Persuasions #11, 1989 Page 125-131
Remains of the Earliest Attachment":
GLENDA A. HUDSON
presentation of sibling loyalty, sibling rivalry, and the incestuous unions with
which some of the novels end reveal her concern with preserving the sacred
inviolability of the home in a time of upheaval and social change.
Several of the works conclude with relationships that can he called
incestuous in that they are kept within the family, with dangerous outsiders
expunged or excluded, and marriages taking place between in-laws and first
cousins – that is, within the family circle.
These marriages are meant to protect the home and the family residing in
it. There is no suggestion in
Austen’s novels that the pool of eligible spouses be expanded or broadened.
Hers was a conservative temperament.
While Gothic novelists and Romantic poets use incest for the purpose of
titillation or rebellion, Austen seems to view marriages between adopted
siblings, in-laws, and first cousins as salutary and promotes them as a means of
fortifying the family.1
However, it is worth noting that Austen approves of incestuous unions
only when such marriages unite individuals of strong moral character and like
of Austen’s novels and some of the juvenilia are about brothers and
sisters, both exemplary and worthless siblings.
Indeed, Austen makes a direct assertion, remarkable in its candour, about
the quality of fraternal as opposed to conjugal love in her fourth novel, Mansfield
of the same family, the same blood, with the same first associations and habits,
have some means of enjoyment in their power, which no subsequent connections can
supply; and it must be by a long and unnatural estrangement, by a divorce which
no subsequent connection can justify, if such precious remains of the earliest
attachment are ever outlived.” (MP,
of Austen’s novels emphasizes the significance of sibling bonds; relationships
between brothers and sisters are shown to be as important as marital ties and,
perhaps, more important. To be
sure, the central relationship in each novel is that between the hero and
heroine. But in three of the six
novels, the leading couple possess family ties and treat each other throughout
most of the novel more like cosanguineous siblings than lovers.
Fraternal rather than sexual love is stressed in Austen’s fiction, and,
in many regards, the romantic scenes are domestic scenes.
Austen omits details of lovers’ tender encounters, usually providing a
brief summary of the couple’s declarations of love and agreement to marry.
But in scenes describing the love of siblings, she provides direct access
to the rapturous thoughts and feelings of the characters.
Moreover, Austen demonstrates repeatedly that the moral and intellectual
educative interplay between siblings defines their progress as individuals,
especially during their formative years as children and adolescents.
In the late
eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, sibling relationships were often
stronger, more lasting, and more insulated than those in later eras.
People travelled less, houses were smaller with fewer rooms, and family
members often lived in close proximity during a greater portion of their lives.
Intense bonds between brothers and sisters existed, which were not merely
biological or legal contracts but powerful and developing ties siblings were
expected to honour and cherish throughout their lives, and Austen documents this
in her novels.4
However, as she points out in Mansfield Park, the love between
siblings, “sometimes almost every thing, is at others, worse than nothing” (MP,
244). Brothers of Austen’s class
often competed for money and property, as Francis and Charles Austen did in the
navy. And sisters were sometimes
bitter rivals for suitors. In every
Austen novel, vicious sibling rivalry materializes, disrupting familial and
social circles, even creating scandal.
counterbalance, Austen’s works portray loyalty and affection between brothers
and sisters as crucial to the advancement and protection of the family.
In fact. there is a centripetal movement in most of Austen’s novels,
emphasizing her protectiveness vis-à-vis corruptive outside influences, a
tightening of familial ties in an attempt to maintain traditional values in a
rapidly changing fin de siècle world.
Rivalrous sibling relationships distort the natural order of the family
and impair the siblings’ ability to fulfill their appropriate roles in
society. Conflicts between brothers
and sisters are regarded as dangerous by Austen since they threaten the order of
family life, which she sees as analogous to the stability and harmony of
society. The final synthesis toward
which Austen moves in her presentation of siblings emerges from a recognition of
the positive and negative forces at work within such relationships.
structural device in the novels is the quest to promote, secure, or engender
sibling ties. Moreover, the fates of siblings are often connected.
