Women's Circles Broken: The Disruption of Sisterhood in Three Nineteenth-Century Works
The author of the following work, Meagan Hanley, wrote this multi-part post as her graduate thesis. Her focus was works of literature by female authors, one of whom was Jane Austen. We thought that the entire essay was wonderful, and so, with her permission, we wanted to share it with you.
(This is part five of the essay. Part four can be found here, part three can be found here, part two can be found here and part one can be found here.)
Rossetti’s words could easily serve as a conclusion on their own. Wrapped up in six short lines is the core definition of the importance of women’s communities. Rossetti’s definition of sisterhood can be the basis for the communities of women in Pride and Prejudice and Little Women. Friendship and sisterhood are essential for all women, according to Austen, Alcott, and Rossetti. In each of these works, women grow, learn, and love together. No matter the separation after marriage, if it is at all possible, these women strive to return to community with each other. After marriage—or any separation caused by men—there is a void that remains unfilled. Jane and Elizabeth are fortunate in Pride and Prejudice in that they are able to recreate their own community with each other; and through their good influence, are able to bring another sister into their inner circle:
Kitty, to her very material advantage, spent the chief of her time with her two elder sisters. In society so superior to what she had generally known, her improvement was great. She was not of so ungovernable a temper as Lydia; and, removed from the influence of Lydia’s example, she became, by proper attention and management, less irritable, less ignorant, and less insipid. (Austen)
Austen, of course, realizes that not all sisters desire community, and in this closing paragraph she shows that some merely need to get away from the influence of “bad” sisters. As was mentioned earlier, to be a good woman in Austen’s opinion means that one is first and foremost a good sister. Dobosiewicz also writes that “an ideal marriage bond in an Austen novel is actually patterned after sisterhood. Thus, the female-oriented sororal bond would become a touchstone determining the value of a relationship” (Dobosiewicz ). Jane and Elizabeth essentially married men who had similar values to those they already respected in each other, and in that, they could retain a semblance of their sisterhood although marriage physically separated them from each other.
In Little Women, marriage is more destructive to the community of sisters. In “The First Wedding” chapter when Meg gets married, Alcott writes that “Mother and sisters gathered close, as if loath to give Meg up” (Alcott). Meg is actually the first sister lost even before Beth’s death. The March sisters never return to a sense of true community after their marriages, but in “Goblin Market,” Laura and Lizzie’s love for each other is undiminished even by the intrusion of men.
After marriage disrupts sisterhood, the changes are permanent. Although women may try to return to a semblance of their former community, it remains forever altered. Alcott gives a perfect glimpse into the utopia of young sisterhood before men enter the scene—although the reader is intruding through Laurie’s eyes as he becomes the first male to enter their community, albeit a welcomed one when he is discovered:
‘Here's a landscape!’ thought Laurie, peeping through the bushes, and looking wide-awake and good-natured already. It was a rather pretty little picture, for the sisters sat together in the shady nook, with sun and shadow flickering over them, the aromatic wind lifting their hair and cooling their hot cheeks, and all the little wood people going on with their affairs as if these were no strangers but old friends. Meg sat upon her cushion, sewing daintily with her white hands, and looking as fresh and sweet as a rose in her pink dress among the green. Beth was sorting the cones that lay thick under the hemlock near by, for she made pretty things with them. Amy was sketching a group of ferns, and Jo was knitting as she read aloud. A shadow passed over the boy's face as he watched them, feeling that he ought to go away because uninvited; yet lingering because home seemed very lonely and this quiet party in the woods most attractive to his restless spirit. He stood so still that a squirrel, busy with its harvesting, ran down a pine close beside him, saw him suddenly and skipped back, scolding so shrilly that Beth looked up, espied the wistful face behind the birches, and beckoned with a reassuring smile. (Alcott)
When Laurie nearly decides to leave, it becomes obvious that Alcott saw his presence as an intrusion—but a somewhat necessary and inevitable one. It is here that we once again see a man longing to enter the women’s utopia but changing it irrevocably with his presence. While all three sisterhoods are disrupted and changed, they do return to a sense of strength and community unique to women. As the last lines of “Goblin Market” display, sisters not only help each other when one is weak; they share each other’s strength. Even when one is standing, the others lend their support. As the nineteenth century gave way to the suffragist movements of the twentieth century, the definitions of places for women began to change; but the women that Austen, Alcott, and Rossetti created in these texts are not necessarily fighting to claim a space in the public sphere. Instead, they are redefining where a woman’s place is and what it can be. They are reclaiming communities of women as a type of strength in contrast to that of the patriarchal public sphere. Nineteenth-century sisterhood can be seen as safe and comfortable; but on the contrary, Elizabeth and Jane Bennet, the March sisters, and Laura and Lizzie stand as proof that each community of women is different and constantly changing while being held together by strong bonds despite the disruption of men.