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

The Sibling Ideal in Jane Austen’s Novels: When Near Incest Really is Best



Celia A. Easton


Celia A. Easton (email: is the Regional Coordinator of JASNA-Rochester.  Her essays on Jane Austen have appeared in Persuasions and The Journal of Narrative Technique.  As Professor of English and Dean of Residential Living at SUNY Geneseo, she teaches courses on Jane Austen and invokes Austen to teach and promote civility.


In the fifth book of Plato’s Republic, Socrates posits that in the imaginary city he and his interlocutors are inventing, marriage among the aristocratic (i.e., “the best”) guardians would be arranged by the state through lotteries, parents would not know their individual children, and men and women would consider everyone in their own generation bothers and sisters, regardless of blood relationship.  “Those born during the time when their fathers and mothers were having children,” Socrates explains, “they will call them brothers and sisters so that, as I said, these groups will have no sexual relations with each other” (416d).  This state-controlled human breeding aims to produce the best leaders for the polis, and to focus citizens on community rather than individual values.


Hardly a realistic blueprint for social reform, Plato’s imagined city serves instead to critique fifth-century Athenian self-interest and the political corruption that followed its defeat at the end of the Peloponnesian War.  Why extend the meaning of “sibling” to a broader group than biologically related brothers and sisters?  The incest prohibition here is not driven by a desire for genetic diversity; instead, it strengthens loyalty, avoids jealousy, and ensures a connection between people that does not depend upon eroticism.  Ironically, a non-erotic sibling relationship provides greater opportunities for intimacy than many married couples would have had in Athens, when men and women’s lives in the citizen class were distinctly separated into public and private spheres.  When they are past the age of child-bearing, Socrates suggests, couples may marry whomever they choose—including someone formerly designated a “brother” or “sister.”

While Jane Austen may not have been a reader of Plato, her language echoes the philosopher, and this framework of sibling and pseudo-sibling intimacy pervades her novels.  Mrs. Norris cites the incest prohibition most directly when she assures her brother-in-law, Sir Thomas, that his sons would be safe from any predatory marriage pursuits by their cousin, Fanny Price:  “‘[B]reed her up with them from this time, and suppose her even to have the beauty of an angel, and she will never be more to either than a sister’” (MP 7).  Pseudo-siblings abound in Austen’s fiction.  Mr. Knightley’s romantic attachment to Emma evolves from a brotherly relationship necessitated until recent years by the gap in their ages.  Henry Tilney teases Catherine Morland because, as Eleanor explains, “‘he is treating you exactly as he does his sister’” (NA 109).  Edward Ferrars’s intimacy with Elinor Dashwood develops because they are brought together in a family setting at Norland.  Readers might suspect that Edward could extend kindness to his sister Fanny but finds greater receptivity in his near-sister, Elinor.  Ruth Perry observes that “a brother’s generosity toward his sister” in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century fiction and life was a “fundamental marker of his character” (144).  In contrast with Austen’s “good” brothers, Mr. Collins is doomed to fail in any marriage proposals he might offer to four-out-of-five Bennet sisters because, despite his close blood ties, his manner is stiff, formal, cliché-ridden, and distinctly unsibling-like.

Jane Austen’s challenge is to allow relationships to develop between near-siblings while not limiting them by erotic prohibition.  Her literary model in this respect is Richardson’s Sir Charles Grandison, in which Harriet Byron is ready to admit her love for Sir Charles at the end of volume one.  But Harriet is welcomed as his “third sister” for six volumes until Sir Charles—like Edward Ferrars—can disentangle himself from a prior engagement.  Like Fanny Price waiting for Edmund, Harriet turns down other marriage proposals while fearing that she may never have the opportunity to marry the man she loves.  Yet her intimacy as a “sister” gives her access to Sir Charles that no other potential mates have.  Lady Clementina della Porretta once had such a sisterly relation to Sir Charles when he spent time with the Italian family after he saved the life of one of her real brothers.  Similarly, Lucy Steele’s initial attractiveness for Edward Ferrars is her proximity when he is a member of her uncle’s household.  Harriet and Elinor successfully displace Sir Charles and Edward’s fiancées because circumstances allow them to interact closely with men who might not otherwise have had the opportunity to comprehend their minds, talents, and values.