For example, in Pride and Prejudice the relationships between Jane
and Bingley and Elizabeth and Darcy dovetail, and the novel ends with a double
marriage. Sense and Sensibility
also ends with a double marriage, and Marianne’s husband closely resembles
Elinor in attitude and temperament. Even
more important for Austen is the idea that conjugal love should be patterned
after fraternal love, that the perfect marriage should be like the ideal sibling
relationship with its mutual trust and understanding, love and esteem, respect
and loyalty. Moreover, she often
seems to suggest that the partners should not only come from the same class but
also, if possible, from the same family.
sibling relationships dictate the dramatic structure of Austen’s works, so too
the structure subtly reveals Austen’s attitude toward the importance of
brotherly and sisterly relationships and her vision of the role of the family in
society. In Pride and Prejudice,
Elizabeth and Jane end up living in neighbouring shires.
In Sense and Sensibility, Elinor and Marianne settle within sight
of one another on the same estate. In Northanger Abbey, Catherine marries
Henry Tilney and builds a strong relationship with his sister.
It is possible that two brothers will marry two sisters at the conclusion
of Mansfield Park; Fanny marries Edmund, and the reformed brother Tom
seems likely to marry Fanny’s sister, Susan.
In Emma, two brothers, George and John Knightley, marry two
sisters, Emma and Isabella. Persuasion is the exception to this rule, as to many
others; Anne and Wentworth go outside the family to form fraternal ties in the
“brotherhood” of the navy. In
every case, the novels conclude with the promise of a domestic circle which
supports and defends the sanctity of home.
on Austen’s presentation of siblings, it is possible to read her novels in a
new way, and to see her, in them, reaching for a suitable means by which to
express her vision of an ideal society. If
her stories sometimes resemble fairy tales, this may be one reason why. And yet, Austen’s works are by no means the products merely
of fancy. Without exception, she
grounded them in the reality she knew and the practical wisdom she understood so
well. Her moral vision must enter
into our examination; for, above all, Austen’s fiction asserts that
relationships, sibling as well as romantic, should he taken seriously.
view of the centrality of the family is inextricably bound up with a social view
that endorses the stability and virtue of traditional culture and the defense of
Her belief in the primacy of the home and family in preserving social
order anticipates the attitudes of Dickens, Gaskell, Trollope, and other
nineteenth-century writers. But
more than any of her successors or predecessors, Austen invests great value in
the bonds of sisterhood. Pairs of
sisters – Elizabeth and Jane Bennet, Elinor and Marianne Dashwood, Catherine
Morland and her sister-in-law Eleanor Tilney, Emma and Elizabeth Watson, and
Fanny and Susan Price – form close enclaves conducive to their development as
individuals. The strengthening of
the bonds of sisterhood creates an exclusive, enclosed circle; family ties are
drawn tighter, and the home is invigorated.
At the end of four of the six novels, the sororal unit remains strongly
intact, even when the sisters marry. Sororal
loyalty and affection are seen as important for the advancement and vitality of
the family and therefore of society, whereas conflict and hostility in the
family create evil and disorder. Antagonism
and rivalry between sisters – the younger Bennets, Nancy and
Lucy Steele, Penelope and Margaret Watson, Maria and Julia Bertram, and
Elizabeth, Anne and Mary Elliot – threaten family coherence and integrity. Austen treats divisions between sisters as catastrophic,
since these disunions destroy the harmony of family life, which is analogous to
the stability and peace of society.
The intimate ties of sisters in the late
eighteenth and nineteenth centuries engendered what Carroll Smith-Rosenberg has
termed “a female world of love and ritual.”6
Indeed, although her essay concerns women in nineteenth-century America,
Smith-Rosenberg’s descriptions are thought to be generally applicable to
female relationships in Britain.7
Living in close confinement at home, sisters played a central role in
each other’s emotional lives.
At a time when there were social restrictions on the intimacy between
unmarried men and women, the supportive network of the female world was the
nucleus of the family. Ties
between sisters formed the underlying structures around which groups of female
friends and relatives clustered.
All of Austen’s novels conclude with a wedding;
the heroine marries the hero, and they embark on life together.
However, in many of the novels, the heroine forms an equally significant
bond with a sister or future sister-in-law.
