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 two of the essay. Part one can be found here.)
PRIDE AND PREJUDICE: THE MEN ENTER THE SCENEPride and Prejudice is the oldest text under discussion and is a good fit for the first chapter in other ways as well. Its author was devoted to her older sister Cassandra; the two of them were inseparable for all of Jane’s life. After Cassandra’s fiancé died during a shipping voyage, she was devastated and remained unmarried for the rest of her life. Jane, as far as we know, was engaged for one night but broke it off the next morning and never married. In her article, “Jane Austen's ‘Schemes of Sisterly Happiness’,” Leila S. May writes: “As countless critics and biographers have noted, Austen’s relation to Cassandra was characterized as a ‘marriage,’ a bond so profound that it provided the kind of emotional force and fulfillment which a conventional marriage could only hope to approximate” (May). The two sisters kept an extensive correspondence during the times when they were visiting various family members and friends. Through these letters, readers get a better glimpse of Jane’s personality and the bond she and her sister shared in the lightheartedness seen in letters such as this one she wrote in 1796: “My dearest Cassandra, The letter which I have this moment received from you has diverted me beyond moderation. I could die of laughter at it, as they used to say at school. You are indeed the finest comic writer of the present age” (Chapman). In other letters, it is clear that Jane was an even wittier and more astute social critic than she allowed herself to be when she wrote her novels. Sadly, Cassandra destroyed many of the letters after Jane’s death, but the remaining letters still fill a voluminous collection published by Oxford University Press. It is through these missives that we see the woman behind the famous author and the real relationship between the two sisters—a relationship that was most likely the basis for Jane and Elizabeth Bennet’s relationship in Pride and Prejudice.
Austen goes far beyond the novels of education to see what a sister who was not a foil or a rival might actually be like to live with, and by extending sisterhoods she makes visible and believable the almost infinitely drawn out, changeable, but no less real relation that exists among all the women in a given society...Pride and Prejudice insists that all its women are sisters. (Cohen)
Although Jane Austen’s novels invariably portray male-oriented relationships since they are about forms of courtship and marriage, she also explores the importance of the heroine’s bond with her sister – a bond that frequently plays a highly conducive role in the development of her identity. Often, the heroines who experience profound sororal connections are indebted to their sisters for moral, social, and emotional education. (Dobosiewics)
Elizabeth, feeling really anxious, was determined to go to her, though the carriage was not to be had; and as she was no horsewoman, walking was her only alternative. She declared her resolution. ‘How can you be so silly,’ cried her mother, ‘as to think of such a thing, in all this dirt! You will not be fit to be seen when you get there.’ ‘I shall be very fit to see Jane—which is all I want.’ (Austen)Being kept away from her sister at this time would have been devastating for Elizabeth, and she refuses to stay home. She has no thought for the men she will invariably see at Netherfield; her only concern is for her sister. Here it becomes clear that Elizabeth is fighting to retain her close connection with Jane even as she sees her mother—under the guise of securing Mr. Bingley—pulling her away. Perhaps the most obvious instance of male disruption in the novel is Mr. Collins’s visit. Since there are no Bennet sons, Longbourn estate is entailed, and the daughters have no claim to it. The girls’ mother either would not or could not understand the situation, and Austen writes that:
Jane and Elizabeth tried to explain to her the nature of an entail. They had often attempted to do it before, but it was a subject on which Mrs. Bennet was beyond the reach of reason, and she continued to rail bitterly against the cruelty of settling an estate away from a family of five daughters, in favour of a man whom nobody cared anything about. (Austen)Such is the first introduction to the famously ridiculous Mr. Collins, distant cousin and hopefully soon-to-be-husband to one of the Bennet sisters, who enters the scene with false modesty and the bestowal of unwanted attentions. Since it is his marriage to one of her daughters that will secure Longbourn, Mrs. Bennet changes her attention to one of her favorite pastimes: match-making. Mr. Collins is at first attracted to Jane since she is the oldest—and we are told prettiest—of the five daughters. However, Mrs. Bennet soon cures him of his attachment by strongly hinting at Jane’s expected engagement:
‘As to her younger daughters, she could not take upon her to say—she could not positively answer—but she did not know of any prepossession; her eldest daughter, she must just mention—she felt it incumbent on her to hint, was likely to be very soon engaged’ Mr. Collins had only to change from Jane to Elizabeth—and it was soon done—done while Mrs. Bennet was stirring the fire. Elizabeth, equally next to Jane in birth and beauty, succeeded her of course. (Austen)It is here that Austen so clearly displays the ridiculousness of many marriages. Mr. Collins, though himself a caricature, demonstrates the lack of concern that many men had for the women they were marrying; as soon as one became unavailable, the next pretty face would do just as well. It goes without saying that this jumping from one sister to another would influence the relationships among the sisters themselves. Mr. Collins is introduced through his letter, which causes Mr. Bennet to describe in brutal terms the reality of the sisters’ positions as women: “’It is from my cousin, Mr. Collins, who, when I am dead, may turn you all out of this house as soon as he pleases’” (Austen). The promise of keeping their home and retaining financial security is possible for all of the Bennet women if one of the sisters marries the odious man, and he is all too aware of this fact. Leveraging his position, Mr. Collins proposes next to Elizabeth, who of course turns him down. And here begins a central disruption to our women’s community. We have not yet seen the last of Mr. Collins. Actually, he is the cause of the biggest change to Elizabeth’s circle of trusted friends. Early on in the novel, we realize that Charlotte and Elizabeth are extremely close friends and confidantes. It is safe to assume that if Elizabeth ever felt that she could not discuss something with Jane, she would instead discuss it with Charlotte, who in many ways, is like a second older sister. Charlotte’s personality fills the places for Elizabeth that are lacking in Jane’s friendship;
‘Engaged to Mr. Collins! My dear Charlotte—impossible!’... ‘I see what you are feeling,’ replied Charlotte. ‘You must be surprised, very much surprised—so lately as Mr. Collins was wishing to marry you. But when you have had time to think it over, I hope you will be satisfied with what I have done.” (Austen)One can imagine Elizabeth’s dazed expression of disbelief as Charlotte continues her strange explanation, pointedly referring to Elizabeth’s own option to be selective in her choice of husband. Charlotte does not have that luxury.
I am not romantic, you know; I never was. I ask only a comfortable home; and considering Mr. Collins's character, connection, and situation in life, I am convinced that my chance of happiness with him is as fair as most people can boast on entering the marriage state.’Elizabeth quietly answered ‘Undoubtedly;’ and after an awkward pause, they returned to the rest of the family. Charlotte did not stay much longer, and Elizabeth was then left to reflect on what she had heard. It was a long time before she became at all reconciled to the idea of so unsuitable a match...She had always felt that Charlotte's opinion of matrimony was not exactly like her own, but she had not supposed it to be possible that, when called into action, she would have sacrificed every better feeling to worldly advantage. Charlotte the wife of Mr. Collins was a most humiliating picture! And to the pang of a friend disgracing herself and sunk in her esteem, was added the distressing conviction that it was impossible for that friend to be tolerably happy in the lot she had chosen. (Austen) Charlotte’s marriage to Mr. Collins shatters her relationship with Elizabeth; in marrying Mr. Collins, she loses Elizabeth’s respect, and she is also forced to move away from home. It is worthwhile to point out Charlotte’s reasons for marriage: “I am not romantic, you know; I never was.” Her low opinion of even the possibility of happiness in marriage is evident; she simply realizes that she must marry to survive.
For Austen, a good woman is invariably a good sister, and a woman’s moral and emotional shortcomings are frequently signaled by her lack of sisterly concern.... Austen proposes that female-oriented relationships shape the heroine’s identity and are indicative of her moral and emotional worth. (Dobosiewics)Yes, Lydia physically and quite literally broke the bonds of sisterhood, but Elizabeth betrayed something even more important to the community of women—her sense of integrity in the way she communicates with her sisters.
Women were taught to view themselves as subordinate to, dependent upon, and at the service of men in their lives. One might speculate that the devaluation of sisterhood in patriarchy is caused by the fact that, to perpetuate male dominance, patriarchal ideology validates only male- oriented relationships. Not surprisingly, then, sororal ties have become marginalized, and consequently, unexamined, or misrepresented. (Dobosiewicz)Within scholarship considering women’s communication styles, we see several patterns emerge. As mentioned above, there is a high importance placed on integrity and honesty in women’s relationships with each other. Especially in Austen’s novels, the good relationships among women are grounded on mutual openness and encouragement. These relationships also focus on detailed story-telling and writing. Women shared important news with each other and embraced letters as a valuable form of communication when they were forced to be apart from other women, especially during the nineteenth century. Letter-writing plays a definite role in Pride and Prejudice as letters convey the most important plot points throughout the novel. Elizabeth and Charlotte correspond almost exclusively through letters after Charlotte’s marriage, and Elizabeth finds out about her sister Lydia’s elopement and the subsequent actions taken by her family through letters.
