PERSUASIONS ON-LINE V.30, NO.1 (Winter 2009)

“You Must be a Great Comfort to Your Sister, Sir”: Why Good Brothers Make Good Husbands



Deborah J. Knuth Klenck


Deborah J. Knuth Klenck (email: has been a member of JASNA almost from the beginning.  Professor of English at Colgate University, she teaches seminars on Jane Austen and on Samuel Johnson, among other subjects, and directs the Honors Program in English.  She has published articles on Austen in Persuasions and elsewhere.


Though it is a truth pretty much universally acknowledged that Jane Austen avoided writing scenes between men without a female presence,1 the obverse is less often noted:  there are some men in Austen’s novels who just don’t know how to talk to a woman.  Consider Charles Musgrove ceding to Captain Wentworth the responsibility to escort the fainting Anne Elliot home, because he has to catch a “‘sight of a capital gun,’” or—worse—the boorish John Thorpe, discussing his horse in a one-sided, early-nineteenth-century-locker-room conversation with Catherine Morland:  “‘Such true blood! . . . look at his forehand; look at his loins’” (P 240, NA 46).  Of course it is obvious that John Thorpe has never been a real companion for any of his sisters; he proudly announces, not once, but twice, “‘I did not come to Bath to drive my sisters about’” (48, 99), and he categorically refuses to be seen with his sister Anne “‘because she ha[s] such thick ancles’” (117).2


But such a crude “rattle” is only one sort of brother who is not “conversable,” to borrow Mr. Knightley’s description of Harriet Smith (E 331).  A man needs to know how to talk to women in general, rather than to just one woman.  In Sense and Sensibility, during the early stages of what the Dashwood family assumes is Mr. Willoughby’s courtship of Marianne, Austen shows Willoughby to be an ideal conversationalist when he’s talking to Marianne, comparing (identical) notes about poetry, social conventions, and gossip about the neighbors, especially Colonel Brandon.  But when Elinor considers the general poverty of discourse in her new circle in Devonshire, she draws a fine distinction between Willoughby’s conversation and that same Colonel Brandon’s:

In Colonel Brandon alone, of all her new acquaintance, did Elinor find a person who could in any degree claim the respect of abilities, excite the interest of friendship, or give pleasure as a companion.  Willoughby was out of the question.  Her admiration and regard, even her sisterly regard, was all his own; but he was a lover; his attentions were wholly Marianne’s, and a far less agreeable man might have been more generally pleasing.  (55, my italics)

While a man does not require the experience of caring for a sister to become himself a “pleasing” “companion” for a woman, the two often go together.  Colonel Brandon’s tragically doomed love for his foster-sister Eliza has given him sympathy with Marianne, as he confides in Elinor:  “‘I once knew a lady who in temper and mind greatly resembled your sister’” (57).3

Men like Colonel Brandon can offer women genuine companionship in part because they are able to speak to young women in their own language, whether the topic is books, letter-writing, children, health, friendship, courtship—or clothing.  My title quotation shows how easily Henry Tilney can charm the vacuous Mrs. Allen by discussing the price and washability of muslin—he is “‘afraid it will fray’” (NA 28)—and Mrs. Allen’s reply suggests the source of Henry’s capacity for such “girl talk”:  his relationship with his sister Eleanor.  Throughout the novels, we can see, to adapt another phrase from Northanger Abbey, that a companionate relationship with his sister is good “training for a hero” (15).


Not only do we find in Austen’s earliest novel a clergyman conversant in the language of feminine textiles; her last work features a naval officer with the same sort of knowledge.  On his first visit to the Musgroves, Captain Wentworth moves from discussing the unpromising topic of young Dick Musgrove’s death at sea, to a chronology of his own career, as the Musgrove girls eagerly scan the navy-list.

“Your first [ship] was the Asp, I remember; we will look for the Asp.”

“You will not find her there.—Quite worn out and broken up.  I was the last man who commanded her.—Hardly fit for service then. . . .”

“But, Captain Wentworth,” cried Louisa, “how vexed you must have been when you came to the Asp, to see what an old thing they had given you.”

I knew pretty well what she was, before that day;” said he, smiling.  “I had no more discoveries to make, than you would have as to the fashion and strength of any old pelisse, which you had seen lent about among half your acquaintance, ever since you could remember, and which at last, on some very wet day, is lent to yourself.”  (P 64-65)

A threadbare woman’s cloak is an unexpected metaphor for a veteran sloop, but Captain Wentworth chooses his image to explain the situation in terms best suited to his female audience, even as Henry Tilney has learned from his sister to make small-talk about muslin.

