Siblings: The Austens, the Bennets, and the Crawfords
Updated: May 5
By Lucy Marin, author of Her Sisterly Love
The title for Her Sisterly Love caused me a considerable amount of trouble. I had the plot set, outline drafted, and I had even started to write it—all without a title for the story. I even had a list of perhaps a half-dozen possible names, none of which seemed quite right.
That changed because of a book I was reading: Jane’s Fame: How Jane Austen Conquered the World by Claire Harman. In the chapter discussing Jane’s death, Harman quotes from a poem written by Jane’s eldest brother, James, to commemorate her; it is titled “Venta! within thy sacred fane”. I’ve used an excerpt of it at the start of Her Sisterly Love, and you can read the entire poem here.
According to Harman, the section I drew from is about Jane’s dedication to her duties to her family. The line that particularly struck me was
They whose lot it was to prove
Her Sisterly, her Filial love
I obviously shortened the second part of this to be the title of my novella. James Austen was suggesting that—regardless of Jane’s dedication to her writing—his sister never neglected her household chores (whether he was right about this is another matter). In Her Sisterly Love, I wrote an Elizabeth who puts her own needs second to those of her sisters. She is devoted to them, as I believe the Elizabeth Bennet from Pride & Prejudice is, but in the novella, she is deeply concerned about the disregard her parents show to her younger sisters’ well-being. Mr and Mrs Bennet also neglect Jane and Elizabeth, but in Elizabeth’s eyes, the two of them are old enough to take care of themselves, unlike Mary, Kitty, and Lydia.
In Jane Austen’s novels, we find a variety of sibling relationships. We do not always get a sense of how well some siblings relate to each other, e.g., Northanger Abbey or Emma, but there are examples of siblings who are very close to each other, none more so than Jane and Elizabeth Bennet. Mansfield Park’s Fanny Price and her brother William are another example—even if their relationship cannot rival Elizabeth and Jane’s—and Mary and Henry Crawford
appear to get along quite well too. There are certainly instances of siblings whose love is perhaps based simply on the fact that they are siblings, rather than there being a genuine affection and closeness between them. I would say this is true of the Bertram siblings in Mansfield Park. Persuasion is an interesting example of sibling relationships, especially if we are thinking about the idea of a woman fulfilling her duty to her family above personal considerations. Anne Elliott’s sisters do not show much love for her; her elder sister in fact seems to actively dislike her, and we could view the younger as a narcissist who was only interested in what Anne could do for her. Yet, Anne Elliot continues to fulfill her duty to her family with patience and without complaint.
What about Jane Austen and her siblings? Jane was the second youngest and had six brothers and a sister. The first born, James, was 10 years older than her; the second oldest, George, was born with a disability and lived away from the family; it is likely that Jane had little or no relationship with him. Edward, born third, was adopted by cousins of Mr Austen, the Knights, and ultimately inherited the Chawton estate. Francis and Charles joined the navy, which meant they spent a great deal of time away from home. The two siblings Jane was apparently closest to were Henry, who acted as her agent, and her only sister, Cassandra; they were four and two years her senior, respectively.
Her connection to Cassandra appears to have been the most important of Jane’s life. The wonderful writings of Deirdre Le Faye demonstrate this. In Jane Austen: A Family Record (which she revised and enlarged from earlier works by William Austen-Leigh & Richard Arthur Austen-Leigh), she wrote: “Never were sisters more to each other than Cassandra and Jane”. They were the only two girls in a house full of boys and young men, which included not only their brothers, but also pupils at their father’s school. This might have made them inevitable playmates, but to my mind, it is not enough to account for their lifelong intimacy. When Cassandra was being sent away to school, Jane insisted on going with her. Later, when they moved to Chawton, the sisters shared a room even though it was not necessary. Cassandra was with Jane in her final days, and I do not doubt that her presence gave Jane great comfort. After her sister’s death, Cassandra wrote to her niece Fanny, “I have lost a treasure, such a Sister, such a friend as never can have been surpassed,—she was the sun of my life, the gilder of every pleasure, the soother of every sorrow, I had not a thought concealed from her, & it is as if I had lost a part of myself.” Surely, there can be no greater illustration of the devotion shared by the sisters.
In his biography of Jane Austen, Becoming Jane Austen, Jon Spence wrote about Jane’s dependence on Cassandra. For example, when her sister was away from home, Jane missed her greatly—she was lonely without her friend, companion, and confidant. This emerges in some of the letters that remain of the correspondence between the sisters, with Jane teasing Cassandra about needing to return home—wherever that happened to be at the time—or outright recommending that she do so. Spence contends that there was an edge of annoyance behind Jane’s words, and perhaps there was some tension or strain between them when it came to certain issues. Jane Austen is believed to have considered her sister the superior of the two, but that does not mean she would always bow to Cassandra’s recommendations, especially when it came to her writing. Cassandra apparently asked Jane to change the ending of Mansfield Park so that Fanny married Henry Crawford and Edmund married Mary Crawford. As we know, Jane did not do so (although this ‘alternate ending’ might inspire some Austenesque writers).
These marks of conflict make the relationship between Jane and Cassandra all the more real; as much as we love someone, it does not follow that we cannot find some of their behaviours annoying or acknowledge that they are less than perfect. In Pride & Prejudice, as much as Elizabeth loves Jane, you get the sense that she wishes her sister was more critical about other people, notably Miss Bingley and Mrs Hurst. In Her Sisterly Love, I’ve tried to keep some of that idea. It relates largely to the relationship between Elizabeth and Jane, but Elizabeth is also aware of the weaker spots in her other sisters’ characters, such as Mary’s tendency to be sombre, Kitty’s lack of self-confidence, and Lydia’s propensity to be silly and impetuous. It takes Elizabeth a bit of time—and help from a certain someone—to reflect on her own flaws.