That is to say, those sisters with strong sororal bonds – Elizabeth and
Jane, Elinior and Marianne, Catherine and Eleanor, Fanny and Susan – owe their
moral, social and emotional education to their sisters in some ways even more
than to their suitors or husbands.
The crucial stage in the lives of these sisters is that of the initiation
or apprenticeship to adulthood.
All of Austen’s novels follow the pattern of the Bildungsroman,
and sisters often play a significant part in each other’s spiritual and moral
development – Elizabeth educates Jane, Elinor guides Marianne, Eleanor helps
to shape Catherine’s mind, and Fanny refines Susan’s understanding.
The suitor contributes to the teaching of the heroine, but his
instruction is always supplemented by the education a sister provides.
In short, the ties of marriage in Pride and Prejudice, Sense
and Sensibility, and Northanger Abbey are inextricably bound up with
the ties between sisters.
major structural device in the novels is the endeavour to strengthen, retain, or
create sibling ties.
fates of siblings frequently dovetail, and the pursuit of sisterhood is often
linked with the pursuit of marriage.8
In many respects, the model marriages in Austen’s novels – Elizabeth
and Darcy, Jane and Bingley, Elinor and Edward, Catherine
and Henry, Fanny and Edmund, Emma and Mr. Knightley, Anne and Wentworth –
mirror the model sister relationships – Elizabeth and Jane, Elinor and
Marianne, Catherine and Eleanor, Fanny and Susan – in their mutual trust and
understanding and their sharing of the same views and assumptions.
and Prejudice, Jane and Elizabeth are devoted sisters despite their
differences in nature and temperament. Elizabeth
is lively, witty, and quick to form judgments and to criticize, whereas Jane is
quiet, modest, reticent, and unwilling to criticize anybody. Austen counterpoints the two sisters in order to reflect on
the different approaches to life they represent.9
Elizabeth and Jane have few secrets from one another, and, in times of
trouble, they turn with trust and affection to each other.
When Elizabeth is mortified by Charlotte’s engagement to Mr. Collins,
she turns with fond regard to her sister, “of whose rectitude and delicacy she
was sure her opinion could never he shaken” (PP, 168).
Austen draws our attention to the loyalty and mutual exchange between
complementary sisters; they benefit from each other’s contrasting attributes
and responses to situations. This
reciprocity contributes to the sisters’ success in their apprenticeship to
life. As they mature, they discover
the usefulness and value of each other’s point of view and course of action.
But such strong bonds in Austen’s novels are limited to two sisters
even in a large family such as the Bennets.
The sororal bond, which aids and improves Elizabeth and Jane, does not
prevent Lydia from being vulgar, or stop silly, conceited Kitty from following
her sister’s lead in all things; nor does the bond help turn Mary into a
sensible, sensitive individual. Powerful
sibling solidarity is restricted to two sisters because a close sororal bond is
similar in many ways to a good marriage in Austen’s works.
Love has been built up over a long period of time between the two
sisters, as it has in the ideal marriage. In
Austen’s opinion, the best married relationships are like model sibling
relationships: such relationships share the same warmth, honesty, loyalty,
intelligence, and intuitive understanding, the same goals and values within the
family circle. Given these
predilections, we begin to understand the nature of the approved marriages in
Austen’s fiction. In Pride and
Prejudice as in Sense and Sensibility, Emma, and Mansfield
Park, we almost have the sense that brother is marrying sister – that the
unions are incestuous.
ideal sister, like the ideal husband in Austen’s works, is a caretaker and a
teacher figure. In Pride and Prejudice, normal roles are reversed: the
younger sister educates and aids the elder.
However, the process of education works both ways.
While Elizabeth instructs Jane in right reason and good sense, Jane
teaches Elizabeth the virtues of modesty, tolerance, and tact.
Elizabeth regards her sister as more noble and kindhearted than herself,
but sometimes she becomes incredulous at and even exasperated by Jane’s naïveté
and undiscriminating goodness, her inability to see a fault in anyone.
Elizabeth, “with more quickness of observation and less pliancy of
temper than her sister” (PP, 62-63), remarks that Jane is “too good.
