Academic journal article Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal

"Rivalry, Treachery between Sisters!" Tensions between Brothers and Sisters in Austen's Novels

Academic journal article Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal

"Rivalry, Treachery between Sisters!" Tensions between Brothers and Sisters in Austen's Novels

Article excerpt

ALTHOUGH THE QUOTATION IN the title, taken from Austen's unfinished The Watsons, is exclamatory, as if Emma Watson cannot possibly imagine treachery between sisters, the eighteenth century in general took deep sibling rivalry for granted in ways that might surprise or disturb us. For instance, in 1775, the year of Austen's birth, Herbert Croft, then about twenty-four, published A Brother's Advice to His Sisters. His work rambles and repeats itself, generally telling his sisters to be good, but toward the end he writes, rather theatrically, "Where is he who will swear that the very hand which guides this pen backward and forward upon the paper, shall not, or e'er it crumble into dust, be shut, be clinched, against those Sisters for whose instruction it is now in motion?" (147). That is, he imagines himself hardhearted to his sisters, wondering whether it might just be possible for him, even though he might be rich, to "suffer the daughter of my mother and my father to be a cook's kitchen wench?" (149). Thus he supposes he might allow a full sister to work as a scullion rather than to help her. This grim imagined future in which a brother does not protect a sister is reinforced by Clara Reeve's later statement that "[b]rothers generally look on sisters as incumbrances on families; more remote relations seldom trouble themselves about them" (122).

Even more extreme is the anonymous writer of a wildly popular devotional book. This work, called A New Week's Preparation for a Worthy Receiving of the Lord's Supper, as Recommended and Appointed by the Church of England, and which went through thirty-six editions by the time Austen was born, has the reader ask on Monday evening, under the heading "The duty of brethren and sisters," "Dost thou not secretly wish their death or disgrace, to make thy own fortune the more plentiful?" (27). Here siblings are seen as likely to be rivals for their parents' or other relatives' money and property, as of course they are in Sense and Sensibility---but even worse, rivals who are eager to profit from brothers' and sisters' death and disgrace to increase their own fortunes. And to cite chapter and verse from Austen, think of Robert Ferrars: while he doesn't precisely go so far as to wish his own brother Edward's death or disgrace, he quite happily appropriates the fortune that was to have been his brother's and comfortably concludes that his brother "'must be starved, you know;--that is certain; absolutely starved'" (SS 300). (1)

Both the ideal of sibling love and protection and the likely violation of it are expressed in eighteenth-century novels, as noted by Ruth Perry, and in conduct books by the well-known John Gregory and Hester Chapone, whose works, reprinted again and again in Austen's lifetime, were addressed to young women. Conduct books for women were a bit like modern etiquette books, telling them essentially how to behave in all private and social circumstances. Chapone produced a two-volume Letters on the Improvement of the Mind, Addressed to a Young Lady in 1773, and Gregory wrote A bather's Legacy to His Daughters, first published posthumously in 1774. (2) Although Gregory and Chapone do not refer to death wishes toward siblings, unlike the devotional New Week's Preparation, both writers do keep telling sisters to love their brothers with some immediately stated anxiety lest siblings be not really worthy of trust. Chapone hopes that her young lady reader will be a "useful and engaging friend to your younger companions, particularly to your sister and brothers, who ought ever--unless they should prove unworthy--to be your nearest and dearest friends, whose interest and welfare you are bound to desire as much as your own" (1:145-46). Gregory goes a bit further in imagining unworthy brothers: he recommends making friends of brothers in particular, stating, "The ties of blood, and your being so much united in one common interest, form an additional bond of union to your friendship. …

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