Small talk, of course, can often be pretty significant talk, within the narrow conventions of courtship. Charlotte Lucas has a point when she says that “‘four evenings . . . spent together . . . may do a great deal’” (PP 22).  Charlotte refers to Jane and Bingley of course, and Elizabeth at this point disagrees with her, but in the case of Darcy and Elizabeth, commonplace conversations do “‘do a great deal.’”  To take an example of their chat on an approved, bland topic, Darcy asks Elizabeth, “‘What think you of books?’” (93).  Though just then she replies that she “‘cannot talk of books in a ball-room,’” books are hardly incidental to Darcy and Elizabeth’s courtship conversations.  Raised by her father as a serious reader, Elizabeth contrasts neatly with Miss Bingley, who mocks her for the habit, and who takes up a book herself only because it is the second volume of the one Darcy is reading (37, 55).  Darcy works praise of Elizabeth’s reading even into a conversation that Miss Bingley has designed to prove that Elizabeth is not “‘an accomplished woman’” (39).  “‘[N]o one can be really esteemed accomplished, who does not greatly surpass what is usually met with.  A woman must have a thorough knowledge of music, singing, drawing, dancing, and the modern languages’” as minimum requirements for true accomplishment, lists Miss Bingley.  But Darcy replies, “‘All this she must possess . . . and to all this she must yet add something more substantial, in the improvement of her mind by extensive reading’” (39, my italics).

For some young women, a brother’s instruction lays the foundation for a lifetime of meaningful reading.  Darcy is “‘always buying books’” for the long-established library at Pemberley and may take as great an interest in his sister’s reading as he does in her practice at the piano forte (38, 173).  Henry Tilney reads The Mysteries of Udolpho aloud to his sister, and he has also cultivated her taste for more serious texts:  Henry challenges, in a very brotherly way, Catherine’s claim that reading history is a form of “‘torment’” (107, 109).  When Henry takes issue with Catherine’s unconsidered use of such clichés as “‘amazingly’” or “‘nice,’” Eleanor jokes that Henry is treating Catherine as he has always treated her:  “‘He is for ever finding fault with me, for some incorrectness of language’” (107).4

Brothers who have been their sisters’ teachers—or, as Henry Tilney might put it, in mock deference to Catherine, their “tormentors”—demonstrate sympathy with women, and of course do their share of teaching during courtship.  Mr. Knightley, who claims that “‘Isabella does not seem more my sister’” than Emma, has been watching over Emma’s reading—or her idleness—since she was twelve:  “‘I have seen a great many lists of her drawing up at various times of books that she meant to read regularly through—and very good lists they were. . . . The list she drew up when only fourteen—I remember thinking it did her judgment so much credit, that I preserved it some time’” (40, 37).  Edmund Bertram, again not quite Fanny’s brother, but close to it,5 has “formed [Fanny’s] mind” and “‘admire[s] [her] little establishment exceedingly’” as she surrounds herself with books (MP 64, 156).  Like Henry Tilney, Edmund “recommended the books which charmed [Fanny’s] leisure hours, he encouraged her taste, and corrected her judgment; he made reading useful by talking to her of what she read, and heightened its attraction by judicious praise” (22).  During the often crass discussion of Mr. Rushworth’s plan for “improvements” to Sotherton, Edmund and Fanny alone can consider the ruthless plans for wholesale destruction of the landscape in the context of quotations from Cowper.  And, owing to Edmund’s training, even when exiled to Portsmouth, Fanny has one intellectual outlet—the circulating library (56, 398).  (Alas, I cannot detect that Edmund’s understanding of Fanny and her feelings can be attributed to any lessons in sensitivity imparted by his real sisters Maria or Julia.)

Another approved topic for discussion is letters, which remain important in the six finished texts, even as they formed first drafts of Austen’s earliest novels.  Although “‘[e]very body allows that the talent of writing agreeable letters is peculiarly female,’” according to Henry Tilney in his most ironic mode, the thoughtfulness—or carelessness—of brothers’ letters to their sisters reflects how those men value women (27).  Mr. Darcy will not agree that his letters to Georgiana are “‘charming,’” but concedes that they are “‘generally long’” (48).  Nine-year-old Fanny’s first bond with Edmund is formed over her despair about writing a letter to William, when Edmund “prepared her paper, and ruled her lines with all the good will that her brother could himself have felt” (16).  In Mansfield Park, conversations about letters help readers to comprehend the hearts of the letter-writers—and the hearts of the speakers.  Mary Crawford’s jocular speech about her brother’s correspondence is, as Fanny judges, a clear condemnation of Henry:

What strange creatures brothers are! . . . Henry, who is in every other respect exactly what a brother should be, who loves me, consults me, confides in me, and will talk to me by the hour together, has never yet turned the page in a letter.”  (59)

The ordinarily shy Fanny actually “colour[s]” with indignation, “for William’s sake,” at this remark, and of course actual letters finally damn both Crawfords in Edmund’s, Fanny’s, and the reader’s opinion. It is almost impossible to believe that Mary records on paper her hope that Tom Bertram will die—adding a joking promise to Fanny that she “‘never bribed a physician in [her] life’” to hasten the process (434)—but this error of judgment is compounded by her attitude about Henry and Maria’s adulterous elopement:  that it is, as she writes to Fanny, merely “‘a moment’s etourderie,’” clear evidence that Mary’s is a “‘corrupted mind’” (437, 225).6



