a distinguished contribution to the emerging field of evolutionary psychology, Frank J. Sulloway’s Born to Rebel: Birth Order, Family Dynamics, and Creative Lives uses Darwinian theory to help answer a pair of puzzling questions. What accounts for the revolutionary genius that allows a Darwin, a Newton, or a Copernicus to radically alter our understanding of the world? And why, in a period of contested radical shift, are some people open to a new worldview while others adhere to the old dogma? Although Sulloway recognizes that in lifelong learners like humans individual behavior “needs to be explained as the product of complex interactions between proximate and ultimate causes,” he sees the family as the site where personality traits develop.1 His interactionist perspective acknowledges a wide range of variables as potential shapers of individual consciousness and behavior. Gender, social class, and hereditary traits all contribute. But, argues Sulloway, the Darwinian struggle for existence plays a major role: “Western history can be seen as an often nasty conflict over the right to reproduce. More often than we realize these battles have been fought within the family” (67). Furthermore, Sulloway claims, these family battles are not the intergenerational rivalry posited by some psychoanalysts, particularly Freudians: an Oedipal son fighting his father or a daughter seeking to displace her mother in her father’s affections. Instead of competing with their parents, siblings vie with one another for the parental attention and favor that will help them to survive, thrive, and eventually reproduce.
The family, then, can be seen as a Darwinian “entangled bank” where resources are limited, competition and cooperation are different ways of gaining those resources, and a range of ecological niches are available for habitation. Recent personality studies have shown that siblings raised in the same family nearly always differ as much from one another as unrelated individuals do.2 These sibling differences, says Sulloway, are the result of Darwin’s “principle of divergence” (83-5). Brothers’ and sisters’ personalities and behaviors diverge according to the same evolutionary principle that accounts for how the Galápagos finches have fanned out to occupy a range of niches: ground finches and tree finches, seed eaters, cactus eaters, leaf eaters, insect eaters. As in the natural world, divergence within the human family minimizes competition for resources, whether those resources be a finch’s food and habitat or a child’s parental affection and support.
In the Western families examined in Sulloway’s study centering on how the personalities of scientific and intellectual revolutionaries have developed, many interacting factors shape a child’s emergent behaviors. Temperament, class, parental conflict, parental loss, and gender are all important—particularly the last. But birth order is second only to gender—and of particular interest to Sulloway. A family is different for each sibling because the vantage point afforded by each position in birth order is unique. If the primary benefit of diversifying from one’s siblings is the likelihood of increasing parental investment (98), the task of finding a distinctive niche will be different for each sibling according to the niches occupied by each of the others.
Sulloway asserts that “the first rule of the sibling road is to be different from one’s brothers and sisters, especially if one happens to be a laterborn” (118). In a normal, functional family, the most obvious ecological niche available to a child is that of parental emulator. This role will generally be appropriated by the firstborn. Later siblings must seek different, unoccupied niches if they are to enhance their chances for parental attention. Thus siblings differ systematically in identifying with one parent or the other, with “split parental identifications” especially pronounced for the first sibling pair. Other disparities are generally the most pronounced in the first pair, with the second pair (the second and third child) being the next most disparate (96). Pairs of brothers or sisters find it more necessary to diversify from one another than a brother-sister pair would. Birth interval plays a part too. Children with a 3-5-year gap in their ages tend to be the most competitive. When the sibling gap is smaller, family circumstances are likelier to be similar for both members of the pair; when the gap is greater, the older child is likely to be beyond needing the same sort of parental attention the younger child requires. In each of these scenarios, there is less need for sibling competition than in families with the moderate 3-5 year gaps between siblings (136).
Sulloway argues that the way siblings distinguish themselves from one another enacts disruptive selection, the Darwinian principle that favors, and thereby preserves, individual differences. The typical pattern involves firstborns, the likeliest parental emulators, becoming authorities or authoritarians, leaders of their siblings and supporters of the established family order. Laterborns, filling other niches out of necessity, are typically more flexible, more open to new things and experiences, more rebellious against the domestic status quo. Just as siblings settle into different niches within the family ecosystem, they also diverge in terms of social attitudes. They acquire and cultivate differing habits of mind that in adult life will be important in such matters as selecting a mate, choosing an occupation, favoring a political candidate, and supporting or opposing a revolutionary movement. Sulloway’s research into the individual personalities of scientists and other creative thinkers shows that firstborns are much likelier than laterborns to endorse conservative ideas and to oppose revolutionary ones, such as Copernicus’s argument for a heliocentric solar system or Darwin’s theory of evolution. The reverse is true of laterborns, who are made more likely by birth order to challenge authority themselves and to embrace causes or movements that do so.
Sulloway’s ideas of the family as Darwinian microenvironment where children diverge into different niches to maximize their chances of thriving seems to account plausibly for personal behaviors in a remarkable number of circumstances, even when a particular case might at first seem to contradict the pattern. For instance, the astronomer Galileo was a firstborn. Thus according to Sulloway’s general principles of birth order he’d seem unlikely to be a thinker so fiercely opposed to authority that he’d defy the Papal Inquisition and be convicted of heresy. But Stillman Drake’s account of Galileo’s family shows that his father Vicenzio, who revolutionized musical theory by demonstrating that harmonic intervals violate Pythagorean principles, trained his son in music—and by example served as his son’s precursor in basing iconoclastic mathematical claims about physics on experimental verification. For the younger Galileo, then, shattering established paradigms was a way of identifying with, rather than rebelling against, his father. It was, in a way, the family business.3
Post-mortem character analysis of the sort appearing above entails guesswork. Even interpreting a living person’s character inevitably involves extrapolation. However scrupulous and thorough the evolutionary psycho-biographer may be, he or she can never know all there is to know about an individual’s personal circumstances. With real people what’s discernible is something akin to the proverbial iceberg tip, much remaining undetected and undetectable. In contrast, literary characters have no secrets from readers. Turning to the sibling groups that appear in Austen’s novels, we can draw conclusions that take complete account of what needs noticing, whereas we would have to be satisfied with approximation if studying real family groups. Sulloway’s Darwinian model of siblings diversifying in somewhat predictable ways to occupy different niches within the family ecosystem accounts with striking success for the brothers and sisters Austen portrays. Perhaps this evidence supports the validity of Sulloway’s theory; perhaps it affirms Austen’s skill as an observer of personality.
It will be efficient to preface the upcoming discussion of siblings in Austenworld by a pair of tables which, if they do nothing else, will eliminate the need of supplying the title of a novel each time a particular family or character is mentioned. The first table, organized according to novel, lists the sibling groups that will be discussed and supplies ages, birth dates, or other information that can help to establish birth order and sibling gaps. The second table is a taxonomy that organizes the six novels’ sibling groups according to their various configurations. In this second table, I follow Sulloway’s claim that only-child status is, if only in potentia, a sibling position.
Table I: Sibling Groups in Jane Austen’s Six Novels
Sense and Sensibility
Brandon: unnamed older brother (dead), Col. Brandon, unnamed sister in Avignon. Dashwood: John, older half-brother to Elinor (19), Marianne (16-17), Margaret (13). Ferrars: Edward (23-4), Robert (younger), Fanny, Mrs. Dashwood (presumably older). Jennings: Mary, Lady Middleton (26-7), Charlotte, Mrs. Palmer (younger). Middleton: John (about 6), William, Annamaria (3), unnamed youngest. Steele: Anne (nearly 30), Lucy (22 or 23).
Pride and Prejudice
Bennet: Jane (22), Elizabeth (20), Mary, Catherine, Lydia (15-16). Bingley: Charles (22), Lousia, Mrs Hurst; Caroline. Darcy: Fitzwilliam (28), Georgiana (16). Fitzwilliam, older generation: earl with undisclosed title and Christian name, Lady Anne Darcy, Lady Catherine de Bourgh. Fitzwilliam, younger generation: earl or earl’s heir, Colonel Fitzwilliam, about 30. Gardiner: Edward, Mrs. Bennet, Mrs. Phillips. Lucas: Charlotte, Mrs. Collins (27); Maria, younger girls and boys.
Bertram: Tom (25), Edmund (24), Maria (21), Julia (20). Crawford: Mrs. Grant (older half sister), Henry, Mary. Price: William (19), Fanny (18), John, Richard, Susan (14), Mary (dead), Sam (11), Tom (9), Charles (8), Betsey (5). Ross: Janet, Mrs. Fraser (elder); Flora, Lady Stornoway (younger). Ward: Mrs. Norris (eldest); Maria, Lady Bertram; Frances, Mrs. Price (youngest)
Hawkins: Selina, Mrs. Suckling (elder); Augusta, Mrs. Elton. Knightley: George (37-8), John. John and Isabella Knightley: Henry, John, Bella, George, Emma. Martin: Robert, Elizabeth, another sister. Woodhouse: Isabella, Mrs. John Knightley (elder), Emma (20)
Morland: James (at Oxford), Richard, George, Catherine (17), Sarah (16), four others, ranging down to George and Harriet (probably 6 and 4 respectively, though the phrase “a boy and girl of six and four years old” is ambiguous). Thorpe: Isabella (21), John (at Oxford), Edward, Anne, Maria. Tilney: Frederick (eldest), Henry (24-5), Eleanor (youngest).
Elliot: Elizabeth (29), Anne (27), Mary (23), Mrs. Charles Musgrove. Harville: Captain, Fanny. Musgrove: Charles, Richard (died), Henrietta (20), Louisa (19), enough others to comprise “a numerous family.” Charles and Mary Musgrove: Charles, Walter. Wentworth: Sophia, Mrs. Croft, Edward, Frederick.
Table II: A Taxonomy of Austenworld Sibling Configuration
Sisters—Sense and Sensibility: Dashwood (grown half-brother), Jennings, Steele. Pride and Prejudice: Bennet. Mansfield Park: Ward, Ross. Emma: Woodhouse, Hawkins. Persuasion: Elliot.
Sisters and brothers—Pride and Prejudice: Lucas. Mansfield Park: Bertram, Price. Emma: John Knightley. Northanger Abbey: Morland, Thorpe.
Sister with brothers—Sense and Sensibility: Ferrars. Northanger Abbey: Tilney. Persuasion: Wentworth.
Brother with sisters—Pride and Prejudice: Gardiner, Bingley; the anonymous earl whose sisters are the late Lady Anne Darcy and Lady Catherine De Bourgh. Emma: Martin. Persuasion: Musgrove.
Brother-sister pair—Pride and Prejudice: Darcy. Mansfield Park: Crawford (older half sister), Persuasion: Harville (no other siblings as far as we know)
Younger brothers whose elder brothers and any other siblings are not direct actors in the story—Sense and Sensibility: Brandon; Pride and Prejudice: Fitzwilliam.
Older brother whose younger brothers aren’t in the story—Emma: Weston.
Implied younger brother—Mansfield Park: Yates.
