Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Sisters in Austen — A Guest Post by Heidi

Rose, thank you so much for having me! I enjoyed working on this!

Our heroine, Jane Austen, had one dear older sister, Cassandra, about three years her senior. Here’s a quote about her friendship with that sister:

“Jane would have been full young to profit from the instruction of masters at Oxford (she can hardly have been seven years old when she went there), and it must have been more for the sake of her being with Cassandra than for any other reason that she was sent. …On the same principle, she went to school at Reading soon after the Southampton experience. 'Not,' we are told, 'because she was thought old enough to profit much by the instruction there imparted, but because she would have been miserable without her sister'; her mother, in fact, observing that 'if Cassandra were going to have her head cut off, Jane would insist on sharing her fate.' ...They were not exactly alike. Cassandra's was the colder and calmer disposition; she was always prudent and well-judging, but with less outward demonstration of feeling and less sunniness of temper than Jane possessed. It was remarked in the family that “Cassandra had the merit of having her temper always under command, but that Jane had the happiness of a temper which never required to be commanded.’” from Jane Austen, Her Life and Letters by William Austen-Leigh and Richard Arthur Austen-Leigh

Looking at her six completed and published books in the order in which they were fully finished, Jane Austen had (according to my count) seventeen sets of sisters.  

In Northanger Abbey (with its tone of thorough humor), we learn that Catherine Morland, “…with all these symptoms of profligacy at ten years old…had neither a bad heart nor a bad temper, was seldom stubborn, scarcely ever quarrelsome, and very kind to the little ones, with few interruptions of tyranny.” When Catherine is unceremoniously packed home from her visit to the Abbey, her next youngest sister displays a trait sisters can carry off with distinction—curiosity: “Sarah, indeed, still indulged in the sweets of incomprehensibility, exclaiming and conjecturing with youthful ardour… “I can allow for his wishing Catherine away when he recollected this engagement,” said Sarah; “but why not do it civilly?” And there are also the three Thorpe sisters, though the eldest, Isabella, figures most prominently in the story.

In Sense and Sensibility the sister theme comes to the forefront. There is the frozen Lady Middleton and the giggling Mrs. Palmer; the vulgar and disagreeable Miss Steeles; and of course, Elinor, Marianne, and Margaret Dashwood. And here cometh forth the influence of an older sister! First from Elinor here and then Marianne: “Do you compare your conduct with his?” “No, I compare it with what it ought to have been; I compare it with yours.” Then Marianne in a flow of self-reproach, “…you,–you above all…have been wronged by me. I, and only I, knew your heart and its sorrows; yet, to what did it influence me?—not to any compassion that could benefit you or myself.—Your example was before me: but to what avail?—Was I more considerate of you and your comfort? Did I imitate your forbearance, or lessen your restraints, by taking any part in those offices of general complaisance or particular gratitude which you had hitherto been left to discharge alone?” and then, “You are very good.—The future must be my proof. I have laid down my plan, and if I am capable of adhering to it—my feelings shall be governed and my temper improved.”

Of course, Pride and Prejudice (along with S&S) is probably the first book to come to mind when talking of Austen, confidantes, and sisters. Besides the presence of all five Bennet sisters—the love, loyalty, and steadiness of Jane and Lizzy’s friendship is a strong thread through the book from beginning to end. When Charlotte announces her engagement to Mr. Collins, there is a restraint between her and Elizabeth who “felt persuaded that no real confidence could ever subsist between them again. Her disappointment in Charlotte made her turn with fonder regard to her sister, of whose rectitude and delicacy she was sure her opinion could never be shaken.” I won’t begin to list off all their conversations, but here’s one later reflection of Lizzy’s: “How despicably have I acted!” she cried.—“I who have prided myself on my discernment!—I, who have valued myself on my abilities! who have often disdained the generous candor of my sister, and gratified my vanity, in useless or blameable distrust…” The Bingley sisters (unlike the Steeles) are always quite in accord in their scheming while the Lucas sisters (primarily Charlotte and Maria) seem to get along well, too.

