Posted on

Women’s Circles Broken – Part Three

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.
(This is part three of the essay. Part two can be found here and part one can be found here.)



Little Women introduces another sisterhood—that of the March sisters, Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy. They along with their mother Marmee, are struggling through the American Civil War era while their father serves as a chaplain at the warfront. At the start of this novel, the girls are just that—literal girls who are not quite old enough to seriously consider marriage, but it still looms large in their reality. Readers are invited into their circle of mishaps and imagination, secrets and fights. Much like Rossetti and Austen, Alcott drew inspiration from her relationships with her own mother and sisters. Like the March family, there were four Alcott sisters—Anna, Louisa, Abigail (May), and Elizabeth. Anna the eldest most closely resembled her counterpart Meg in the novel as the nearly perfect mother figure. Jo was modeled on the author herself; Elizabeth was Beth, and May was Amy. The Alcott girls had a very unusual childhood because of their father’s interest and involvement in the American Transcendentalist movement; he was as absent emotionally as the March patriarch was literally.

In her preface to Jo’s Boys, Alcott makes it clear just how much her characters were based on their real-life counterparts when she apologizes to her readers after the death of her sister May and her mother: “To account for the seeming neglect of Amy, let me add, that, since the original of that character died, it has been impossible for me to write of her as when she was here to suggest, criticize, and laugh over her namesake. The same excuse applies to Marmee” (Alcott). Alcott and her mother were incredibly close; Abigail May passed her temperament and vitality to her daughter. “Frederick Llewellyn Willis wrote that his cousin Louisa Alcott was ‘full of spirit and life; impulsive and moody, and at times irritable and nervous. She could run like a gazelle. She was the most beautiful girl runner I ever saw. She could leap a fence or climb a tree as well as any boy and dearly loved a good romp’” (Reisen). Obviously, Alcott was not quite the calm and acquiescent daughter that her father hoped and expected she would be. Each year on her birthday he wrote messages to her, most often ending with a tone of disapproval and lecturing:

‘The good Spirit comes into the Breasts of the meek and loveful…Anger, discontent, impatience, evil appetites, greedy wants, complainings, ill- speakings, idlenesses, heedlessness, rude behavior…drive it away, [leaving] the poor misguided soul to live in its own obstinate, perverse, proud discomfort.’ It was a familiar lecture…and one Louisa always responded to with tearful discouraged pledges to do, and be better. What she could not do was change the situation or free herself from it. (Reisen)

In many ways, since she remained unmarried, it was her own father and not a potential husband who checked his daughter’s female utopian community by his constant insistence on their moral and personal deficiencies.

Alcott’s father used John Bunyan’s allegory Pilgrim’s Progress to train his daughters. It is easy to see its lasting influence on her as she also used it as the framework for Little Women. In the preface to the novel, she adapted Bunyan’s allegory for her young female readers:

Go then, my little Book, and show to all

That entertain and bid thee welcome shall,

What thou dost keep close shut up in thy breast;

And wish what thou dost show them may be blest

To them for good, may make them choose to be

Pilgrims better, by far, than thee or me.

Tell them of Mercy; she is one

Who early hath her pilgrimage begun.

Yea, let young damsels learn of her to prize

The world which is to come, and so be wise;

For little tripping maids may follow God

Along the way which saintly feet have trod (Alcott)

By personifying her book, Alcott gave it the charge to train its young readers, which was not necessarily what she wanted to do as an author. Her book that hid much more in its “breast” suggests that Alcott hoped her young readers would discover more in its pages than that which appeared only on the surface. Throughout the novel, the chapter titles also echo Pilgrim’s Progress—with the first chapter titled “Playing Pilgrims” and later “Amy’s Valley of Humiliation,” “Jo Meets Apollyon,” and “Meg Goes to Vanity Fair.”

The effect that Bronson Alcott had on his daughter is evident in other ways in the novel. When Mr. March writes letters of encouragement and reprimand to his daughters, Jo immediately struggles with his request:

‘I’ll try to be what he loves to call me, ‘a little woman,’ and not be rough and wild; but do my duty here instead of wanting to be somewhere else,’ said Jo, thinking that keeping her temper at home was a much harder task than facing a rebel or two down South. (Alcott)

Here it is clear that for Jo to “do her duty” as a woman, she would have to completely change her personality, but Jo never quite reaches this goal she sets for herself. The fact that Jo struggles constantly with balancing who she knows she is with who she is expected to be shows how Alcott drew strongly from her own reality and imagined a better world for the March sisters than the one she experienced herself.

Alcott treasured extremely close relationships with her sisters and other female friends throughout her life. Despite fashioning Little Women after her own life with her sisters, Alcott struggled in the novel to define a new and different place for women even as the book itself transformed into a space for her readers to inhabit, learn, and challenge what they knew. Elaine Showalter writes in her introduction to Little Women:

The death of her sister Lizzie in 1858 and her confidante Anna’s marriage the same year to a neighbor, John Pratt, were parallel traumas. Anna’s wedding signaled the breakup of a sustaining sisterhood. ‘I’d rather be a free spinster and paddle my own canoe,’ Louisa wrote defiantly…Many of her essays explored the possibilities of a single life for women, or a sustaining community of women artists and professionals, and she often criticized the problems caused by early marriage and wedlock: ‘Half the misery of time comes from unmated pairs trying to live their legal lie decorously to the end at any cost.’ Yet in other stories and novels, including Little Women, Alcott tried to imagine genuinely egalitarian marriages in which women could be strong and loving, and in which they could continue to work and create. (Alcott)

Alcott’s own decision to remain unmarried is telling of her thoughts on the subject. In the late 1800s, it was not a popular or beneficial option; but just as generations of writers have noted about Austen, if she had been married, none of her novels would have existed. It was within the worlds of Alcott’s novels that she attempted to create communities where women could exist apart from men’s overwhelming influence.

Regarding utopian women’s communities in these works, Little Women lends itself as the clearest example. The March family home is simultaneously a “good place” and “no place” as the meanings of the Greek words imply. With Mr. March away, the home is quite literally a woman’s utopia; however, this is complicated by the fact that it is through his absence that Mr. March is “allowing” the utopia to exist. Kathryn Manson Tomasek writes of this phenomenon in her essay “Searching for Feminist Utopia in Little Women”: “While Mr. March is away serving as a chaplain in the Civil War, his potential presence gives the March family the legitimacy they need to function independently as a community of women” (Tomasek). His return signals the official end of the utopia they had crafted in his absence.