Though books and letters are the legitimate business of both men and women in Austen’s world, the spheres of conversation often separate in certain other matters, like the management of children (and servants) and concern for family health.  With the obvious exception of Mr. Woodhouse, the activities Mr. John Knightley dismisses as “‘doctoring and coddling’” seem to be the purview of women, especially in Emma, where health is such a frequent topic of conversation (104).7  But, again, some men are sensitive to concerns on the other side of the divide, and they show this fellow-feeling with gestures as much as with language.  Unlike Charles Musgrove, who deems a child with a broken collarbone “quite a female case” (55), Captain Wentworth, albeit silently, comes to Anne’s aid with a practical solution, when the healthy Musgrove son Walter bothers his aunt while she nurses his injured brother Charles:  Walter

began to fasten himself upon [Anne], as she knelt, in such a way that, busy as she was about Charles, she could not shake him off. . . .

In another moment, however, she found herself in the state of being released from him; some one was taking him from her, though he had bent down her head so much, that his little sturdy hands were unfastened from around her neck, and he was resolutely borne away, before she knew that Captain Wentworth had done it.  (80)

Another nearly silent effort is Captain Wentworth’s thoughtful whisper to his sister during a fatiguing walk:  “‘Miss Elliot, I am sure you are tired,’ cried Mrs. Croft. . . . Captain Wentworth, without saying a word, turned to [Anne], and quietly obliged her to be assisted into the carriage” (91).

Mr. Darcy, his sister’s guardian, not only “speak[s] . . . affectionately of” her, but engages seriously in even such a trivial question as Miss Bingley’s:  “‘Is Miss Darcy much grown since the spring? . . . will she be as tall as I am?’”  He replies, “‘I think she will.  She is now about Miss Elizabeth Bennet’s height, or rather taller’” (208, 38).  This little domestic exchange may remind us of another conversation about children’s height, in Sense and Sensibility.  There, Lucy Steele uses the topic to ingratiate herself simultaneously with Mrs. Ferrars, Mrs. John Dashwood, and Lady Middleton, during an absurd debate about “the comparative heights of Harry Dashwood, and Lady Middleton’s second son William.”  Austen sarcastically observes, “Had both the children been there, the affair might have been determined too easily” (233-34).8  Of course, Miss Bingley’s flirtatious invitation to Mr. Darcy to compare his absent sister’s height with her own falls rather flat when he chooses instead Elizabeth as his standard of measure.  But a more typical brother might simply have shrugged his shoulders at the question, never having thought about the matter.

Edmund Bertram’s concern for the health of his “‘dear little Fanny’” begins in her childhood, when he alone notices her crying on the attic stairs (15).  As Fanny grows up into a delicate young woman, abused by her Aunt Norris, and inadequately cared for by either the servants or her Aunt Bertram, she can rely only on Edmund to keep her well-being in mind.  Edmund by merely “looking at [Fanny] attentively” can assert, “‘Fanny, . . . I am sure you have the headach? . . . I know your looks too well’” (71-72).  Edmund’s sensitivity is like Frederick Wentworth’s for Anne Elliot.  His insistence that “‘Fanny must have a horse’” is another example of his brotherly care of his cousin (36).9



Then there’s outright discussion of courtship.  Anti-Janeites often dismiss the novels as mere collections of tea-table talk about marriage and money—“chick-lit” topics.  And if only female characters concerned themselves with such matters, such “critics” might have a point.  But the best brothers—and husbands—take decisions about marriage as seriously as women do, perhaps crossing the line into “female” concerns, discussing friendship and love in a sort of discourse that sounds a lot like gossip.

Mr. Knightley’s propensity to discuss Emma with Mrs. Weston shows that even a busy, common-sensical man, a justice-of-the-peace, an active landlord, and a working farmer, has time to talk about such matters.  In an early conversation, Mr. Knightley is concerned about Emma’s new friendship:  “‘I do not know what your opinion may be, Mrs. Weston . . . of this great intimacy between Emma and Harriet Smith, but I think it a bad thing. . . . I think [Harriet] the very worst sort of companion that Emma could possibly have. . . . How can Emma imagine she has any thing to learn herself, while Harriet is presenting such a delightful inferiority?’” (36, 38).  Henry Tilney knows the sentimental views of women’s friendships well enough to parody them, as he can parody Gothic novels, trite conversations at Bath, and other fads.  But Henry, too, is concerned about his sister Eleanor’s lack of female companionship, “uncomfortably circumstanced” and left alone as she often is with the blustering General.  As he drives Catherine to Northanger, Henry thanks her for visiting Eleanor, ranking their relationship as “real friendship . . . creating real gratitude” (157).  (Henry seems, incidentally, not to care that Catherine has nothing to teach Eleanor.)  Mr. Darcy has tried to select Georgiana’s companion Mrs. Younge with care, but is deceived, of course.  Evidence that Elizabeth’s speech at Hunsford has worked a change in Darcy is his eagerness for Georgiana and Elizabeth to become friends (269).