Your sweetness and disinterestedness are really angelic; I do not know
what to say to you…. You
wish to think all the world respectable” (PP, 173).
Elizabeth helps to make her gullible sister wiser and improves her
observation of others; that is to say, she acts like a parent.
Moreover, Elizabeth becomes aware of her own deficiencies – in
particular, her social and emotional prejudice – as she watches her sister.
She discovers the value of Jane’s “excellent understanding and super
excellent disposition” (PP, 348).
exerts herself in loco parentis on her sister’s behalf to help rescue
Jane’s relationship with Bingley by means of her own relationship with Darcy.
In other words, the sororal relationship between Elizabeth and Jane
affects the dramatic structure of the novel.
The vicissitudes in the relationship of Bingley and Jane reflect those in
the relationship of Elizabeth and Darcy. Elizabeth
rejects Darcy because of the unhappiness he has caused Jane and out of her
thirst for revenge: “Had not my feelings decided against you, had they been
indifferent, or had they even been favourable, do you think that any
consideration would tempt me to accept the man, who has been the means of
ruining, perhaps forever, the happiness of a most beloved sister?” (PP,
190). Only when Darcy approves of
Bingley’s match with Jane does Elizabeth agree to marry him.
Jane’s contentment is as important to Elizabeth as her own.
And likewise Jane also requires her sister’s happiness.
When Darcy proposes a second time and Elizabeth accepts him, Jane tells
her sister, “Now I am quite happy … for you will be as happy as myself” (PP,
382). The sister is as important as
the lover; indeed, she is even more
valued than the lover on occasions. It
is clear that Jane and Elizabeth will continue to be as much married to each
other as to their husbands. They
have been close as children and young women; their early attachment, common
mythology, and shared experience of learning means that they have ties which not
even a conjugal relationship can provide. Their
bonds are twofold: blood ties as well as the spiritual ties of initiates who
have gone through rites of passage together.
Such a relationship, Austen suggests, will not jeopardize the marriages,
but will, on the contrary, strengthen them.
This very notion is anticipated during the engagement of Jane and Bingley.
In the absence of Jane, Bingley always attaches himself to Elizabeth; and
when Bingley is gone, Jane seeks the same means of support.
The brother-in-law becomes a surrogate brother or husband: this tie
augments the family circle.
reinforces his worth in Elizabeth’s opinion by his acceptance of Jane and also
by his behaviour and actions on behalf of two other sisters – Elizabeth’s
younger sister Lydia and his own sister Georgiana.
Elizabeth is overwhelmed by Darcy’s goodness to Lydia even in the face
of opposition from his formidable aunt Lady Catherine de Bourgh:
“he was the person, to whom the whole family was indebted for the first
of benefits, and whom she regarded herself with an interest, if not quite so
tender, at least as reasonable and just, as what Jane felt for Bingley” (PP,
345). Darcy becomes an even better
prospect as a husband when he demonstrates his excellence as a brother to
Georgiana, for whom “there was nothing he would not do” (PP, 277) –
including rescuing her from scheming, seductive Wickham.
In Austen’s vision of society, the heroine must choose a husband who
will contribute to and protect the honour and stability of the family.
Like Colonel Brandon, Edward Ferrars, Edmund Bertram, Henry Tilney, and
Mr. Knightley, Darcy is an ideal brother and, therefore, should make an ideal
the agency of her marriage to Darcy, Elizabeth is able to maintain her
“marriage” to her sister Jane and also to mould and enlighten a new sister.
Elizabeth forges ties with Georgiana, who moves in with her brother and
sister-in-law at Pemberley, having formed “the highest opinion in the world of
Elizabeth.” Elizabeth begins to
instruct her young sister-in-law, whose “mind received knowledge which had
never before fallen in her way” (PP, 395). Elizabeth educates Georgiana in the art of discrimination;
she teaches her sister-in-law to be more sensible, more observant, and less in
awe of her brother. Elizabeth must
teach her husband to laugh, and, clearly, she must do the same for her sheltered
sister-in-law. By Elizabeth’s
instructions, the naïve Georgiana, who almost eloped with the perfidious
Wickham, learns what a satisfactory marital relationship is.