Tomasek mentions: “When women imagined their own utopias, they often employed a vision that combined the gendered meanings of autonomy with a gendered plan for complementarity between women and men” (Tomasek). This thinking was the impetus behind Bronson Alcott’s failed experiment at Fruitlands when Louisa was a young girl. Bronson Alcott’s transcendental communal adventure espoused equality between men and women, but as Tomasek mentions, it actually relegated women even more to the home as they were forced to do all the work while the men were in the field. Because Fruitlands was a utopia envisioned and carried out by men, it fell short of being a utopia for the women. The “complementarity” that Tomasek writes about was lacking completely. At a young age, Alcott was given responsibilities to care for her siblings and even the men in Fruitlands when her mother was absent. For Alcott, the March family in Little Women was perhaps the better version of what Fruitlands could have been if it had been planned by women instead of by men.

Of the three works considered in this thesis, Little Women is also the best example of women’s spaces and community. It is the one that has the most concrete physical spaces in which the sisters live, grow, and learn together. Readers feel as though they are invited into the March family, which is why generations of young girls have loved the novel—they are immediately a part of the community the novel creates. Unlike Pride and Prejudice, where a reader’s entrance coincides with the intrusion of men; in this novel, readers are welcomed into the women’s community before the men arrive. With the first few pages, Alcott takes the time to describe the sisters’ appearances. Interestingly, however, she begins their introductions by describing the space they inhabit:

As young readers like to know ‘how people look,’ we will take this moment to give them a little sketch of the four sisters, who sat knitting away in the twilight, while the December snow fell quietly without, and the fire crackled cheerfully within. It was a comfortable old room, though the carpet was faded and the furniture very plain, for a good picture or two hung on the walls, books filled the recesses, chrysanthemums and Christmas roses bloomed in the windows, and a pleasant atmosphere of home-peace pervaded it. (Alcott)

Already we know that this space is safe, comfortable, and female-centered. It is also worn, well-loved, and well-lived in. A few pages later, we feel the warmth of the fire and see the girls rearranging their home when Marmee returns at the end of a long day:

Mrs. March got her wet things off, her hot slippers on, and sitting down in the easy-chair, drew Amy to her lap, preparing to enjoy the happiest hour of her busy day. The girls flew about, trying to make things comfortable, each in her own way. Meg arranged the tea-table; Jo brought wood and set chairs, dropping, overturning, and clattering everything she touched; Beth trotted to and fro between parlor and kitchen, quiet and busy; while Amy gave directions to every one, as she sat with her hands folded. (Alcott)

In this introductory space ruled by the benevolent and wise Marmee, we see a completely female community, unhurried and untouched by male intrusion, where each woman has her own place and particular burden to bear.

However, in this female community, the sisters use their imaginations to create their own versions of male-dominated professions, which is something Stephanie Foote points out in her article “Resentful Little Women: Gender and Class Feeling in Louisa May Alcott”: “the novel tends to present scenes in which facsimiles of the world are assimilated into the March household—the girls create their own post office, their own newspaper, and stage their own private theatricals” (Foote). The sisters create the Pickwick Club, so titled because of their love for Charles Dickens; their club “publishes” the Pickwick Portfolio newspaper. Quite distinct from Austen’s early nineteenth-century focus on letters and the private sphere for women, this progressive space Alcott creates is a replica of the male-dominated public sphere. Alcott spends a fair amount of one chapter describing the details of the Pickwick Club meeting space:

[They] met every Saturday evening in the big garret, on which occasions the ceremonies were as follows: Three chairs were arranged in a row before a table on which was a lamp, also four white badges, with a big ‘P.C.’ in different colors on each, and the weekly newspaper called, The Pickwick Portfolio, to which all contributed something, while Jo, who reveled in pens and ink, was the editor. At seven o’clock, the four members ascended to the clubroom, tied their badges round their heads, and took their seats with great solemnity. Meg, as the eldest, was Samuel Pickwick, Jo, being of a literary turn, Augustus Snodgrass, Beth, because she was round and rosy, Tracy Tupman, and Amy, who was always trying to do what she couldn’t, was Nathaniel Winkle. Pickwick, the president, read the paper, which was filled with original tales, poetry, local news, funny advertisements, and hints, in which they good-naturedly reminded each other of their faults and short comings. (Alcott)

Even as this is a literal space occupied by a community of women, it is by description a community of men. Alcott even uses masculine pronouns when referring to the girls’ assumed male identities. She also reprints the full newspaper, taking the time to tell her readers that the paper “is a bona fide copy of one written by bona fide girls once upon a time” (Alcott). By allowing the March sisters to borrow the trappings and names of men—specifically male characters from a book written by a famous male author—Alcott gives them agency and intelligence. These girls are no longer simply sitting idly by a fireplace knitting; rather, they have transformed their female utopian “nowhere” into a space that is not only recognized but also “inhabited” by men.

Auerbach has written multiple essays about both Pride and Prejudice and Little Women. In one essay, she writes that:

Little Women …is one of America’s most beloved celebrations of childhood, its rather perfunctory concluding marriages giving a twilight flavor to the enforced passage into womanhood proper. But the darting adult wit of the one [Pride and Prejudice] and contagious nostalgia of the other treat a similar process: the passage of a bevy of sisters from the collective colony of women presided over by their mother to the official authority of masculine protection. (Auerbach)

As mentioned earlier, Alcott herself had initially not wanted the March girls to grow up in the novel. Auerbach quotes a letter Alcott wrote to a friend stating that “publishers are very perverse & wont let authors have their way so my little women must grow up and be married off in a very stupid style” (17). Instead of writing only about how girls grow up to be wives, Alcott instead focused on the strong connections among sisters. Auerbach again reinforces this fact:

Louisa May Alcott gives her matriarchy the dignity of community but forbids its final amalgamation with the history it tries to subdue. For this ‘happy end’ the family is not enough; though with love or coercion it can train its daughters in the art of waiting, it cannot be both new woman’s colony and new wives’ training school. Its vacuity and its glory lie in the netherworld it establishes between them. (Auerbach)

In Little Women, Alcott created a space where girls could be happy together in a utopia between childhood and marriage within the sisterhood that Alcott envisioned as an alternative to marriage and dependence on a husband.

