Women’s Circles Broken: The Disruption of Sisterhood in Three Nineteenth-Century Works
The author of the following work, Meagan Hanley, wrote this multi-part post as her graduate thesis. Her focus was works of literature by female authors, one of whom was Jane Austen. We thought that the entire essay was wonderful, and so, with her permission, we wanted to share it with you.
“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife” (Austen).
If rich men must go wife-hunting, then the women presumably are lucky to get them, spending their time scrambling and fighting to beat out the competition and become the chosen wife. However, Jane Austen and other nineteen-century women authors such as Louisa May Alcott and Christina Rossetti saw the truth played out in the society around them. Of course, on the surface, the frantic search for wealthy husbands was reality; women were trained to become wives. Since women had such limited opportunities available to them, marriage was the most viable option for survival. An interesting connection found, though, among the literature written by women at the time is the way in which women thrive together in communities with each other—up until the men enter the scene. Many women are extremely unhappy after marriage and mourn the loss of community they had shared with their sisters. Once the men, or more commonly, one man who is also the future husband, disrupt these women-centered communities, the close bond among women is severed.
Three works of literature sharing this similarity are Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Christina Rossetti’s “Goblin Market,” and Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. Austen’s Pride and Prejudice was published in 1813, early in the nineteenth century, when many people had yet to question the societal relegation of the “woman’s place” to the home. By the mid-nineteenth century, however, when Rossetti published “Goblin Market” in 1862 and Alcott published Little Women in 1868, there was already an early push for women’s suffrage in both the United States and England. These three authors realized that women should have more options than marriage—although even they could not quite visualize what these options could be.
What they longed for was a way for women to retain sisterhood after marriage instead of leaving it behind completely and to be allowed a place in the public sphere. They could see this better option, a supportive sisterhood—safe, loving, and uninterrupted. How and why did women thrive together in these three fictional nineteenth-century communities? How did they communicate? In what spaces did these communities exist? In what ways did men disrupt these communities, and was it possible for women to regain a similar level of closeness with each other after the disruption of men (i.e. marriage)? Some answers to these questions will become clear as this thesis looks at the various viewpoints and treatments each author brought to women’s communities, their importance, formation, and men’s intrusions upon them.
In each of the works discussed, one female character is affected most particularly by the male disruption. For Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice, one of the most obvious instances of male intrusion occurs when Mr. Collins takes her dear friend Charlotte away from her. The loss of their friendship and intimacy deeply affects Elizabeth. Jo March in Little Women quite nearly despises the man who marries her older sister Meg and removes her from the cherished community of sisters, and after Laura eats the fruit offered to her in the poem “Goblin Market,” she drifts away from her sister Lizzie and moves swiftly toward death. Consequently, Lizzie is also deeply affected when she must discover a way to save her sister’s life. All of these characters navigate a world that shifts drastically with the entrance of men—and in the case of both novels, the changes brought by marriage.
The two novels use realism to illustrate aspects of female utopian spaces, relationships, and struggles, while by the end of the poem, Lizzie and Laura exist in a true female utopia—a world devoid of men and devoted to sisterhood. Coming hand-in- hand with the nearly inevitable event of marriage in women’s lives was the fact that they would be forced to leave these female utopias for the worlds mostly inhabited and controlled by men. In these writings by nineteenth-century women, women consistently pursue a space free from the overwhelming presence and power of men. Because of the transplants caused by marriage, these women constantly seek communities of women, new utopias and places of refuge with their own ways of communicating with each other that are often vastly different from dominant male forms of communication.
These women’s communities have been viewed as utopian alternatives to the patriarchal societies around them. The word “utopia” was created in 1516 when Sir Thomas More wrote the novel of the same name. He took it from the Greek word ou- topos for “nowhere” or “no place,” but the extremely similar eu-topos also means a good place. It is within this in-between area where women exist in these works of literature— the space between nowhere and a good place. The word “utopia” commonly connotes perfection and unity, but these women’s utopias do not quite fit this definition. The utopias they create are not recognized by the patriarchal society, and because of this, the women’s utopias are much closer to More’s original definition of “nowhere.” Where men often gather in large, boisterous groups, women gather in small, private spaces. From the parlor to written letters, the places and ways in which women communicate differ drastically from those of men.