Given these circumstances, we begin to see that her marriage to Darcy
does not compromise or limit Elizabeth’s sisterly relationships.
In marrying Darcy, Elizabeth extends her sororal ties; she is able to
cherish and influence Jane, Georgiana, and her younger sisters from a far more
advantageous, powerful position as “mistress at Pemberley” (PP, 245). This arrangement, by which all members profit intellectually
and emotionally, as well as socially, is Austen’s vision of an ideal family,
the microcosm of a model for an ideal society.
the conclusion of Pride and Prejudice, Jane and Elizabeth, “in addition
to every other source of happiness, were within thirty miles of each other” (PP,
393). One critic claims that
“such an understatement provides … [a] sign of the narrator’s discomfort
at making sisterhood figure centrally in the story’s end.”10
On the contrary, the stability and peace between the sisters is part of
the resolution. Far from revealing
discomfort at making sisterhood a major part of the conclusion, Austen
emphasizes the significance of the close-knit, protective family circle.
The unified family circle of sisters, Jane, Elizabeth, and Georgiana, and
the two “brothers,” Darcy and Bingley, close friends who are now
brothers-in-law, creates a tightening of family ties. The conclusion is optimistic beyond the satisfactory marriage
of the heroine in that it implies that the bonds between the sisters will
continue to grow and intensify even after their marriages.
subject of incest in Austen’s fiction has engaged very few critics.
Those who do pay attention to it see the incestuous marriages as static
and debilitating in direct contrast to my own argument.
See R. F. Brissenden, “Mansfield Park: Freedom and the family”
in Jane Austen: Bicentenary Essays, ed. John Halperin (Cambridge: Harvard
University Press, 1975), pp. 156-71; Julia Prewitt Brown, Jane Austen’s
Novels: Social Change and Literary Form (Cambridge: Harvard University
Press, 1979), p. 99: and Johanna H. Smith, “ ‘My Only Sister Now’: Incest
in Mansfield Park,” Studies in the Novel, Vol. 19, Spring 1987,
pp. 1-15. See also James B.
Twitchell, Forbidden Partners: The Incest Taboo in Modern Culture (New
York: Columbia University Press, 1987), pp. 77-126 on incest in Romantic poetry.
this reason, Austen does not allow Darcy to marry Lady Catherine de Bourgh’s
daughter, Elizabeth Bennet to marry her distant cousin Mr. Collins, or Anne
Elliot to marry Mr. Elliot.
All references to Jane Austen’s works are to The
Novels of Jane Austen, ed. R. W. Chapman, 5 vols., 3rd ed. (London: Oxford
University Press, 1932-34).
For an authoritative analysis of sibling relationships,
see Lawrence Stone, The Family, Sex, and Marriage in England 1500-1800
(New York: Harper and Row, 1977). See
also Randolph Trumbach, The Rise of the Egalitarian Family (New York:
Academic Press, 1978).>
On this subject, see Alistair Duckworth, The
Improvement of the Estate: A Study of Jane Austen’s Novels (Baltimore:
Johns Hopkins University Press, 1971).
6 Carroll Smith-Rosenberg, “The Female World of Love and Ritual: Relationships between
Women in Nineteenth century America,” Signs 1, no. 1 (1975): pp. 1-29.
Much of what I say in this paragraph is indebted to Smith-Rosenberg’s
discussion of the ties between sisters.
8 Susan Sniader Lanser points out that Austen creates
double plots in the early novels, generating marriages for the women that
preserve their sisterhood. See “
‘No Connections Subsequent’: Jane Austen’s World of Sisterhood,” in The
Sister Bond, ed. Toni A. H. McNaron (New York: Pergamon, Athene Series,
1985), p. 54. Also on the subject
of sisterhood, Nina Auerbach comments on the “purgatorial existence” female
relatives lead in Austen’s fiction, an argument in sharp contrast to my own.
See Communities of Women: An Idea in Fiction (Cambridge, MA:
Harvard University Press, 1978), p. 47.
See Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar on the pairings of
quiet and lively sisters in Austen’s novels in The Madwoman in the Attic
(New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979), p. 162.
Lanser, p. 57.