Besides Mr. March, the presence of one other male in the story is vital to the plot—Laurie, the March sisters’ young neighbor. Laurie watches wistfully from his window as the girls play; he longs to be a part of their utopian community. However, when Jo catches him at his spying, he responds with embarrassment and emotion:

Laurie colored up, but answered frankly, ‘Why, you see I often hear you calling to one another, and when I’m alone up here, I can’t help looking over at your house, you always seem to be having such good times. I beg your pardon for being so rude, but sometimes you forget to put down the curtain at the window where the flowers are. And when the lamps are lighted, it’s like looking at a picture to see the fire, and you all around the table with your mother. Her face is right opposite, and it looks so sweet behind the flowers, I can’t help watching it. I haven’t got any mother, you know.’ And Laurie poked the fire to hide a little twitching of the lips that he could not control. (Alcott)

Quite the opposite of the March family, for Laurie, it is the absence of women—not men—in his life that causes him to crave entrance to the utopian community. When we first meet Laurie, he and Jo are nearly the same age—fifteen years old. It is difficult not to wonder if Laurie had other motives for spying on the March girls. Jo does not seem to understand the effect that Laurie will have on her family when she wholeheartedly welcomes him into their utopia: “We’ll never draw that curtain any more, and I give you leave to look as much as you like. I just wish, though, instead of peeping, you’d come over and see us. Mother is so splendid, she’d do you heaps of good, and Beth would sing to you if I begged her to, and Amy would dance. Meg and I would make you laugh over our funny stage properties, and we’d have jolly times” (Alcott). The acceptance of Laurie into the March family shatters the way things had been.

Laurie’s first intrusion into the sisterhood begins with the Pickwick Club. Jo, speaking as “Mr. Snodgrass,” proposes that Laurie should be allowed to join “as an honorary member of the P.C.” (Alcott). Amy votes against it, saying that “this is a ladies’ club, and we wish to be private and proper,” while Meg worries that “he’ll laugh at our paper, and make fun of us afterward” (Alcott). This is the first moment that male influence causes a disagreement among the sisters—no matter how small or seemingly insignificant. With a man’s intrusion, they devalue themselves, and their male artifice immediately transforms back into a “ladies’ club.” Before the girls can decide against welcoming Laurie, Jo reveals that he has been hiding in the closet the entire time, “flushed and twinkling with suppressed laughter”—which is exactly the reaction Meg expected of him (Alcott 105). The sisters call Jo a “traitor,” although Laurie is secured as a new member before the end of the page and admits the trick was his idea. However, his admittance is sealed by his gift of a post office between their houses, of which Alcott writes “how many love-letters that little post-office would hold in the years to come!” (Alcott). Already with his initial presence in the community of women, Laurie has planted the seed that will grow into marriage and a permanent separation of the sisters.

Laurie is seemingly introduced as Jo’s potential love interest, and many readers through the years have been disappointed on that front. When Jo refuses his proposal, she gives reasons for wanting to keep his friendship. She loves him as a friend and brother but not as a lover and husband: “’I don’t believe it’s the right sort of love, and I’d rather not try it,’ was the decided answer” she gave him (Alcott). Laurie is upset by her refusal, but throughout the novel, he is a potential love interest for each of the sisters in turn. Minogue mentions this in her dissertation: “First, gossip has it that Meg has her sights set on him to secure her financial future; then Jo believes that Beth is pining away for him. In time, Laurie suffers rejection by Jo and acceptance by Amy as he makes the latter his wife” (Minogue). After suffering Jo’s rejection and taking some time to grow up, “Laurie decided that Amy was the only woman in the world who could fill Jo’s place, and make him happy” (Alcott). It is strange later though when Laurie explains his marriage to Jo:

‘Jo, dear, I want to say one thing, and then we’ll put it by forever. As I told you, in my letter, when I wrote that Amy had been so kind to me, I never shall stop loving you; but the love is altered, and I have learned to see that it is better as it is. Amy and you change places in my heart, that’s all…You both got into your right places, and I felt sure that it was well off with the old love, before it was on with the new; that I could honestly share my heart between sister Jo and wife Amy, and love them both dearly. Will you believe it, and go back to the happy old times, when we first knew one another?’ (Alcott)

Even as he makes his request and explanation, it seems obvious that Laurie has not fully moved past his love for Jo. He wants to go back to the utopia he remembers from their childhoods. Interestingly enough, it is Jo who reminds him that it is impossible to go back to “the happy old times.” Too much has changed, and Laurie has been a massive part of those changes whether he admits it to himself or not.

Besides men causing the central plot action and disruptions in both novels, the two novels—Pride and Prejudice and Little Women—share many similarities, a primary one being the multiple resemblances between the central characters of Elizabeth Bennet and Jo March, both of whom are the second oldest in a family of all daughters. Both of their older sisters are more stolid and dignified with few changes to their usually calm temperaments; Meg March is calm, careful, and concerned with propriety, while Jane Bennet is so timid and steady-natured that Mr. Darcy is convinced she does not even care for Mr. Bingley. Jo and Elizabeth each act differently from what their societies expect of them. Mary Ellen Minogue addresses this in her dissertation, “The Sororal Relationship in the Nineteenth-Century Novel: Potential and Power,” when she writes:

Primary to both works is Austen’s and Alcott’s homage to the rebel-type;

Elizabeth and Jo are the irrefutable cynosures of their respective works. They break away from the sororal crowd and establish themselves as unique females…Paradoxically, the diametrically opposed responses of both ‘rebels’ are underscored by sororal fealty. Elizabeth is as devoted to Jane as Jo is loyal to her sisters…As a kind of prescient feminism, sororal devotion foreshadows the mutual support among women encouraged at the close of the nineteenth-century. (Minogue)

In Minogue’s opinion, sisterhood is the chief and most important relationship for both Jo and Elizabeth. No matter what or who else they may be, the connections with their sisters are what give them their strongest sense of identity and belonging. No matter what or who else they may be, the connections with their sisters are what give them their strongest sense of identity and belonging.

As in Pride and Prejudice, marriage is the fulcrum that disrupts the harmony among the women. Jo March laments to her mother in Little Women when she hears of Meg’s engagement: “I knew there was mischief brewing; I felt it, and now it’s worse than I imagined. I just wish I could marry Meg myself, and keep her safe in the family” (Alcott). There is a definite sense of loss that comes hand-in-hand with marriage—a sense of separation from other women and relegation to a life of isolation as a wife and mother. Again, Minogue wrestles with this as she writes “Second-born Jo clearly emerges as the character who most readily internalizes condemnation of patriarchal hegemony as it impacts sororal cohesiveness. Jo views any prospect of Meg breaking from the sororal fold via marriage as potential destruction of the March sisterhood” (Minogue). When Meg first brings up the topic of men and marriage, Jo is taken aback: “Jo stood with her hands behind her, looking both interested and a little perplexed, for it was a new thing to see Meg blushing and talking about admiration, lovers, and things of that sort. And Jo felt as if during that fortnight her sister had grown up amazingly, and was drifting away from her into a world where she could not follow” (Alcott). It is this world full of courtship and marriage that begins to pull the sisters apart.