And so we come to Mansfield Park. Here there begin to be sisters in pairs (and trios!) right and left. First we have the Ward sisters—for most of the story known as the indolent yet well-meaning Lady Bertram, the sharp, bustling Mrs. Norris, and the fully occupied Mrs. Price. There are the Bertram sisters: Maria—selfish, strong-willed, and careless of everyone else’s feelings—and Julia, also selfish and sometimes petulant, but less spoiled. There is Mrs. Grant, lenient and easily swayed; and Miss Crawford, the real villainess of the piece, hiding a sordid mind under a charming sweetness. And then there are the Price sisters. First Fanny, quiet and subdued, yet firm in what she believes, struggling to live by her convictions while desperately desiring to please those she loves. And it is with her next youngest sister, Susan that her mentorship role really appears. In a comfortless situation, Fanny steps in as a mediator. Later, “She gave advice; advice too sound to be resisted by a good understanding, and given so mildly and considerately as not to irritate an imperfect temper, and she had the happiness of observing its good effects not infrequently...” She goes on to be a “renter, a chooser of books” for “Fanny longed to give her (Susan) a share in her own first pleasures.” For Susan’s part, “Fanny was her oracle. Fanny’s explanations and remarks were a most important addition to every essay, or every chapter of history. What Fanny told her of former times, dwelt more on her mind than the pages of Goldsmith; and she paid her sister the compliment of preferring her style to that of any printed author.”

In Emma the marriage of Emma’s sister Isabella to John Knightley is one part of what brings Emma and Mr. Knightley so regularly together—providing a common ground of love and interest between them. The sisters are very like one another, and Emma is always “quick in feeling the little injuries to Isabella, which Isabella never felt herself.” There are the Miss Martins—whom we never meet directly, but who readily appear as being most gracious and generous; and there is Mrs. Elton—regularly touting the wonders of her sister’s establishment at Maple Grove while Emma, in a refreshing contrast, would never dream of doing so in reference to her own sister’s establishment (and connection with Donwell Abbey).

Last, but not least, comes Persuasion with its two sets of sisters: the Elliots and the Musgroves. Henrietta and Louisa Musgrove—pretty and pleasant, favorites at home and abroad—are always viewed by Anne Elliot as being “some of the happiest creatures of her acquaintance; (yet she) envied them nothing but that seemingly perfect good understanding and agreement together, that good-humoured mutual affection, of which she had known so little herself with either of her sisters.” Elizabeth Elliot is haughty, indifferent to her sisters as individuals and most certainly as friends. Her other sister Mary—while always fancying herself ill and complaining of petty matters—is still “not so repulsive and unsisterly as Elizabeth, nor so inaccessible to all influence of hers (Anne’s).” And then there’s Anne. Living without bitterness, loving her sisters in spite of themselves, ready to go wherever needed when asked for, always ready to gently share her wise counsel, guidance, and judgment—Anne shines out stunningly.

So: six books and seventeen sets of sisters! Some of them loyal, loving, and longsuffering; some controlling, selfish, and impatient; some quiet; some sparkling and witty. Each one distinctly different and unique—and each one captured and described with the same skill, the same clear-sighted humor and honesty, the same delightful genius.


A big thanks to Heidi for taking her time to contribute with this wonderful post.
Be sure to check out her blog at Along the Brandywine for more of her writings.


  1. Oh my goodness, I loved this, Heidi! Thank you so much, this post was so fun, well-written and interesting! I never thought of counting the sister groups before, it's a very clever idea. :-)
    I was thinking a little, but no, you didn't forget anyone. :-) Unless it's Mrs Bennet and her sister, Mrs Philips. :-)

    1. Naomi,
      Thank you! I'm so very glad you enjoyed it!

      And Mrs. Bennet and Mrs. Philips! You're absolutely right. I suppose they would fit in as confidantes, too... They're definitely both doing their best to encourage/be hospitable to any eligible young men arriving in the neighborhood. :-)

  2. Rose -- Oh, you're most welcome! Thank you so much for having me!

  3. My goodness. I never really realized just How Many Sisters there are in these six books! Wow.

    1. Hamlette -- Isn't it incredible? With the amendment there are eighteen sets! I was amazed when I actually started counting them up.


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