PERSUASIONS ON-LINE V.30, NO.1 (Winter 2009)

The City of Sisterly Love: Jane Austen’s Community as Sorority



Laura S. Dabundo


Laura Dabundo (email: is Professor of English at Kennesaw State University and author of Persuasions articles on Austen’s prayers and Pride and Prejudice.  She is editor of Routledge’s forthcoming Encyclopedia of Romanticism and Jane Austen, Mary Shelley, and Their Sisters.  Currently, she is writing a book on Anglican Austen and Wordsworth.

And I John saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.  That great city, the holy Jerusalem, descending out of heaven from God.  (Rev. 21.2, 10)

The holy city is the model community and for Jane Austen, the model community is founded on family.  Leo Tolstoy famously begins his novel Anna Karenina with the line, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”  It is very likely that Tolstoy, an educated Russian, knew Jane Austen’s novels, and so he would have known that the dynamics and dances of family interactions, of husbands and wives, of parents and children, and, for Austen, most especially of brothers and sisters, were often central to the energies of her plots and characterizations.  Out of those contentious combinations comes some form of community—the integral unit that secures identities and roles, sustains its members emotionally and financially, and provides a foothold in the increasingly complex and chaotic world that is the emerging British Empire of the day.  These communities, these integral units, are founded on family.  Thus, contra Tolstoy, out of the discord and disharmony can emerge a similarity and a unity that, at times, can be a force for good.

Furthermore, in most of Austen’s novels these communities are female-based, following a foundation of female enclaves from the novels’ opening scenes.  The protagonists of four of the novels come from families of all daughters (Emma with its two; Sense and Sensibility and Persuasion have three; and Pride and Prejudice sports, notoriously, five), while the two novels whose heroines come from large families of mixed gender play out their plots with the young women physically removed and isolated, for the most part, from their nuclear families, with the exceptions of visits from very close older brothers at crucial junctures.  Thus, a major part of these two particular young women’s crises stems from their isolation.  Clearly, family matters, and sisters, in particular, can be pivotal to a young woman’s ultimate success in Jane Austen’s world.  Certainly, this kind of relationship was the basis for happiness for the author, whose closest friend and confidante was her only sister Cassandra.  Together they shared their final home with their mother and a close woman friend, a female family party that may well have been the real-life inspiration for the ultimate visions of so many of these novels.

Nonetheless, unlike Chawton Cottage, the fictional sororities are not necessarily pictures of domestic tranquility.  The Bennet sisters are a range of personalities and behaviors, and from youngest to oldest they are not the most intimate of companions; similar disharmonies reign among the Elliots; less severely in the case of the Dashwoods, who respect one another for the most part even if they do not understand and frequently, until the end, disagree; and, while the Woodhouse sisters are kindly disposed toward one another, the age and geographical disparities reflect an emotional distance.  In short, within the compass of sisterhood often lurk the specters of the same sorts of social conflicts writ larger in the contexts and contests of the novels themselves.  The families, in other words, may mirror through their daughters the issues that these novels seek to resolve.  At the same time, these family dramas play out with and against extended family difficulties with both sisters and brothers, on the one hand, and, at times, cousins, on the other—to wit, William Elliot—and with and against other multi-progenic families, such as the Thorpes and the Tilneys, the Steeles, the Musgroves, the Bingleys, and all the rest.  In sum, happy and unhappy families are all alike except when they’re different, but it can all be seen to boil down to how the sisters get along.  The progress of the novels is, then, toward the achievement of a community of sisterly affection, to borrow from the first name of an aunt of Austen’s, her father’s sister Philadelphia, what we have here could be said to be the model of a city of sisterly love.

