Katherine E. Curtis
University of Central Florida
Troubled Sisterhood: When Sisters Become Rivals in Mansfield Park
Unsupportive and outright hostile sister pairs often lurk in the background or along the edges of each Austen novel. These less than tender sister relationships may frequently be easy to overlook, buried as they are in the midst of so many other highly entertaining minor characters being satirized for their distasteful, but amusing, character flaws. Austen’s novels often present at their center, though, close, nurturing sister bonds, like Jane and Elizabeth’s relationship or Marianne and Elinor’s. When our heroine is sisterless, or alienated in some way from her sisters, she often spends much of the novel pursuing a close female friendship to replace that sister spot, as we see in Emma, Northanger Abbey, or Persuasion. In Austen’s world, morally satisfactory heroines must be good sisters, or at least show that they value sisterhood. These minor character sister pairs serve as foils in each Austen novel to emphasize the heroine’s morality—or sometimes to mirror her failures. In Mansfield Park, however, the hostile sister pair comes to the forefront of the novel; their bitter, jealous rivalry almost displaces Fanny in prominence, and certainly determines and disrupts much of her story.
That this distasteful version of sisterhood has such a forceful presence in Mansfield Park is fitting for a novel that is likely Austen’s most troubling and complex. Ugliness in general seems to surface much more clearly in this novel. Here Austen highlights many of the dark undertones of her society, referencing the slave trade and its accompaniment by “such a dead silence” (214) and offering an ambivalent portrait of the landowner and patriarch of the Mansfield Park estate in Sir Thomas Bertram, who is simultaneously harshly tyrannical and compassionate and well-meaning. Other Austen novels may offer a solution to early nineteenth-century England’s social system. Pride and Prejudice demonstrates a stronger, more beautiful upper-class estate when Pemberley is infused with Elizabeth Bennet’s wit and charm. Persuasion suggests its heroine can find a more congenial and sincere family in the rising navy, with its system based on merit rather than rank, instead of in the lineage and estate of her father’s baronetcy; Anne leaves Kellynch Hall behind forever when she chooses Captain Wentworth. But Mansfield Park offers no clear or simple solutions.
In Mansfield Park, we cannot easily find our site of secure morality in the novel or even a place to call home. Fanny is displaced both at the Mansfield estate and in her old, poor family home at Portsmouth. Sir Thomas eventually realizes that in his education and training of his daughters, he has neglected teaching them anything of “principle, active principle” and left them with only superficial “understanding and manners”—something, he realizes, is “wanting within” (459). The novel reveals the deficiency in the tradition of rank and appearances. Yet modernity has little better to offer as it is represented by Henry Crawford’s plans to improve the estates in this novel by removing much of their natural beauty or by the Crawfords’ modern, forward sexuality that thoughtlessly wounds those in their way. Austen seems to recognize the disturbing depths lurking in her society and refuses to offer the satisfying, simple answers of her other novels. The troubling potential of what sisterhood could become in Austen’s society thus rises to the surface of this novel. While in other novels the unattractive sister pair foils the heroine, in Mansfield Park, the Bertram sisters subordinate Fanny and her morality to a foil of the dangers they reveal to be inherent in sisterhood.
In other novels, the sisterly failures of the maturing heroines are often minimized by the graver failures of the foil sisters, and the heroines’ strengths as sisters are highlighted by this less loyal pair. Elizabeth Bennet may sometimes be more concerned at how Lydia’s behavior will reflect on her than on how it will hurt Lydia, but her deep sorrow for not preventing Lydia’s shameful behavior with Wickham demonstrates a vast difference from Kitty’s reaction focused only on Lydia costing her any future trips to Brighton. Moreover, Jane and Elizabeth show sincere affection for each other, each deeply concerned for the other’s happiness or sorrow in the midst of her own experiences, which stands in stark contrast to Lydia’s delight at being chosen to go to Brighton instead of Kitty. Lydia’s attitude toward her sisters seems to be: If I can beat you out, I will. She proudly explains to Jane, “I take your place now, and you must go lower, because I am a married woman” (322).
Similarly, Elinor and Marianne are often distanced by secrecy throughout Sense and Sensibility, each involved in her own hidden trouble that leads to misunderstanding the other, yet their deep compassion and tenderness for each other and their ultimate deepened relationship stands out in sharp contrast to the Miss Steeles, who exhibit little sisterly regard. Restrained Elinor weeps uncontrollably with Marianne in empathy and our sometimes thoughtless Marianne leaps fiercely to Elinor’s defense when the Ferrars slight her. In contrast, Miss Steele cannot keep the secret of her sister’s engagement and Lucy Steele demonstrates even less affection when she not only refuses to forgive this offense but steals all her sister’s money upon eloping with Robert Ferrars. Though not the center of attention, the Steele and Bennet sisters highlight the quality of their respective novel’s heroine and her sister relationship.