Marriage is not the only strain on the bonds among the sisters. As we know, Beth’s death is the most tragic fissure in the novel. However, it is central to note that Alcott saw marriage as a total disruption of sisterly community. As Auerbach writes:

The inclusion of young love among these upheavals implicitly defines it as more of a tearer of sisterhood than an emotional progression beyond it; and the equation between the departures of marriage and death continues in the last half of the book, where Beth’s wasting illness and death run parallel to the marriages of the rest of the sisters. (Auerbach)

Alcott herself felt this strongly in her own life. When her older sister was married, her description of the event in a letter could be exactly what Jo would have written after Meg’s wedding: “’After the bridal train had departed, the mourners withdrew to their respective homes; and the bereaved family solaced their woe by washing dishes for two hours and bolting the remains of the funeral baked meats’” (Auerbach). In none of these three works is marriage viewed as synonymous with death, but, for Alcott, the loss of a sister to a new husband was equal to losing her completely.

Jo’s character development is probably the most noticeable and drastic of all the characters. We meet a fifteen-year-old tomboy and say goodbye to a matronly and calm wife, mother, and teacher. At the end of the novel, all three surviving sisters sit with their mother and families and discuss how happy they are. Jo is not surrounded by women, but by a family of boys. Jo had to go through many difficulties to get to this sense of idyllic harmony, and it has in many ways replaced the women’s community from the start of the story. In Jo’s Boys, everything is different from the start. Oddly enough, Alcott decides to introduce Jo and Meg as “Mrs. Jo” and “Mrs. Meg,” allowing them to keep their identities as women by not tagging on their married names but still adding the title “Mrs.”

However, it is in Jo’s Boys, that we see one of the most autobiographical parts of Alcott’s story displayed in Jo’s life. Jo has become a devoted wife, mother, and teacher while allowing her writing to fall to the side until she has a “long illness” and:

Confined to her room, Jo got desperate over the state of affairs, till she fell back upon the long-disused pen as the only thing she could do to help fill up the gaps in the income. A book for girls being wanted by a certain publisher, she hastily scribbled a little story describing a few scenes and adventures in the lives of herself and her sisters, – though boys were more in her line, – and with very slight hopes of success sent it out to seek its fortune. (Alcott)

These sentences describe almost exactly Alcott’s experience in writing Little Women— even to the details of the publisher requesting a story for girls. It also echoes the original preface to Little Women in which she invokes Pilgrim’s Progress and the allegorical quest narrative by personifying her book and its mission.

Another fact worth noting is that Jo only turned back to her writing when she was alone, away from the busyness of teaching and mothering. By writing about her sisters,

Jo is able to reconnect with the sisterhood that was lost through either death or marriage. Many critics have been disgruntled by the ending of Little Women which seems to show Jo content with only the domestic life of a wife and mother. The novel has followed her for fifteen years, and she is thirty-years-old when she, Meg, Amy, and Marmee close the novel with their conversation. However, a closer reading of the final paragraphs reveals a bit more:

‘Yes, Jo, I think your harvest will be a good one,’ began Mrs. March, frightening away a big black cricket that was staring Teddy out of countenance.
‘Not half so good as yours, Mother. Here it is, and we never can thank you enough for the patient sowing and reaping you have done,’ cried Jo, with the loving impetuosity which she never would outgrow.

‘I hope there will be more wheat and fewer tares every year,’ said Amy softly.
‘A large sheaf, but I know there’s room in your heart for it, Marmee dear,’ added Meg’s tender voice.

Touched to the heart, Mrs. March could only stretch out her arms, as if to gather children and grandchildren to herself, and say, with face and voice full of motherly love, gratitude, and humility…
‘Oh, my girls, however long you may live, I never can wish you a greater happiness than this!’ (Alcott)

Instead of focusing on the fact that all four women are relegated to the domestic sphere in the end, it is more important to realize that the novel closes with the absence of men and the gathering of women. It is Marmee, the matriarch of the March family, who opens her arms wide, encircling her remaining daughters in the remnants of the community they created and hold together despite marriage and male intrusion.

The third and final work to be discussed in this thesis is different from the first two most notably in its literary genre. “Goblin Market” as a poem inevitably has more constraints when it comes to creating a strong sense of community among women, but Rossetti succeeds in fashioning a vibrant and complex story of sisterly love, separation, and commitment between Laura and Lizzie. The literal space filled by the poem is much smaller than that of the novels, but even in this constrained space, the strength of women’s community is evident and escapes the potential boundaries set by the poem’s length.

(Part four, “GOBLIN MARKET”: SUFFERING SISTERS, will be published next week)


About the author
Meagan Hanley lives in Illinois, U.S.A., just east of St. Louis, Missouri, with her new husband and an ever-growing book collection. She has loved all things Jane Austen since she first came across Pride and Prejudice at 14 years old, and her friends and family have learned to live with her obsession. She earned a Bachelor’s degree in English Language and Literature from Greenville University and an M.A. in Literature from Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. Meagan works as an office manager, and when she’s not reading, she can be found enjoying the outdoors with friends and cycling with her husband. She also blogs about life and literature at
Posted on

Women’s Circles Broken – Part Two

Women's Circles Broken

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.
(This is part two of the essay. Part one can be found here.)



Pride and Prejudice is the oldest text under discussion and is a good fit for the first chapter in other ways as well. Its author was devoted to her older sister Cassandra; the two of them were inseparable for all of Jane’s life. After Cassandra’s fiancé died during a shipping voyage, she was devastated and remained unmarried for the rest of her life. Jane, as far as we know, was engaged for one night but broke it off the next morning and never married. In her article, “Jane Austen’s ‘Schemes of Sisterly Happiness’,” Leila S. May writes: “As countless critics and biographers have noted, Austen’s relation to Cassandra was characterized as a ‘marriage,’ a bond so profound that it provided the kind of emotional force and fulfillment which a conventional marriage could only hope to approximate” (May).