It is useful for us to foreground sisters as a way of identifying an emblem of the community in Austen’s fiction.  As Nicholas Marsh has written, “Jane Austen takes the disadvantaged position of women, both as wives and in upbringing and courtship, as a major theme in all the novels” (157).  From this perspective, then, the author pulls back the curtain to look at the interplay among related females within and despite their patriarchal disenfranchisement.  That diminution of power in fact makes them interesting as characters and rich in potential.  How will they thwart, subvert, or rise above the powers that be?  Will there be strength in finding allies among the sisters?  What is the resulting community, the sorority, as it were?  One of the features of this social phenomenon, as we shall see, is that a kind of negative community often arises, a reverse exemplar serving to set off the privileged, effective unit.

All of the Jane Austen novels feature heroines with at least one sister, and in fact, in only Emma is there only one sister.  Jane Austen herself had just one sister, but she and Cassandra were surrounded by six brothers, clearly an environment rife for domestic disputes, which there well may have been.  Of course, the preserved historical record is slim, mostly from letters and recollections much after the fact.  But the novels chart the tensions, from both loyalties and strains, of female characters trying to figure out their worlds from within the closed society of their families.  For the family is the basic unit of society in Jane Austen’s world, a group of individuals, generally related, who live together, seeking, ultimately, harmony and peace.  So we must look at these relatives, the sisters, to discover the community of the novels.

The moral center of Pride and Prejudice, that point at which the narrator and the reader agree is where what is right and what is wrong, who are Mr. Right and Mr. Wrong, is sorted out, is located within the friendship of Jane and Elizabeth, the two oldest of the five Bennet daughters.  Here there is a locus of morality with which the narrator and reader can agree, especially as Jane and Elizabeth can talk in the privacy of their shared bedroom or out of doors in the absence of eavesdroppers.  For instance, early in the novel Elizabeth witnesses an unexpected encounter between the apparently proud and haughty Mr. Darcy and his father’s godson, Mr. Wickham, with whom she has been rather smitten.  The narrator tells us, “one looked white, the other red” (73).  In other words, one blushed with shame; the other whitened in anger.  Or, perhaps, one burned with anger while the other blanched in fear.  We don’t know, and we don’t know which is which. And maybe it doesn’t matter.  The point is the emotional charge between the two young men, witnessed by Elizabeth, who reports it to her sister, whose reaction is characteristic of her and their intimacy:  “though Jane would have defended either or both, had they appeared to be wrong, she could no more explain such behaviour than her sister” (74).  What this passage illustrates is that while Jane is compassionate to the extreme to the weak and defenseless and Elizabeth is sarcastic and cutting to the pretentious and unfeeling, between the two of them they can sort out truth according to their combined calculus of justice and mercy.  As Emily Auerbach has noted about this relationship of sisters:  “In many ways, they function as husband and wife—like soul mates.  Their close relationship perhaps reflects Jane Austen’s own lifelong partnership with Cassandra” (144).  Here, in this scene, they need more information, but their calculations are at work, in a context of safety and affection.

The other Bennet sisters are a sad falling off from these two. Mary, the next oldest, the precise middle child, has the right sentiments to be a moral compass, for she reads voraciously in serious literature and loves aphorisms.  However, she reads dry old sermons and pronounces antiquated proverbs without context or meaning.  The narrator says of her, “Mary, . . . in consequence of being the only plain one in the family, worked hard for knowledge and accomplishments. . . . [But she] had neither genius nor taste; and though vanity had given her application, it had given her likewise a pedantic air and conceited manner . . .” (25).  What is particularly instructive about this almost peripheral comment on this very minor character is what it reveals about the author and narrator’s knowledge of family dynamics.  That is, sibling rivalry is at work in terms of personal appearance:  the sisters know which of them is attractive and which is not and what must be done in remedy for perceived shortcomings.  We also learn that this daughter has developed compensatory talents because of her own efforts and her own will and without any evident parental guidance or interference.  Where there are no parents, there are only siblings who can sort things out together, like Jane and Elizabeth, who can find guidance from one another.  Mary, meanwhile, is left dangling and isolated in her solitary, aphoristic splendor.