Only children (in so far as one can tell)—Sense and Sensibility: Willoughby, Grey. Pride and Prejudice: Collins, Wickham, De Bourgh. Mansfield Park: Rushworth. Emma: Fairfax, Smith, Churchill. Persuasion: Walter Elliot, Miss Carteret.
The mere act of organizing Austen’s characters in this fashion foregrounds some problems with theorizing about siblings and personalities—especially in fiction, where what we have to go on is what details are in the text. In some cases, what constitutes the entangled bank called a family is entangled indeed. For instance, do John Dashwood and his three half-sisters Elinor, Marianne, and Margaret belong to two families or one? With different mothers and a probable age gap of at least ten years between John and Elinor, they did not compete for parental attention. Yet they share a father and, through him, the connection to Norland, the estate where the sisters have grown up and to which their half-brother will eventually succeed. One might ask a similar question about Henry and Mary Crawford and their older half-sister Mrs. Grant. Then too, several Austen characters have birth orders that can only be inferred, because there aren’t details confirming the inference. For example, Fanny Dashwood, authoritarian, already married, and the mother of a four-year-old, seems to be the firstborn Ferrars sibling; but it’s never directly stated that she’s older than 23- or 24-year-old Edward. The Hon. Mr. Yates in Mansfield Park may, in light of his honorific, be a baron’s first-born or later-born son or an earl’s later-born son; but whatever the rank of his father, it seems highly likely that he’s a younger son. Were Yates a peer’s heir, he would from his first appearance at Mansfield Park have seemed a highly eligible catch to the Bertrams, a family worldly-minded enough to accept the untitled Rushworth, whose estate and fortune counterbalance his folly, as a son-in-law. And we simply can’t tell about the Bingley sisters. The married Louisa Hurst and the desperately Darcy-stalking Caroline seem older than 22-year-old Charles, who has the laid-back personality of a younger sibling. Nonetheless, the siblings’ birth order remains conjectural.
One remarkable feature of nearly all sibling groups in Austen’s novels: although infant and childhood mortality were relatively high during the late 18th and early 19th centuries, they seem to have almost no effect on the sibling groups Austen surveys. Perhaps she felt no need to imagine juvenile characters who would have nothing to do with her stories, or perhaps the high survival rate reflects the extraordinary health of her own sibling group.
Sulloway’s investigation studies children without siblings in light of their conservatism, flexibility, and openness to experience and concludes that in such matters they fall between firstborns and laterborns. Given that his subject is how the personalities of creative revolutionaries are formed, Sulloway does not consider the qualities most commonly attributed to only children by popular wisdom: selfishness and social awkwardness. Austen’s attitudes on only children seem to follow the popular perception that being an only child is an obstacle to character development, for except in Emma only children are always negative characters to a greater or lesser extent. A majority of the marital prospects it would be a mistake for a worthy person actually to wed—whether because of their stupidity, ill nature, bad health, unscrupulousness, immorality, or selfishness—are only children: Willoughby, Miss Grey, the Rev. Mr. Collins, Wickham, Miss De Bourgh, Rushworth, Mr. Elliot, Miss Dalrymple. It is almost possible to add another only child, Frank Churchill, to this list. To be sure he, like only children Willoughby, Wickham, and Walter Elliot plus the pattern-breaking older brother Henry Crawford, is a variation on the theme of the manipulative seducer who plays with women’s minds and hearts. But the uprooted and adopted Frank Churchill’s mixed character, a seeming blend of his Weston heredity and his Churchill environment, is redeemable—and it will be redeemed because he has the good judgment to engage himself to another, better, only child, the orphaned Jane Fairfax, and the good fortune to keep her. It’s worth speculating on whether Frank and Jane’s shared status as orphaned or semi-orphaned, adopted or quasi-adopted, uprooted only children is as important as their respective charms in drawing the two temperamental opposites together. In any case, their singleton status, like that of the “natural daughter of somebody” (22) Harriet Smith, points to a practical literary reason that can explain why Austen made them, and perhaps the other only children in her other novels, singletons. Austen created Frank Churchill, Jane Fairfax, and Harriet Smith, to differing degrees all outsiders to the long-established Hartfield-Donwell set at the heart of this most densely particularized of her books, to fill particular functions relative to the novel’s character and her little world. All three must be given relatively complex, believable personalities; but supplying them with sibling relationships that, in their turn, would require some degree of appraisal would blur the focus of a fictional experiment elegantly centered, for all its exquisite, realistic, and seemingly random but actually significant detail, on one chief thing.
Sibling relationships and the attendant differences in character and behavior are often important components of Austen’s plots, but not always. Children too young to go out into society typically exist as human accessories or props rather than receiving attention in their own right. Austen doesn’t individuate or appraise the Gardiner children in Pride and Prejudice, the John Knightley brood in Emma (children shown in their fullest detail as Emma has sketched them for her portfolio), or the younger Morlands in Northanger Abbey. Similarly, the unspecified younger children in the Lucas family don’t count as individual characters, although one spirited boy is allowed to proclaim that if as rich as Mr. Darcy, “‘I should not care how proud I was. I would keep a pack of foxhounds and drink a bottle of wine every day’” (20). Had Austen set herself up to write Darwinian bildungsromans rather than novels of manners, this selective inattention to preadolescents would be a shame, for all these children are in the phase when family interactions are most strongly forming their personalities.
If the relationships of brothers and sisters still in the nursery or the schoolroom aren’t always important to Austen’s purposes, the sibling relationships of mature characters are sometimes irrelevant or outside the narrative frame. What matters in some such cases are the psychological or social consequences of simply having grown up with brothers, sisters, or both. It’s subtly useful to know that Mr. Elton has sisters, mainly because that knowledge carries with it the implication that he doesn’t have a brother (therefore neither direct competition nor early experience at interacting with males of his generation) and the possibility that he’s accustomed to being dominated by females, as he will be on marrying “the charming Augusta Hawkins.” The fact that Fanny, the dead fiancée of Captain Benwick, is Captain Harville’s sister serves principally to explain the unusually close bond between Benwick and the Harvilles. Mr. Weston’s brothers (probably younger because they went directly into trade, whereas he did so only after marriage to Miss Churchill of Enscombe proved too expensive for a young lieutenant’s private means) are mere background figures Austen never brings to Highbury. Colonel Brandon’s ailing sister in Avignon and deplorable, defunct older brother are not significant in and of themselves but exist to fulfill peripheral plot functions, the former as an alternative to the young Miss Williams as potential focus for Brandon’s sudden concern on receipt of a mysterious letter, the latter as the reason Brandon’s family did not allow his heiress cousin Eliza to follow her heart and give him rather than the elder son and heir her hand and her fortune. Selina Hawkins Suckling, whose marital situation at Maple Grove is the staple of her sister Augusta’s conversation, never comes to Highbury with her husband in their storied barouche-landau. Being equipped with a married older sister gives Mrs. Elton an idée fixe to run into the ground—and adds a further reason for us to see her as an obnoxious analogue to Emma.
In family groups where some or all of the siblings are selectively left unindividuated, whether because too they’re too young or too marginal, even the unindividuated fill plot functions. The Gardiner children are a multipurpose collective accessory. Among other things, their existence explains why Mr. Gardiner’s fortune can’t go toward propping up his inadequately provided for Bennet nieces and allows Jane Bennet’s maternal potential to shine forth. Similarly employed if more prominently displayed, John Knightley’s five children, granted names but not their own personalities, evoke significant behaviors in others. The young Knightleys exist as testimony to their parents’ ardent domesticity, as an important subject on which their maternal aunt and paternal uncle (whose respective interactions with the children show what a loving parent each would be) can always agree, whatever their opinions on other matters. They are also eyewitnesses that even vigorous Mr. Knightley can pine with lovesickness (“‘I believe I did not play with the children quite so much as usual. I remember one evening the poor boys saying, ‘Uncle seems always tired now’” ).
Large Austen families can contain a few children crucial to the novel of manners, with others left obscure. It would be difficult to imagine anything but a full-blown family saga that could offer an equal display of the Morlands as ten instances of adaptive variation at work. In Northanger Abbey Catherine, the fourth sibling and first daughter, is the novel’s protagonist; and James, the firstborn, is by dint of family position quarry for the fortune-hunting Isabella Thorpe. Sarah, the second daughter and younger sibling next to Catherine, has a bit part as confidante. Catherine’s relationships with Sarah, and yet more importantly with James—whose pronouncements Catherine first unquestioningly accepts as authority, then doubts as she develops her own powers of judgment—shed light on the emerging individuality of a young woman gaining confidence and insight through experience and as a loving sister. (In this sisterly affection Catherine resembles Eleanor Tilney and differs from Isabella Thorpe, who both are, like Catherine, oldest or only sisters in families with brothers either older or much the same age.) Because the novel’s focus is on Catherine’s character maturing in the wider world rather than being formed in the family environment, the other seven siblings, some named and some not, can remain in the shadows. Likewise Pride and Prejudice pays a great deal of attention to Charlotte Lucas, the spinster firstborn in a large though uncounted sibling group, and some comparative attention to the second sister Maria, who takes after her father in displaying a simple-minded credulity that stands in contrast to Charlotte’s sharpness and that of Elizabeth Bennet, Charlotte’s friend and Maria’s fellow houseguest at the newlywed Collinses’. It is important that there be other, younger Lucases. Their very existence reinforces “sensible, intelligent” Charlotte’s firstborn duties as surrogate parent—particularly because she’s the daughter of a fatuous knighted provincial who talks only of the Court of St. James and his wife, “a very good kind of woman, not too clever to be a valuable neighbor to Mrs. Bennet” (18)—and intensifies the innate pragmatism that makes her, unlike laterborn Elizabeth, settle for financial and social security and marry a lout she can’t love or esteem.4
Charlotte’s younger siblings are given a chance to applaud her anti-romantic prudence in saying “yes” to Collins, a choice that stands to benefit them. “The younger girls formed hopes of coming out a year or two sooner than they might otherwise have done; and the boys were relieved from their apprehension of Charlotte’s dying an old maid” (122). This being done, the younger Lucases vanish from the scene, having fulfilled their limited purpose in a narrative chiefly engrossed by the particularized sibling relations in another family with the need to marry off daughters, the Bennets.
What of the siblings Austen is interested in distinguishing from one another? Surveying the firstborns and laterborns that populate the pages of her six novels reveals something far richer and messier than two opposing camps of conservative, authoritarian, rigid firstborns and rebellious, iconoclastic, flexible laterborns. Austen’s empirical eye noticed many of the variables that present-day psychology sees interacting to shape human personality. Such influences as wealth or its absence, social position, conflict with or loss of a parent, family size, presence of additional relatives, gender, and gender of other siblings all add nuances to individual matters of sibling difference in Austen’s novels. Difficulty with parents is an especially prominent complicating factor in Austenworld, where readers must look hard to find an intact married couple made up of two reasonably responsible, effective, loving—and living—parents. There are only two such couples, the Morlands and the Musgroves. Neither pair is idealized, but each offers something surprisingly rare in Austen’s novels: a secure, stable, loving, two-parent home. Interestingly, both the Morlands and the Musgroves are, as family groups, subjected to a fairly heavy dose of narratorial satire. It seems that Austen is determined to be unsentimental about large, intact, generally happy families—almost certainly because of their size, which she recognized as a heavy burden on the woman who, however wealthy and well provided with domestic health, unavoidably bore the costs and faced the risks of labor and delivery. In the Morland and Musgrove domestic ecosystems the individual personalities and relationships take a shape that’s more difficult to appraise than is usual in Austenworld. Not totally commendable but certainly not deplorable, the younger generations of Morlands and Musgroves behave in a way that’s believably normal.