In a search for a space away from men’s authority, women create their own. Many of these spaces are unique from their male-dominated counterparts. For example, the women in these works claim letter-writing as a space distinctively theirs. While not usually viewed as a literal “space,” letters create a location wherein women share their true, hidden thoughts and feelings with each other, free from the prying eyes of their husbands. Letters act as a private space for sharing intimate details about life, love, frustration, and loneliness—but also a space for sharing joyful news and encouragement. Writing and story-telling feature heavily in relationships among women—not only through their letters but through journals and stories repeated around the fireplace, in the drawing room, the kitchen, and other places women make their own.
In Space, Place, and Gender, Doreen Massey discusses the important roles that literal and metaphorical spaces and places play in women’s lives—specifically in the nineteenth century. Massey argues that critics should think “of social space in terms of the articulation of social relations which necessarily have a spatial form in their interactions with one another” (Massey). A few lines later, she elaborates:
Thinking of places in this way implies that they are not so much bounded areas as open and porous networks of social relations . . . It reinforces the idea, moreover, that those identities will be multiple (since the various social groups in a place will be differently located in relation to the overall complexity of social relations and since their reading of those relations and what they make of them will also be distinct). And this in turn implies that which is to be the dominant image of any place will be a matter of contestation and will change over time.
Women construct their identities within literal and metaphorical spaces in these three works—most commonly the home or “private sphere.” However, as Massey explains, the women themselves also have varying definitions of identity as it compares to specific places. Women do not define their identities based solely on the spaces they inhabit; rather, the ways in which they choose to use certain spaces confer identity on the spaces themselves. In this mutual transferal of identity, almost any space available to women can be transformed into a female utopia, giving women a type of power all their own.
Massey also writes that “it is necessary to understand … gender relations as significant in the structuring of space and place, spaces and places” (Massey). By focusing on how women affect the spaces they inhabit, it becomes clear that they construct them differently from male spaces and specifically for themselves. For Massey, “It means that spatiality cannot be analysed through the medium of a male body and heterosexual male experience, but without recognizing these as important and highly specific characteristics, and then generalized to people at large” (Massey). Pride and Prejudice, Little Women, and “Goblin Market” were all born out of strict patriarchal societies, but the characters within them seek and discover ways of defining spaces and meaning without men. Further discussion of specific characters’ definitions of space and identity will be found in each chapter.
When reading and writing about relationships among women, it can be easy to come to the incomplete assumption that all women seek to be united together on common ground; and while that is true in one sense, there are multiple dimensions to women’s connections. Women in the nineteenth century were most often drawn together in their struggle for a place to call their own where their voices could be heard, but their methods of creating spaces were as diverse as their personalities.
One critic, Helena Michie, coined her own term for describing one aspect of communication among women. In her book, Sororophobia Differences Among Women in Literature and Culture, she makes continual use of the title word “sororophobia,” which “attempts to describe the negotiation of sameness and difference, identity and separation, between women of the same generation, and is meant to encompass both the desire for and the recoil from identification with other women” (Michie). It is this simultaneous longing and withdrawal from sameness that gives rise to many elements of women’s communication. In the three works discussed here, it becomes clear that women are different even within the same families, and it is often these dialogues among sisters and friends that drive the plots nearly as much as the impending marriages and disruptions by men.