Other Austen heroines have no sister, but show their value of sisterhood by seeking one. Catherine is not close to her sisters, and Austen jokes over her lack of despondency in leaving them for Bath. Yet as soon as Catherine is offered a sister-friend in Isabella, she eagerly accepts; ultimately, she discovers Isabella to be a false sister and replaces her with a sincerely affectionate relationship with Eleanor Tilney. Her earlier lack of sisterly attachment, though, appears less unaffectionate in comparison with the Thorpe sisters’ competitive relationship; when John Thorpe drives one instead of the other, Maria lords it over Anne and Anne pretends she does not care. Persuasion’s Anne Elliot, on the other hand, is the most completely isolated from any potential sister relationship. Yet her kind, patient, forgiving response to her thoughtless sisters shows up positively against the sometimes competitive struggle the Musgrove sisters exert initially for Wentworth’s interest, good-natured as these girls typically are. The Musgroves prove Anne’s worth as a good sister, even if a lonely one.
Of all the heroines, Emma is the farthest from a good sister. She has long been too clever for Isabella, though she is the younger sister, although Miss Taylor has long shared “the intimacy of sisters” with Emma (55). After Miss Taylor marries, Emma seems to search for a sister replacement in Harriet, yet her rejection of Jane Fairfax represents one of her major moral failings, revealing her jealousy and insecurity and sense of competition with Jane. This major flaw in Emma is perhaps the reason that no negative sister pair foils her. She might not stand the test as the heroine who morally triumphs her mirrored failings, though we hope the novel’s ending demonstrates her moral maturation.
Each of these foil sister pairs contrasts so sharply and unattractively with Austen’s moral heroines because of the edge of competition that taints everything they do, most particularly surfacing in their drive for sexual and matrimonial conquest. Against this backdrop stands each heroine’s higher morality and sisterly regard. Emma exists as the exception, still maturing throughout her story beyond the qualities that define other novels’ negative foil pairs. This defining quality of these minor sister characters becomes a driving factor in Mansfield Park, where the Bertram sisters’ competition for matrimonial conquest outweighs any consideration they might have for a sister.
From early childhood, Maria and Julia have demonstrated through their rejection of Fanny as a potential sister-figure that they value sisterhood less highly than their own exalted sense of self-worth. Fanny is only good for pointing out to Mamma and Aunt Norris how different she is—“so odd and so stupid” (49)—from themselves, who are quickly complimented by Mrs. Norris as “ever so forward and clever” (49). The value of mutual and affectionate sisterhood is already subordinated to the value of promoting their own good qualities; they often keep Fanny low in order to maintain themselves higher. But this is nothing compared to the outright betrayal of sisterhood which Maria and Julia will exhibit towards each other when romance and matrimony are at stake.
Each sister cares nothing about wounding the feelings of the other, if only she can be the one preferred by Henry Crawford. Maria seethes throughout the carriage ride to Sotherton, furious that Julia has been chosen to ride—and flirt—on the barouche-box with Henry: “to see only his expressive profile as he turned with a smile to Julia, or to catch the laugh of the other was a perpetual source of irritation” (106). As soon as she gets the chance, Maria retrieves Henry’s attention and flirtation at Sotherton, even at the expense of her fiancée, and can inwardly gloat to herself when Henry again chooses Julia as his seatmate home because of “her conviction of being really the one preferred” (128). Julia likewise suffers when Henry chooses Maria as his romantic counterpoint in their Lover’s Vows production. Though he offers his choice as a compliment to Julia, claiming it is because Julia’s amusing conversation unfits her for a tragic role, Maria’s face shows that it is her triumph: “She saw a glance at Maria, which confirmed the injury to herself; it was a scheme—a trick; she was slighted, Maria was preferred; the smile of triumph which Maria was trying to suppress shewed how well it was understood” (155). Julia’s resulting bitterness surfaces in numerous spiteful words and actions that only further humiliate her and amuse Maria. The sisters care nothing about how they wound each other in their quest to carry the victory of Henry Crawford’s affections.
This betrayal of sisterhood becomes even more reprehensible in view of women’s deep dependence on each other in Austen’s nineteenth-century world. Caroll Smith-Rosenberg points out that women shared a deep emotional intimacy with one another during this time period; this came in part due to the segregated social spheres of men and women and women’s shared domestic world (Smith-Rosenberg 17). Moreover, societal restrictions on male/female intimacy led to “the emotional segregation of men and women” (Smith-Rosenberg 9), with these restrictions creating an environment where “the supportive network of the female world was of utmost importance” (Hudson 65). Women could offer genuine empathy to each other in their mutual circumstances or in the shared female rituals of childbirth, nursing, and frequent deaths that played such a prominent role in women’s lives in this period (Smith-Rosenberg 22–23). They could find sincere support in each other, a site of “emotional expression and physical contact . . . trust and tenderness” (Hudson 65). Women shared each other’s lives and hearts in a crucial way, with the sister bond as the heart or model of that relationship of female friendship. To betray this sister bond could clearly emotionally endanger the sacrificed sister.