The healthy normality of the entire Morland ménage comes in for mockery in the opening lines of Northanger Abbey. The ostensible target of Austen’s irony is the improbability of family circumstances and personal character in Gothic fiction. According to Gothic standards the unglamorous, prosaic Morlands are anomalous. But the further irony is that surveying Austen’s six novels shows the Morland family to be as uncharacteristic in her fiction as it would be in Ann Radcliffe’s:
No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy, would have supposed her born to be an heroine. Her situation in life, the character of her father and her mother, her own person and disposition were equally against her. Her father was a clergyman, without being neglected, or poor, and a very respectable man, though his name was Richard—and he had never been handsome. He had a considerable independence, besides two good livings—and he was not in the least addicted to locking up his daughters. Her mother was a woman of useful plain sense, with a good temper, and, what is more remarkable, with a good constitution. She had three sons before Catherine was born; and instead of dying in bringing the latter into the world, as any body might expect, she still lived on—lived to have six children more—to see them growing up around her, and to enjoy excellent health herself. A family of ten children will always be called a fine family when there are heads and arms and legs enough for the number; but the Morlands had little other right to the word, for they were in general very plain, and Catherine, for many years of her life, as plain as any. (13)
Taught by her parents (writing and accounts from her father, French from her mother), not gifted or trained in the female spheres of drawing or music (“the day which dismissed the music-master was one of the happiest of Catherine’s life” 14), preferring “cricket, base ball, riding on horseback, and running about the country at the age of fourteen, to books—or at least books of information” (15), Catherine, an eldest daughter with older brothers and six younger siblings, is largely left to shift for herself as womanhood dawns. But the solid foundation offered by ordinary loving parents serves her better than accomplishments, knowledge, sophistication, or elegance do in other Austen novels with more ornamental, less stable, less loving families.
We see rather little of Catherine’s interaction with eight of her nine siblings—unsurprising, given that she’s away at Bath or Northanger Abbey for the bulk of the novel. But when James, the first child and eldest brother, turns up at Bath in company with his aggressively stupid Oxford friend John Thorpe, we are treated to brother-sister interactions much realer, if less concertedly charming, than Henry Tilney’s with his younger sister Elinor. Infatuated with Isabella Thorpe, James, “being of a very amiable disposition, and sincerely attached” (45) to Catherine, greets her with as much pleasure as he can feel when Isabella’s at hand—and he’s honest but tactful enough to answer her “‘how good it is of you to come so far on purpose to see me’” by replying “with perfect sincerity, ‘Indeed, Catherine, I love you dearly’” (51). As eldest brother, James is used to dominating and Catherine to submitting; so it’s a major advance in her maturation when Catherine recognizes that the two of them have different opinions (and suspects that hers is the correct one) about John Thorpe:
Little as Catherine was in the habit of judging for herself, and unfixed as were her general notions of what men ought to be, she could not entirely repress a doubt, while she bore with the effusions of his endless conceit, of his being altogether completely agreeable. It was a bold surmise, for he was Isabella’s brother; and she had been assured by James, that his manners would recommend him to all her sex; but in spite of this, the extreme weariness of his company . . . induced her, in some small degree, to resist such high authority, and to distrust his powers of giving universal pleasure. (66-67)
Here we have a laterborn female author sympathetically if ironically portraying a sister’s tentative declaration of independence from her firstborn brother. Catherine’s assurance grows in a later encounter when the Thorpes and James, a trio needing Catherine’s presence to make their intended excursion more decorous, urge her against keeping an earlier engagement with the Tilneys. James unfairly reproaches Catherine with “‘you were not used to be so hard to persuade; you once were the kindest, best tempered of my sisters.’” Catherine’s stoutly sensible reply is “‘I hope I am not less so now, but indeed I cannot go. If I am wrong, I am doing what I believe to be right’” (99-100). This totally ordinary struggle of wills with her older brother helps prepare Catherine to move toward thinking for herself later on—even at an abbey, even when her male authority is Henry Tilney. As the story proceeds further, we see both James and Catherine make mistakes in judgment, his biggest being engagement to the fortune-huntress Isabella, hers being the inference that General Tilney had done away with his wife. These two Morland siblings are no prodigies, but their good-hearted mutual attachment is never in doubt.
Like the Morlands, the Musgroves of Persuasion are announced with the tonal equivalent of a wryly raised eyebrow: “The Musgroves, like their houses, were in a state of alteration, perhaps of improvement. The father and mother were in the old English style, and the young people in the new. Mr. And Mrs. Musgrove were a very good sort of people; friendly and hospitable, not much educated, and not at all elegant. Their children had more modern minds and manners” (40). As elsewhere in Austen, the word “improvement” here carries something of a negative connotation; but the narrator also seems cooler about “old English style” than does her previous counterpart in Emma, where the adjective “English” (meaning “admirable”) is explicitly associated with the significantly named Knightleys of the just-as-significantly-named “old style” abbey of Donwell. Uppercross, the manor inhabited by the stylistically evolving Musgrove family, has an “old fashioned square parlour, with a small carpet and shining floor, to which the present daughters of the house were gradually giving the proper air of confusion by a grand piano forte and a harp, flower-stands and little tables placed in every direction” (40). The interior décor’s tension between “old English style” and “improvement” is equally evident in the exteriors of the two Musgrove houses, “the mansion of the ’squire, with its high walls, great gates, and old trees, substantial and unmodernized,” and the heir’s “farm-house elevated into a cottage . . . with its viranda, French windows, and other prettinesses” (36).
In Austenworld, change is change but not necessarily “improvement.” The Musgroves, old style and new style alike, are as mixed as their milieu. Charles Musgrove, the young ’squire, is discerning enough to have wanted to marry Anne, undiscriminating enough to have settled for Mary, human enough (and, unlike Anne, unrepressed enough) to get annoyed with the annoying Mary, sometimes to voice his annoyance, and often to take refuge from an ill-run household in field sports. His sisters Henrietta and Louisa, similarly mixed and real in their natures, can regret that Anne’s not their sister-in-law without loathing Mary. Unlike the Bertram sisters, they can both fall for and briefly spar over an attractive newcomer without losing sisterly regard—and without being so inflexibly devoted to Captain Wentworth that Henrietta’s long-standing attachment to her cousin Charles Hayter and Louisa’s newfound affinity for Captain Benwick can’t satisfy them. The unfashionable, not remarkably intelligent senior Musgroves display, like the Morlands and or the even more mockable Mrs. Jenkins of Sense and Sensibility, warm parental hearts and nurturing ways that finally matter more than education or elegance. They appreciate Anne’s superiority and notice Mary’s defects without pining for the might-have-been daughter-in-law or being cold to the daughter-in-law they have. Mrs. Musgrove, whose “large fat sighings” over her dead sailor-son are subject to what is probably the most unfairly satiric comment in the whole Austen canon, can, along with her whole family, retrospectively sentimentalize “poor Richard,” the troublesome lad sent to sea and lost there, even if
The real circumstances of this pathetic piece of family history were, that the Musgroves had had the ill fortune of a very troublesome, hopeless son; and the good fortune to lose him before he reached his twentieth year; that he had been sent to sea, because he was stupid and unmanageable on shore; that he had been very little cared for at any time by his family, though quite as much as he deserved; seldom heard of, and scarcely at all regretted, when the intelligence of his death abroad had worked its way to Uppercross, two years before. (50-51)
This passage exposes the imperfections of its narrator as much as those of her subjects of scrutiny. Richard, when we come right down to it, is a fictive contrivance concocted merely to have been the recipient of some Wentworthian kindness and to have died at sea. But if we play along with literature’s make-believe and grant him and his fellow Musgroves imaginative status as real people, we must recognize that the family members improving Richard in retrospect and mourning the idea more than the actual son and brother are being no more selective than is the reifying narrator, who diminishes an adolescent formerly obnoxious but now dead and those survivors who grieve for him to easy targets for witty cynicism.
Long story short: the Musgroves, as individuals and as a family unit, display resilience, inconsistency, mixed tempers, and cohesion over time. Though supporting characters they are, as parents and siblings, as real as family ecosystems get in Austenworld. Uppercross, crammed for the holidays with the Musgroves’ own children and grandchildren plus the little Harvilles, is the site of Austen’s only delineated scene of normal multi-generational family interaction: some bossing, more fun, much noise. It is a “fine family piece” in fact, despite the overstimulating effect it might have on a fastidious introvert.
Immediately surrounding Mrs. Musgrove were the little Harvilles, whom she was sedulously guarding from the tyranny of the two children from the Cottage, expressly arrived to amuse them. On one side was a table, occupied by some chattering girls, cutting up silk and gold paper; and on the other were tressels and trays, bending under the weight of brawn and cold pies, where riotous boys were holding high revel; the whole completed by a roaring Christmas fire, which seemed determined to be heard, in spite of all the noise of the others. (134)
This homely vignette, more characteristic of Dickens than Austen, is saved from sentimentality by being filtered through the melancholy, peace-loving sensibility of Anne Elliot—and, beyond her, through the intermittently discernible viewpoint of the narrator, more satiric and less tolerant of absurdity than Anne is. But even if domestic cordiality in this register is not Anne’s preference, she recognizes its sustaining power for other kinds of people, especially the children who grow up taking its security for granted.
Such security is rare in the family circles central to Austen’s novels, where bad parenting is rampant and competent mothering, in particular, something close to a death warrant for a woman. The three mothers who apparently were highly respected for their good hearts and heads—Mrs. Tilney, Mrs. Woodhouse, and Lady Elliot—all have died long before we enter into the lives of their surviving families. Mr. Dashwood, about whom there’s nothing to deplore apart from his misfortune in expiring so soon after he succeeds to Norland estate, dies as his daughters’ story starts. The ruling-class parents who survive to shape and launch children in Austenworld are a mixed bag, some benevolent but flawed, some downright culpable, few if any as admirable as readers extrapolating beyond the limits of the novels might imagine and hope those parents’ rightly matched offspring will be when they in turn become parents. The dysfunctional gallery includes fecklessly optimistic Mrs. Dashwood, noisy Sir John and cold, empty Lady Middleton, cynically detached Mr. Bennet, obstreperously vulgar Mrs. Bennet, the lightweight Lucases, domineering Lady Catherine De Bourgh, stern and worldly if principled Sir Thomas Bertram and his unbelievably passive Lady (their parental partnership made worse by aunt Norris’s officious blend of malevolence and flattery), the over-fertile, under-funded, far-from-shipshape Prices, dim and timid Mr. Woodhouse, calculating, tyrannical General Tilney, and vain, stupid Sir Walter Elliot.
