Persuasions #11, 1989                                                                                                                                                       Page 125-131

"Precious Remains of the Earliest Attachment":
Sibling Love in Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice

Department of English, California State University, Bakersfield, CA 93311-1099

Austen’s 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 sensibilities.2

All 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 Park

“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; 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, 244)3 

    Each 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.

As a 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.

A major 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.

If the 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.

By focusing 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.

Austen’s 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 moral heritage.5  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.

A major structural device in the novels is the endeavour to strengthen, retain, or create sibling ties.  The 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.

In Pride 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.

The 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).

Elizabeth 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.

Darcy 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 husband.

Through 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.

At 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. 


1 The 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.  

2 For 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. 

3 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). 

4 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).> 

5 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. 

7 A Woman’s Portion: Ideology, Culture, and the British Female Novel Tradition (New York: Garland, 1988), pp. 49-50. 

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. 

9 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. 

10 Lanser, p. 57.

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