PERSUASIONS ON-LINE V.33, NO.1 (Winter 2012)

Sisters Askew: “The Three Sisters” and Pride and Prejudice

Leo Rockas


Leo Rockas (email: is an emeritus professor of the Unversity of Hartford.  He is the author of Mice Make War, Dick Finds God, the narrative adaptation of Jane Austen’s Lady Susan, and Bunbury, a sequel to The Importance of Being Earnest


we have arrived at a certain level of specialty when we can refer to the Late Juvenilia of Jane Austen.  For Peter Sabor tells us that “The Three Sisters” is written in a hand “which is later than the preceding pieces in ‘Volume the First’ and Austen at this later date was more severe in editing her writings” (xxxiii).  This tiny farcical piece of late juvenilia, written at about age sixteen, closely looked at, seems almost a “first impressions” of First Impressions, on the way to becoming a novel.  In its cartoon surface we find a startlingly raw view of the sordid business of marriage brokering and of the underlying motives of several characters who later people Pride and Prejudice.  Susan Fraiman observes, “What was shrill in ‘The Three Sisters’ becomes muted in Pride and Prejudice” (76).  As Virginia Woolf claimed, in these early pieces, Austen was “humming a tune beneath her breath, trying over a few bars of the music for Pride and Prejudice and Emma” (420).


To summarize the basic similarities between “The Three Sisters” and Pride and Prejudice:  several marriageable daughters without brothers; an unappealing suitor who “wishes to be allied to the family” (60), ready to choose one of them, or one of the neighbor girls if they refuse him; a mother anxious (as, we may assume, is the mother down the street) to marry off one of her daughters; and finally a handsome, clever suitor posed as a contrast to the foolish one.  As Susan Fraiman says, “Elizabeth, Jane, and Lydia Bennet can . . . be traced to ‘The Three Sisters’ . . . and an early Mr. Collins is there as well in the repulsive suitor who doesn’t care which sister he marries” (75).  If we reduce Pride and Prejudice to the Bennet sisters, Mr. Collins, Mrs. Bennet, Charlotte Lucas, and Wickham, (keeping in reserve Lady Catherine as a marriage-broker eminence), we see a similar spine running through both.


This little feuilleton has been ably discussed and analyzed, especially by Frances Beer in “‘The three Sisters’:  A ‘little bit of Ivory.’”  But she and other commentators seem to me to have approached this delicate birdcage expecting to find fully intelligent life within.  As Juliet McMaster says, these early pieces proceed by “boisterous overstatement . . . not just over the top, but down the other side too” (175).  Like most of the juvenilia, this piece proceeds by quip after quip, joyfully violating the expectations of rational narration.


“The Three Sisters” does not lend itself very well to the typical analysis of character.  Professor Beer makes clear her emphasis.  “Character, of course,” she says is in this piece “at least as important as plot” (242).  I will later take up the claim made by “plot,” but for now let us examine the first letter of “The Three Sisters,” in which sister Mary Stanhope (stands for hope in marriage?) treats us to such character as she amounts to.  Mr. Watts has made her an offer of marriage.  Will she or won’t she accept it?  “I hardly know how to value it enough. . . . I do not intend to accept it, at least I beleive not. . . . I wont have him I declare. . . . I believe I must get him while I can. . . . I beleive I shant have him. . . . if he will promise to have the Carriage ordered as I like, I will have him. . . . I hope you like my determination” (57-59).  To call this speaker “changeable” or “indeterminate” or, as Professor Beer says, someone who “has no steadiness of character, no inkling of integrity, . . . no self-awareness” (244) is to honor an exercise in determined absurdity as the representation of a regular functioning “character.”


