Jane Austen's "Schemes of Sisterly Happiness"

By May, Leila S. | Philological Quarterly, Summer 2002 | Go to article overview

Jane Austen's "Schemes of Sisterly Happiness"


May, Leila S., Philological Quarterly


"An Englishman's home is his castle." By the end of the first quarter of the nineteenth century this castle-home becomes the axiological sign standing for an entire system of social and personal values, which, when mapped out, look conspicuously like the blueprint of a middle-class house and simultaneously like a feudal system of fortifications. The vulnerable core and inner sanctum of that hard and inviolable edifice is the sister's chamber. The family romances of the period depict the sister figure as the most pure, selfless, innocent and vulnerable--and therefore, most valuable--member of the English family. It is she who is the true angel in the house, as only she remains sexually untouched and neutral, and therefore only her dedicated service to the family (and particularly to her siblings) endures uncompromised. Sororal love is self-evident and requires no explanation; it rationalizes all other acts and emotions, and its rejection demands recrimination and retribution. In other words, its abuse provides the motive for plots. The family is organized around the sister's innocence as a defensive system and its protection justifies the family, just as much as the rest of society--including its bellicose commercial, imperial and colonial practices--is justified by virtue of its function as protector of the family.

Yet, a close scrutiny of the representation of siblings in nineteenth-century British literature discloses a dialectic of sororal desire which--like all dialectics--involves as much destructive power as it does creative force, as the pressure placed upon the sister figure in the form of moral demands, surveillance, constriction, mediation and channeling of desire reveals that the inner sanctum of the castle, the sister's chamber, is also its dungeon. It thus becomes a site of rebellion, subversion and sororal rage. This action manifests itself in a system of metonymical links, displacement of emotions and identities, and dissolutions of familial and social boundaries which record on the part of author and audience alike a distinct fascination with and dread of the destructive possibilities of unleashed sororal desire. If Florence Dombey's sweetness, innocence and selfless devotion maps out all the dimensions of English familial ideology, Edith Skewton, Florence's figurative sister (as she is clearly so designated by Dickens) is an angel of destruction, threatening all familial and social values. If George Eliot never questions the inexplicable intensity of Maggie Tulliver's sororal love, its internal logic must necessarily lead to an incestuous necrophilia. If passion in Wilkie Collins's No Name is deepest, most dedicated and most altruistic in the sororal love between Madeleine and Nora Vance, no force is more destructive. If no love is as all-encompassing as Catherine Earnshaw's for her new brother, none is ultimately so corrosive. (1)

This Victorian dialectic of sororal desire may be partially an aftereffect of a somewhat cruder novelistic formula employed in the eighteenth century using pairs of sisters--one good and one bad--to explore feminine identity. (2) But the first sophisticated use of the dialectical ideology that would dominate in the nineteenth century is already evident in Richardson's Clarissa, where we see the disastrous effects of a family's failure to appreciate and protect sororal love, and where we also see that same love initiate a series of discursive and epistolary performative acts whose ultimate effect is the erasure of all familial lines of identity. (3)

If such a continuity exists between Richardson in the eighteenth century and nineteenth-century writers like Mary Shelley, Emily Bronte, Harriet Martineau, George Eliot, Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins, and even Edgar Allan Poe, it should surely appear in the works of Jane Austen, for no great novelist is more famous for her depictions of sororal relations than she. …

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