The two sisters kept an extensive correspondence during the times when they were visiting various family members and friends. Through these letters, readers get a better glimpse of Jane’s personality and the bond she and her sister shared in the lightheartedness seen in letters such as this one she wrote in 1796: “My dearest Cassandra, The letter which I have this moment received from you has diverted me beyond moderation. I could die of laughter at it, as they used to say at school. You are indeed the finest comic writer of the present age” (Chapman). In other letters, it is clear that Jane was an even wittier and more astute social critic than she allowed herself to be when she wrote her novels. Sadly, Cassandra destroyed many of the letters after Jane’s death, but the remaining letters still fill a voluminous collection published by Oxford University Press. It is through these missives that we see the woman behind the famous author and the real relationship between the two sisters—a relationship that was most likely the basis for Jane and Elizabeth Bennet’s relationship in Pride and Prejudice.

Many Austen biographers attempt to focus on the small details in Austen’s life that could have been the basis for her novels—engagements, heartbreak, languishing for lost love—when most likely it was her relationship with Cassandra that both inspired her and made her writing possible. If Austen had been married, it is fairly certain she would not have written her novels, or at least not had them published. It was not for lack of trying on their parents’ part that both sisters never married, but when Cassandra’s fiancé died and Jane refused her final marriage proposal, even their mother said that “’Jane and Cassandra were wedded to each other’…The combined state of singlehood and sisterhood clearly provided the material situation that made Jane Austen’s literary career possible” (McNaron 59). Because she remained unmarried and lived with her mother and sister, her writing provided a source of income, and Cassandra was a constant sounding board for her ideas. Sisters were integral to both Austen’s reality and to those she created in her fictional worlds of women.

Austen’s focus on sisters and circles of women is not a new revelation in literary studies. Anyone who has read at least one of her novels will notice the emphasis on sisterly bonds, displayed most clearly in Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility, where two sisters in each novel share an especially close connection. When reading criticism about Austen’s sisterhoods, one begins to see a spectrum emerge. On one hand is the belief that Austen revered the sacred bond of sisters and believed that all women were connected, as seen in Michael Cohen’s work:

Austen goes far beyond the novels of education to see what a sister who was not a foil or a rival might actually be like to live with, and by extending sisterhoods she makes visible and believable the almost infinitely drawn out, changeable, but no less real relation that exists among all the women in a given society…Pride and Prejudice insists that all its women are sisters. (Cohen)

Other critics disagree with the idea that sisterhood is a beneficial and enviable thing in the novel; rather, that with the exception of Jane and Elizabeth, “it could almost be said that in this novel—to misquote Sartre—‘l’enfer, c’est les soeurs’” [hell is sisters] (May). Still others write that there exists a deeper connection among women—specifically sisters—that Austen draws to the foreground:

Although Jane Austen’s novels invariably portray male-oriented relationships since they are about forms of courtship and marriage, she also explores the importance of the heroine’s bond with her sister – a bond that frequently plays a highly conducive role in the development of her identity. Often, the heroines who experience profound sororal connections are indebted to their sisters for moral, social, and emotional education. (Dobosiewics)

It is most helpful to uncover a balance between the extremes of scholarly thought. Relationships among sisters can be as varied as the women’s personalities, as anyone who has a sister will have proof enough to agree. Neither of these opinions is wrong; however, it is important to realize that the same sister can be “hell” one moment and savior the next.

Jane and Elizabeth are the closest sisters in the story. The two of them are incredibly open and tell each other nearly everything. Their relationship also displays the ways in which women must communicate differently. At the beginning of the novel, the two sisters wait to tell each other their true feelings: “When Jane and Elizabeth were alone, the former, who had been cautious in her praise of Mr. Bingley before, expressed to her sister just how very much she admired him” (Austen). In public, the women are wary and reserved in their opinions, but later when they are alone together, they can be open and honest in their safe and private environment. Much later in the novel, we see an example of the two of them communicating even without words— “Jane and Elizabeth looked at each other”— and a decision is made (Austen). This type of intimacy and internal communion is not typical, but for these two sisters, it becomes a lifeline.

Where Elizabeth and Jane share everything with each other, the two of them often keep things from their other sisters. Not all sisters are close, but all women are brought together through their common experiences and struggles—especially when it comes to maintaining an identity and community apart from the ones expected by the men in their lives. In Pride and Prejudice, multiple communities of women intersect. One is the central family unit comprised of the five Bennet sisters—Jane, Elizabeth, Mary, Kitty, and Lydia. However, even in this literal “sisterhood,” there are levels of closeness among the sisters. Jane and Elizabeth as the two eldest sisters share the closest bond and seemingly sanest minds of the women in their family.

From this closest bond branches off the girls’ mother and three other sisters. Interestingly, the Bennet girls’ mother is not fully included in the family community partially because she constantly strives to control her daughters’ lives by marrying them off to rich men. She hovers on the sidelines believing she is in control, constantly embarrassing her eldest daughters. The youngest daughters Kitty and Lydia are connected through their mutual absurdity, while Mary as the middle child stands aloof with her off- putting and heightened sense of superiority and piety. Interestingly, Mary is the only Bennet sister without a strong personality; she merely drifts silently throughout the novel and pipes up every so often when she is not wanted. The refusal of shared community with her sisters leaves her character alienated and flat. In contrast, Charlotte Lucas begins the novel as a stronger participant as Elizabeth’s closest friend, but her sudden marriage of convenience to a man she doesn’t love causes a permanent rift between herself and Elizabeth. At age twenty-seven, Charlotte already feels the effects of looming spinsterhood and takes the practical action of marrying to guarantee future security, although by doing so, she disconnects herself from her community of women. Kitty and Lydia’s communication is far different from Jane and Elizabeth’s since they connect on a much shallower level. The two youngest girls are only fifteen and sixteen years old and described as “silly,” whereas Jane and Elizabeth are described as the only seemingly well-bred people in their family. Mary is an enigma who keeps to herself and is mostly disconnected from both her family and broader social circles.

Talulah Riley as Mary Bennet, 2005.