Numerous critics, including Mary Jean Corbett, Glenda Hudson, and Valerie Sanders, have noted Austen’s use of an incest motif, and have situated her novels in the historical context of eighteenth-century social engineering and a Romantic fascination with incest and eroticism.  These critics have pointed out that incestuous social models are conservative, that they restrict exogamy or marriage outside the immediate group.  Models of relationships limited to family members—especially cousins—increase in number during the Enlightenment because of the growth of population diversity, including ethnic minorities displaced from their villages, cities, and countries by slavery, racism, and anti-Semitism.  The incestuous model restricts marriage choice to keep elite groups from mixing with others who do not share their history, values, or wealth.

Such readings of literary depictions of incestuous marriage choices comprehend the most disturbing aspect of Plato’s proposal for selecting and educating the philosophers who will serve as the guardians of the city Socrates imagines.  The marriage lottery is a breeding program intended to exclude those with inferior abilities from having the opportunity to be political leaders.  Jane Austen repeatedly critiques such elitism and exclusivity in marriage choice, most notably when Lady Catherine de Bourgh frets that the “‘shades of Pemberley [would] be thus polluted’” if Darcy married Elizabeth, because their marriage would make him the “‘brother’” of Wickham, “‘the son of his late father’s steward’” (PP 396).  But marriage restriction is positively reinforced in novels like Mansfield Park, where Maria’s affair with Henry Crawford suggests that the moral depravity of mixing with the “other” results in a breakdown of the institutions society depends upon for the perpetuation of fortune and political values, and Edmund and Fanny’s marriage blocks penetration by the outsider Crawfords.

I am interested in turning the discussion of incest models away from the topic of breeding and restricted marriage choice, however, precisely because Austen ambiguously both endorses and critiques such social control.  In this essay I focus on those children in The Republic who are brought up with the myth that everyone in their generation is a brother or sister.  One purpose of this, as Socrates and Aunt Norris agree, is to keep them from thinking of each other as potential marriage partners, until the overseers of breeding—or in Mrs. Norris’s case, the social matchmakers—can determine which adults have developed traits that the state would like to see reproduced in their offspring.  But the other purpose of the myth is to develop the loyalty of family relations from an early age, to reduce the social conflict and competition that can lead to political corruption and the decline of the best city-state.  In that respect, Austen is philosophically aligned with Plato because many of the companionate marriages in her novels are established through the Platonic ideal of pseudo-sibling relationships.



I choose the words, “philosophically aligned” to sidestep the label “Platonist” for Jane Austen.  In most respects, like other writers of the Enlightenment and the pre-Romantic era, Austen grounds truth in practice and experience, not transcendental signifiers.  Yet, as Michael Prince points out in Philosophical Dialogue in the British Enlightenment, in Sense and Sensibility Austen reflects a “fundamentally pessimistic view of human nature” not unlike Plato’s, and her fiction, like Plato’s dramatic dialogues, approaches philosophical inquiry through irony and skepticism (250).  David Gallop also sees Austen as a Platonic “ironist,” though he argues that her aesthetic and ethical perspective is more Aristotelian than Platonic (96).  When Socrates asks his friends if the city they are inventing will be a Greek city, and therefore friendly to all Greeks despite minor differences (Republic 5: 471), Plato’s ironic critique of the recently concluded, twenty-seven-year-long Peloponnesian war is in full force. 