‘I do not pretend to regret anything I shall leave in Hertfordshire, except your society, my dearest friend; but we will hope, at some future period, to enjoy many returns of that delightful intercourse we have known, and in the meanwhile may lessen the pain of separation by a very frequent and most unreserved correspondence. I depend on you for that.’ To these highflown expressions Elizabeth listened with all the insensibility of distrust. (Austen)Even as she writes a letter full of lies, Caroline Bingley asks for Jane’s continued “friendship” in the form of letters. Although she has broken the integrity of real friendship, she still asks Jane to continue this obvious surface appearance of it. Elizabeth’s strongest prejudice against Mr. Darcy does not stem mainly from her dislike of his wealth, status, or prideful attitude. Rather, she is infuriated by the fact that he separated Mr. Bingley from Jane. By destroying Jane’s chance at love and happiness, Mr. Darcy deeply hurts Elizabeth by extension. When Mr. Darcy first proposes to Elizabeth, her main reason for refusing him is this interference in her sister’s relationship with Mr. Bingley. In a fit of frustrated anger, Elizabeth asks him: “do you think that any consideration would tempt me to accept the man who has been the means of ruining, perhaps for ever, the happiness of a most beloved sister?” (Austen). Even if Elizabeth had wanted to accept Mr. Darcy’s first proposal, it can be assumed that she would have refused on principle because he had hurt her sister. The bond between them was stronger than anything she would gain through marriage.
‘All this she must possess,’ added Darcy, ‘and to all this she must yet add something more substantial, in the improvement of her mind by extensive reading.’ ‘I am no longer surprised at your knowing only six accomplished women. I rather wonder now at your knowing any.’ ‘Are you so severe upon your own sex as to doubt the possibility of all this?’ ‘I never saw such a woman. I never saw such capacity, and taste, and application, and elegance, as you describe united.’ (Austen 58)Here, Elizabeth is defending women although Mr. Darcy attempts to tell her that she is not giving women enough credit for their talents. She refuses to accept his definition of what makes a woman accomplished. Instead she points out to him the ridiculousness of that list. However, this list of accomplishments was originally brought up by none other than Caroline Bingley, who tells Mr. Darcy that:
No 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, to deserve the word; and besides all this, she must possess a certain something in her air and manner of walking, the tone of her voice, her address and expressions, or the word will be but half-deserved. (Austen)This list is a veritable buffet of nineteenth-century stereotypes and expectations of women. Elizabeth knows that the list is superficial and that Caroline Bingley is simply trying to parade herself in front of Mr. Darcy and receive his approbation. Miss Bingley is just one example of how Austen cleverly contrasts differences in how women—especially sisters—relate to one another. Mr. Bingley has another sister, a woman only ever called by her husband’s name—Mrs. Hurst. The Bingley sisters are only described as “fine women, with an air of decided fashion” (Austen). These external characteristics are all we need to know about these two women who are only focused on the external and have no real depth of character. It is safe to assume that the only true connection these two sisters have with each other is the combined ability to convince their brother to act according to their will. When Darcy mentions that Jane is pretty, but smiles too much, Austen gives us the following information about the two Bingley sisters:
Mrs. Hurst and her sister allowed it to be so—but still they admired her and liked her, and pronounced her to be a sweet girl, and one whom they would not object to know more of. Miss Bennet was therefore established as a sweet girl, and their brother felt authorized by such commendation to think of her as he chose. (Austen)Initially, Mr. Bingley is convinced to care for Jane because of encouragement from his sisters; however, he is just as easily swayed by their opinions when they (along with Mr. Darcy) convince him that she doesn’t care for him. It is not unbelievable to view Caroline Bingley and Mrs. Hurst as a sister set of foils to Jane and Elizabeth. They are an example of sisterhood gone awry and potential community wasted.
About the author
Meagan Hanley lives in Illinois, U.S.A., just east of St. Louis, Missouri, with her new husband and an ever-growing book collection. She has loved all things Jane Austen since she first came across Pride and Prejudice at 14 years old, and her friends and family have learned to live with her obsession. She earned a Bachelor's degree in English Language and Literature from Greenville University and an M.A. in Literature from Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. Meagan works as an office manager, and when she's not reading, she can be found enjoying the outdoors with friends and cycling with her husband. She also blogs about life and literature at https://meagangunn.wordpress.com.
As well as the comment by AdamQ pointing out one incorrect instance from P&P, Meagan Hanley is also incorrect in saying that Lizzy does not tell her sisters of what she learns of Mr Wickham’s less than stellar character. She tells Jane. She even tells Jane about his attempted elopement with Georgiana Darcy.
The two sisters together decide not to tell the rest of the family, not just the three silly younger sisters. We know Lydia would have totally ignored the information anyway, but Mr Bennet may have listened and been able to curb Lydia’s inappropriate behaviour with the officers and kept her home from Brighton.
Lizzy and Jane together decide not to inform everyone, so the sororal closeness between Lizzy and Jane is constant, even here.
[…] is part three of the essay. Part two can be found here and part one can be found […]
" Mr. Bingley has another sister, a woman only ever called by her husband’s name—Mrs. Hurst. "
No, she is named as Louisa a number of times by both Caroline and Charles Bingley.