Some brothers demonstrate what might be considered a feminine acuteness to minute matters of courtship.  Mr. Knightley reflects (somewhat melodramatically) to Mrs. Weston about Emma’s future:  “‘I wonder what will become of her! . . . She always declares she will never marry, which, of course, means just nothing at all’” (40-41).  Even the anti-social Mr. John Knightley detects “with some slyness” from a single conversation in the lane that Mr. Elton views himself as Emma’s invited suitor.  He advises Emma on this subject as if he were her governess, rather than her brother-in-law.  But Emma protests,


Mr. Elton in love with me!—What an idea!”

. . . [Y]ou will do well to consider whether it is so or not, and to regulate your behaviour accordingly.  I think your manners to him encouraging.”  (112)

Though Emma begins vaguely to detect something inappropriate in Mr. Elton’s manner at the Westons’ party that evening, and to ask herself, “‘Can it really be as my brother imagined?’” it is only after Mr. Elton has delivered his humiliating proposal in full during the carriage-ride home that Emma admits, “There was no denying that those [Knightley] brothers had penetration” (118, 135).10

While Mr. Knightley deplores Emma’s hobby of matchmaking, he is himself quite interested in the courtship process, assessing (accurately) that Mr. Elton, whom Emma designs as Harriet Smith’s future husband, is “‘not at all likely to make an imprudent match.’”  In fact, Mr. Knightley relays to Emma the kind of information she cannot be privy to (any more than Jane Austen could have been), when he assures Emma, even using the overwrought cliché “throw himself away,” “‘Depend upon it, Elton will not do. . . . [F]rom his general way of talking in unreserved moments, when there are only men present, I am convinced that he does not mean to throw himself away’” (66).  Mr. Knightley’s active involvement in Mr. Robert Martin’s marriage plans is another example of his joining in the feminine pursuit of matchmaking.

As language and gesture characterize a man who is sensitive to women’s interests, so too does the perceptive gaze.  While Mr. Knightley discusses Emma’s marital prospects with Mrs. Weston, and Mr. Elton’s with Emma, his own future becomes a topic of gossip between Mrs. Weston and Emma.  After Mrs. Weston suggests to Emma that Mr. Knightley may be planning to marry Jane Fairfax, the idea becomes a topic of conversation among the three of them, in an intimate scene that includes blushing by both Emma and Mr. Knightley, and glances and pressings of the feet between Emma and Mrs. Weston, as well as dialogue:


I know how highly you think of Jane Fairfax,” said Emma. . . . “And yet, perhaps, you may hardly be aware yourself how highly it is.  The extent of your admiration may take you by surprize some day or other.”

Mr. Knightley was hard at work upon the lower buttons of his thick leather gaiters, and either the exertion of getting them together, or some other cause, brought the colour into his face, as he answered,

Oh! are you there?—But you are miserably behind-hand.  Mr. Cole gave me a hint of it six weeks ago.”

He stopped.—Emma felt her foot pressed by Mrs. Weston. . . .

That will never be, however, I can assure you.  Miss Fairfax, I dare say, would not have me if I were to ask her—and I am very sure I shall never ask her.”

Emma returned her friend’s pressure with interest.  (287)

The details here confirm that Mr. Knightley, the novel’s icon of manliness, is as interested in topic of marriage as the matchmaking Emma, the air-headed Harriet Smith, or any of the gossiping teachers at Mrs. Goddard’s school. 

And he can be as acute an observer as any young woman at a ball.  At a dinner with the Westons,

Mr. Knightley began to suspect [Frank Churchill] of some inclination to trifle with Jane Fairfax.  He could not understand it; but there were symptoms of intelligence between them—he thought so at least. . . . [W]hen he was again in their company, he could not help remembering what he had seen; nor could he avoid observations which . . . brought him yet stronger suspicion of there being a something of private liking, of private understanding even, between Frank Churchill and Jane.  (343-44)

Being a reasonable man, even a bit of a skeptic, Mr. Knightley says to himself that these insights might be a case of “‘Myself creating what I saw’” (quoting, as does Fanny Price, Cowper’s The Task).  Of course Mr. Knightley’s observations, in some ways as blinded as Emma’s, are not perfect; they fail to reveal to him many truths, like his jealousy of Frank Churchill.  Still, Austen records his watchfulness here with a psychological intensity worthy of Richardson.11

Mr. Darcy’s interference in Bingley’s love-life, too, comes not solely on account of Darcy’s disdain for the Bennets’ “‘want of connection’” (198), but as a result of his watching Bingley and Jane in an effort to discern their real feelings.  In his letter to Elizabeth, he writes,