The prevalence of bad parenting in Austen’s novels means that, according to Sulloway’s Darwinian theory, normal patterns of sibling divergence will be altered in various ways. Some of the potential differences are obvious to the eye of common sense: children being less likely to adopt their parents’ values, firstborns being more likely to invest emotionally in their younger siblings at the expense of their parents (125), daughters being more rebellious especially if the difficult parent is the mother (166). According to Sulloway, “substantial conflict with parents raises radicalism, especially in firstborns” (121). Perhaps because the ruling-class manners of the day entailed formal respect for parents (however bad), there’s little outright intergenerational conflict in Austen’s families—and thus little discernible radicalism among ill-parented firstborns. Those firstborns who “rebel” characteristically do so by developing strengths that compensate for parental deficiencies (Elinor Dashwood, Jane Bennet, Charlotte Lucas) rather than failing to follow parental principles (Tom Bertram). Many other firstborns seem to perpetuate their parents’ virtues, vices, charms, or foibles: Fitzwilliam Darcy, George Knightley, Charles Musgrove, Fanny Ferrars Dashwood, Frederick Tilney, Elizabeth Elliot, Isabella Woodhouse Knightley.
At one time or another, Austen’s novels show us both good and bad consequences of most phenomena or practices: of primogeniture and of less orthodox ways of bequeathing property, of respecting and of ignoring precedence, of allowing young women the freedom to be “out” and of sheltering them. Austen’s empirical eye discerned that real life offered evidence on both sides, and her novels reflect that chromatically shaded complexity. Given her penchant for subtle variations on a theme and her sharp-eyed respect for truth to life in all its shadings, it’s not possible to generalize whether being a firstborn is good or bad for the development of personal character in Austen’s novels. A fair number of firstborns display mainly the negative effects of their birth order: self-indulgent Tom Bertram and Captain Tilney, overconfident Mrs. Norris, Elizabeth Elliot, and Fanny Dashwood if indeed she’s older than Edward. Other firstborns are close to being paragons (at least as Austen’s narrators apparently mean us to see them): Elinor Dashwood, Jane Bennet, George Knightley, Fitzwilliam Darcy after he’s been chastened by Elizabeth’s rejection, though in fact the twelve years between him and Georgiana makes him in effect an only child. But apart from Mr. Knightley, significantly farther into adulthood than the others (he’s reached Colonel Brandon’s advanced stage of life, in fact), each of these admirable firstborns pays a clearly discernible psychological price that is the shadow side of the privileged position, as do the more modestly admirable firstborns Charlotte Lucas and Charles Musgrove.
Edward Ferrars provides an interesting off-the-chart example here, an apt illustration of family niches trumping cultural stereotypes. Despite being the firstborn brother in a landed family, Edward does not display the confident, assertive, conservative nature characteristic of that role. He lacks the virtues and flaws generally associated with the eldest male for various special reasons: the estate isn’t entailed on him, he has an older (or at least older-seeming) sister who has obviously identified with her strong-willed mother, he has formed a clandestine engagement his domineering mother and sister would not approve, his father seems to have been dead for a long time (at least long enough that he’s never mentioned in the novel), and as an adolescent he had been isolated from his peers by a private education, unlike his younger brother who was socialized for good and mostly for ill at Westminster public school. Unable and unwilling to confront the duties and assert the rights of the first son and heir—in his case, these would include pursuing a worldly calling the women in his family would respect and courting the heiress Miss Morton—Edward instead chooses the psychological challenges of another family niche. In his quiet, depressive way, he seems born to rebel in a family of mean-minded, worldly fools.
Despite such exceptions as the Ferrars and De Bourgh families afford, the ordinary way of passing down landed estates in Austen’s novels is primogeniture, the socioeconomic arrangement favored for keeping a landowning family’s wealth and power concentrated and the family name consequential over generations by transmitting an estate intact to the oldest son (or, in the absence of a son, to the closest male relation) rather than dividing it into parcels shared out among all sons or all siblings. A personal consequence of this system of handing down estates is the enhancement of typical firstborn traits and of masculinity in firstborn males. In Austen’s novels, think of George Knightley and Fitzwilliam Darcy, twin towers of both conventional manliness and actual masculine virtue, but also of Captain Tilney and Tom Bertram, whose dissipations are the stereotypical transgressions of propertied men behaving badly. Then notice the dilution or modification of conventional masculinity in younger sons portrayed by Austen, brothers who grow up inferior to the firstborn heir, prove likelier to question the rural status quo because they have less stake in it, and need to be flexible enough to make a living, to pursue life as something other than a country gentleman. Examples here might be Henry Tilney and Edmund Bertram, who have distinguished themselves from badboy big brothers by being responsible—but responsible in a gentler, more sensitive vein than the firstborns Darcy and Knightley. It’s felicitous that the younger Tilney and Bertram are destined, thanks to family influence, for church livings, because their less emphatically masculine laterborn temperaments suit them for a pastoral vocation. It’s equally interesting and similarly fortunate (if anything can be said to depend on fortune in the well-made microcosm of an Austen novel) that John Knightley’s not been given a church living in Donwell parish, Highbury, or elsewhere. His character is distinct from his older brother’s, just as Henry Tilney’s and Edmund Bertram’s are—but he’s not any less masculine than George. Because the elder Knightley’s character is commendable rather than lamentable—and partly because the Knightley brothers have a good decade’s maturity on the Tilneys and the Bertrams—John Knightley’s drawn, not like Henry Tilney and Edmund Bertram, as a desirable contrast to his older brother, but rather as what Fritz Oehlschlaeger terms a “more intense and more narrowly focused” version of the Knightley virtues5, a laterborn variation on the theme. Both brothers are decisive, country-loving, clear-headed, and good-hearted. The differences: John, a man we never see on his own turf, either his self-made home in Brunswick Square or his ancestral home Donwell, is less patient and more irritable than is George in the status of guest at Hartfield and Randalls—and he has a clearer view of the potential consequences of Emma’s playing at Cupid.
John Knightley’s disposition may be moodier than his brother’s for the purely practical reason that Austen doesn’t want to put two suns in her novel’s sky. Or she may have meant to depict in John and Isabella, both as individuals and as a married couple, a degree of excellence that comparative assessment shows his older brother and her younger sister, alone and as a team, will eventually be able to surpass. But Darwinian divergence is also at work. It may be that John Knightley’s less-perfect disposition is partly a consequence of mild but deep-seated insecurity that rises out of not growing up as the heir to Donwell but as the laterborn brother who one day will need to make his way in the wider world. He has done so with notable success. Indeed, by establishing himself in London at the bar, marrying a good woman (if not his mental equal), fathering a family, and devoting himself to that family’s nurture, he is ahead of his elder brother in fulfilling the basic goals of existence in a Darwinian ecosystem. Just as George Knightley’s firstborn bachelor existence at Donwell has its downside, John’s laterborn lot as urban paterfamilias carries certain costs. Because the brothers are alike in their values though dissimilar in temperament, love of their ancestral land is a pronounced attribute of both, as is evident on their reunion at Hartfield. The narrator relates that
as a farmer, as keeping in hand the home-farm at Donwell, he [George Knightley] had to tell what every field was to bear next year, and to give all such local information as could not fail of being interesting to a brother whose home it had equally been the longest part of his life, and whose attachments were strong. The plan of a drain, the change of a fence, the felling of a tree, and the predestination of every acre for wheat, turnips, or spring corn, was entered into with as much equality of interest by John, as his cooler manners rendered possible; and if his willing brother ever left him any thing to inquire about, his inquiries even approached a tone of eagerness. (90-91)
Given his “strong attachments,” growing up under the shadow of banishment from the estate on which he was reared could very likely have darkened John Knightley’s disposition a bit; and the ways London life and legal practice would grate on a sensibility better suited to rural retirement could aggravate the problem. Differences in domestic circumstances contribute to the brothers’ temperamental divergence. George, a childless bachelor and country squire, faces the potential risks of lonely melancholy—his effective remedies being regular calls at Hartfield and active involvement in the Highbury community. John, an urban professional, married with five children and housed in an urban residence far less spacious than Donwell, is bound to face more daily annoyances. Life with Isabella, a woman as mildly irritating as she is fondly indulgent to his irritability, and with small children, who cannot all have filled the family niche of paragon, is bound to offer John Knightley some challenges his brother has yet to experience—though to be sure uprooting from Donwell and moving to Hartfield, with increased exposure to Mr. Woodhouse, an older, self-centered, even more valetudinarian male version of his elder daughter, will test George Knightley’s temper even as it demonstrates his fervent desire to marry Emma.
The English landed gentry’s practices of primogeniture and entailment, then, play significant roles in determining the differences in brothers’ developing characters and behaviors in Austen’s novels. When these inheritance conventions are in play, there’s an unambiguously predestined niche for the eldest son to occupy in the family ecosystem—and younger brothers diverge accordingly. The custom of leaving an intact estate in one male heir’s hands has consequences to daughters’ personalities as well. A private fortune, like beauty, charm, accomplishments, and social position, helped a young woman compete in the Darwinian struggle for an eligible mate—but it also made life without a man easier. Emma’s problem is self-justifying overstatement, not error, when she pronounces to Harriet Smith “‘it is poverty only which makes celibacy contemptible to a generous public!’” (85). The presence, absence, and size of a private fortune might, in some cases, also influence personality development. Lack of money no doubt enhances Lucy Steele’s calculating shrewdness but also intensifies Elinor Dashwood’s prudence, a more praiseworthy quality. Possession of money makes many Austen women, among them Lady Catherine De Bourgh, Mrs. Ferrars, Fanny Dashwood, Augusta Elton, Emma Woodhouse, and Sophia Grey, confident, overbearing, or peremptory. Even a woman whose character has apparently developed without regard to her financial status might be forced to recognize that money could crucially shape her future. Mr. Collins, stupid though he generally may be, argues rationally when he doubts the sincerity of Elizabeth’s rejection of his proposal on the grounds that “in spite of your manifold attractions, it is by no means certain that another offer of marriage may ever be made you. Your portion is unhappily so small that it will in all likelihood undo the effects of your loveliness and amiable qualifications” (108). But the influence of money—or any other individual factor—on character, marriage, or destiny is far from straightforwardly predictable.
Austen’s clearest example of the unpredictable nature of the circumstances that interact to shape sibling character is the three Ward sisters, whose equal starting points but widely divergent paths are delineated in the first paragraph of Mansfield Park.