Austen’s pessimistic irony shows up in sentences like the opening of Volume Two, Chapter Four of Emma, after Mr. Elton has announced he will be marrying:  “Human nature is so well disposed towards those who are in interesting situations, that a young person, who either marries or dies, is sure of being kindly spoken of” (194).  In addition to the cutting blow the narrator delivers here at both Miss Hawkins and the indiscriminate people of Highbury, this passage addresses a problem of the “incest ideal.”  Being a brother and sister is so comfortable that it is rarely considered “interesting” and hardly ever “spoken of.”  If a couple has an enhanced intimacy, like brother and sister, due to extended proximity, they themselves may fail to recognize a romantic attraction.  Certainly Emma and Mr. Knightley wear such blinders.  No one suspects Edward Ferrars might be engaged to Lucy Steele.  Fanny Price and Elinor Dashwood recognize their “interesting” feelings—but Edmund Bertram is oblivious, and Edward Ferrars is forced by the secret of his earlier intimacy to keep his attraction to Elinor under wraps.

We do not have direct knowledge that Austen might have read Plato’s dialogue describing positively constructed incest relationships.  Sarah Emsley reads Austen predominantly through an Aristotelian and Thomistic philosophical tradition of “virtue,” and she notes that whether or not Austen read Plato and Aristotle’s writings, she understood their philosophical perspectives through other literary figures like Shakespeare, Spenser, Johnson, and Fielding, who infused their own work with ideas from the classical tradition (19).  Emsley’s discussion of Pride and Prejudice and the notion of the “fear of shame” described in Plato’s Phaedrus is particularly applicable to my discussion here.  Such fear, Emsley notes, “can inspire the individual to learn more and to be more virtuous” (96).  Darcy’s pain in reflecting upon Elizabeth’s criticism of him pushes him to reflect upon and revise his judgment, despite the pain of such moral education.  Throughout Austen’s works, pseudo-siblings provide a similar moral check.  Emma’s moral development, for example, is moved forward when she views her actions through Mr. Knightley’s eyes.  She would not have had access to that perspective, however, without the intimacy of their near-sibling relationship.

Many critics have noted the psychological, sociological, and structural role of incest in Jane Austen’s novels.  Glenda Hudson observes that sibling love is Austen’s model for conjugal love (5).  Although marriage between first cousins was legal in Jane Austen’s day, and practiced in Austen’s family when Henry Austen married his widowed cousin Eliza, Hudson notes that some of Austen’s contemporaries discouraged such unions out of concern that such marriages, made for the preservation of property, were rarely affectionate.  But Austen’s successful marriages of cousins and pseudo-siblings secure a conservative set of family values and strengthen a discrete and secure kinship circle (Hudson 35).

Mansfield Park supports this conservative value when Edmund articulates the principle of excluding outsiders by agreeing to act in Lovers Vows.  Although many readers of Mansfield Park believe Austen initially considered a union of Henry Crawford and Fanny Price for the novel’s resolution, the frequent structure of the “sibling ideal” in her works suggests that she is laying the groundwork for Edmund to recognize his affection for Fanny precisely in his determination not to let the neighbors act in the “family” play.  His own blinders to Henry and Mary’s outsider status is ironically displayed in his rejection of the other neighbors:  “‘I know no harm of Charles Maddox; but the excessive intimacy which must spring from his being admitted among us in this manner, is highly objectionable, the more than intimacy—the familiarity.  I cannot think of it with any patience—and it does appear to me an evil of such magnitude as must, if possible, be prevented’” (180).  Edmund claims he is being protective of his sisters, but he is also expressing his father’s desire for privacy.  Sir Thomas protects his property by keeping his business within the family.  He takes Tom with him to Antigua.  Edmund holds one of the estate’s livings and was intended to hold the other.  Although Sir Thomas responds angrily when Fanny refuses to marry Henry Crawford, both her rejection and his overridden preference for family privacy are justified when Henry has an affair with Maria.  Sir Thomas welcomes Fanny as a daughter, we are told, because he has grown “[s]ick of ambitious and mercenary connections” (545).