I observed my friend’s behaviour attentively; and I could then perceive that his partiality for Miss Bennet was beyond what I had ever witnessed in him.  Your sister I also watched.—Her look and manners were open, cheerful and engaging as ever, but without any symptom of peculiar regard. . . . [T]he serenity of your sister’s countenance and air was such, as might have given the most acute observer, a conviction that, however amiable her temper, her heart was not likely to be easily touched.”  (197)

Mr. Darcy’s interpretation of Jane Bennet’s affect precisely matches Elizabeth’s reading of her sister’s love for Bingley, “that it was not likely to be discovered by the world in general, since Jane united with great strength of feeling, a composure of temper and a uniform cheerfulness of manner, which would guard her from . . . suspicions” (21).  In spite of Darcy’s motive for meddling in Bingley’s plans—his hope that Bingley will become his brother-in-law (as indeed he eventually will, though not by marrying Georgiana)—these close observations (he repeats them at Longbourn almost two hundred pages later) mark him as a man especially sensitive to his society’s rituals of courtship and love (270, 371).



Brothers’ experience of their sisters’ mistakes can teach another kind of sympathy.  The near-disaster of Georgiana’s elopement with Wickham is prevented by her respect for her brother, whom she was “‘unable to griev[e] and offend[ ],’” and Darcy is inclined to excuse his sister’s behavior on the grounds of her youth and her “‘affectionate heart’” (202).  Perhaps Georgiana’s error affords Darcy some understanding of the undeserving Lydia when she, very much brotherless, puts herself in Wickham’s power.  Despite Colonel Brandon’s even more dramatic double experience of seducers’ treachery, he does not blanch at the resemblance he sees between his disgraced foster-sister and Marianne Dashwood.  The Colonel genuinely understands Marianne’s plight when she has been jilted, and he decides to tell Elinor about Willoughby’s past at just the right moment to help her sister, saying, “‘[H]ad I not seriously, and from my heart believed it might be of service, might lessen her regrets, I would not have . . . trouble[d] you with [an] account of my family afflictions’” (210).

Even though the seafaring Mrs. Croft always insists that women are “‘rational creatures’” (P 70), her relationship with her brother Frederick Wentworth may also contribute to his deep concern about love—in others’ relationships as well as his own.  When he hears of the engagement of Louisa Musgrove to Captain Benwick, Frederick expresses to Anne his surprise and almost disapproval that Captain Benwick has recovered so soon from the death of his fiancée, Captain Harville’s sister:

I confess that I do think there is a disparity, too great a disparity, and in a point no less essential than mind.—I regard Louisa Musgrove as a very amiable, sweet-tempered girl, and not deficient in understanding; but Benwick is something more.  He is a clever man, a reading man—and I confess that I do consider his attaching himself to her, with some surprise. . . . Fanny Harville was a very superior creature; and his attachment to her was indeed attachment.”  (182-83)

Here, Frederick raises the topic of second attachments, a favorite issue among sentimental women, and as he does so he seems to side with the “romantic” Marianne Dashwood who “‘considers [second attachments] impossible to exist.’”  It is interesting to find this coincidence of subject between an early and a late novel.  On a first consideration of Sense and Sensibility, the reader might well assume that Elinor’s “sensible” attitude to second attachments is the one Austen endorses.  Elinor mocks Marianne’s dogma to Colonel Brandon:  “‘how she contrives [her opinion about second attachments] without reflecting on the character of her own father, who had himself two wives, I know not.’”  But Brandon’s defense of “‘the prejudices of a young mind’” as opposed to “‘general opinions’” is an interesting appreciation of what might appear simply to be Marianne’s foolish enthusiasm about the subject (56).  Certainly, in Sense and Sensibility, both Marianne Dashwood and Colonel Brandon (and Edward Ferrars as well) enter into appropriate second attachments.  But in Persuasion, Austen’s opinion of second attachments seems much less clear.  Of course, from his first appearance in the novel, Captain Wentworth is actively contemplating forming a second attachment.  He discusses with his sister his ambition to marry, both jokingly

Yes, here I am, Sophia, quite ready to make a foolish match.  Any body between fifteen and thirty may have me for asking.  A little beauty, and a few smiles, and a few compliments to the navy, and I am a lost man.”

and in earnest:

Anne Elliot was not out of his thoughts, when he more seriously described the woman he should wish to meet with.  “A strong mind, with sweetness of manner. . . . This is the woman I want. . . . I have thought on the subject more than most men.”  (62)


The plot of Persuasion could be considered as a reinterpretation of the “general opinions” on the question of second attachments.  Like Marianne Dashwood and Colonel Brandon, Anne Elliot and Frederick Wentworth do each indeed form a second attachment, but in the case of Persuasion, the principals re-attach themselves to one another, seven years after their first love.