Readers never get to actually see the Bennet sisters before men enter the scene. We join their story with the arrival of Mr. Bingley and Mr. Darcy in town—two of the most eligible bachelors. It is as if we the readers are part of the men’s entrance and are immediately caught up in Mrs. Bennet’s husband-hunting mood. However, the women still exist in a fairly close sphere throughout the novel even as several of the sisters move toward marriage. During several moments in the novel, certain events cause ripples in the sisters’ relationships with each other. Elizabeth especially seems to struggle to keep things the same even as she realizes changes are imminent. One example early in the novel involves the girls’ mother. As part of her matchmaking efforts, Mrs. Bennet convinces Jane to ride on horseback to Mr. Bingley’s home during a rainstorm, effectively forcing her out of the circle of women. Elizabeth is annoyed by her mother’s insistence, and after receiving Jane’s note describing her illness resulting from being drenched,

Elizabeth, feeling really anxious, was determined to go to her, though the carriage was not to be had; and as she was no horsewoman, walking was her only alternative. She declared her resolution.

‘How can you be so silly,’ cried her mother, ‘as to think of such a thing, in all this dirt! You will not be fit to be seen when you get there.’
‘I shall be very fit to see Jane—which is all I want.’ (Austen)

Being kept away from her sister at this time would have been devastating for Elizabeth, and she refuses to stay home. She has no thought for the men she will invariably see at Netherfield; her only concern is for her sister. Here it becomes clear that Elizabeth is fighting to retain her close connection with Jane even as she sees her mother—under the guise of securing Mr. Bingley—pulling her away.

Perhaps the most obvious instance of male disruption in the novel is Mr. Collins’s visit. Since there are no Bennet sons, Longbourn estate is entailed, and the daughters have no claim to it. The girls’ mother either would not or could not understand the situation, and Austen writes that:

Jane and Elizabeth tried to explain to her the nature of an entail. They had often attempted to do it before, but it was a subject on which Mrs. Bennet was beyond the reach of reason, and she continued to rail bitterly against the cruelty of settling an estate away from a family of five daughters, in favour of a man whom nobody cared anything about. (Austen)

Such is the first introduction to the famously ridiculous Mr. Collins, distant cousin and hopefully soon-to-be-husband to one of the Bennet sisters, who enters the scene with false modesty and the bestowal of unwanted attentions. Since it is his marriage to one of her daughters that will secure Longbourn, Mrs. Bennet changes her attention to one of her favorite pastimes: match-making. Mr. Collins is at first attracted to Jane since she is the oldest—and we are told prettiest—of the five daughters. However, Mrs. Bennet soon cures him of his attachment by strongly hinting at Jane’s expected engagement:

‘As to her younger daughters, she could not take upon her to say—she could not positively answer—but she did not know of any prepossession; her eldest daughter, she must just mention—she felt it incumbent on her to hint, was likely to be very soon engaged’

Mr. Collins had only to change from Jane to Elizabeth—and it was soon done—done while Mrs. Bennet was stirring the fire. Elizabeth, equally next to Jane in birth and beauty, succeeded her of course. (Austen)

It is here that Austen so clearly displays the ridiculousness of many marriages. Mr. Collins, though himself a caricature, demonstrates the lack of concern that many men had for the women they were marrying; as soon as one became unavailable, the next pretty face would do just as well.

It goes without saying that this jumping from one sister to another would influence the relationships among the sisters themselves. Mr. Collins is introduced through his letter, which causes Mr. Bennet to describe in brutal terms the reality of the sisters’ positions as women: “’It is from my cousin, Mr. Collins, who, when I am dead, may turn you all out of this house as soon as he pleases’” (Austen). The promise of keeping their home and retaining financial security is possible for all of the Bennet women if one of the sisters marries the odious man, and he is all too aware of this fact. Leveraging his position, Mr. Collins proposes next to Elizabeth, who of course turns him down. And here begins a central disruption to our women’s community.

We have not yet seen the last of Mr. Collins. Actually, he is the cause of the biggest change to Elizabeth’s circle of trusted friends. Early on in the novel, we realize that Charlotte and Elizabeth are extremely close friends and confidantes. It is safe to assume that if Elizabeth ever felt that she could not discuss something with Jane, she would instead discuss it with Charlotte, who in many ways, is like a second older sister. Charlotte’s personality fills the places for Elizabeth that are lacking in Jane’s friendship;

Charlotte sees things as they really are, whereas Jane always tries to see the best in everyone. For one critic, Breanna Neubauer, “Elizabeth and Charlotte’s best and most satisfying relationship, then, is with each other, if for no other reason than because, even more than to her beloved sister Jane, Elizabeth relates to Charlotte on a more sensible, intelligent level”. This fact helps to explain Elizabeth’s complete shock when she learns of Charlotte’s engagement to Mr. Collins. Elizabeth is dumbfounded:

‘Engaged to Mr. Collins! My dear Charlotte—impossible!’…
‘I see what you are feeling,’ replied Charlotte. ‘You must be surprised, very much surprised—so lately as Mr. Collins was wishing to marry you. But when you have had time to think it over, I hope you will be satisfied with what I have done.” (Austen)

One can imagine Elizabeth’s dazed expression of disbelief as Charlotte continues her strange explanation, pointedly referring to Elizabeth’s own option to be selective in her choice of husband. Charlotte does not have that luxury.

I am not romantic, you know; I never was. I ask only a comfortable home; and considering Mr. Collins’s character, connection, and situation in life, I am convinced that my chance of happiness with him is as fair as most people can boast on entering the marriage state.’

Elizabeth quietly answered ‘Undoubtedly;’ and after an awkward pause, they returned to the rest of the family. Charlotte did not stay much longer, and Elizabeth was then left to reflect on what she had heard. It was a long time before she became at all reconciled to the idea of so unsuitable a match…She had always felt that Charlotte’s opinion of matrimony was not exactly like her own, but she had not supposed it to be possible that, when called into action, she would have sacrificed every better feeling to worldly advantage. Charlotte the wife of Mr. Collins was a most humiliating picture! And to the pang of a friend disgracing herself and sunk in her esteem, was added the distressing conviction that it was impossible for that friend to be tolerably happy in the lot she had chosen. (Austen)

Charlotte’s marriage to Mr. Collins shatters her relationship with Elizabeth; in marrying Mr. Collins, she loses Elizabeth’s respect, and she is also forced to move away from home. It is worthwhile to point out Charlotte’s reasons for marriage: “I am not romantic, you know; I never was.” Her low opinion of even the possibility of happiness in marriage is evident; she simply realizes that she must marry to survive.