Austen’s novels, Valerie Sanders notes, explore both relationships that are restricted to a small family circle (such as Emma’s attachments to Frank Churchill and Mr. Knightley) and relationships that draw in outsiders (such as Mr. Bingley and Mr. Darcy).  The former reflect the Freudian view that all love objects originate in erotic love, and primary erotic relationships are incestuous (Sanders 81).  Sociologically, she observes, brothers are model lovers for their sisters:  affectionate, protective, and intimate, without being sexually threatening.  Not all brothers are admired by their sisters:  Edmund tries to be a moral guide for Julia and Maria, but is not successful (84).  Sanders joins others in judging that Mary Crawford’s best mate would be her brother, and she keenly notes that Mary indirectly enjoys Henry Crawford’s sexual energy when he describes his increasing interest in making Fanny Price fall in love with him (85).

Marriages formed within a family circle sociologically reinforce a taboo on miscegenation or mixing of classes, as Mary Jean Corbett has strongly argued (25).  Corbett observes that Northanger Abbey is about the language of courtship and the risk of communication outside one’s family.  Catherine Morland, like many of Austen’s heroines, learns to overcome a “suspicion of strangers” (32).  Marriage within families is an elitist class practice:  Mr. Collins follows Lady Catherine’s model when he approaches his cousins with an eye toward marriage (33).  Austen also condemns the practice of marriages within the family circle when Colonel Brandon narrates the destructive relationship of his brother’s marriage to Eliza, formed only for the consolidation of property (34).



With the possible exception of the strong bond between Mary and Henry Crawford, Austen does not tease her readers with concerns about actual brother-sister relationships.  Her mature fiction has none of the playful incestuous eroticism Fielding wields when Tom Jones mistakenly believes he has slept with his mother, or when Joseph Andrews is convinced that Fanny Goodwill is his sister.  Yet Austen lived and wrote, Ruth Perry points out, at precisely the time “family” became defined more as a conjugal than consanguineous unit, an historical shift that not only devalued women as capital and objects of barter offered in marriage, but also likely increased actual sexual attempts on daughters, sisters, and nieces (379).  Incestuous sexuality is conventional in eighteenth-century gothic fiction (Perry 387-98), including most of the books consumed by Catherine Morland and Isabella Thorpe.  Thus we know that Austen is not naïve about sexuality and incest.  Those very conventions contribute to her reader’s distrust of the powerful and imposing General Tilney.  But Austen sidesteps the uncomfortable topic of sexually exploited women by employing the structure of incest to invoke the intimate bonds of proximity, then substituting a partner who is not actually related by blood—or, in the case of the first cousins at Mansfield, at least not too much blood.

Among actual siblings in Austen’s fiction, Fanny and William Price’s relationship is unironically close.  It differs from other close sibling relationships, like Darcy and Georgiana’s, because they are near equals, not mentor and mentee.  Little Fanny initially feels isolated and disconnected at Mansfield Park, which she expresses as missing William.  Later, William is the lever Henry Crawford knows he can pull to win Fanny’s gratitude, if not her heart, and Fanny nearly absolves Crawford of his misdeeds when he advances William’s professional interests.  Her brother William—and not a romantic love interest—is the focus of Fanny’s “coming out” when their uncle throws a ball specifically in their honor.  Fanny and William’s love has been called “the standard against which all other” love relationships in Mansfield Park are measured (Tomalin 232, citing Gilbert Ryle).  Mary Jean Corbett, in noting the advantage of incest models in preserving the familiar, asserts that Fanny’s affection for Edmund originates in her love for her biological brother (54).  As Fanny anticipates William’s visit to Mansfield Park with unchecked felicity, Austen’s narrator suggests that sibling love outstrips “the conjugal tie” as a deeper and stronger bond of shared pleasure and pain:

Children of the same family, the same blood, with the same first associations and habits, have some means of enjoyment in their power, which no subsequent connections can supply; and it must be by a long and unnatural estrangement, by a divorce which no subsequent connection can justify, if such precious remains of the earliest attachments are ever entirely outlived.  (273-74)

Fanny’s joy comes from her “unchecked, equal, fearless intercourse with the brother and friend” (273).  As Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy demonstrate in the “lively, sportive, manner” of their communication (PP 430), this intercourse is the model in Austen’s novels of companionate marriage.  It is most easily arrived at—in contrast with Elizabeth and Darcy’s struggle—when lovers have the proximity of siblings.  For Fanny Price, the perfect conjugal relationship will be formed by the substitution of Edmund for William.

In Mansfield Park, Austen’s narrator also notes that sibling bonds may be “worse than nothing” (274)—undoubtedly referencing the Bertram girls’ rejection of their brother Edmund’s love in their eagerness to reach outside their family circle.  The sibling or near-sibling bond is never sufficient for creating a meaningful relationship.  Lady Catherine mistakenly assumes it to be when she insists to Elizabeth Bennet that her daughter and Mr. Darcy, while not formally engaged, have been intended for each other since birth.  Mr. Collins shares such presumption when he approaches the Bennet sisters with his intention to wed, neglecting even to attempt to woo his potential wife.  And Caroline Bingley, hoping to make the most of Darcy’s intimate proximity during the time he spends with her brother, instead alienates and offends the lover she desires as she flirts, flatters, and gossips.  Wickham is nearly successful when he attempts to elope with Georgiana Darcy because she trusts him too much.  Their near-sibling intimacy and her father’s affection for Wickham blind Georgiana to his greater interest in her fortune.

Turning to the pseudo-sibling model Jane Austen would know well through her reading of Sir Charles Grandison, we find that Richardson’s characters reflect the Platonic ideal of trust and intimacy unthreatened by eroticism.  When Austen wrote in a letter to Cassandra in 1796 about the departure of her father’s boarding pupil John Willing Warren, she acknowledged—possibly with Grandison in mind—that they could never have had a romantic attachment because, as Irene Collins puts it, he wanted to be “nothing more than another elder brother” (113, citing 9-10 and 14-15 January 1796).  Harriet Byron knows sibling relations disqualify men from making love to her; thus she gently rebuffs Sir Roland Meredith’s recommendation of his nephew by honoring him with the title of “uncle” and calling his nephew her “brother.”  This humorous episode early in Richardson’s novel sets Harriet up for the frustration of being designated the “new found” sister of Sir Charles, whose knightly rescue of her from her kidnapper Sir Hargrave Pollexfen inspires Harriet to refer to him as “my protector.” 

As she spends time with the Grandison family, Harriet increasingly wishes Sir Charles were less a brother, but she gains an intimacy with him that she never has with any of the men who have already offered to marry her.  By volume three of the novel, Harriet is the model of Fanny Price, desperately trying to hide her own passion while wishing her “friend and brother” would be a little less fraternal.  When Sir Charles invites Harriet to a private conference in his brother-in-law’s library, Harriet half expects a proposal:  “How did I struggle with myself for presence of mind!” she writes her cousin.

What a mixture was there of tenderness and respect in his countenance and air!  He seated me; then took his place over against me.  I believe I looked down, and conscious, and silly; but there was such a respectful modesty in his looks, that one could not be uneasy at being now and then, with an air of languor, as I thought, contemplated by him.  (3: 170)

