My little sister gave birth to a baby girl right before Christmas. Because of covid, I won’t get to hug her and meet my new niece in the flesh for some time. It’s difficult because I’m very close to my sister, and as you can imagine, I can’t wait to see her.
I like to think we’re aren’t that different from Cassandra and Jane Austen in that respect. She were very close, as were the wider set of Austen siblings, although relationships with the sisters-in-law weren’t always easy. As always with Jane Austen, nothing goes to waste, and lived experience trickles down into her novels in all sorts of wonderful ways.
Like the Austen brood, many of the siblings in Austen’s novels get on well, regardless of their age and number. In Northanger Abbey, Catherine and James Morland, as well as their many younger siblings, are on excellent terms. In Persuasion, Charles Musgrove enjoys the company of his younger sisters, Louisa and Henrietta, although they are very different in age and disposition.
And let’s not forget the degree to which Mr Bingley of Pride and Prejudice is blind to his sisters’ faults. Caroline and Louisa may not be everyone’s idea of great company, but he clearly enjoys having them around and spending time with them.
The best of friends
Perhaps due to her well-documented affection for her sister Cassandra, siblings in Jane Austen’s novels siblings close in age go beyond getting on well and are often best mates. In Pride and Prejudice, Jane and Elizabeth Bennet share a strong bond, as do their younger sisters Kitty and Lydia. In Sense and Sensibility, Elinor and Margaret may not communicate and understand each other as much as they presume, but they have each other’s best interests at heart.
The friendship between siblings isn’t limited to those of the same sex. In Mansfield Park, Fanny Price and her brother William, who are also close in age, are very close, and so are Mr and Miss Crawford.
Sibling closeness in Jane Austen’s novels seems to weaken as the age gap widens. In Emma, Emma Woodhouse has a good relationship with her older sister Isabella Knightley, but they are not on intimate terms, largely because they are at different stages of their lives: Isabella is a busy mother of young children, and Emma has just stepped into womanhood.
The same can be said of Pride and Prejudice’s Mr Darcy and his young sister Georgiana, the protagonist of Miss Darcy’s Beaux. Their mutual affection is evident, but Darcy is a decade older and the guardian of his little sister. Their relationship is very different from what it might have been, had they been born a couple of years apart.
When things go wrong
Not all sets of siblings in Jane Austen’s novels get on well. In Mansfield Park, there is a strong undercurrent of jealousy between the two Bertram sisters once Henry Crawford appears on the scene. Interestingly, all seems forgotten when Maria marries Mr Rushwooth and the two sisters go to Brighton together. In the same novel, the tension between Mrs Norris and her sister Mrs Price is also evident, even if Lady Bertram, true to form, is oblivious to everything.
Another example of tense relationships between sisters is the Elliot sisters in Persuasion. Elizabeth refuses to acknowledge Anne as a potential friend, choosing Mrs Clay instead as her preferred companion. Self-centered Mary is too absorbed with herself to pay any attention to Anne, whom she sees as a domestic helper and silent recipient of her constant moans. Quiet and introverted Anne is left in the middle, without allies, almost as if she were an only child.
But back to good sibling relationships: I miss my sister, and may not see her for a while yet, but I take solace in our daily FaceTime calls and the fact that I intend to be the best aunt I can be to her baby. Happy new year everyone!
Who are your favourite Austen siblings?