The negotiations over the marriage-to-be reach equally absurd proportions.  Mary will have their carriage blue “spotted with silver” whereas Mr. Watts insists on “plain Chocolate” and “just as low as his old one” (58)—a recurring argument sister Sophy tries to solve by splitting:  “to please Mr. W. it should be a dark brown & to please Mary it should be hung rather high & have a silver Border.  This was at length agreed to, tho’ reluctantly on both sides, as each had intended to carry their point entire” (66).  But Mary’s demands reach much greater proportions:  “‘a new saddle horse, a suit of fine lace, and an infinite number of the most valuable Jewels’” (65).1  The intended couple also bickers over her pin money, between two hundred and a hundred seventy-five.  Mrs. Stanhope seems to prevail at two hundred, but Mary goes on demanding:


“You must set up your Phaeton which must be cream colored with a wreath of silver flowers round it, You must buy 4 of the finest Bays in the Kingdom & you must drive me in it every day.  This is not all; You must entirely furnish your House after my Taste, You must hire two more Footmen to attend me, two Women to wait on me, must always let me do just as I please & make a very good husband. . . .

You must build me an elegant Greenhouse & stock it with plants.  You must let me spend every Winter in Bath, every Spring in Town, Every Summer in taking some Tour, & every Autumn at a Watering Place, and if we are at home the rest of the year . . . You must do nothing but give Balls & Masquerades.  You must build a room on purpose & a Theatre to act Plays in.  The first Play we have shall be Which is the Man, and I will do Lady Bell Bloomer.”  (65).


That phaeton does actually carry over to Pride and Prejudice as a joke of Mrs. Gardiner’s, when she looks forward to riding around Pemberley:  “‘A low phaeton, with a nice little pair of ponies, would be the very thing’” (325).2  Mary finally drops most of her demands and comes off poorly in the exchange:  “Mary is to have all the Family Jewels which are very inconsiderable I beleive & Mr. W. promised to buy her a Saddle horse; but”—the author bursts the balloon—“in return she is not to expect to go to Town or any other public place for these three Years.  She is to have neither Greenhouse, Theatre or Phaeton; to be contented with one Maid without an additional Footman” (67).


If we overlook such particularized tomfoolery, the similarities between the little feuilleton and the novel come into focus.  “The Three Sisters” is an epistolary work in four letters; the subject throughout is the proposal of marriage Mary has received from Mr. Watts, the eligible but not very desirable suitor.  “He is quite an old Man, about two & thirty, very plain so plain that I cannot bear to look at him.  He is extremely disagreeable & I hate him more than any body else in the world” (58).  As for Mr. Collins, even Charlotte cannot think well of him:  “Mr. Collins to be sure was neither sensible nor agreeable; his society was irksome, and his attachment to her must be imaginary” (122).  Mr. Watts’s income of three thousand a year measures up fairly well to Henry Crawford’s four thousand or to Charles Bingley’s “four or five thousand” (4); whatever Lady Catherine’s largesse offers presently to Mr. Collins by way of income, his potential of displacing Mrs. Bennet makes him at least the equal of Mr. Watts as a prospect.


Though there is no entail in “The Three Sisters,” there is some consideration of death.  Mary says of Mr. Watts, “He has a large fortune & will make great Settlements on me; but then he is very healthy” (58).  Mr. Watts later boasts of the settlements he offers, while Mary whispers to herself, “‘What’s the use of a great Jointure if Men live forever?’” (64).  Mrs. Bennet suggests at times that Mr. Collins (and Charlotte) might be looking forward to the death of Mr. Bennet, but here the bride-to-be thinks of the death of her suitor as an eventual liberation.  Mr. Watts clearly thinks well of what he offers a prospective bride, but his income would, Peter Sabor informs us, “be too little for the expenses of a winter season in London, for which at least ₤15,000 a year was needed; in his negotiations with Mary, Mr. Watts is acutely aware of the limitations of his own wealth” (418).