Morality has fallen out of the orbit of the younger two Bennets altogether.  The youngest, Lydia, dominates the fourth daughter, Kitty, and leads her in pursuit of young men in uniform, who are suddenly at hand in an England worried about an invasion from Napoleonic France.  However, the menace to the nation, events prove, is not to be the foreign incursion but this domestic infiltration, the swarm of young men in militias overwhelming rural villages.  Only the older Bennet sisters see the peril, for their mother, though a figure of ridicule for the narrator and most of the characters throughout the book, is appropriately alarmed about the impending resourcelessness of her daughters in the absence of a son and heir; she sides with the incorrigible husband-hunting of the two youngest, while Mr. Bennet, the putative paterfamilias in a household of what he styles in the beginning of the book as “‘all silly and ignorant’” females (5), retreats to the male bastion of his library.  Thus, only between Jane and Elizabeth is there any modicum of sense and principle, contrasted with the isolation of the middle child and the reckless abandon of the younger two, who in each other have a confidante but no guidance to do right, only to serve self.  Without parental support, however, Jane and Elizabeth, as females in a patriarchy, lack the ability and means often to act effectively, to find empowerment in the world. But of course the vexations that ensue generate the book’s plot.

I used the word “sense” deliberately in the previous paragraph because the only other novel of Austen’s in which sisters are as emotionally close, though also temperamentally different, is Sense and Sensibility.  Here, again, is a family of an odd number of all daughters, and this time the youngest one, Margaret, much younger, is essentially more a conversation piece than a major player.  Her choice importance, in fact, seems to be revealing to Sir John Middleton and Mrs. Jennings the first initial of the name of Elinor’s crush (61-62).  Thus, we focus, in this novel of the Dashwood sisters on the two elder:  Elinor, the oldest, who is propriety and restraint, like Jane Bennet in being responsible and decorous, though perhaps not so full of sympathy and fellow feeling as Jane, while her younger sister Marianne is full of feeling, though not necessarily charity.  That is, Marianne approaches the sensitivity manifest in Jane Bennet, but she is impulsive, unguarded, exuberant, and ill-disposed toward others, such as the gossiping Sir John and Mrs. Jennings.

Nonetheless, again, at the start of the novel it is evident that the two elder sisters have developed a trust and accord, similar to the mode of the elder Bennet daughters.  However, they are pulled apart as Elinor labors under the honor of the imposed confidence about Lucy Steele’s secret engagement with Edward, the man with whom Elinor is herself in love.  Carol Shields notes, “we have real sisters here, and not convenient contrarieties” (48), correcting a frequent early misreading of Sense and Sensibility.  For Austen’s sisters are true sisters in their depths and varieties, their riches and their complexities.  They are not sense and sensibility personified but, as I have just tried to suggest, so much more.

Poor Margaret is left out of the equation.  She is much younger; she is not taken to London by Mrs. Jennings with her elder sisters, for she is left at home as company to their mother.  Thus, she does not become a part of the sorority her sisters have formed, in the same way that the younger Bennet sisters are not part of what Jane and Elizabeth establish.  In some ways, then, these sororities are exclusive, not inclusive, communities.

This paradigm of families with odd-numbered sisters leads Natalie Tyler to identify the “triangulation of sisters” as “the perfect geometrical figure to play off various traits and experiences, sundry harmonies, and counterpoints upon one another” (142).  And as we have seen in two novels, these pitched proportions reveal and lead to striking propositions with pertinent narrative ramifications.  The geometry is elegant.  The two elder Bennets play off against the energies of the younger with Mary as a fulcrum between their unit and the man-chasing younger sisters, while the two elder Dashwoods stand apart from each other and from Margaret in their own highly charged, isolated distances.  One is a kind of X-figure, and the other resembles a T.  In both cases, the diagrams indicate separation, not unity.