About thirty years ago, Miss Maria Ward of Huntingdon, with only seven thousand pounds, had the good luck to captivate Sir Thomas Bertram, of Mansfield Park, in the county of Northampton, and to be thereby raised to the rank of a baronet’s lady, with all the comforts and consequences of an handsome house and large income. All Huntingdon exclaimed on the greatness of the match, and her uncle, the lawyer, himself, allowed her to be at least three thousand pounds short of any equitable claim to it. She had two sisters to be benefited by her elevation; and such of their acquaintances as thought Miss Ward and Miss Frances quite as handsome as Miss Maria, did not scruple to predict their marrying with almost equal advantage. But there certainly are not so many men of large fortune in the world, as there are pretty women to deserve them. Miss Ward, at the end of half a dozen years, found herself obliged to be attached to the Rev. Mr. Norris, a friend of her brother-in-law, with scarcely any private fortune, and Miss Frances fared yet worse. Miss Ward’s match, indeed, when it came to the point, was not contemptible, Sir Thomas being happily able to give his friend an income in the living of Mansfield, and Mr. and Mrs. Norris began their career of conjugal felicity with very little less than a thousand a year. But Miss Frances married, in the common phrase, to disoblige her family, and by fixing on a Lieutenant of Marines, without education, fortune, or connections, did it very thoroughly. She could hardly have made a more untoward choice. Sir Thomas Bertram had interest, which from principle as well as from pride, from a general wish of doing right, and a desire of seeing all that were connected with him in situations of respectability, he would have been glad to exert for the advantage of Lady Bertram’s sister; but her husband’s profession was such as no interest could reach; and before he had time to devise any other method of assisting them, an absolute breach between the sisters had taken place. It was the natural result of the conduct of each party, and such as a very imprudent marriage almost always produces. (3-4)
Although they began life with the same social position, the same private fortune, and, if Huntingdon’s taste is to be relied on, the same degree of beauty, the Ward sisters cannot have begun with identical personalities. The widely different circumstances of their adult lives don’t suffice to explain their extreme differences in temperament, character, and behavior. A close look at how the sisters have turned out shows the multifaceted nature of psychological development in action. Innate characteristics, birth order, socioeconomic contingencies, and interaction with one another and with other people have worked together in the process of adaptive variation that makes these sisters the individuals they are.
Mrs. Norris displays classic firstborn traits of a strong will and an inclination to manage things. She has an apparently inborn “spirit of activity” (4), in notable contrast to her younger sisters. Her tireless energy and dominant nature are used mostly for bad purposes in Mansfield Park—perhaps partly because of her marital circumstances, which situate her and her husband in a role of dependence on her brother-in-law’s patronage and just below the bottom limit of genteel income as calculated by F. M. L. Thompson, £1000 a year. “Nobody knew better how to dictate liberality to others: but her love of money was equal to her love of directing” (8). “Having married on a narrower income than she had been used to look forward to” (8) thanks to expectations raised by her younger sister’s grand marriage, Mrs. Norris began practicing frugality out of principle but now does so from choice or ingrained habit. She hoards at home, “spunges” handouts from the housekeeper at Sotherton, and even steals (the green baize not needed for stage furnishings when Sir Thomas’s return ends the amateur theatricals). She makes herself indispensable at Mansfield Park in order to live at the Bertrams’ expense rather than her own. When it’s suggested that Fanny could console Mrs. Norris’s widowhood by living at the White House, to which she moves when the Grants succeed her and the late Mr. Norris at Mansfield parsonage, she recoils in horror. Without her own children to raise, she spoils the Bertram girls, especially Maria, like herself a handsome elder sister—and she’s so rigidly set in her opinions and feelings that Maria’s adulterous elopement means only that “her attachment seemed to augment with the demerits of her niece” (464).
The niche, temperament, and behavior of Maria, Lady Bertram, are polar opposites to her firstborn sister Norris’s. Lady Bertram, initially described as “a woman of very tranquil feelings, and a temper remarkably easy and indolent,” (4) is a memorable example of how disposition, birth order, marital choice, and family dynamics can converge to intensify a character. Naturally lazy, she’s made more so by being able to rely on an active, authoritarian husband and a bustling older sister. “Guided in everything important by Sir Thomas and in smaller concerns by her sister,” she spends most of the novel lolling on her sofa engaged in needlework “of little use and no beauty and thinking more of her pug [the canine equivalent of her needlework] than her children” (19-20). It’s easy to feel contempt for Lady Bertram; but in fact Austen points out that she, a flexible laterborn, has better values than does her stronger minded but (self)misguided older sister the clergyman’s widow. Lady Bertram may be shallow and self-centered, but her essentially correct thoughts and feelings can’t be moved. Grown accustomed to loving and needing her niece Fanny, she’ll accede to Sir Thomas’s persuasion that Fanny needs to go to Portsmouth but can’t be convinced, however vigorously Mrs. Norris tries, that she won’t miss her (371). Fanny’s return to a Mansfield Park in crisis over Tom’s illness and Maria and Julia’s respective elopements involves a small and touching moment of Lady Bertram behaving out of usual character in testimony to overwhelming feelings, a convincingly real blend of sincere, grateful love and self-interest: “Lady Bertram came from the drawing room to meet her; came with no indolent step; and, falling on her neck, said, ‘Dear Fanny! now I shall be comfortable’” (447). She can be more so because, unlike her older sister, she’s fortunate enough to have both a laterborn’s tractable nature and an essentially right-minded guide: “Lady Bertram did not think deeply, but, guided by Sir Thomas, she thought justly on all important points” (449).
Miss Frances Ward, the youngest sister, offers abundant evidence in favor of Sulloway’s observation that laterborn siblings are likeliest to rebel. With one sister who’s made a brilliant marriage and another who’s married prudently, to a man whose professional interests can be effectively promoted by her brother-in-law, she weds “to disoblige her family”—then spawns a brood her husband, an ungentlemanly Marine lieutenant retired on shore pay, can’t support in comfort. Not, at least, with her as wife. For Mrs. Price plays favorites like Mrs. Norris—“Her daughters never had been much to her. She was fond of her sons, especially of William, but Betsey was the first of her girls whom she had ever much regarded.” (389)—she has the natural laziness of Lady Bertram without the means to indulge it.
Of her two sisters, Mrs. Price very much more resembled Lady Bertram than Mrs. Norris. She was a manager by necessity, without any of Mrs. Norris’s inclination for it, or any of her activity. Her disposition was naturally easy and indolent, like Lady Bertram’s; and a situation of similar affluence and do-nothing-ness would have been much more suited to her capacity, than the exertions and self-denials of the one, which her imprudent marriage had placed her in. She might have made just as good a woman of consequence as Lady Bertram, but Mrs. Norris would have been a more respectable mother of nine children, on a small income. (390)
The hypothetical role reversal concisely sketched in the last sentence displays the brilliance of Austen’s empirically grounded speculation. The imagined reversal of the sisters’ fortunes amuses readers with a glimpse of what is not—but it also obliquely reminds us of some easy-to-overlook features of what is. Notice the different force of the subjunctive verbs: Mrs. Price “might” have equaled Lady Bertram as a baronet’s wife—no particular compliment there. But Mrs. Norris “would” have done a better job of raising a large family on a tight budget. In a narrative where the details and tone often seem calculated to demonize Mrs. Norris, this speculation acknowledges that, placed in other circumstances, the hardheaded firstborn with too much energy might have harnessed her powers to better effect. An imagined alternate station for Lady Bertram is amusing by its absence. The narrator’s silence on that score loudly proclaims that Lady Bertram, by virtue of everything heredity and environment have given her, is fit for nothing but a life of sofas and pugs, with a sympathetic niece within earshot of her languid drawl.
Given her fiction’s focus on female protagonists growing through widened experience of people and places and defining themselves through marriage, it’s unsurprising that Austen is more interested in the comparative development of sisters’ characters than in brothers’. The Wards, though Austen’s sole group portrait of married sisters whose circumstances have diverged and whose life experiences have completely solidified their personalities, are only one of several groups of differentiated sisters in Austen’s novels. In at least two families comprised of multiple male and female children (and presumably three, because Colonel Fitzwilliam’s existence as an earl’s younger son and as cousin to Darcy and Miss De Bourgh presupposes Lady Anne and Lady Catherine having a brother, whether or not he’s still alive—as he seems to be, given that the Colonel is called “younger son” of an earl, not “younger brother” of one), Austen shows more interest in describing and differentiating daughters than sons. Prudent, analytical Charlotte Lucas is distinguished from her credulous younger sister Maria with the younger children left a pack of sons and daughters; Fanny and Susan Price display different temperaments but comparable good instincts against a backdrop of stair-step siblings, a progression in which the eldest son William’s drawn in detail, the remaining sisters are minimally sketched (Mary as the dead bequeather of a silver knife to Susan, Betsey as the spoiled baby), but the younger brothers in residence are just noisy young fellows. Two pairs of sisters are hard to fit into a pattern. The fashionable, hypocritical Bingley women, less important to the Bennet-centered plot than their brother is, seem to differ mainly in that Louisa is married and that Caroline very much wants to be—and thus, with a husband still to be bagged, has a more active part to play in the romance-centered plot. The Bertram sisters, like their brothers, emerge as individuals, with pattern established by Tom and Edmund holding, if a bit less dramatically, with Maria and Julia. Being firstborn daughter and Mrs. Norris’s spoiled favorite makes Maria develop into a more actively deplorable character than Julia—a contrast demonstrated subtly throughout but never more vividly than on the excursion to Sotherton and stated clearly, if baldly, in the final chapter’s “Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery” summation:
That Julia escaped better than Maria was owing, in some measure, to a favourable difference of disposition and circumstance, but in a greater to her having been less the darling of that very aunt, less flattered, and less spoilt. Her beauty and acquirements had always held but a second place. She had been always used to think herself a little inferior to Maria. Her temper was naturally the easiest of the two, her feelings, though quick, were more controulable; and education had not given her so hurtful a degree of self-consequence. (466)
But over all Austen proves much less interested in how the Bertram sisters differ from one another than in how they both differ—in temper, education, self-consequence—from their exemplary cousin Fanny.
The site for most clearly seeing how birth order affects the choice of family niche should be same-sex siblings groups, because that’s where the need to differentiate to achieve adaptive advantage would be greatest. Austen’s novels offer a good number of characters reared from childhood in all-female sibling groups: along with the three Ward sisters whose diverging marriage choices furnish the preamble to Mansfield Park there are the three Dashwoods (all born after their half-brother John would be old enough to be away at school), two Steeles, and two Middletons of Sense and Sensibility, the Woodhouse and Hawkins pairs in Emma, the three Elliots of Persuasion, and, furnishing the most striking example of Darwinian divergence, the five Bennets of Pride and Prejudice, all within about six years of one another and all, imprudently, “out.” Austen does not use any of these sisterhoods in exactly the same way, but what crucially interests her is how sisters who have radiated out into different family niches will further define themselves through the ordering dance of marriage—for the characters and social and economic positions of the men they wed will significantly shape them, in much the same way that marrying Sir Thomas Bertram rather than Lieutenant Price has been indispensable in Lady Bertram’s becoming what she is when we encounter her.