Austen memorably praises the best relationships between brothers and sisters in Mansfield Park.  Their bond offers “unchecked, equal, fearless intercourse,” even to the tentative and fearful Fanny Price (234); Austen estimates that “even the conjugal tie is beneath the fraternal”:  “Children of the same family, the same blood, with the same first associations and habits, have some means of enjoyment in their power, which no subsequent connections can supply” (235). 

But Mansfield Park also shows us that as a brother can be groomed for marriage by his relationship with his sister, he can be spoiled for marriage as well.  Austen says that “[f]raternal love, sometimes almost every thing, is at others worse than nothing.”  And even though Henry Crawford has “moral taste enough to value” the “picture” of Fanny with her brother William (235), his treatment of Mary reveals only cold-hearted selfishness.  When their uncle Admiral Crawford takes his mistress into his London house, a suitable refuge for Mary would be Everingham, Henry’s Norfolk estate, but Mary “tried in vain to persuade her brother to settle with her at his own country-house”:  “To any thing like a permanence of abode, or limitation of society, Henry Crawford had, unluckily, a great dislike; he could not accommodate his sister in an article of such importance” (41).  Arrived with Mary at Mansfield to stay instead with their married sister Mrs. Grant, Henry shamelessly announces to his hostess his intention to flirt with the engaged Maria Bertram rather than with her sister Julia.  Perversely, Henry points out that “‘[a]n engaged woman is always more agreeable than a disengaged.  She is satisfied with herself.  Her cares are over, and she feels that she may exert all her powers of pleasing without suspicion.  All is safe with a lady engaged; no harm can be done’” (45).  Henry’s matter-of-fact statement of his modus operandi very early in the novel predicts his scandalous behavior in the dénouement.  Nevertheless, his sharing such a cynical plan with Mrs. Grant is a bit of a surprise, since it borders on the kind of remark a man might make only, as Mr. Knightley specifies, “‘in unreserved moments, when there are only men present’” (E 66).

Mary’s feelings are little better.  When Mrs. Grant observes, “‘I rather wonder Julia is not in love with Henry,’” Mary replies, Austen tells us, “coldly”:  “‘I dare say she is. . . . I imagine both sisters are’” (161).  Another dialogue after Maria’s marriage damns brother and sister both.  Returned now to the even quieter neighborhood of Mansfield, Henry asks,

And how do you think I mean to amuse myself, Mary, on the days that I do not hunt?  I am grown too old to go out more than three times a week; but I have a plan for the intermediate days, and what do you think it is?”

To walk and ride with me, to be sure.”

Not exactly. . . . [T]hat would be exercise only to my body, and I must take care of my mind.  Besides that would be all recreation and indulgence, without the wholesome alloy of labour, and I do not like to eat the bread of idleness.  No, my plan is to make Fanny Price in love with me.”

Fanny Price!  Nonsense!  No, no.  You ought to be satisfied with her two cousins.”

But I cannot be satisfied without Fanny Price, without making a small hole in Fanny Price’s heart. . . . Her looks say, ‘I will not like you, I am determined not to like you,’ and I say, she shall.”  (229-30)

While he adds that this wholesome project, which he has satirically embellished with a quotation from Proverbs (31:27), can occupy him for “‘but for a fortnight,’” Mary agrees that she has “‘no scruples’” about Henry’s plan (231).  Mary tells Fanny that Henry “‘has now and then been a sad flirt, and cared very little for the havock he might be making in young ladies’ affections . . . , but it is his only fault’” (363, my italics).  When Edmund tries to talk Fanny out of rejecting Crawford’s surprising offer of marriage, he points out that Mary is “‘a sister, who thinks her brother has a right to every thing he may wish for, at the first moment.  She is hurt, as you would be for William’” (352).  But despite Edmund’s insistence, there is no analogy between the two pairs of brothers and sisters, and Austen proves Mrs. Grant’s mock-lament, “‘You are as bad as your brother, Mary’” to be literally true (47, my italics).

Joking may seem a trivial subject, but, like gossip and matchmaking, Austen makes mockery (though never “‘ridicule [of] what is wise or good’” [PP 57]) a desirable feature of a healthy social life and of a good marriage.  But where does a brother learn the gentle art of humor?  The timeless arena for teasing, even more universal than the playground, is the family circle, where sisters and brothers learn, along with many other lessons, to make fun of one another.  A well-regulated brother-sister relationship includes a license to engage in good-natured teasing.