Austen heightens the sisterly relations in both of these novels by posing counter examples.  In Pride and Prejudice, the Bennet sisters are, in effect, contrasted with the Bingley sisters, whom we see in action at the aptly denominated Netherfield Park (“nether” meaning “nothing—thus “Neverland,” nowhere land) when Jane is taken ill there and Elizabeth attends her as a nurse.  They are in an inverted, upside-down, nowhere land where the Bingleys as tenants rule.  The narrator calls the Bingleys “elegant” (41), indicating their awareness of fashion.  But we never see them displaying generosity or kindness or any other proper behavior; rather, they disdain the poorer Bennets, though the Bennets, at least, have an estate, albeit suffering under an hereditary entail, a practice dating from the time of the Norman Conquest (good in a society still conforming to inherited privilege), which confers property only on sons (bad in a society increasingly capitalistic and cash-based).  The narrator has already introduced the Bingleys as sisters of a wealthy but propertyless young man, as Mrs. Bennet reports, “‘from the north of England’” (3), which can mean only nouveau riche—north signifying rising industrial Birmingham and Manchester.  Thus, Bingley wealth is new but unlanded as yet.  Hence, the Bingleys become a negative foil to the exemplary though struggling Bennets, struggling, that is, in a changing, challenging world.  The old securities of inherited property are gone with the winds of rising capitalism and empire.  It appears that to the rich Bingleys will go society’s spoils.  The parallel sister pairs here illuminate a chilling brave new world.

In Sense and Sensibility, similarly, the Dashwoods, though sundered for much of the story through Marianne’s cri de coeur for her lost flame Willoughby and Elinor’s imposed silence, are pitted against another sister set, seekers of fashion and societal approval, the wittily named Steele sisters, who have nothing of the stricture and mettle of principle about them.  They are the unsteeled sisters.  One public rejoinder by the younger Lucy, offered lightly but clearly accurately to her older sister, sums them both up:  “‘Lord! Anne, cried her sister, ‘you can talk of nothing but beaux;—you will make Miss Dashwood believe you think of nothing else’” (124).  She is right.  Like Lydia and Kitty Bennet, who also lack parental regulation, Anne and Lucy Steele look out for themselves and know that they need husbands in this dangerous world, however they can find them.  And that is why Lucy can easily trade Edward for Robert Ferrars when their mother’s favor and inheritance shift from one to the other.  It is not the man but the money that matters.  So while the Steele sisters might be figures of derision early in the novel, they are, at least, eminently practical, even if unprincipled.  They seek wealth and the security they assume will accompany it, not the happiness the novel’s protagonists desire.

In Emma, Isabella and Emma Woodhouse are many years apart in age, and Isabella has been several years married and away when the novel begins, so Emma strives to establish a tie, seemingly sisterly, with Harriet Smith, someone’s natural child, left to be schooled but not acknowledged in Emma’s parish.  However, Emma’s goal in this friendship is really to entertain herself, and Harriet is pretty clearly out of her league in education and accomplishments.  Mr. Knightley tells Emma’s former governess, Mrs. Weston:  “‘[T]his great intimacy between Emma and Harriet Smith . . . I think . . . [is] a bad thing’” (36) because he does not feel that there is equality that will test and teach Emma to be the best person she can be.  And he is right.  Meanwhile, Emma disdains Mr. Knightley’s encouragement of a friendship with Jane Fairfax, whom he sees as better matched to her in education, breeding, and class (166-73), but she who desires to be superior is threatened by such equality.  Emma is not ready for true sisterhood, in which there are sharing and empathy and even criticism, at times.  Her experiences through the novel will bring her to the point of acknowledging her love for Mr. Knightley as well as to realizing her ability to be a sister.  In other words, in the novel(s), to be able to be a sister is also to be able to have a mate.

The protagonists of Northanger Abbey, Mansfield Park, and Persuasion all have sisters, but most of the central action of their novels takes place away from them.  The isolation, in fact, is crucial to the plots.  In Northanger Abbey, Catherine Morland is taken away from her family and her younger sisters to adventure on her own, similar to Fanny Price’s trajectory, wrenched away from her family as she is in Mansfield Park.  In the last third of that book, Fanny becomes a model and guide to her two younger sisters, though not equally successfully with both, when she finally returns to Portsmouth for a visit, showing what sisters can do and be for one another.  Still, for most of these two novels these young women are isolated from their immediate families, and Fanny makes no female friendships that might emulate the relationship of sisterhood.  Mary Crawford, for a time, seeks her sisterly friendship, but of course that potential collapses with Fanny’s rejection of her brother Henry’s proposal.