And Mr. Watts does not appeal to the ladies.  Mrs. Stanhope says he has been “‘long abused by the world,’” as if no one has thought him a proper man.  He also seems to be considered a coward; when Mary wishes she has a brother or father to fight him, her mother points out that he would “‘run away first’” (60).  However, a rather novel trait of character carries over unchanged to the novel.  Mr. Collins, like Mr. Watts, is so ready to choose any of the available sisters, from either household that he would seem either to be so wildly sexual that he is ready to bed any available female, or to be so lacking in sexual appetite that he is indifferent which lady he ends up with.  Mary says, “If I refuse him he as good as told me that he should offer himself to Sophia and if she refused him to Georgiana” (58).  She also seems afraid he might go next door:  “I would refuse him at once if I were certain that neither of my Sisters would accept him, & that if they did not, he would not offer to the Duttons” (59).  In these troubled negotiations, we are naturally reminded of Mr. Collins’s tour from Jane to Elizabeth to Charlotte.  Mary also says, “He told me he should mention the affair to Mama, but I insisted upon it that he did not for very likely she would make me marry him whether I would or no” (58).  Whatever Mary’s wishes, Mr. Watts does go on to consult her mother, who then engages in further negotiations with Mary, much as Mrs. Bennet interferes with Mr. Collins’s approaches to Elizabeth.  Mrs. Stanhope, like Mrs. Bennet, is “‘determined not to let such an opportunity escape of settling one of my Daughters so advantageously’” (60).


Mary Stanhope’s desire to triumph—over her sisters, over the nearby Dutton girls—reaches cartoon proportions:  “It will be such a triumph to be married before Sophy, Georgiana & the Duttons. . . . I know the Duttons will envy me & I shall be able to chaperone Sophy & Georgiana to all the Winter Balls” (58).  In the more subdued novel that follows, Jane and Elizabeth are silent on the desire to triumph in marriage, but it is certainly important to Mrs. Bennet, to Lydia, and to Lady Lucas, who “could not be insensible of triumph on being able to retort on Mrs. Bennet the comfort of having a daughter well married” (127).  And Lydia the married lady returns in great triumph over her sisters, unaware that the sensible people in her family (not her mother) look on her condition with contempt.  She tells Jane, her eldest sister, that she takes her place now in the dining parlor, that Jane must go lower, because she, Lydia, is married.  As for the coming winter at Newcastle, she says, “‘I dare say there will be some balls, and I will take care to get good partners’” for all her sisters (317), a favor Elizabeth kindly declines.  Mary tells the Dutton girls that if their mother should not go to the first ball after her marriage, “‘I hope you will let me chaprone you:  I shall certainly take Sophy & Georgiana’” (69).  Like Lydia, Mary Stanhope seems unaware that Kitty Dutton is ridiculing her when she suggests that a certain Mrs. Edgecumbe might be prevailed on to let Mary also chaperone her six daughters, “‘which with your two Sisters and ourselves will make your Entrée very respectable’” (69).


The “plot” of “The Three Sisters,” so slight it hardly qualifies, is the “little deceit,” the scheme of Mary’s sisters to trick her into accepting Mr. Watts, with the threat that one of them might accept him if she refuses him, and thereby to escape the possibility he might actually offer himself to one of them—a little quip unnecessary in the finished novel.  The scheme works so well that Mary “is resolved to do that to prevent our supposed happiness which she would not have done to ensure it in reality” (63).  The majority (ten pages to Mary’s three) of this little work is written by the younger daughter Georgiana to her friend Anne, and her sisters are not quite as foolish as Mary.  Juliet McMaster sees two strands operating in Jane Austen:  “the ethic of energy and the ethic of sympathy.  Jane Austen the satirist espouses the ethic of energy; Jane Austen the novelist develops the ethic of sympathy” (181).  We have seen plenty of that ethic of energy above, but even in this early work we see a little of the energy of sympathy.  As Susan Fraiman observes, “for every Mary Stanhope determined to triumph over her own sisters, there is inevitably a pair of loving women.  Georgiana and Sophy Stanhope, for example, are as kind to each other as they are careless of their shallow sister, clearly anticipating Elizabeth and Jane Bennet” (79).


Determined as we might be, however, to find “character” in this little piece, the talk of the Stanhope sisters is often so “energetic” that we are unsure how seriously to take it.  Both sisters fear that Mr. Watts might come their way if Mary refuses him, after which he would turn first to the older Sophy.  But Georgiana assures Sophy that “I should not expect her to sacrifice her happiness by becoming his Wife from a motive of Generosity to me, which I was afraid her good nature & Sisterly affection might induce her to do.”  Sophy says, “‘Let us flatter ourselves . . . that Mary will not refuse him,’” then sympathetically adds, “‘Yet how can I hope that my Sister may accept a Man who cannot make her happy’” (61).


