Thursday, January 24, 2013

Guest Post by Melody and Amy Dashwood: Sisters and Jane Austen

200 Years of Pride and Prejudice at Elegance of Fashion
Good afternoon, ladies! Though perhaps you aren’t reading this in the afternoon, and it’s possible not everyone reading this is a lady, too. Okay, then… hey, y’all. Allow us to introduce ourselves. We are Melody and Amy, best friends in real life, sisters in spirit, two nuts in a case who email each other way too often, obsessive Janeites and diehard fans of P&P.  It’s so exciting to be around to see Pride and Prejudice’s 200th birthday, and positively riveting to take part in this celebration. We’re here today to discuss with you Sisters and Jane Austen. And Pride and Prejudice, of course. Yes, well, you have probably apprehended that much. 

When you think of relationships in Jane Austen’s novels, you might think of romance, firsthand.  But we aren't here to talk about romance, so think a little harder.  Did you think of sisters?  Excellent, because we were thinking of sisters. There are sisters everywhere in Jane Austen novels, and not too many brothers. Four of the books have heroines who don’t have any brothers at all, and while the other two do have at least one brother they seem to be relatively close to who make a couple appearances, they don’t have nearly as much to do with the stories as the sisters from the other four often do.

Elinor, Marianne and Margaret Dashwood (S&S 2008)
Jane Austen’s propensity to write about sisters more than brothers is rather ironic, since she had six brothers and only one sister. Or perhaps it isn’t ironic at all—perhaps she was fed up with brothers and the relationship with her older sister Cassandra was the most meaningful to her, and she preferred to write about sisters. It seems to make sense. But if she didn’t use her brothers for examples very often, how much was her sister a source of inspiration to her as she wrote her books? We’re inclined to think quite a bit. You can see similarities very easily between the two of them and Elinor and Marianne Dashwood from Sense and Sensibility, especially when we’re looking at Jane's younger years.

But the similarities don't stop there, because it seems that Jane and Elizabeth Bennet fit into a similar mold. This makes it seem even more likely that Jane Austen (to be referred to henceforth as JA, or perhaps “our Jane”, so as not to confuse her with Miss Bennet) used her own life and the people she knew (or person—her sister—in this case) to base some characters and situations on. Most writers do this to some extent, after all. It makes sense. However, we don’t think that everything Jane Austen wrote was based on something or somebody particular. Her characters are so realistic, and it’s a truth universally acknowledged that she was a keen observer of human nature—but we think that the majority of her writing came from her own clever imagination. Sometimes, though, the actual emotional part of an author’s real life can be somewhat captured in the story, and then that’s what makes it all so identifiable. It’s clear that JA knew the close sisterly relationships she was writing about, that she experienced them herself. Even if we didn’t have evidence of JA and Cassandra's closeness from letters they've left behind, we could still deduce that JA believed sisterly affection was very important. It was a topic she didn’t shy away from or skip through, but that she cultivated and embraced.

It does seem that there are traits given to Jane Bennet that might have appeared in Cassandra, and Jane Austen could have been rather like Elizabeth Bennet in some ways. (It’s rather ironic with the names, though, with the older Bennet sister having the name Jane, and the younger one having Cassandra’s middle name, Elizabeth. Could this perhaps have been a little joke JA had with herself? We shall never know...) It’s hard to say if Cassandra was reserved like Miss Bennet, but it’s easy to picture her being the practical, sweet and gentle sister, and our Jane being more… well, more wild. And witty. Though we highly doubt Jane Austen was really basing Elizabeth Bennet on herself, she definitely has some of JA's own character traits (amusing herself by observing human nature and finding the humorous side in every little happening). One can very easily picture JA laughing quietly at people in her head.

As for the family situations, some people think Mr. and Mrs. Bennet are rather a more exaggerated version of Mr. and Mrs. Austen. We’re not exactly sold about that, though they may bear some similarities. We would say the Austens were a lot more… normal... than the Bennets. And therefore not so funny. ;-)  Now, since Cassandra and Jane were the only two sisters, having three additional sisters for Jane and Elizabeth rather changes things. However, Jane and Elizabeth were set apart from their younger sisters, because they were the ones with… well, with something between their ears. Cassandra and Jane were the only two girls among The Boys. (You may take this comparison as far as you wish.)