Some sister pairs or groups fill mainly subsidiary functions. The Jenkins and Steele sisters’ respective sibling relations serve mainly to contrast with the Dashwoods’ loving involvement with one another. Nancy and Lucy Steele, the elder silly, shallow and desperate for beaux, the younger shrewd, vulgar, and predatory, are merely differentiated without their differences being accounted for. They are a Wollstonecraftian nightmare: uncongenial, uneducated, unmarried, mature sisters kept together by nothing but the necessity of pooling their limited resources. Mrs. Jenkins’ well-married daughters are, like the Steeles, grown opposites who demonstrate no feeling for one another. They don’t exchange a word or glance that’s reported in the novel; and Lady Middleton’s obsession with motherhood apparently doesn’t extend to paying a call when her younger sister delivers a son and heir. The contrast between these sisters is so absolute as to seem contrived. Lady Middleton: “her face was handsome, her figure tall and striking, and her address graceful. Her manners had all the elegance which her husband’s wanted. But they would have been improved by some share of his frankness and warmth. . . . Though perfectly well bred, she was reserved, cold, and had nothing to say for herself beyond the most common-place inquiry or remark” (31). Charlotte Palmer: ”several years younger than Lady Middleton, and totally unlike her in every respect,” “short and plump, had a very pretty face, and the finest expression of good humor in it that could possibly be. Her manners were by no means so elegant as her sister’s, but they were much more prepossessing. She came in with a smile, smiled all the time of her visit, except when she laughed, and smiled when she went away” (106). Like her older sister in one thing at least, Charlotte has a husband so different from her as to seem unsuitable. In Charlotte’s case, he is “a grave looking young man . . . with an air of more fashion and sense than his wife, but of less willingness to please and be pleased” (106). In the Jenkins sisters Austen illustrates several points she makes elsewhere: that noisy, undiscriminating warmhearted natures may not be totally admirable but are to be preferred to more polished manners united to colder hearts, that men attracted to the youth-and-beauty brigade can go badly wrong and marry women whose minds and dispositions don’t match their own, that like the marriage bond a blood relation does not necessarily imply a meaningful personal relationship.
In contrast to the Steele and Jenkins sisters, the Dashwoods love, like, respect, and interact with one another, even at the times when their behaviors seem least compatible and their thoughts and feelings least shared. And they resemble one another in marrying men they can love, like, and respect, men who can love, like, and respect them. When I say the Dashwoods, I mean the older two. Delineating the Dashwood sisters, Austen’s eye seems to glaze over at a point when attentive observation would be at odds with the generic needs of romance fiction and the specifically dualistic demands of a novel titled Sense and Sensibility. Three sisters within six years of one another, observed in real life, would develop and interact in complex ways—differentiating themselves, according to Sulloway’s Darwinian view, as two pairs. For Austen’s fictional purposes only Elinor and Mariannne are relevant, partly because marriageable status is generally what constitutes importance in Austenworld and partly because spinning out the contrast between a “sense” sister and a “sensibility” sister involves one dyad, not a pair of them or a triad. Whatever the reason, thirteen-year-old Margaret is cursorily dismissed in the last paragraph of the expository first chapter as “a good-humoured, well-disposed girl; but as she had already imbibed a good deal of Marianne’s romance, without having much of her sense, she did not, at thirteen, bid fair to equal her sisters at a more advanced period of life” (7). In other Austen novels, young women no more promising than Margaret metamorphose from larvae to butterflies in the crucial years that will come next—as witness Catherine Morland and Fanny Price when they turn seventeen and eighteen respectively. Given a few years and her own story, Margaret Dashwood might be a heroine in her own right, but she’s not needed as one in this story—though the narrator changes her tune in the penultimate paragraph of the novel’s summing up: “fortunately for Sir John and Mrs. Jennings, when Marianne was taken from them, Margaret had reached an age highly suitable for dancing, and not very ineligible for being supposed to have a lover” (380).
By contrast, Austen attends more carefully to the third member of a six-year-spanning sister triad in Persuasion, where her chief interest centers on the middle sister and both eldest and youngest exist mainly for comparative purposes. Although it’s far more obvious, from dismissive scenes played out at Kellynch and Bath alike, that Elizabeth Elliot’s shallow, stupid, but supremely confident vanity has driven Anne, also a beauty before her first bloom faded with romantic disappointment, to stake out a drastically different niche herself, the equally differentiated relation between Anne and Mary, four years her junior, is also treated, principally during Anne’s sojourn at Uppercross. Mary, growing up junior to a responsibility-shouldering, self-effacing paragon, has thereby been enabled to cultivate self-centered discontent and valetudinarianism. Joined with her own share of Sir Walter’s and Elizabeth’s snobbish fixation on the grandeur of the Elliot name, these features make Mary’s demanding, aggrieved personality a dreary backdrop against which Anne’s selfless, benevolent, capable nature shines—as is recognized by Mary’s husband Charles, her in-laws the Musgroves, and Captain Wentworth. But perhaps because as far as one can tell she’s never been a beauty (and now is “coarse”) and she’s had the good fortune to marry into a warm, generally functional family and to have children (however inadequately she mothers them), Mary is humanized in a way denied to the icy Elizabeth.
If all the Elliot virtues and talents belong to one daughter, the middle one, the carefully observed joint heroines Elinor and Marianne Dashwood both possess virtues and talents alike—both have the capacity for “sense and sensibility.” They have, however, diverged in the Darwinian way that might be predicted likeliest in a family less than perfectly functional but far better adjusted than the Elliots are. The Dashwoods’ father, with only a life-interest in Norland but a “cheerful and sanguine temperament” (2), and his equally sanguine wife, with “a sense of honour so keen, a generosity so romantic” that any offense against delicacy “was to her a source of immoveable disgust” (4) might, unlike Sir Walter, be good parents under auspicious conditions. But in an uncertain or adverse world, neither could inspire the confidence that would make an eldest child emulate him or her. Instead, Elinor takes it upon herself to provide the substitute for, rather than the junior embodiment of, parental seriousness:
Elinor, this eldest daughter whose advice was so effectual, possessed a strength of understanding, and coolness of judgment, which qualified her, though only nineteen, to be the counsellor of her mother, and enabled her frequently to counteract, to the advantage of them all, that eagerness of mind in Mrs. Dashwood which must generally have led to imprudence. She had an excellent heart;—her disposition was affectionate, and her feelings were strong; but she knew how to govern them: it was a knowledge which her mother had yet to learn, and which one of her sisters had resolved never to be taught. (4)
That sister, Marianne, bears a name that through its association with the French Revolution implies the unrestrained fervor the conservative landed classes of England generally associated with that movement. If Elinor has specialized in the sense their mother lacks, Marianne distinguishes herself from her older sister by emphasizing the good and bad features of the maternal model: “Marianne’s abilities were, in many respects, quite equal to Elinor’s. She was sensible and clever; but eager in every thing; her sorrows, her joys, could have no moderation. She was generous, amiable, interesting: she was every thing but prudent. The resemblance between her and her mother was strikingly great” (6).
Knowing that “what Marianne and her mother conjectured one moment, they believed the next—that with them, to wish was to hope, and to hope was to expect” (21), the fatherless Elinor finds herself the still-teenaged head of her all-female family—if by that term we mean her nuclear family, not the dynasty indicated by the novel’s opening sentence: “The family of Dashwood had long been settled in Sussex” (3). One of the novel’s most productive Darwinian ironies stems from the different ways this opening statement is and is not true. Norland Park, childhood home of the Dashwood sisters, becomes their father’s property only when his old uncle dies—and only for a year, when he too dies and the estate passes by decree of his uncle’s will to John Dashwood, the girls’ half-brother, in trust for his four-year-old son Henry. Bequeathing Norland in the traditionally patriarchal way may be good for the long-term continuance of the ancestral name (or the species as a whole) in Sussex, but it’s bad for the women whose family home the country house has been (individual members, if you will, of the “Dashwood” species population). Adding to the Dashwood women’s misfortunes are their selfish half-brother and even more selfish sister-in-law. The latter ascribes to a nuclear rather than extended view of “family “ and takes a ruthless attitude toward her husband’s half-siblings that, did she but know it, comes right out of post-Darwinian psychology as well as out of Wollstonecraft’s contemporary observations. Fanny Dashwood believes that her son’s interests and John’s half-sisters are opposed. She is directly said to be a “caricature” of her husband’s narrow-mindedness and selfishness, but the ungenerous case she makes would, stripped of its superlatives and absolutes, make perfect sense in terms of genetic heredity:
And what possible claim could the Miss Dashwoods, who were related to him only by half blood, which she considered as no relationship at all, have on his generosity to so large an amount. It was very well known that no affection was ever supposed to exist between the children of any man by different marriages; and why was he to ruin himself, and their poor little Harry, by giving away all his money to his half sisters? (8)
Facing selfishness from the wider family, Elinor must cope with improvident folly within her nuclear family. Mrs. Dashwood believes she can save enough surplus from 500 pounds’ annual income to make improvements to Barton Cottage; Marianne claims to disdain wealth and to ask only a competence but then reveals that to her “competence” means 2000 pounds a year, twice the sum that signifies “wealth” to Elinor, whom Marianne sees as calculating. Elinor endures heavy and often undeserved criticism from her mother, sister, and many readers for the self-repressed, tactful, expedient sense that she’s obliged to cultivate, seeing that no one else in her family will—and for not displaying the sensibility that, in a family of self-dramatizers, she’s better off concealing. But the harsh circumstances of life and Elinor’s interactions with parent and siblings inevitably intensify the responsible quasi-maternal behaviors and values associated with her firstborn role. Only late in the novel, when crises have been managed, can she indulge the luxury of her own sensibility—a moment that fills Marianne with typically dramatic self-reproach. But, again typically, the object of Elinor’s sensibility is an unprepossessing young man who needs nothing so much as maternal nurturing.
An interesting problem with Sense and Sensibility is that though Elinor, the “sense” sister, has a character that seems to rise from heredity and family environment working inevitably and perhaps irresistibly together, Marianne’s “sensibility” character, formed in a similar way, is meant to be understood as something she can and should put behind her. Chastened by disappointment in Willoughby and serious illness, sobered by awareness of her sister’s admirable conduct, finally attuned more to Colonel Brandon’s loving benevolence than to his age and flannel waistcoats, Marianne rises from what seems a prolepsis of the Victorian novel’s Significant Sickbed and experiences a change of heart that bears fruit in radically altered conduct and character.
