Academic journal article Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal

Sisterly Chat

Academic journal article Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal

Sisterly Chat

Article excerpt

SISTERS TALKING TOGETHER: in Jane Austen's fiction, what form of intimacy could be more important? Sisters, after all, have more opportunities for confidences than any of Austen's lovers. Jane Austen's own most intimate relationship was, of course, with her sister, Cassandra, and a few years ago this gave rise to one of the peculiar controversies that periodically bubble up around Austen. In August 1995 a review essay by Professor Terry Castle of Stanford University on Deirdre Le Faye's new Oxford edition of Jane Austen's Letters appeared in the London Review of Books. It was concerned mostly with the evidence in the surviving letters of the closeness between the two Austen sisters, including their physical closeness. That issue of the LRB carried the headline "Was Jane Austen Gay?" Largely because of this (surely mischievous) headline, the review became the focus of a public controversy about the nature of the sisters' relationship that spilled into magazines and newspapers and other broadcast media. For several months the correspondence column of the LRB was able to rely on freshly provoked contributions from academics and Austen enthusiasts. In her own contribution, Professor Castle denied that she had ever suggested that the novelist was "gay," but pointed out that the two sisters shared a bed for the whole of their adult lives.

What did such intimacy mean? Sisterly chat would surely be peculiarly significant for a novelist who would have talked to her own sister in bed. Except that those academics earnestly debating the implications of bed-sharing were, like Emma Woodhouse, "imaginists." The LRB debate was brought to a resounding close by Bonnie Herron from the University of Alberta, who wrote to point out that Edward Copeland had given a paper at the annual JASNA conference of 1993 showing, from the records of Ring Brothers of Basingstoke, a home furnishing store, that Austen's father had bought the sisters two single made-to-order beds when they were young adults: "Jane and Cassandra Austen each had her own bed." The disputants would have been better focusing on the novelist Fanny Burney, whose fiction is notably devoid of sisterly intimacy, but who certainly did share a bed with her own sister, Susan. The bed-sharing was clearly of some significance to them. Three weeks before Susan's marriage in 1782 to the ominously dashing Captain Molesworth Phillips, Fanny Burney wrote in a letter, "There is something to me at the thought of being so near parting with you as the Inmate of the same House--Room--Bed--confidence--life, that is not very merrifying" (qtd. in Chisholm 117).

Yet Jane and Cassandra Austen did share a compact bedroom, a place surely for sotto voce confidences at the end of the day. What about the sisters in her novels? Did Austen assume that they too would have this place of joint retreat where talk would be intimate? The answer is that only where a sisterly relationship is at the very heart of the novel do the sisters sleep in the same room. Most of her sisters have their own bed-chambers. There is no need to share bedrooms at Mansfield Park or Kellynch Hall, for instance. Emma's sister, Isabella, is long gone from Hartfield, but it is a house large enough to have allowed the sisters separate rooms. (Is the distance between Emma and Isabella imaginable if they had spent their teenage years sharing a bedroom?) The Morlands with their ten children would have had to have a remarkably capacious rectory at Fullerton not to make room-sharing necessary, and we might presume that Catherine shares at least a bedchamber, if not a bed, with Sally, who, a year youngen has become her "intimate friend and confidante" (19). What about Sense and Sensibility? Barton Cottage has four bedrooms as well as the garrets for the servants, so the Dashwood ladies can have a room each (28). When Elinor and Marianne stay in London, however, they are sharing a bedroom. The morning after the party at which they meet Willoughby, Elinor is "roused from sleep" by Marianne's "agitation and sobs" and sees her sister "only half dressed,. …

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