We have seen that Henry Tilney’s capacity to banter with his sister offers her an outlet from the lectures of her stern, mercenary father, and prepares him for a marriage to Catherine that will be entertaining as well as educational.  Another hero shows himself surprisingly adept at teasing his sister-in-law-to-be:  Edward Ferrars.  When he arrives at Barton Cottage, coming straight from a visit to Lucy Steele at Longstaple, Edward is obviously “not in spirits”; Elinor is mortified by his “coldness and reserve,” later explained by Edward’s unhappiness in his secret engagement to Lucy (90, 89).  But despite his moodiness on this visit, Edward is surprisingly sprightly with Marianne, engaging in several gentle satirical attacks on her tastes:

And books!—Thomson, Cowper, Scott—[if Marianne had “a large fortune”] she would buy them all over and over again; she would buy up every copy, I believe, to prevent their falling into unworthy hands; and she would have every book that tells her how to admire an old twisted tree.  Should not you, Marianne?  Forgive me, if I am very saucy.  But I was willing to shew you that I had not forgot our old disputes.”  (92)

This animated style of talk is a direct contrast with Edward’s persistent “low spirits,” especially with Elinor, during his stay at Barton.  Returned from a solitary walk, he offers a sustained parody of Marianne’s appreciation of landscape, bookended with the repeated disclaimer, “‘I know nothing of the picturesque,’” though demonstrating just the opposite (96-97).  He concludes, “‘I do not like crooked, twisted, blasted trees.  I admire them much more if they are tall, straight and flourishing. I do not like ruined, tattered cottages.  I am not fond of nettles, or thistles, or heath blossoms’” (98).  Frank Kermode has recently criticized the speeches of Sense and Sensibility for unrealistic “bookish” language (18), and Edward’s neatly-turned Johnsonian periods in this debate about landscape-theory are probably part of his case, but for me they humanize Edward and mark him, unlike much of his other behavior, as an appropriate eventual husband for Elinor.

Despite his apparent depression throughout much of the novel, during this visit Edward even picks up on Sir John Middleton’s and Mrs. Jennings’s gossip about the recently departed Willoughby.  Putting this banter together with Marianne’s earlier definition of “‘a competence’” as an annual income that can maintain “‘[a] proper establishment of servants, a carriage, . . . and hunters,’” Edward conspiratorially whispers to Marianne, “‘I have been guessing.  Shall I tell you my guess? . . . I guess that Mr. Willoughby hunts’” (91, 100).  Edward’s familial ease with her suggests that during his earlier visit to the Dashwoods at Norland, he has engaged in lively, brotherly teasing with Marianne, perhaps as a tactic to try to prevent his falling in love with Elinor, and certainly as an antidote to his relationship with his own ambitious and grasping sister.  When Lucy Steele assures Elinor that Edward “‘looks upon’” the “‘Miss Dashwoods, quite as his own sisters’” (130), she means to be wounding her rival, but, judging from Edward’s fond relationship with Marianne, Lucy’s statement is in one sense a pure fact.  Perhaps Edward’s playfulness in these chats with Marianne gave Emma Thompson the inspiration for her screenplay’s scenes of Edward playing pirates with youngest Dashwood sister Margaret for the film version of Sense and Sensibility (1995).

Elizabeth Bennet’s “first impression”12 of Mr. Darcy suggests that he has missed out on a sense of humor.  During Jane’s illness, Elizabeth finds herself stuck in the Netherfield drawing room for the third evening in a row, watching Caroline Bingley flirt with Darcy.  Caroline jokingly challenges her,

How shall we punish [Mr. Darcy] . . . ?”

Nothing so easy, if you have but the inclination. . . . We can all plague and punish one another.  Teaze him—laugh at him.—Intimate as you are, you must know how it is to be done.”

But upon my honour I do not. . . . Teaze calmness of temper and presence of mind!  No, no—I feel he may defy us there. . . . [W]e will not expose ourselves, if you please, by attempting to laugh without a subject. . . .”

Mr. Darcy is not to be laughed at!” cried Elizabeth.  “That is an uncommon advantage, and uncommon I hope it will continue, for . . . I dearly love a laugh.”  (57)

More than three hundred pages later, Elizabeth longs to make a joke at Mr. Darcy’s, now her fiancé’s, expense, “but she checked herself.  She remembered that he had yet to learn to be laught at, and it was rather too early to begin” (371).



During one of their post-engagement conversations, Darcy admits to Elizabeth, “‘I have been a selfish being all my life. . . . [S]uch I might still have been but for you, dearest, loveliest Elizabeth! . . . You taught me a lesson, hard indeed at first, but most advantageous.’”  Darcy ascribes his deficiencies in part to his having been “‘[u]nfortunately an only son, (for many years an only child),’” suggesting that if his sister had been closer to him in age, his personality might have been different (369).

The conclusion of Pride and Prejudice discusses the brother and sister Darcys in these terms:

Pemberley was now Georgiana’s home; and the attachment of the sisters was exactly what Darcy had hoped to see. . . . Georgiana had the highest opinion in the world of Elizabeth; though at first she often listened with an astonishment bordering on alarm, at her lively, sportive, manner of talking to her brother, . . . [whom] she now saw the object of open pleasantry.  (387-88)

The pomposity of Mr. Darcy’s early claim to have made it “‘the study of [his] life to avoid those weaknesses which often expose a strong understanding to ridicule’” (57) is thus resolutely, if belatedly, brought down in almost the last paragraph of the novel, with particular reference to his relationship with his sister.