Yet another instance of male interference in women’s circles is clearly displayed in the dishonesty and manipulation of Mr. Wickham. Not only does he succeed in convincing Elizabeth to believe his lies and nearly persuade herself to care for him, but he eventually elopes with Lydia, causing massive humiliation for the entire Bennet family. When Mr. Darcy tells her of Mr. Wickham’s true character, Elizabeth decides not to share the knowledge with her sisters. After Elizabeth hears the news of Lydia’s elopement with Wickham, she immediately regrets keeping the secret from her sisters:

‘When I consider,’ she added in a yet more agitated voice, ‘that I might have prevented it! I, who knew what he was. Had I but explained some part of it only—some part of what I learnt, to my own family! Had his character been known, this could not have happened. But it is all—all too late now.’ (Austen 345)

Not only has Wickham literally torn apart the Bennet’s circle of women by eloping with Lydia, but he has also caused Elizabeth to willfully keep information from her other sisters. It is worth noting that Elizabeth is more upset at her own willful omission of the truth of Wickham’s character than she is at the initial news of her sister’s elopement. She is extremely upset that Lydia has potentially ruined her own reputation—and by extension the reputations of all her sisters. Through the entrance of Wickham and his influence over Lydia and Elizabeth, the connections among sisters are broken.

For Austen, a good woman is invariably a good sister, and a woman’s moral and emotional shortcomings are frequently signaled by her lack of sisterly concern…. Austen proposes that female-oriented relationships shape the heroine’s identity and are indicative of her moral and emotional worth. (Dobosiewics)

Yes, Lydia physically and quite literally broke the bonds of sisterhood, but Elizabeth betrayed something even more important to the community of women—her sense of integrity in the way she communicates with her sisters.

Women in Pride and Prejudice communicate with each other differently than they communicate with others outside their circles. In Austen’s time,

Women were taught to view themselves as subordinate to, dependent upon, and at the service of men in their lives. One might speculate that the devaluation of sisterhood in patriarchy is caused by the fact that, to perpetuate male dominance, patriarchal ideology validates only male- oriented relationships. Not surprisingly, then, sororal ties have become marginalized, and consequently, unexamined, or misrepresented. (Dobosiewicz)

Within scholarship considering women’s communication styles, we see several patterns emerge. As mentioned above, there is a high importance placed on integrity and honesty in women’s relationships with each other. Especially in Austen’s novels, the good relationships among women are grounded on mutual openness and encouragement. These relationships also focus on detailed story-telling and writing. Women shared important news with each other and embraced letters as a valuable form of communication when they were forced to be apart from other women, especially during the nineteenth century. Letter-writing plays a definite role in Pride and Prejudice as letters convey the most important plot points throughout the novel. Elizabeth and Charlotte correspond almost exclusively through letters after Charlotte’s marriage, and Elizabeth finds out about her sister Lydia’s elopement and the subsequent actions taken by her family through letters.

There are, however, also examples in the novel of women’s letters being quite the opposite of encouraging and honest. Mr. Bingley’s sister Caroline writes a letter to Jane in which she lies about his reasons for leaving town. Elizabeth immediately suspects Caroline of convincing her brother to leave, but the wording of her letter attempts to disguise the fact with false disappointment and the socially accepted request of further correspondence between herself and Jane:

‘I do not pretend to regret anything I shall leave in Hertfordshire, except your society, my dearest friend; but we will hope, at some future period, to enjoy many returns of that delightful intercourse we have known, and in the meanwhile may lessen the pain of separation by a very frequent and most unreserved correspondence. I depend on you for that.’ To these highflown expressions Elizabeth listened with all the insensibility of distrust. (Austen)

Even as she writes a letter full of lies, Caroline Bingley asks for Jane’s continued “friendship” in the form of letters. Although she has broken the integrity of real friendship, she still asks Jane to continue this obvious surface appearance of it.

Elizabeth’s strongest prejudice against Mr. Darcy does not stem mainly from her dislike of his wealth, status, or prideful attitude. Rather, she is infuriated by the fact that he separated Mr. Bingley from Jane. By destroying Jane’s chance at love and happiness, Mr. Darcy deeply hurts Elizabeth by extension. When Mr. Darcy first proposes to Elizabeth, her main reason for refusing him is this interference in her sister’s relationship with Mr. Bingley. In a fit of frustrated anger, Elizabeth asks him: “do you think that any consideration would tempt me to accept the man who has been the means of ruining, perhaps for ever, the happiness of a most beloved sister?” (Austen). Even if Elizabeth had wanted to accept Mr. Darcy’s first proposal, it can be assumed that she would have refused on principle because he had hurt her sister. The bond between them was stronger than anything she would gain through marriage.

If we view the women’s community in this novel as utopia, then it is one that the men in some ways want to enter. Mr. Darcy in particular goes through several phases of his relationship with Elizabeth— pride, prejudice, denial, love, and eventually remorse. Strangely enough, when he does explain himself to Elizabeth, it is through a letter. He spends an entire night composing a lengthy letter that succeeds in convincing Elizabeth of his integrity and moral character. In order for Mr. Darcy to gain limited entrance into this “utopia,” he uses a woman’s form of communication—the emotional and detailed letter which takes up nearly an entire chapter. He writes the letter because he sees it as his only chance to redeem himself in Elizabeth’s eyes. He tells her the full story behind his actions and also the truth of Wickham’s conduct in passionate and personal words that Elizabeth accepts far more readily than his initial angry explanation. It is through this letter that Elizabeth begins to change her thinking toward Mr. Darcy: “Mr. Darcy’s letter she was in a fair way of soon knowing by heart. She studied every sentence; and her feelings towards its writer were at times widely different” (Austen). By displaying his honesty and vulnerability in a letter—while simultaneously defending his honor—, Mr. Darcy allows Elizabeth the time and consideration to rethink her feelings toward him. She trusts him more through the letter than she ever did when speaking directly to him.

However, Mr. Darcy does not fully want to be invited into the womanly “utopia” any more than Elizabeth wants to allow him in. In fact, it is impossible for him to enter her community even if he curiously or half-heartedly seeks entrance; his very presence would transform the group whether he sought the change or not. It is far more plausible that Darcy would eagerly take Elizabeth out of her utopian women’s community if his first marriage proposal is any indication when he asks her: “Could you expect me to rejoice in the inferiority of your connections? –to congratulate myself on the hope of relations, whose condition in life is so decidedly beneath my own” and later in his letter when he explains that “The situation of your mother’s family, though objectionable, was nothing in comparison to the total want of propriety so frequently, so almost uniformly betrayed by herself, by your three younger sisters, and occasionally even by your father” (Ch. 34). His focus on her “mother’s family” and the embarrassment caused by the other women in her family make it clear that he believes he is better for her. In a way, marriage to him would be rescuing her from the humiliation of her community of women. Darcy’s perceptions of women are immutable and severe; it takes him weeks to admit his love for Elizabeth because he believes she is too far beneath him to warrant serious attention.