Yet Maria and Julia repeatedly betray their relationship in their bitter and often vicious struggle to secure Henry’s affections. This could be seen as the effect only of the modern, contaminating influence of the Crawfords. The vivacious and sexual pair clearly view sexuality and romance as a scene of conquest and competition. Henry Crawford feels no qualms about toying with the Bertram sisters’ affections—“He did not want them to die of love; but with sense and temper which ought to have made him judge and feel better, he allowed himself great latitude on such points” (72). He does not take his flirtation as seriously as the Bertram sisters do, but he does take seriously his quest to conquer any untamable hearts in his way, inciting his pursuit of Fanny—he must make “a small hole in Fanny Price’s heart” (242)—and of the married Maria Rushworth. Women’s hearts are a prize he must win, and then will willingly discard.
If conquering women’s hearts is a trophy for Henry, capturing a man is equally a “triumph” for his sister, who encourages Fanny to marry him for the thrill of victory, “the glory of fixing one who has been shot at by so many; of having it in one’s power to pay off the debts of one’s sex! Oh, I am sure it is not in woman’s nature to refuse such a triumph” (366). For Mary and Henry Crawford, romance and marriage are a game and the thrill of winning over others is the highest goal. Though Mary admonishes Fanny to marry Henry for the triumph of “pay[ing] off the debts of one’s sex” and admits that Henry is a “sad flirt” (366), her words and actions do not ultimately suggest the goal to triumph for her sex against the man who has wronged them. Instead, the highest thrill of this conquest seems to be the triumph of self against all those other women. Certainly Fanny feels that this victory would be such, and she persists in being troubled by “a man who sports with any woman’s feelings” because “there may be a great deal more suffered than a stander-by can judge of” (366). Fanny cannot ignore the pain Henry has caused her almost-sisters or that her “triumph” might cause them either. She will not betray her sisters for any matrimonial conquest.
In this way, Fanny demonstrates that the Bertram sisters’ choice to sacrifice sisterly regard for the sake of conquering their man is not one whose responsibility lies only with the mentality of conquest that the Crawfords exude. Something is “wanting within” this world already. The traditional society prior to the Crawford’s corrupting modern influence is already immoral, in Austen’s view, in its devaluation of sisterhood for the sake of marriage conquests. The opening of this novel shows three sisters, who will become Lady Bertram, Mrs. Norris, and Mrs. Price, whose relationship disintegrates due to the “capture” each makes in the marriage market, whose nature is suggested in the first sentence when “Miss Maria Ward . . . had the good luck to captivate Sir Thomas Bertram” (35). From the first moment in this society to which Austen introduces us, marriage is shown as a competition, where the stakes are entirely economical and the original sister relationships are the sacrifices one must make. Maria and Julia only perpetuate this imposed imperative when they betray their sister for their hoped-for lover. In the process, they practically destroy themselves, as the need to secure first place in Henry’s flirtation leads Maria to leave her husband and commit adultery with Henry. The fear this action provokes in Julia leads to her eloping with the unsuitable Yates. Both end unhappily.
The Bertram sisters paint a sad, dark picture in Austen’s often troubling novel, Mansfield Park. Their story of betrayal and tragedy often overpowers Fanny’s story of patient, often tested and tried, loyalty. Though they certainly can be seen as foils that reveal the good qualities of selflessness and moral strength in this most passive of Austen’s heroines, the Bertram sisters may feature even more prominently than Fanny. Fanny can really be seen as their foil, revealing that Maria and Julia could have chosen a different way, that their vicious rivalry was not their only option in pursuing marriage. She highlights their choice as the moral failure it is to be considered in Austen’s world, whatever her society might assert to the contrary.
At one point in the novel, Mary Crawford is playing cards and, making a risky move, declares, “There, I will stake my last like a woman of spirit. . . . If I lose the game it shall not be from lack of striving for it” (254). The narrator notes, “The game was her’s [sic], and it only did not pay her for what she had given to secure it” (254). Similarly, Maria and Julia sacrifice their sister bond for the sake of conquest and triumph with Henry. Yet their triumph does not pay for what they have “given to secure it.” Their victory does not compensate for the loss of sisterhood. Austen assures us that triumph at such a cost never will.
Austen, Jane. Emma. Ed. Kristin Flieger Samuelian. Ontario: Broadview, 2004.
---. Mansfield Park. Ed. June Sturrock. Ontario: Broadview, 2001.
---. Pride and Prejudice. Ed. Robert P. Irvine. Ontario: Broadview, 2002.
Hudson, Glenda A. Sibling Love and Incest in Jane Austen’s Fiction. Rpt. New York: St. Martin’s, 1999.
Smith-Rosenberg, Caroll. “The Female World of Love and Ritual: Relations between Women in Nineteenth-Century America.” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 1.1 (1975): 1–27.