Indeed, both Catherine and Fanny in their exploits away from home come in contact with sisters who are deceivers and temptresses.  Catherine encounters Isabella Thorpe, whose sisters are merely useful or disposable accessories to her pursuit of a husband and fulfillment of self.  When Isabella becomes engaged to Catherine’s brother under the unfortunate delusion that the Morland family is wealthy, she says, “‘You will be so infinitely dearer to me, my Catherine, than either Anne or Maria [her natural sisters]:  I feel that I shall be so much more attached to my dear Morland’s family than to my own.’  This was a pitch of friendship beyond Catherine” (118).  Indeed, and it is certainly a pitch beyond Jane Austen, too, for whom family—especially blood sisters—is all.  For Isabella, sisters are to be made or discarded as circumstances warrant.  Catherine’s educational progress leads her to another conclusion, for ultimately she finds in Henry Tilney’s sister Eleanor a fitting sister(-in-law), as she finds Henry a fitting mate, again matching the achievement of spouse and of sister at the end of the novel.

A kind of in-between sisterhood exists in the example of Mary Crawford and her half-sister Mrs. Grant in Mansfield Park.  Theirs is a close and respectful connection, which they honor as true sisterhood, despite their different paternity and lack of complete familial relationship, but they are not a moral model for Austen because ultimately Mrs. Grant supports—or—at least does not counter—Mary and, perforce, her worldly notions.  What this example shows, though, is the ways in which in Austen’s world, probably reflecting the spirit of the age, terms such as “half” or “in law,” which today we use to distance or to modify relationships, were, once acknowledged, in effect, ignored, dissolving the barriers and allowing the bond to flourish.  This affirmation of the bond happens here, and it also occurs in Sense and Sensibility, where John Dashwood is denoted as a “brother” to Elinor, Marianne, and Margaret, rather than the more accurate “half brother” that he is, and despite his avaricious wife’s efforts to render the distance between them even greater.

Fanny Price in Mansfield Park, taken away from her brothers and sisters, grows up with her sister cousins Maria and Julia Bertram, who take no interest in her except to mock her lack of education.  As the narrator says, “they could do no more than make her a generous present of some of their least valued toys” (14), leaving Fanny free to observe and judge their amoral competition for the favors of Henry Crawford and their other efforts to advance their own self-interest.  Again, no parents in the way to arrest these foul directions:  the father is off in Antigua; their mother naps all the time and cannot care less about her children’s interests or activities.  Maria and Julia are like Lydia and Kitty Bennet but with money and pitted against each other as they seek to satisfy their selfish urges.  Thus, we have an instance of a negative sorority, a breached sisterhood.  They are sisters, but they are not sisterly.  Here are sisters whose association is competitive and destructive, not bearing the camaraderie and moral support of the elder Bennets or what the elder Dashwoods come to.

A pivotal example of sisterly estrangement is introduced in the beginning of and as the backdrop to the action of Mansfield Park.  The novel opens with an account of the marital fortune or misfortune of the three Ward sisters, a triangulated model.  Emily Auerbach is instructive here, characterizing “these three sisters’ uncaring relationship” (191) as, in fact, “morally bankrupt’” (190).  Indeed, this generally little noticed failing among this generation older than the young people who dominate the narrative not only sets the tone for the novel but very much serves to highlight the shortcomings and failings against which Fanny and her beloved cousin Edmund must struggle and prevail, those forces of social climbing and wealth-seeking, represented by his sisters.  The sisterly cords, once broken by the Wards, herald the breakdown of the moral compass of the family continuing at least into the next generation, where, at least for a time, Julia and Maria reign.