Mary’s sisters consider the claims of Mr. Watts in a spirit of girlish laughter, and Georgiana sizes him up as Charlotte might size up Mr. Collins:  “He is rather plain to be sure, but then what is Beauty in a Man; if he has but a genteel figure & a sensible looking Face it is quite sufficient.”  To which Sophy responds, “‘That is all very true Georgiana but Mr Watts’s figure is unfortunately extremely vulgar & his Countenance is very heavy’” (61-62).  The livelier Georgiana picks up on this line of joking:


“And then as to his temper; it has been reckoned bad, but may not the World be deceived in their Judgement of it.  There is an open Frankness in his Disposition which becomes a Man; They say he is stingy; We’ll call that Prudence.  They say he is suspicious.  That proceeds from a warmth of Heart always excusable in Youth, & in short I see no reason why he should not make a very good Husband, or why Mary should not be very happy with him.”  (62)


Sophy laughs at this, as Georgiana continues more seriously, saying she would never marry Mr. Watts “‘were Beggary the only alternative.’”  She adds that “‘His fortune to be sure is good,’” then immediately contradicts herself saying, “‘Yet not so very large!’” (62).  Sophy laughingly implies it will do for her sister:  “‘Yet it will be a noble fortune for Mary.’”  Georgiana continues the joke:  “‘Yes indeed it will give me pleasure to see her in such affluence,’” and adds, “‘Thus I ran on to the great Entertainment of my Sister’” (62).  All this joking hints at the more subdued pleasantries of Elizabeth talking with Jane:  “‘if upon mature deliberation, you find that the misery of disobliging his two sisters is more than equivalent to the happiness of being his wife, I advise you by all means to refuse him’” (119); or, “‘There certainly was some great mismanagement in the education of those two young men.  One has got all the goodness, and the other all the appearance of it’” (225).


The sisters are torn between relishing Mary’s misery in marriage and feeling sorry for her.  Mary comes in and asks Sophy how she would like to marry Mr. Watts.  In accordance with their scheme Georgiana says any girl would want him, but Mary presses Sophy, who “did not like the idea of telling a lie & deceiving her Sister; she prevented the first & saved half her conscience with equivocation,” answering that she would “‘act just as Georgiana would do’” (63).  Mary then triumphantly announces she has had an offer from Mr. Watts, and her sisters pretend to be surprised.  Georgiana goes on in keeping with their scheme:  “‘Oh! do not accept him . . . and then perhaps he may have me.”  The scheme is working; nevertheless the two sisters remain sympathetic to their sister Mary:  “Yet after all my Heart cannot acquit me & Sophy is even more scrupulous,” says Georgiana; “I think myself bound to contribute as much as possible to her happiness in a State I have made her choose.”  Georgiana speculates that if Mary has a carriage and possibly a phaeton “she will be too happy,” but these “would be no consolation to Sophy or me for domestic Misery” (63).