Silhouettes of Jane and Cassandra Austen
Jane Bennet is frequently spoken of as being the sweet sister, the pretty sister, the accomplished sister who is sure to "catch a man" before the other Bennet girls do. We have much evidence that our Jane idolized her sister Cassandra (their mother once remarked that if Cassandra were going to have her head cut off, Jane would want hers cut off too) and it follows that our Jane may have based "the perfect sister" on her own adored sibling. But was Cassandra really so flawless? Could JA have been teazing her sister just a wee bit when she wrote unstintingly of Jane Bennet's many virtues? Certainly, Cassandra would know better than anyone else (excepting JA herself, of course) just whence came the inspirations for the characters of P&P, and we like to think that perhaps she saw a bit of herself in Jane Bennet and was much amused by her little sister's over-characterization. Of course this is all speculation... but for what do we live, but to make idle gossip for our neighbors, and make assumptions about them in our turn?

(Of course, we have no real proof that the Bennet sisters were based on the Austen sisters—JA and Cassandra's surviving letters make no mention of such a thing.  So do take whatever we say with a grain—or a tablespoon—of salt.)

The part of the two sisterly relationships that we find most satisfactory is the way Jane and Lizzy and Cassandra and Jane looked out for each other, confided in each other and shared the joys and sorrows of the other.  The Austen sisters wrote lengthy and frequent letters to each other whenever separated, teased each other whenever they got the chance (well, JA did at any rate) and sought each other's opinion in small matters as well as great.  "I have changed my mind, and changed the trimmings of my cap this morning," JA wrote to Cassandra.  "They are now such as you suggested."  The Bennet girls, similarly (is that really a word? Well, Chrome doesn't give it a red underline, so I suppose it must be), tell each other everything.  Lizzy is the first person Jane turns to when she is hurt by Mr. Bingley's sudden move to London, and Jane is the only person Lizzy takes into her confidence after Mr. Darcy's first proposal.  

When Cassandra's fiance, Tom Fowle, died of yellow fever in 1795, Cassandra took to wearing caps during the day to signify that she was no longer eligible for marriage (perhaps considering herself a widow). Our Jane, determined that her sister should not grieve alone, did the same. Neither of the Austen sisters ever married, yet both Bennet sisters are happily espoused by the end of P&P. Was this JA's way of bringing about the happily-ever-after that she and Cassandra never had?  By the time of P&P's publication in 1813, the Austen sisters were (at 39 and 37) confirmed spinsters. Might they have wished for the kind of marital bliss that Jane and Elizabeth Bennet enjoyed at the end of the story? We shall never know.

And really, that statement is all we can definitively say about the Austen and Bennet sisters. We shall never know if Jane and Lizzy were based on Cassandra and Jane, or how much was fact and how much fiction, or how much of her own desire for a fairytale ending may have influenced JA's writings. The Austen sisters are long deceased, so we can never ask them any of our questions (though do believe us when we say we would if we could!). And the Bennet sisters are not really real, so we couldn't ask them either. Yet we still hold to our opinions, though perhaps we are blinded by prejudice, as such devoted fans of Jane Austen and P&P.

What do you think?
Miss Dashwood and Melody {sometimes known as Miss Marianne} are the founders of The P&P95Forever Club, as well as writing their own individual blogs, Yet Another Period Drama Blog and Regency Delight ~Jane Austen, etc.~  Miss Dashwood is also a published authoress, and you may find out more about her first work of fiction, Only a Novel, here.

Yet Another Period Drama Blog     Regency Delight ~Jane Austen, etc.~

1 comment:

  1. Well, I never thought about it but you might be right, Cassandra was definitly an inspiration for her sister...maybe also other people Jane knew.
    I sometimes write stories and I also use some of my friends as a basic for new peronalities...
    (Sorry for my bad English)
    Miss Eliza Bennet


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