Perhaps this malleability is what can be expected from a heroine who’s only 17 (the lower threshold of female maturity in Austenworld)—a simple act of growing up. In some ways, however, Marianne’s transformation is the problematic consequence of practical demands imposed by Austen’s genre conflicting with what realistic observation would tell her. Sense and Sensibility has, from its very title onward, a prescribed and tidy outcome. Evolution of personal character and values is a matter that in real life would offer less closure and clarity at the end of a young woman’s eighteenth year. In contrast to Marianne’s predictable and arguably semi-convincing change of heart and behavior, the dramatic changes that take place in Emma Woodhouse and Anne Elliot, younger sisters like Marianne, seem realistic—whether because these changes themselves derive from carefully chronicled incremental challenges to their the established habits of mind and behavior, or because the two heroines are 20 and 27 rather than 17, or because Emma and Persuasion, as novels of Austen’s 30s rather than her early 20s, embody a psychological realism subtler than the satirical formal contrasts of Sense and Sensibility.
Apart from being later-born protagonists of their respective novels, Emma and Anne seem at first to share few traits of character and behavior. The former is “handsome, clever, and rich,” overflowing with health, energy, and imagination, and apparently trapped at home in Highbury with her father. The latter when first encountered is “haggard,” delicate, wistfully regretful about having been prudent to a fault, shackled to a dysfunctional landed family on the way down, and about to be uprooted from Kellynch. Besides their domestic stagnation, Emma and Anne are alike in having older sisters who identified with fathers whose qualities they inherit and behaviors they enact, fictional firstborn embodiments of Sulloway’s claim that in personality development “family niches often override biology, just as they often transcend cultural stereotypes” (149). Isabella Woodhouse Knightley mirrors her father in lacking “strong understanding or any quickness,” in displaying delicate health, valetudinarianism, hypersolicitude for her children, “many fears and many nerves,” and, more positively, in “a general benevolence of temper, and a strong habit of regard for every old acquaintance” (92). Appraising Mr. Woodhouse, Fritz Oehlschlaeger ascribes these shared qualities, which seem more culturally appropriate to a woman than to a ruling-class estate-owning male, to anxiety that rises out of having failed to confront and grieve for Mrs. Woodhouse’s death.5 Not accepting death and change takes a different form when played out in Emma’s stronger character—a character whose raw materials most likely came from the mother she can recall only indistinctly but whom Mr. Knightley characterizes as “the only person able to cope with her. She inherits her mother’s talents and must have been under subjection to her” (37). In like manner, Elizabeth Elliot takes after her father in all ways: “Vanity was the beginning and the end of Sir Walter Elliot’s character; vanity of person and situation” (4)—a pronouncement that could be made with equal truth of the firstborn daughter “very handsome, and very like himself” (5). Anne, “with an elegance of mind and sweetness of character, which must have placed her high with any people of real understanding,” (5) is patterned on her dead mother, who had been “an excellent woman, sensible and amiable” who “had humoured,or softened, or concealed his [Sir Walter’s] failings, and promoted his real respectability for seventeen years; and though not the very happiest being in the world herself, had found enough in her duties, her friends, and her children, to attach her to life” (4). Take away the children and the seventeen years, and the description of Lady Elliot’s lot, as well as her stoical response to it, would be equally applicable to her daughter Anne, who also has inherited as confidante and advisor Lady Russell, the woman who was Lady Elliot’s intimate friend.
In Marianne Dashwood, Emma Woodhouse, and Anne Elliot we see laterborn sisters who identified with mothers where their firstborn sisters either identified with fathers or, in Elinor’s case, compensated for an absence of adult leadership in the family. The bildungsroman task given each young woman is self-improvement, but the task is different for each. Marianne, with a negative maternal example and a positive role model in her sister Elinor, must curb her excesses and cultivate what’s commendable in her sister’s restraint. Emma and Anne, with admirable dead mothers and firstborn sisters they couldn’t and shouldn’t emulate, must learn to make the best of their innate laterborn excellences. Emma must moderate her “imaginism,” stop playing at life through proxies, face the real world of change, death, and love that she inhabits, and discover her own true feelings. Anne, having yielded to Lady Russell’s prudent persuasion when she was Emma’s age and “learned romance as she grew older” (30) must, when given a second chance at happiness after more than seven years in the emotional wilderness, trust her heart and head. Rebellious in a genteel but typically laterborn way, both heart and head counsel Anne to turn her back on her landed origins and commit herself to the rising meritocracy, embodied the person of her once-rejected suitor Captain Wentworth.
Sisters in a family ecosystem are bound to compete unless felicitous circumstances intervene—but adaptive radiation diminishes the competition. It’s convenient for their mutual regard that Elinor and Marianne, thanks to their divergent tastes and temperaments, would be unlikely to fall in love with the same man. At least Marianne could never fancy such unpromising romantic material as Edward Ferrars, and once the maternal Elinor’s given her heart to him she’s not about to develop a rival crush on the more glamorous Willoughby. But, as Mrs. Jenkins is blunt enough to point out, eligible men are a limited commodity in the Dashwood sphere; and if one sister gains Colonel Brandon and Delaford, the other won’t. Similarly, Mr. Elliot can’t court both Anne and Elizabeth. A sister who has made a good match can help her unmarried siblings, though—and similarly though unfairly, one woman’s folly can taint all the unmarried females of her household. Concern for his daughter Julia (and his nieces Fanny and Susan) means that Sir Thomas must harden his heart and bar his door to adulterous Maria.
Nowhere in Austen do we see so brilliantly intricate a depiction of siblings diverging, competing, cooperating, and damaging one another than in Pride and Prejudice. For all the bright, light, witty tone, the substance of this novel is family Darwinism at its potential darkest. In several ways, the Bennet women are situated more precariously than any other Austen heroines, Fanny Price included. Consider: they live on an entailed estate worth two thousand pounds a year. They have no brother to inherit it. Their mother’s fortune is only four thousand pounds. Due to Mr. Bennet’s detachment and Mrs. Bennet’s extravagance, little has been put away out of Longbourn’s annual income; and the five Bennet daughters will have a total of only 5000 pounds from their father to be settled upon them when their parents die. The sisters, neither sent off to school nor provided with a governess, have been received a minimalist laissez-faire education: “‘We were always encouraged to read, and had all the masters that were necessary. Those who chose to be idle, certainly might’” (147). With so little formal instruction and almost no accomplishments—among the sisters, only Elizabeth and Mary even play and sing, and not well enough to teach—they are not equipped to earn livings in the governess-trade. Nor are they are trained to manage a modest household, to be the sort of women who could exist, if need be, with few or no servants. Mrs. Bennet, having dismissively accounted for Charlotte Lucas’s absence as probably being needed at home to help with mince pies, proudly tells Bingley “For my part, Mr. Bingley I always keep servants that can do their own work; my daughters are brought up differently” (44). There are no rich relations to help support the Bennet sisters after their father’s demise: Mrs. Bennet’s foolish sister Phillips is married to a mere Meryton lawyer; her capable, gentlemanly brother Gardiner, in trade in London, is responsible for a young family of his own. Mr. Bennet’s sole surviving relation seems to be his heir Mr. Collins, with whose father he had quarrelled—and Elizabeth rejects the marriage offer Collins has charitably if pompously made, an offer that is, in spite of his personal buffoonery, a potential life-preserver for all the Bennet women. Unlike the Lucas sisters, who will progressively enter the social scene at strategic intervals, all five unmarried sisters, from 22-year-old Jane down to 15-year-old Lydia, are “out” from the start of the story. A believer in chumming rather than skillful angling, Mrs. Bennet has saturated the social stream with marriageable daughters. And, as far as one can tell from the excitement induced by the arrival of the Bingley party at Netherfield and of fresh militia officers at the Meryton garrison, their neighborhood suffers a pronounced scarcity of those single men whose fortunes are large enough to mean that they “must be in want of a wife” (3) because, as maternal logic runs, so many women are in want of a husband.
There’s a direct connection between all five Bennets being “out” and Austen being seriously concerned with the whole interacting sisterhood, though it is hard to say which is the cause and which the effect. As in Sense and Sensibility, Austen is most interested in the characters and romantic fortunes of the elder two sisters. But here as nowhere else she pays close attention to how all the sisters in the group have differentiated and how they can help or harm one another’s prospects. Sulloway’s Darwinian rules of personality development are strikingly accurate in accounting for the variation among these daughters of ill-matched, culpably incompetent or negligent parents. As Sulloway would predict for children of dysfunctional parents, the Bennet sisters tend to invest emotionally in one another rather than in their parents—and, again predictably, the eldest two in particular vary systematically as to their parental affiliation. Jane substitutes for her ineffectual mother; Elizabeth reflects certain attributes of her father. All five sisters, in their distinctive ways, have found adaptive compensations for inhabiting a family ecosystem so unstable and unsatisfying. In terms of natural gifts, however, the eldest two sisters have far more than an equal share of the family’s total portion of beauty, brains, and good temperament.
Jane, the firstborn and the acclaimed beauty of the group, “united with great strength of feeling, a composure of temper and a uniform cheerfulness of manner” (21). Although just as capable as Elizabeth is of reason—together the two have often attempted to explain to their obtuse mother the nature of an entail (54) or to correct the behavior of their younger siblings—she is reluctant to draw conclusions that reflect badly on other people. When Elizabeth reports what Darcy has disclosed to her about why he didn’t grant Wickham the parish living intended for him, Jane would like “to clear the one, without involving the other” (225). Although Elizabeth doesn’t disclose half of Wickham’s villainy, Jane “would willingly have gone through the world without believing so much wickedness existed in the whole race of mankind, as was here collected in one individual” (224-25). She is almost as reluctant to think ill of womankind. It takes overwhelming evidence to make Jane see Caroline Bingley’s hollow professions of friendship for the hypocrisies they are. Jane’s problem in recognizing human wickedness when confronted by it is emotional rather than rational. A conservative firstborn, she’s conditioned herself to resist following negative perceptions to the logical conclusions they would imply in her domestic environment, where doing so would confront her with facts too painful to face about her father, mother, and sisters. Darcy’s epistolary appraisal of the Bennet family failings, so deeply mortifying to Elizabeth, would have been far more wounding to Jane. Elizabeth, in an uncharacteristic gesture of reserve, “dared not relate the other half of Mr. Darcy’s letter, nor explain to her sister how sincerely she had been valued by his friend” (227). For all Jane’s excellences—and these include a judgment that’s sometimes fairer than Elizabeth’s, for instance in their respective first impressions of Mr. Darcy—she must be shielded from knowing how her parents’ and sisters’ follies have foiled her hopes of Bingley. Elizabeth recognizes that Jane occupies a niche that won’t allow for detached scrutiny of her family. The nonjudgmental sweetness Elizabeth cherishes combines with Jane’s remarkable beauty to make her the second favorite child to her mother; her good heart and sound sense to make her second favorite to her father. She is thus the Bennet daughter most popular overall with her parents, a position particularly to be cherished by a firstborn. But the seriousness with which she takes her firstborn duties probably means that, had Jane not met Bingley and thus had an unattached heart (one that, the narrator says, had never been touched before) when Collins came calling and first settled on her, she probably would have responded to his proposal in the practical style of Charlotte rather than in Elizabeth’s bravely romantic way. For responsible Jane, sacrificing herself to an ass would probably matter less than keeping Longbourn available as a home for her mother and sisters.