The little work now inches closer to hints of Mr. Collins’s negotiations.  Georgiana treats us to two scenes, one in their own home and one in the home of their neighbors the Duttons.  Mr. Watts arrives for tea at their home.  Much of the conversation has to do with negotiations over the carriage they will have and Mary’s demands over jewels and other arrangements—these demands I have already treated.  On the marriage proposal itself Mr. Watts says, “‘Well Miss Stanhope I hope you have at last settled the Matter in your own mind; & will be so good as to let me know whether you will condescend to marry me or not’” (64).  In Pride and Prejudice Mr. Collins never quite uses this accent, but the sentiment is surely his.  Mary answers, “‘I think Sir . . . You might have asked in a genteeler way than that. I do not know whether I shall have you if you behave so odd’” (64).  This is closer to Elizabeth’s complaint that Darcy has not “‘behaved in a more gentleman-like manner’” (192).  When Mrs. Stanhope reprimands Mary for this response, Mr. Watts says, “‘Pray Madam do not lay any restraint on Miss Stanhope by obliging her to be civil.  If she does not choose to accept my hand, I can offer it else where, for as I am by no means guided by a particular preference to you above your Sisters it is equally the same to me which I marry of the three’” (64).  This answer clearly anticipates Mr. Collins’s answer to Mrs. Bennet:  “‘Pardon me for interrupting you, Madam, . . . but if she is really headstrong and foolish, I know not whether she would altogether be a very desirable wife to a man in my situation’” (110).  Now Mary gives a “peevish” answer to Mr. Watts:  “‘I will have you if I must.’”  Mr. Watts perhaps very justly responds:  “‘I should have thought Miss Stanhope that when such Settlements are offered as I have offered to you there can be no great violence done to the inclinations in accepting of them’” (64)—a sentiment Mr. Collins would certainly endorse.  When Mary lists her outrageous demands, she and Mr. Watts have an exchange of wits:


“And pray Miss Stanhope . . . What am I to expectfrom you in return for all this.”

“Expect? why you may expect to have me pleased.”

“It would be odd if I did not.  Your expectations Madam are too high for me, & I must apply to Miss Sophy who perhaps may not have raised her’s so much.”  (65-66)


Sophy of course is not having any of that and, in a remark reminiscent of Regan’s insistence to Lear, says her expectations “‘are to the full as high’” as her sister’s; and she adds, “‘I expect my Husband to be good tempered & Chearful; to consult my Happiness in all his Actions, & to love me with Constancy & Sincerity.’”  Mr. Watts seems no fool in his answer, which may be taken as satiric, or as plain realistic:  “‘These are very odd Ideas truly young Lady.  You had better discard them before you marry, or you will be obliged to do it afterwards’” (66).


If we can imagine a wildly competitive scene between the Bennet and the Lucas sisters, we have it here.  The sisters visit their neighbors the Duttons, particularly out of Mary’s desire to triumph over them.  Mary’s “character” recovers sufficiently from the stupidity she has previously displayed; she is now capable of a surprising coyness in delivering her triumph.  She brings up the need to have the jewels new set, prompting the question of why she must be so attentive to her appearance—so that she can deliver her surprise:  “‘At the next Ball to be sure after I am married’” (68).  Just the surprise Mary wished for.  She admits it will be to Mr. Watts, whose unattractiveness, however, is well known to the Dutton girls, Jemima and Kitty—“that anyone who had the Beauty & fortune . . . of Mary would willingly marry Mr Watts, could by them scarcely be credited.”  Mary now seems unaware of her disgrace, loses all her confusion, and becomes “perfectly unreserved & communicative,” going on to boast that her coming marriage is the talk of the neighborhood.  Jemima Dutton asks, “‘Has it been in agitation long?’”  “‘Oh! Yes,’” says Mary, “‘ever since Wednesday’” (67-68).  Mary goes on to boast that Mr. Watts is very much in love with her and offers a questionable epigram on the subject:  “‘when there is so much Love on one side there is no occasion for it on the other.  However I do not much dislike him tho’ he is very plain to be sure’” (69).  Not realizing her boasting is not going over very well, Mary goes on to lie that “We are to have a new Postchaise & very likely may set up our Phaeton” (69).


Throughout this scene, the Dutton girls have also been harboring their own surprise:  “a very handsome Young Man, . . . the son of Sir Henry Brudenell of Leicestershire—. . . the handsomest Man I ever saw in my Life”—clearly a stand-in for Wickham (or Willoughby or Frank Churchill), who is entirely capable of perceiving Mary’s absurdity.  Throughout Mary’s performance before the Duttons, he, together with the girls from both households, can hardly keep back his ridicule of Mary:  “They all smiled particularly Mr Brudenell” (68); “Mr. Brudenell stared, the Miss Duttons laughed & Sophy & I were heartily ashamed of our Sister”; “Kitty made us all smile except Mary who did not understand her meaning” (69).  Finally, Mr. Brudenell behaves in a manner suggestive of Frank Churchill’s attitude towards Mrs. Elton:


“I was sorry for my Sister’s sake to see that Mr. Brudenell seemed to take pleasure in listening to her account of it, & even encouraged her by his Questions & Remarks, for it was evident that his only Aim was to laugh at her.  I am afraid he found her very ridiculous.  He kept his Countenance extremely well, yet it was easy to see that it was with difficulty he kept it.  At length however he seemed fatigued & Disgusted with her ridiculous Conversation, as he turned from her to us, & spoke but little to her for about half an hour before we left.  As soon as we were out of the House we all joined in praising the Person & Manners of Mr Brudenell.  (69-70)


They think as well of him as Marianne and her mother think of Willoughby.


Of course, quite a few major refinements had to occur before the crude and simpleminded Mary Stanhope was transformed to the sweet eldest daughter Jane, sister of Elizabeth Bennet.  But Charlotte Lucas sadly accepts her fate in the marriage lottery, as if she has already contemplated and succumbed to the prospect of such a proposal as Mary has received from Mr. Watts.  Of the Bennet sisters, Lydia is the one who most closely resembles Mary Stanhope, in triumphing over her unmarried sisters, in relishing her right as a married woman to chaperone them, and in being completely unaware that her boasting is an embarrassment and a disgrace to all except her mother.  If we look beneath the apparent social acceptability of Charlotte Lucas and her mother, Mr. Collins, and Mrs. Bennet, their motives do not appear to be much better than those displayed by the Stanhopes.  Of course, missing from “The Three Sisters” is the most brutal marriage broker of all, Lady Catherine, whose wealth should put her beyond disputes of income or property.  In the cast of major characters of Pride and Prejudice, only Elizabeth and Darcy, along with Jane and Bingley, seem clearly exempt from the sordidness of “The Three Sisters.”  By some legerdemain, then, the cartoon inhabitants of this early work somehow flew off, pausing, in a form invisible to us, at the way station First Impressions, and finally discovered their intended residence in that crystal palace, Pride and Prejudice.  Or put it another way:  it took the wealth of Jane Austen’s acquired humanity and literary skill to bring off the complex interplay and cross-purposes of her most brilliant novel.





1. Mary goes on so outrageously about jewels that even the juvenile Austen cut some of them:  “‘Pearls as large as those of the Princess Badroulbadour in the 4th Volume of the Arabian Nights and Rubies, Emeralds, Toppazes, Sapphires, Amythists, Turkeystones, Agate, Beads, Bugles & Garnets’” got reduced to “‘and Pearls, Rubies, Emeralds and Beads out of number’” (65), the latter phrase serving as the sensible substitute.


2. The play, Which is the Man, Peter Sabor tells us, was a comedy by Hannah Cowley, proposed by Eliza de Feuillide for performance by the Austens at Steventon at Christmas 1787, in their converted barn, but eventually rejected.  Like Mary in “The Three Sisters,” Eliza had planned to take the part of the lively heroine, the widow Lady Bell Bloomer (420).



Works Cited


Austen, Jane.  The Works of Jane Austen.  Ed. R. W. Chapman.  3rd ed.  Oxford: OUP, 1933.

Beer, Frances.  “‘The three Sisters’: A ‘little bit of Ivory.’”  Persuasions 28 (2006): 238-50.

Fraiman, Susan.  “Peevish Accents in the Juvenilia: A Feminist Key to Pride and Prejudice.”  Approaches to Teaching Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.  Ed. Marcia McClintock Folsom.  New York: MLA, 1993.  74-80.

McMaster, Juliet.  “The [Juvenalia]: Energy versus Sympathy.”  A Companion to Jane Austen Studies.  Ed. Laura Coomer Lambdin and Robert Thomas Lambdin.  Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2000.  173-89.

Sabor, Peter, ed.  JuveniliaThe Cambridge Edition of the Works of Jane Austen.  Cambridge: CUP, 2006.

Woolf, Virginia.  “Jane Austen Practicing.”  New Statesman 15 July 1922: 419-20.


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