Last is Persuasion, another family of nothing but sisters, another triangulated figure.  This time, the featured sister is the middle one, Anne Elliot.  The narrator soon wearies of the oldest daughter, Elizabeth, who is not without intelligence and potential at the very start of the novel, but who is shortly shown to be overcome with self-regard and her allegiance with their vain and silly father, whose only infatuation is with his mirror.  Elizabeth’s role is to be a kind of mirror to him.  The youngest daughter, Mary, is also hopeless as a companion and confidante for Anne.  Says the narrator, “Mary was not so repulsive [meaning “repellant,” according to the OED] and unsisterly as Elizabeth” (43), but she is disagreeably hypochondriacal, and in another context we are told, “Mary had no feelings to make her respect her sister’s in a common way” (60).  That is, she never thinks of anyone but herself.  So Anne suffers by being without the understanding and sympathy borne of true sisterhood, founded on an empathetic connection.  She has two sisters, but they are both worthless, another negative sorority.

Pointedly, as the light but at times pertinent little handbook 101 Things You Didn’t Know about Jane Austen directs us, “Anne Elliot envies the perfect amity between Louisa and Henrietta Musgrove, which offers such a contrast to what she finds in her own family.  Her sisters offer her neither real love—Mary’s attachment to her is selfish and superficial—nor understanding” (152), and Elizabeth is no better.  Thus, Anne’s domestic relations do not provide a sorority of support and trust for her, but the novel offers her, besides the Musgrove pair to admire, some peer female friends worthy of her:  Mrs. Smith in Bath, a school friend who tells her of the villainy of her cousin and beau Walter Elliot, and Frederick Wentworth’s sister-in-law Sophia Croft, who will become her sister-in-law, too, once Frederick and Anne are married. In the world of these novels, sometimes, the genuine and meaningful sisterhood comes through marriage, as it does in Northanger Abbey for Catherine Morland once she weds the brother of Eleanor Tilney.

At the ends of the novels, Austen displays what I call “The City of Sisterly Love,” a community of sisters, in other words, in which, despite the destructive and overpowering forces borne of evil and vexation and masculine power in the world, a sympathetic community of trust and affection emerges around the heroines and their cherished husbands.  Sometimes, they have been shadowed by inverted, negative versions, but in the end the positives will out.  It is possible, I think, to find a source for this model beyond what Austen might herself have observed in the world around her.  First, let’s look at the ends of the novels.

Sense and Sensibility ends with this picture:  “[A]mong the merits and the happiness of Elinor and Marianne, let it not be ranked as the least considerable, that though sisters, and living almost within sight of each other, they could live without disagreement between themselves, or producing coolness between their husbands” (380).  The novel, therefore, reunites the sisters in affection and trust; their first loyalty is of course domestic and marital, but surrounding and safeguarding that orbit is the sisterly bond, thereby yoking sisterhood and marriage.

Pride and Prejudice expands this image with the sisters Elizabeth and Jane, married and happy and within beck and call of one another.  Elizabeth is ensconced in “their family party at Pemberley” (384), Darcy’s estate become a sisterly Eden:  the Bingleys nearby, Darcy’s sister Georgiana now a sister to Elizabeth, and sister Kitty is welcome as is Lydia, occasionally, when her now disgraced husband Wickham is elsewhere, with Mary, left at home with her aphorisms and her parents.

Mansfield Park ends with Fanny Price near the eponymous estate house, with her beloved Edmund settled as the Mansfield rector and her sister Susan replacing her as the companion to their indolent aunt so that the two sisters, Fanny and Susan, are now within hailing distance of one another, in renewed connection and communion, with the promise of spreading their positive energies outward to others.  Edmund will be resident at his church, for Sir Thomas has already preached on the importance of that text to the novel’s characters (247-48), to Fanny’s approbation and Mary Crawford’s dismay.  The village rector belongs with his flock, where he and his wife establish a home and serve their community, which Edmund and Fanny will surely accomplish.

