of Pride and Prejudice’s Mr Darcy and his young sister Georgiana, the protagonist of Miss Darcy’s Beaux. Their mutual affection is evident, but Darcy is a decade older and the guardian of his little sister, and as a result their relationship very different from what it might have been, had they been born a couple of years apart.

Sibling rivalry and discord

Not all sets of siblings in Jane Austen’s novels get on well. There are plenty of examples of sibling rivalry and discord that are downright nasty. In Sense and Sensibility, Elinor and Marianne’s elder brother, Mr Dashwood Jr, pretty much leaves his sisters destitute upon the death of their father. That’s to a large degree due to the influence of his wife Fanny, a nasty piece of work, but he is obviously not that keen on the young ladies. In the same novel, Edward Ferrars’ older brother not only spends pretty much every penny of what was his by right but also ends up eloping with his fiancée, Lucy Steele.

It’s interesting to note that, just as in Pride and Prejudice we seen an abundance of excellent sibling relationships, in Sense and Sensibility there is a great deal of tension present between brothers and sisters. In some cases, it’s just due to a different outlook on life, as with Elinor and Marianne, but in others, there is open hostility between siblings. For instance, Lucy Steele is evidently embarrassed every time her elder (and rather dim) sister opens her mouth. Not happy with making Anne shut up, Lucy steals her sister’s money when she elopes with Mr Ferrars. Theirs is certainly not the kind of harmonious sibling relationship we see in other Austen’s novels.

Sibling rivalry isn’t necessarily evident, however. In Mansfield Park, there is a strong undercurrent of jealousy between the two Bertram sisters once Henry Crawford appears on the scene. By the time Sir Thomas’ appearance cancels the theatricals that have been taking place in his absence, Maria and Julia Bertram are in a muted war for Mr Crawford’s affection, which is only suspended when Maria marries Mr Rushwooth and the two sisters go to Brighton together. In the same novel, the tension between Mrs Norris and her sister Mrs Price is also evident, although Lady Bertram is oblivious to everything.

Another example of tense relationships between sisters are the three Elliot ladies of Persuasion. Elizabeth steadily refuses to acknowledge Anne as a potential friend, choosing sneaky Mrs Clay instead as her preferred companion. Self-centered Mary is too absorbed with herself to pay any attention to her sister, outside of her role as the carer of her nephews and silent recipient of her constant moans. Quiet and introverted Anne is left in the middle, without allies, almost as if she were an only child.

When there are no siblings

Only children are few and far-between in Austen’s novels, probably because they were relatively rare during the Regency. When we do meet them, particularly if they’re women, the most obvious trait is their vulnerability. In Emma, Lucy Steele and Harriet Smith share their dependence on the goodwill of others, and Miss Bates is a daily reminder of the fate that awaited spinsters with no siblings to help them. Mrs Smith in Persuasion is another case of female poverty due to a lack of a male protector, such as a brother.

Even when money is no object, women with no brothers risk finding themselves in abject situations. In Sense and Sensibility, orphaned and brotherless Eliza Williams is forced to marry a man she doesn’t love and ends up dying in a poorhouse. In Pride and Prejudice, Anne de Bourgh doesn’t seem to be given a choice as to the marriage her mother has planned for her. And even when wealthy ladies marry the men they love, they often choose the bad apples, as is the case with orphaned Miss Gray of Sense and Sensibility, who ends up marrying the rogue Willoughby.

It’s different for men, of course. Men without siblings don’t have to worry about elder brothers spending their share of their inheritance, or about finding good suitors for their sisters. Perhaps because of this, they tend to be entirely self-absorbed. As an example, Willoughby doesn’t have any siblings that we know of in the novel. Or take Emma’s Frank Churchill: he is charming, but also spoilt and selfish. Of course, by the end of Emma, he has a baby sister as well as a fiancée, so there is hope for him.

Bad influences

Last but not least, Austen embeds a subtle warning or at least a note of caution when describing some sibling relationships. Her thinking appears to be that sibling complicity can go pear-shaped if it’s not guided by strong morals.

Just look at Henry Crawford and his sister Mary, the seductive neighbours of Mansfield Park. They are both intelligent, sophisticated and knowledgeable of the ways of the world, having grown up with an uncle who lives a disorderly life. Henry and Mary also share a mean streak that is particularly obvious when Henry decides to seduce Fanny Price just to have a bit of fun.

Does Mary stop him and make him reconsider his reprehensible conduct? Not in the slightest. In fact, she is quite happy to support his plans by lending Fanny a golden chain he gifted her, and make her blush in the process. She thoroughly knows what her brother is up to, and finds Fanny quite sweet, and yet she allows him to go ahead with his plans. Quite a pair, these Crawfords.

In the same novel, we see something similar with the spoilt Bertram sisters. After having enjoyed a long spell of freedom during their father’s absence, during which they were chaperoned by their indulgent aunt and oblivious mother, Maria and Julia feel emboldened. Maria leaves her husband for Mr Crawford, and shortly afterwards Julia elopes with Mr Yates, who is not exactly a favourite with Sir Thomas. Without a doubt, the influence of Maria’s actions rubs onto Julia.

To conclude…

When it comes to sibling relationships, the ones portrayed in Mansfield Park and Persuasion feel like the most authentic. Unlike the constant devotion between Jane and Elizabeth Bennet, the brothers and sisters in those novels feel affection, complicity and companionship, but also rivalry, jealousy and indifference towards their siblings. As a sister, I have experienced all those emotions, oftentimes at the same time.

My sister and I are incredibly close in spite of an age gap of almost a decade. We love spending time together, and although we have our disagreements on occasion, they rarely last. I would say we are a bit like Mansfield Park‘s Mrs Grant and her younger sister, Mary Crawford (minus Mary’s dark side!). I admire her playful and at the same time no-nonsense attitude, and I think that no man will ever be good enough for her. Above all, we love chatting for hours about all sorts of things. 

My brother and I understand each other so well that we often don’t need to say much to know what the other means. I think we are a bit like Captain Wentworth and his sister, Sophia Croft, in Persuasion. He’s the younger brother I want to see happily settled and I’m very proud of his career and his achievements as a self-made man. I’d like to think that he enjoys my company and is interested in my point of view, which sometimes clashes with his – such as when I tell him that we women are “rational creatures” ;).

We may be no Jane and Elizabeth, no Darcy and Georgiana, but nevertheless, I feel very thankful for having them both in my life.

Who are your favourite siblings in Jane Austen’s novels and why? And whose set of siblings do you think your family resembles?

 

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