Sir Charles describes the advantages of a brother-sister relationship when he tells Harriet, “I will make no apology for requesting the favour of this conference with one of the most frank and open-hearted young ladies in the world” (171).  But Sir Charles is not in a marrying mind.  He is eager to learn from Harriet what his younger sister Charlotte thinks of her two current suitors, and then he launches into the narration that will dash all Harriet’s hopes.  He freely relates his youthful attraction to a Florentine woman and his more serious connection to the Italian Porretta family, especially their lovely daughter, Clementina.  Clementina’s story uncannily mirrors Harriet’s:  Sir Charles rescues her brother from paid assassins and persuades him to give up his libertine ways; Clementina is encouraged to accept the Englishman as another “brother.”  She refuses the marriage proposals of a worthy Italian count, and her family suspects her of a hidden passion for—the unfortunately Protestant—Sir Charles.  Even Charlotte Grandison presumes Harriet’s library talk is Sir Charles’ opportunity to propose to his pseudo-sibling.  Finding Harriet sobbing over the sad story of Clementina’s unresolved relationship with Sir Charles, she asks, “Do I, or do I not, embrace my sister, my real sister, my sister Grandison?”  Harriet’s response is absolute:  “No flattering hope is now left me—no sister!” (3: 202).

Even in her early fiction, Austen amusingly acknowledges the romantic possibilities of familial proximity.  Lady Susan’s sarcastic narrator concludes her story by noting that “Frederica was therefore fixed in the family of her Uncle & Aunt, till such time as Reginald De Courcy could be talked, flattered & finessed into an affection for her” (77).  The model works for Isabella Thorpe and Lucy Steele, too.  Isabella insists to Catherine Morland that she and Catherine’s brother James discovered their “‘opinions were so exactly the same’” during the time he spent with the Thorpe family (NA 68).  Lucy’s engagement to Edward Ferrars comes about because, as she tells Elinor, “‘my sister and me was often staying with my uncle, and it was there our engagement was formed’” (SS 150).  Although these familial attachments are unsuccessful, Austen simply refines the model for the positive relationships in her novels.  Mrs. Dashwood notes with approval Edward Ferrars’s attachment to Elinor; even Marianne, in denouncing his lack of passion, says he admires Elinor’s art as a lover might—eager to appreciate whether or not he liked her drawings.  But Edward’s openness with Elinor is only possible because he is unavailable and because he treats her like a family member during his long visit with both halves of the Dashwood family.  His secret engagement to Lucy indirectly permits him to pursue his open communication with his pseudo-sister.

On one subject, of course, Edward is not open:  his engagement with Lucy is the secret that wearies and depresses him.  Edward’s ring provides a clue about Lucy’s existence before the Dashwoods meet her, but the mutual pretence that he is wearing a setting of his sister’s hair tells us something else about sibling intimacy.  Marianne, though not privy to the exchange, believes Elinor has provided Edmund with a lock of her hair.  Elinor, similarly, believes Edmund has obtained her hair surreptitiously, because all of them plainly see, despite Edmund’s insistence, that the hair does not match Fanny’s.  If the color had matched, the sentiment would not: William Price might wear a ring of his sister’s hair, but such a gift would represent a far greater friendship than has ever existed among the Ferrars children.  Nevertheless, this scene—like William Price’s gift to Fanny of the amber cross—makes clear that close siblings might well mark their relationships as lovers do, with gifts of jewels or tresses.  Austen uses Edward’s embarrassment in talking about the ring with Marianne to extend the suspense for her reader—perhaps Edward is close to proposing to Elinor—until the ring becomes definitive proof of Lucy and Edward’s engagement, and Elinor, like Harriet Byron, is forced to swallow her hopes and passion.

Although Edward and Elinor are close because of the time they spent living together at Norland, their pseudo-sibling relationship lacks the corrective factor we see in Emma’s learning to judge her behavior by Mr. Knightley’s standards.  Austen’s interest in the ways siblings can serve as ethical measures appears as late as Sanditon, when the Parker siblings sound almost cult-like in wondering, “‘[W]hat would Sidney say if he were here?’” (161).  In Socrates’ elaboration on the extended family myth that would govern his ideal polis, the philosopher recommends the strong bonds of non-erotic familial relationships in sustaining faithfulness within the children’s generation.  He even suggests bringing children into battle to ensure that soldiers fight with courage before their families.  In Mansfield Park, Austen applies this attribute to Edmund’s attentions to little Fanny, which were “of the highest importance in assisting the improvement of her mind, and extending its pleasures” (24).  Fanny attempts academic subjects with her governess, but she learns greater lessons from her cousin:

[H]e recommended the books which charmed her leisure hours, he encouraged her taste, and corrected her judgment; he made reading useful by talking to her of what she read, and heightened its attraction by judicious praise.  In return for such services she loved him better than any body in the world except William; her heart was divided between the two.  (25)

This passage would seem to fulfill Mrs. Norris’s prediction:  pre-pubescent Fanny loves Edmund as a brother.  When Fanny is eighteen and Mary Crawford enters the neighborhood, Edmund consults his cousin as a moral check—up to a point.  He agrees with Fanny’s judgment that Mary spoke inappropriately about her uncle, the Admiral, but he does not want to find Mary “‘ungrateful’” (74).  Mary is the triangulating point, however, that will separate Fanny from Edmund and help her understand that her own gratitude has turned into desire:  “Having formed her mind and gained her affections, he had a good chance of her thinking like him; though at this period, and on this subject, there began now to be some danger of dissimilarity, for he was in a line of admiration of Miss Crawford, which might lead him where Fanny could not follow” (76).

Emma’s identification of her friendship for George Knightley as romantic love comes at a similar point of triangulation, when Harriet Smith thanks her friend for encouraging her to believe Mr. Knightley might prefer her to any other woman.  Emma asks herself when he assumed the primary place in her heart, but upon reflection she realizes, “there never had been a time when she did not consider Mr. Knightley as infinitely the superior, or when his regard for her had not been infinitely the most dear” (Emma 449).  Brother and sister?  No, indeed.  But their connection sounds like Socrates’ ideal siblings:

[F]rom family attachment and habit, and thorough excellence of mind, he had loved her, and watched over her from a girl, with an endeavour to improve her, and an anxiety for her doing right, which no other creature had at all shared.  In spite of all her faults, she knew she was dear to him; might not she say, very dear?  (452)

If Mr. Knightley had not been Emma’s pseudo-sibling, we would need to find his attention to little Emma, including his collection of reading lists she developed throughout her childhood, pretty creepy.

Over and over, sibling-style love lays a good foundation for committed relationships in Jane Austen’s novels.  Harriet Smith can be redirected to Mr. Martin because she is drawn to recall the comfortable connection she made when his sisters invited her for an extended visit in their home.  In Persuasion, Henrietta Musgrove is similarly returned to her familial intimacy with her cousin Charles Hayter.  And Louisa Musgrove reappears after her injury in Lyme miraculously (and conveniently for Anne) engaged to Captain Benwick.  Their unlikely relationship develops because of the forced familiarity of the Harvilles’ home, and the extraordinary proximity Benwick is afforded to the temporary invalid.  Captain Harville resents Benwick’s abandonment of the memory of Fanny Harville, his late fiancée, for the same reason Mrs. Norris presumes Fanny Price would never marry one of her cousins.  As Captain Harville’s almost-brother, Benwick’s house privileges give him opportunities to form emotional ties to Louisa Musgrove beyond comparison with any flirtation carried on between her and Frederick Wentworth, but Captain Harville never expects him to take advantage of them.



Jane Austen’s construction of pseudo-sibling romantic attachments takes her readers in two directions.  Mere proximity or relation—such as Anne de Bourgh and her cousin Darcy or Mr. Collins and Elizabeth—is insufficient for building a strong relationship.  Austen condemns a meager appeal to the sibling ideal without the corresponding virtues and behavior, because such relationships address wealth and property rather than love.  But why would Jane Austen sustain the structure of incest, fully aware (through the gothic fiction she enjoyed, parodied, and ultimately rejected as a literary model) that true incest signals a disruption of security within the family and a frightening exploitation of women?  Affection modeled on a cherished and positive relationship between brothers and sisters enhances lovers’ intimacy, and makes possible strong marriages between honest, courageous, and communicative partners in nearly all of Austen’s novels.  Many of the characters who are actual brothers and sisters, such as Edward Ferrars and Fanny Dashwood, Mr. Bingley and Caroline, and Edmund Bertram, Maria, and Julia, fail to be honest, courageous, and communicative with each other.  Austen asks us to admire the ones who are:  Darcy and Georgiana, William and Fanny, and Charles Musgrove, Henrietta, and Louisa.