Similarly, the language of the conclusion of Emma might sum up Jane Austen’s vision of sisters and families.  Describing the wedding of Emma and Mr. George Knightley, Jane Austen notes first that it must be planned for a time when sister Isabella and her husband (John Knightley) can be there.  This underscores the essential bond between sisters, spouses of brothers, thereby sisters and sisters-in-law, as “the small band of true friends who witnessed the ceremony” (484).  It is indeed a privileged unity of intimates with which all of the novels close, sisters united with one another and with the men they most deserve (and who share their love) and with any of the few relatives who have come into the circle of the virtuous and good.

At the finale of Persuasion, with the nation finally at peace after the second exile of Napoleon and threat of invasion therefore at last dispatched, Anne Elliot Wentworth, “glorie[s] in being a sailor’s wife, but she must pay the tax of quick alarm for belonging to that profession which is, if possible, more distinguished in its domestic virtues than in its national importance” (252).  Thus, even though the safety of the nation resides with the British Navy, as Jane Austen, sister of two career Navy men who, after her death, both became admirals, acknowledged, the culmination salutes family honor.  And, as with Catherine Morland and Elizabeth Bennet, Anne gains with her marriage a worthy sister-in-law, in the person of Sophia Croft, to say nothing of a closer connection to the other admirable Navy wives to whom she is now linked.  In fact, Persuasion might offer the strongest testimony on the value of sisterhood because it contains a heroine’s defense of women’s more profound feelings.  Moreover, when Anne tells Captain Hargrove that women love and suffer more keenly than men because they are more private and reserved and less able to be distracted by worldly affairs, she might as well be making a claim for the necessity of sorority.  Women need other women, by implication, since men are off doing manly things like empire building.  The city of sisterly love is, thereby, an enclave of strength against the vagaries of fate and the challenges and vexations of life, and each novel buttresses its heroines accordingly.

So where did Jane Austen secure the model for such a community?  The last book of the Bible, the Revelation of St. John the Divine, which Austen as a devout Anglican would most likely have known well, is a letter of apt admonishment to seven urban congregations, sisters, as it were, in what is today Turkey.  One of these is Philadelphia, for whom Austen’s aforementioned aunt was named, the original City of Brotherly Love, on the western coast.  In Revelation, it comes in for less wrath than do its sister cities, perhaps because it has already been much abused by earthquake damage:  “And to the angel of the church in Philadelphia . . . I know thy works. . . . [T]hou hast a little strength, and has kept my word, and has not denied my name” (3.7-8).  Philadelphia has suffered, but it has kept the faith.  However, in general the cities all are to be swept away before the grand urban myth now to be revealed:  “And I John saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.  That great city, the holy Jerusalem, descending out of heaven from God,” the city of the Lamb of God where the blessed who observe the commandments of God will dwell forever (Rev.21.2, 10; 22.14).  Jane Austen’s novels all end with a blessed vision of community, which might well have been inspired by the biblical model of community and aspiring toward it, whether it be “the small band of true friends” at Hartfield or the “family party at Pemberley,” always here grounded on female domestic relations, in several senses of that final word.  For the unmarried Jane Austen—who lived at the end of her life with her mother, beloved sister, and a dear female family friend—happiness and security, comfort and support, can surely be invested in a community of the female side of the family, a city of sisterly love, a most positive sorority, with disparate elements united by relation and affection and disposed, nay, even called to good works in the world.

Works Cited

Auerbach, Emily.  Searching for Jane Austen Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 2004.

Austen, Jane.  The Novels of Jane AustenEd. R. W. Chapman.  3rd ed.  Oxford: OUP, 1933-69.

The Bible.  The Authorized King James Version.  Oxford: OUP, 1998.

Hannon, Patrice.  101 Things You Didn’t Know about Jane Austen.  New York: Fall River P, 2007.

Marsh, Nicholas.  Jane Austen: The Novels New York: St. Martin’s P, 1998.

Shields, Carol.  Jane Austen: A Penguin Life.  New York: Penguin, 2005.

Tolstoy, Leo.  Anna Karenina.  Trans. Joel Carmichael.  New York: Bantam Books, 1960.

Tyler, Natalie.  The Friendly Jane Austen.  New York: Viking, 1999.

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