Heroes’ apprenticeships as companions to their sisters afford valuable training for their eventual role as husbands, even if, like most husbands and wives—like even Mr. Darcy—they still have much to learn.





1. Exceptions include reported conversations, as between Darcy and Wickham in Mrs. Gardiner’s letter (PP 322) or between Sir Thomas and Edmund, on the former’s return from Antigua (MP 187).  There is also the comic encounter Tom Bertram witnesses between his father and Mr. Yates, the latter in the character of the ranting Baron Wildenhaim in Lovers’ Vows (MP 182).

2. When I consider the relationships of brothers and sisters in this essay, it will be evident that I “count” brothers-in-law and would-be brothers-in-law among heroines’ brothers.  Some of Austen’s men are such good brothers that they allow themselves to be exploited.  Mr. Bingley lets his younger sister dictate much of his social life, and has permitted his elder sister and her fashionable but broke gourmand of a husband to take up almost permanent lodging with him.  (After his marriage, Austen tells us, he will do the same for his sister-in-law Lydia and her good-for-nothing husband Wickham [387].)  And even though it is common knowledge among the Dashwoods that Edward is bullied by his sister Fanny, when Marianne notices his ring with a plait of hair in the center, she casually asks, “‘Is that Fanny’s hair?  I remember her promising to give you some’” (98).  Since a lock of Marianne’s hair is such an important signifier in the novel (60, 183), this hair too seems noteworthy, and of course, this hair is really Lucy Steele’s.  But Edward must be a very devoted brother even to be assumed to treasure such a token from his controlling, hostile sister.

3. Of course I assume that Willoughby must be a (spoilt) only child.

4. In the novel in general, Henry makes a “nice” contrast with John Thorpe.  The latter not only laces his conversation with “damme” and other oaths, but he has never, apparently, read an entire novel, having left off Camilla early on, and not even knowing the name of the author of the best-selling Udolpho (49).

5. There has been much critical attention to the near-incestuous relationship between Fanny and Edmund.  See, for example, Glenda Hudson’s Sibling Love and Incest in Jane Austen’s Fiction.  While I do not engage the incest issue in this essay, it is certainly clear that Fanny’s cousin and eventual husband Edmund, at least at first, takes the place of her elder brother William, “her constant companion and friend” (15).

6. One of Captain Wentworth’s under-appreciated services to the Musgrove family has been to superintend the ill-fated Dick Musgrove’s sending home “the only two letters which his father and mother had ever received from him during the whole of his absence [at sea]; that is to say, the only two disinterested letters; all the rest had been mere applications for money” (51).

7. For the purpose of this division between the business of men and the business of women, Mr. Woodhouse “counts” as an old woman.

8. Austen’s impatience with children on visits is well known, sarcastically laid down in this same novel:  “On every formal visit a child ought to be of the party, by way of provision for discourse” (31).

9. As with so many details in Austen’s work, of course, Fanny’s horse serves another purpose.  It becomes a marker of Edmund’s temporarily clouded judgment, when he repeatedly takes Miss Crawford out riding, depriving Fanny of her necessary exercise (73-74).

10. In defense of Emma’s blindness in the matter of Mr. Elton’s attentions, we should note that Mrs. Weston and Mr. Knightley are equally unaware that Emma is Mr. Elton’s object:  perhaps surprisingly, however, Mrs. Cole has figured it out and discussed it with Miss Bates (125, 176).  Even though Mr. Knightley registers the Eltons’ “high glee” when Harriet lacks a dancing-partner at the Westons’ ball, he never guesses the full explanation for the Eltons’ being Emma’s “‘enemies’” (328, 330).

11. I am reminded of Clarissa’s description to Anna Howe, in Letter 125, of one of her many claustrophobic interviews with Lovelace:  “We are both great watchers of each other’s eyes” (460).

12. “First Impressions” was Austen’s title for the first version of Pride and Prejudice. See the facsimile of Cassandra Austen’s “Note of the Date of Composition of Her Sister’s Novels” (Minor Works, illustration facing page 242), and Austen’s letter to Cassandra Austen of Tuesday 8-Wednesday 9 January, 1799.



Works Cited


Austen, Jane.  Jane Austen’s Letters.  Ed. Deirdre Le Faye.  Oxford: OUP, 1995.

_____.  The Works of Jane Austen.  Ed. R. W. Chapman.  3rd ed.  Oxford: OUP, 1933-69.

Hudson, Glenda.  Sibling Love and Incest in Jane Austen’s Fiction.  1992.  New York: St. Martin’s P, 1999.

Kermode, Frank.  “Too Good and Too Silly.”  Rev. of The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Jane Austen,Vol. IX: Later Manuscripts, ed. Janet Todd and Linda Bree, and of Jane’s Fame by Claire Harman.  London Review of Books 30 Apr. 2009: 17-18.

Richardson, Samuel.  Clarissa.  1st ed.  1747-48.  Ed. Angus Ross.  New York: Penguin, 1985.

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