Too much detachment from her family rather than too little is the peril facing Elizabeth, her father’s favorite and her mother’s least favored daughter. Indeed, after Darcy’s epistolary apologia convinces her that “Till this moment, I never knew myself” (208), Elizabeth, without acknowledging or indeed at first recognizing it, shifts to sharing Darcy’s viewpoint, even before realizing that his perspective has in turn been radically modified by her cogent rebuke of him. But long before Elizabeth adopts a Pemberley perspective on Longbourn she has already distanced herself from her mother and younger sisters and has distinguished herself from Jane, the commendable substitute mother, by identifying with the father whose cynical temperament she partly shares. Where Jane dutifully stays within traditional female roles, Elizabeth ignores strictures that are mere genteel custom—and is the more attractive a woman for it. Her fine eyes sparkle with free thought; the sun tans her skin; and if independent cross-country walking dirties her petticoats, the Bingley sisters may disapprove but Darcy certainly doesn’t. In blazing a path that diverges from her older sister’s, Elizabeth effectively reduces the competition between them: like Elinor and Marianne Dashwood, the two eldest Bennets are unlikely to attract or be attracted by the same men. Each sister must do what she can to thrive; but complementing, rather than competing, is the better arrangement for adjacent siblings who love, rely on, and invest in one another more than in any other family member.
Poor Mary. The best-looking two Bennet sisters, closely bonded as a complementary pair, precede her; the just-as-tightly-connected Kitty and Lydia follow her—and she’s not just the unpartnered leftover but also the least lovely of the lot. Loneliness among her sisters and lack of beauty drive Mary to choose a studious niche in the family ecosystem; but though she labors over books and music, she derives little apparent benefit from her studies. Not only is Mary, a sort of female counterpart to her ponderous cousin Collins, a weak performer who humiliates Elizabeth, at least, by her attention-seeking but ridiculous public displays. When the rest of her family is devastated by Lydia’s elopement, Mary’s hours of reading have given her nothing but pompous, unfelt commonplaces to utter—“This is a most unfortunate affair; and will probably be much talked of. But we must stem the tide of malice, and pour into the wounded bosoms of each other, the balm of sisterly consolation” (288).
“Unhappy as the event must be for Lydia, we may draw from it this useful lesson; that loss of virtue in a female is irretrievable—that one false step involves her in endless ruin—that her reputation is no less brittle than it is beautiful—and that she cannot be too much guarded in her behaviour towards the undeserving of the other sex.” (288).
When the conclusion’s sisterly migration north leaves Mary the only daughter at home, she is “necessarily drawn from the pursuit of accomplishments by Mrs. Bennet’s being quite unable to sit alone” and obliged to mix more with the world; “and as she was no longer mortified by comparisons between her sisters’ beauty and her own, it was suspected by her father that she submitted to the change without much reluctance” (386). This alteration shows how changes in the family environment can, as in the natural world, bring about modification of longstanding patterns of behavior.
Kitty and Lydia form a dyad as strong as that of Jane and Elizabeth—the difference being that the elder pair displays mutual attachment, complementary strength, and equality whereas the younger pair consists of leader and follower, one willful egoist and one weak imitator. With three older sisters and an overbearing younger one, Kitty might seem a sibling without a niche of her own—except that her special role is to have a weak character and constitution alike. Kitty’s distinctive feature seems to be her coughs, concerning which Mr. Bennet facetiously observes she “has no discretion . . . she times them ill” (6). Apart from coughing, Kitty follows Lydia’s lead in everything, particularly in chasing militia officers. But the very weakness of Kitty’s character makes her, like Lady Bertram or Julia, amenable to improvement when in a sphere of good influence. Once Lydia and Wickham are out of the way and Jane and Elizabeth have established married households of their own, Kitty is reported, if not directly shown, to improve:
She was not of so ungovernable a temper as Lydia, and, removed from the influence of Lydia’s example, she became, by proper attention and management, less irritable, less ignorant, and less insipid. From the farther disadvantage of Lydia’s society she was of course carefully kept, and though Mrs. Wickham frequently invited her to come and stay with her, with the promise of balls and young men, her father would never consent to her going. (386)
From the Darwinian vantage point it seems right that Lydia, whose place as fifth makes her more emphatically laterborn than any other character accorded much attention in Austen’s novels, should turn out to be the most openly transgressive female Austen depicts, a bolter more brazen, if less guilty, than Maria Bertram Rushworth.
Lydia was a stout, well-grown girl of fifteen, with a fine complexion and good-humoured countenance; a favorite with her mother, whose affection had brought her into public at an early age. She had high animal spirits, and a sort of self-consequence, which the attentions of the officers, to whom her uncle’s good dinners and her own easy manners recommended her, had increased into assurance. (45)
Fully as shallow, self-centered, and unable to understand principles as her mother, Lydia either disregards conventions, as when asking Mr. Bingley for a ball—or understands them only superficially, as when after Darcy’s purchased Wickham as her husband and Mr. Bennet’s grudgingly allowed the couple a wedding visit to Longbourn she insists, as a married woman, on her right to take precedence at table over her sister Jane. Lydia’s ungoverned, impulsive nature variously leads her to buy a bonnet she knows is ugly, to order a meal she and Kitty can’t pay for, or to throw herself at Wickham, who has no intention of making an honest woman of the girl who’s run off with him. Her rule-breaking spirit may appeal to some latter-day readers who take umbrage at the social restrictions hemming in gentlewomen of Austen’s time—but when Lydia’s youth, fine complexion, and apparent good humour fade with the onset of years and the experience of disappointments, she will be the image of her mother, an irrational, amoral, selfish woman saved from monstrosity only to the extent that her misplaced confidence and noisy pronouncements make her a figure of fun. Even while young, Lydia is a danger to the marital fortunes of all her sisters—except perhaps Mary, who needs no help in repelling men.
The linked nature of the sisters’ fortunes is clearest at the Netherfield ball. Here, the indecorous behavior of Lydia and her satellite Kitty, joined with Mary’s totally different form of exhibitionism, Mrs. Bennet’s vulgar, imprudent pronouncements on Jane’s beauty and fine prospects with Bingley and transparent scheming to linger longest, and Mr. Bennet’s remote, irresponsible amusement at his family’s follies, make Elizabeth recognize, long before Darcy’s arrogant proposal and blunt follow-up letter underline the point, “that had her family made an agreement to expose themselves as much as they could during the evening, it would have been impossible for them to play their parts with more spirit, or finer success” (101). The Bennet family’s assorted defects would alone be enough to encourage Darcy and the Bingley sisters’ stealth campaign against Jane, though Caroline Bingley also has a totally sufficient motive for thwarting Jane’s interests in her hopes that her brother will marry Miss Darcy and thereby increase her own chances with the Pemberley heir. Elizabeth’s consciousness of the Bennets’ numerous deficiencies heightens when she’s reconsidered Darcy’s letter with its justification for parting Bingley and Jane. Elizabeth comes to see the defects of her family as
hopeless of remedy. Her father, contented with laughing at them, would never exert himself to restrain the wild giddiness of his youngest daughters; and her mother, with manners so far from right herself, was entirely insensible of the evil. Elizabeth had frequently united with Jane in an endeavour to check the imprudence of Catherine and Lydia; but while they were supported by their mother’s indulgence, what chance could there be of improvement? Catherine, weak-spirited, irritable, and completely under Lydia’s guidance, had always been affronted by their advice; and Lydia, self-willed and careless, would scarcely give them a hearing. (213)
The prospect of such sisters-in-law—and such a mother-in-law, a spectre Miss Bingley delights in conjuring up—would be enough to make a man with even less pride than Darcy’s try to resist falling in love with Elizabeth. Similar prospects would go far toward explaining how he could try to detach his friend Bingley from Jane, however worthy and delightful she might be in her own right. But once Lydia’s thrown herself into Wickham’s power, the damage she can do to her sisters’ marital chances is immeasurably greater than the family’s collective absurdities combined. On receiving the bad news of Lydia’s elopement, Elizabeth has just been noticing the evidence of Darcy’s continued, even enhanced, regard for her. But in spite of his dramatically improved manners and his demonstrable personal regard, she can’t believe that his love could survive in light of the Bennets’ dishonor. His preoccupied look on hearing the news of Lydia and Wickham makes Elizabeth believe “her power was sinking; every thing must sink under such a proof of family weakness, such an assurance of the deepest disgrace. She could neither wonder nor condemn . . .” (278). Elizabeth’s reading of Darcy is eventually proved wrong, as has been the case before—but the impression she’s formed is reasonable if erroneous. It testifies to how, for unmarried sisters at least, the fates of individuals sharply distinguished from one another nonetheless remain connected in the family ecosystem. Only an uprooting as drastic as Elizabeth’s and Jane’s escape from Longbourn to Pemberley and the estate Bingley eventually acquires some thirty miles away can save the best Bennet sisters from continued mortifications—and offer an environment, healthier than the entangled bank of Longbourn had been, in which to improve the sister who can be salvaged.
1. Frank J. Sulloway, Born to Rebel: Birth Order, Family Dynamics, and Creative Lives (New York: Pantheon, 1996), 63. Subsequent citations will be parenthetical.
2. Personality studies of this sort include Judy Dunn and Robert Plomin, Separate Lives: Why Siblings Are So Different (New York: Basic Books, 1990); John C. Loehlin, Genes and Environment in Personality Development (Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications, 1992); Robert Plomin et. al., “Parent-Offspring and Sibling Adoption Analyses of Parental Ratings of Temperament in Infancy and Childhood,” Journal of Personality LIX (1991), 705-32; Robert Plomin and Denise Daniels, “Why Are Children in the Same Family So Different from One Another?” Behavioral and Brain Sciences X (1987), 1-60; Sandra Scarr and Susan Grajek, “Similarities and Differences among Siblings,” in Sibling Relationships: Their Nature and Nurture Across the Lifespan, ed. Michael E. Lamb and Brian Sutton-Smith (Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, 1982), 357-81.
3. Stillman Drake, Galileo Studies (Ann Arbor, MI: U Michigan P, 1970), 43-62.
4. Cf. Sulloway, 151: “Large sibships reinforce the firstborn’s duties as a surrogate parent. Parenting responsibilities increase the likelihood that eldest sisters will become mother-identified, and hence conforming to parental authority.”
5. Fritz Oehlschlaeger, Love and Good Reasons (Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2003), 95. Subsequent citation will be parenthetical.
Austen, Jane. The Novels of Jane Austen. Ed. R. W. Chapman. 3rd ed. Oxford: OUP, 1933.
Drake, Stillman. Galileo Studies. Ann Arbor, MI: Michigan, 1970.
Oehlschlaeger, Fritz. Love and Good Reasons. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2003.
Sulloway, Frank J. Born to Rebel: Birth Order, Family Dynamics, and Creative Lives. New York: Pantheon, 1996.