Patricia Meyer Spacks writes in The Female Imagination that “Pride and Prejudice centers on marriage. In the society it depicts, marriage measures a woman’s success; mothers value themselves for marrying off their daughters; girls value themselves and are valued for their ability to attract and hold eligible men” (Spacks). In “Goblin Market,” there is a definite underlying theme of the girls preparing themselves for marriage. With so much emphasis placed on becoming “marriageable,” it is no wonder that it factors into the women’s communities. However, as we will see, marriage was not the sole focus of women’s lives. Even in the phase of “waiting” for men to arrive, the women—and especially sisters—in these works of literature create alternate, often utopian spaces for themselves. Each work discussed here displays varying differences in women’s communication, their level of closeness before and after marriage, the places they could call their own, and the ways in which they viewed impending marriages and probable separation from each other.
It has been argued that the communities of women in both novels are brought more closely together through difficulties that arise from the “lack” of men in their lives. Nina Auerbach writes in Communities of Women that “throughout Austen’s completed novels, women lead a purgatorial existence together … their lives are presented through an avoidance of detailed presentation as unshaped, unreal, a limbo” until men enter the scene (Auerbach). This statement simplifies the complexities that women’s communities can achieve. While it is true to some extent that the women in these stories exist in a culture of waiting and training until marriage becomes a possibility—until marriage ends the communities they have built together, their communities are not “purgatorial” as Auerbach claims. Rather, these communities are fragile and always at risk of disruption or dissolution caused by marriage. The clearest example of this can be found in the Bennet sisters, who exist in a close family unit until the marriageable men arrive in town.
Pride and Prejudice specifically has been labeled a marriage novel. At first glance, the entire plot is moved forward by impending marriages. The first sentence itself seems to focus readers on the fact that all rich single men are searching for wives, but there is much more going on under the surface. Austen’s language here can also be read with sarcasm; rich men do not actually need wives because they are rich men, but their culture demands marriage. However, even though the plot does lead to marriages, the bulk of the novel is centered on women’s communities. Readers see the social aspects of balls and dinners and whispered conversations among women, but we also see Elizabeth Bennett strategically avoiding a marriage with Mr. Collins. For her, marriage is more than simply security, and she refuses to settle for a life with a man who would make her miserable.
Austen, Alcott, and Rossetti each had significant relationships with their sisters in one way or another. Most famously, Alcott’s novel is based on her childhood with her sisters, and Austen’s close relationship with her sister Cassandra has also been widely speculated upon and discussed. Rossetti’s tumultuous relationship with her sister is not as well known but influential all the same. For better or for worse, these sisterly relationships had a lasting impact on what and how these three authors wrote. Another significant similarity shared among the three authors is that they all chose to remain single. In a time when nearly all women married out of necessity, the fact that these three were unmarried is meaningful. It has become increasingly common to avoid authorial biography when writing about literature, but the strong parallels in this case create a space for inclusion and justification of biographical details. While biographical analysis will not feature heavily in this paper, each author had strong bonds with at least one sister and remained unmarried—common life experiences that are too important to omit.
All three authors knew one thing in particular that appears often in their writing: women create communities when they are together. They can transform unlikely spaces into female communities to strengthen and support each other. In these works of literature, the heroines struggle with the disruption and subsequent loss of these support systems most often through men and marriage. The characters we will discuss and befriend in these pages do not hate men, but they love their sisters more. The communities they create are not in opposition to male communities, but they are essential for women to function and thrive. for It is their resilient spirits that draw readers back to Elizabeth Bennet and Jo March centuries later. Lizzie’s devotion to Laura in her defeat of the goblin men is magnetic—it pulls us into the poem and challenges us to see beyond the words on the page. Nineteenth-century women’s communities are ephemeral, but even their weaknesses produce strength among women, binding them tightly together until the disruption of marriage and oftentimes continuing after marriage. These communities are spaces where women define and claim identities, challenge, and support each other. When women are forbidden to enter the public sphere, they create better spaces for themselves which are not defined by men—spaces that allow perseverance and rebuild community. For a first look at this type of strength found in women’s communities, we turn to Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.
(Part Two, Pride and Prejudice: The Men Enter The Scene, will be published next week)