Ruth Perry’s observation that the mid-eighteenth century and early nineteenth century marked a transformation from blood to marriage as the defining focus of the family suggests there is a reason “pseudo-siblings” make better brothers and sisters in Jane Austen’s novels than actual blood relatives do.  Austen reflects her age’s devaluing of daughters (neither the Bennet nor Dashwood daughters will inherit their family’s property) and their commodification as wives.  Although Richardson celebrated the devotion of brother and sister in Sir Charles Grandison, there is hardly a crueler brother to be found than Clarissa Harlowe’s brother James, who both resents his sister having any part of the family property and takes an active role in trying to dispose of her through marriage to Mr. Solmes.  Jane Austen’s brother characters never attempt such manipulation of their sisters.  At worst, incompatible siblings turn away from each other in neglectful tolerance, choosing partners who better reflect their values.

I suggested at the outset of this essay that Austen’s model is analogous to Plato’s.  In both cases, society has a need for the kind of virtues attributed to siblings, and depending solely upon real siblings to produce them is insufficient.  Socrates’ elaborate marriage lottery and broad designation of sibling status is posed ironically:  Plato is disgusted by the degeneration of Athenian values displayed both during a time of war and finally in defeat.  Is Austen similarly ironic?  The “sibling ideal” is a structure of values.  Throughout her fiction, Austen exposes hypocritical postures, including the hypocrisy of false affection among siblings.  Austen’s pseudo-siblings prove that people can value and emulate the ideal, even if they are not related to each other.  And when they do, they have a greater chance of marrying well, not for property but for pleasurable, companionate company.



Works Cited


Austen, Jane.  The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Jane Austen.  Gen. Ed. Janet Todd.  Cambridge: CUP, 2005-08.

_____.  Jane Austen’s Letters.  Ed. Deirdre Le Faye.  3rd ed.  Oxford: OUP, 1997.

Collins, Irene.  Jane Austen: The Parson’s Daughter.  London: Hambledon P, 1998.

Corbett, Mary Jean.  Family Likeness: Sex, Marriage, and Incest from Jane Austen to Virginia Woolf.  Ithaca: Cornell UP, 2008.

Emsley, Sarah.  Jane Austen’s Philosophy of the Virtues.  New York: Palgrave, 2005.

Gallop, David.  “Jane Austen and the Aristotelian Ethic.”  Philosophy and Literature 23.1 (1999): 96-109.

Hudson, Glenda.  Sibling Love and Incest in Jane Austen’s Fiction.  New York: St. Martin’s P, 1992.

Perry, Ruth.  Novel Relations: The Transformation of Kinship in English Literature and Culture 1748-1818.  Cambridge: CUP, 2004.

Plato.  The Republic.  Trans. G.M.A. Grube; rev. C.D.C. Reeve.  Indianapolis: Hackett, 1992.

Prince, Michael.  Philosophical Dialogue in the British Enlightenment.  Cambridge: CUP, 1996.

Richardson, Samuel.  The History of Sir Charles Grandison . . . in seven volumesPhiladelphia: Lippincott, 1902.

Sanders, Valerie.  The Brother-Sister Culture in Nineteenth-Century Literature from Austen to Woolf.  New York: Palgrave, 2002.

Tomalin, Claire.  Jane Austen: A Life.  New York: Vintage, 1999.

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