Earlier in the novel, Elizabeth and Darcy take part in a conversation debating what a woman must achieve to be truly “accomplished.”

‘All this she must possess,’ added Darcy, ‘and to all this she must yet add something more substantial, in the improvement of her mind by extensive reading.’
‘I am no longer surprised at your knowing only six accomplished women. I rather wonder now at your knowing any.’

‘Are you so severe upon your own sex as to doubt the possibility of all this?’ ‘I never saw such a woman. I never saw such capacity, and taste, and application, and elegance, as you describe united.’ (Austen 58)

Here, Elizabeth is defending women although Mr. Darcy attempts to tell her that she is not giving women enough credit for their talents. She refuses to accept his definition of what makes a woman accomplished. Instead she points out to him the ridiculousness of that list. However, this list of accomplishments was originally brought up by none other than Caroline Bingley, who tells Mr. Darcy that:

No one can be really esteemed accomplished who does not greatly surpass what is usually met with. A woman must have a thorough knowledge of music, singing, drawing, dancing, and the modern languages, to deserve the word; and besides all this, she must possess a certain something in her air and manner of walking, the tone of her voice, her address and expressions, or the word will be but half-deserved. (Austen)

This list is a veritable buffet of nineteenth-century stereotypes and expectations of women. Elizabeth knows that the list is superficial and that Caroline Bingley is simply trying to parade herself in front of Mr. Darcy and receive his approbation.

Miss Bingley is just one example of how Austen cleverly contrasts differences in how women—especially sisters—relate to one another. Mr. Bingley has another sister, a woman only ever called by her husband’s name—Mrs. Hurst. The Bingley sisters are only described as “fine women, with an air of decided fashion” (Austen). These external characteristics are all we need to know about these two women who are only focused on the external and have no real depth of character. It is safe to assume that the only true connection these two sisters have with each other is the combined ability to convince their brother to act according to their will. When Darcy mentions that Jane is pretty, but smiles too much, Austen gives us the following information about the two Bingley sisters:

Mrs. Hurst and her sister allowed it to be so—but still they admired her and liked her, and pronounced her to be a sweet girl, and one whom they would not object to know more of. Miss Bennet was therefore established as a sweet girl, and their brother felt authorized by such commendation to think of her as he chose. (Austen)

Initially, Mr. Bingley is convinced to care for Jane because of encouragement from his sisters; however, he is just as easily swayed by their opinions when they (along with Mr. Darcy) convince him that she doesn’t care for him. It is not unbelievable to view Caroline Bingley and Mrs. Hurst as a sister set of foils to Jane and Elizabeth. They are an example of sisterhood gone awry and potential community wasted.

In Austen’s first two novels especially, she “creates a pair of devoted sisters who are superior to the other members of their family and complementary in temperament. The love quests of the sisters intertwine, and the resolutions to both stories ensure the happiness not only of marriage but of sisterhood” (McNaron 56). If we do not quite believe that the heroine’s marriages ensure true happiness, then at least we can see that they do promise that the sisters will not be completely separated. Austen promises at the end of Pride and Prejudice that “[Mr. Bingley] bought an estate in a neighbouring county to Derbyshire, and Jane and Elizabeth, in addition to every other source of happiness, were within thirty miles of each other” (Austen). The sisters’ continuing closeness is now brought to literal distance—thirty miles—so that even after marriage, their sisterhood is not destroyed. Unfortunately, Austen ends the novel before readers can see what Jane and Elizabeth’s relationship was like after their marriages, but we can quite accurately guess that though it was changed, they were still able to spend many happy hours at each other’s homes. This is quite preferable to what often happened after marriages when sisters were separated by hundreds of miles, which at the time meant that they may never see each other again.

Jane and Elizabeth’s strong relationship holds steady during and after their separation. Happily, the two of them are able to marry for love, which at the time was a luxury, as Charlotte points out to her “romantic” friend. Perhaps their story represents an alternative ending that Austen imagined for herself and Cassandra had life been different for them. One thing we can know for sure, Austen believed that the bond between sisters is sacred and more enduring than marriage.

The theme of strength found through sisterhood is common in all three works discussed here—Pride and Prejudice, Little Women, and “Goblin Market.” The central characters are quite literally sisters within the same families; the Bennet sisters, March sisters, Lizzie and Laura all share this bond. One of the most striking characteristics across the three works is that of the biographical similarities among the authors and their real-life sisters. As mentioned previously, Jane and Cassandra Austen were inseparable for all of Jane’s life. It is to Cassandra that we owe any knowledge of her sister, and the small amount we do have is what she considered of too little importance to gain any notice. However, the strong sisterly bond did not only influence Austen. Alcott based her novel on the childhood experiences she shared with her own three sisters, and Rossetti’s somewhat complicated relationship with her older sister influenced nearly everything she ever wrote, specifically her sister poems.

(Part Three, Little Women’s Utopian Community, will be published next week)


About the author
Meagan Hanley lives in Illinois, U.S.A., just east of St. Louis, Missouri, with her new husband and an ever-growing book collection. She has loved all things Jane Austen since she first came across Pride and Prejudice at 14 years old, and her friends and family have learned to live with her obsession. She earned a Bachelor’s degree in English Language and Literature from Greenville University and an M.A. in Literature from Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. Meagan works as an office manager, and when she’s not reading, she can be found enjoying the outdoors with friends and cycling with her husband. She also blogs about life and literature at
Posted on

A Jane Austen Essay – Austen’s Intentional Deprivation of Matriarchy

Emma features prominently in this Jane Austen Essay
A Jane Austen Essay by Mark Massaro, M.A.

Through the absence, or the duplicity, of mother figures, Jane Austen presents the perceived illusion of matriarchy within the Regency culture.

During her lifetime in England, patriarchy dictated the treatment of wealth, the home, the government, and relationships, which suppressed the leadership role of females.

Emma Woodhouse quickly became the lady of the house.

While Austen’s novels deal with these issues, the absence of strong and positive maternal figures highlights the muting of that designation. Those characteristics was usually reserved for the protagonists. Supporting characters, like Lady Catherine in Pride and Prejudice, Fanny Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility, and Mrs. Allen in Northanger Abbey, actively contribute to undermine the conventional role of mothers as moral and spiritual guides through ignorance, manipulation, or selfishness. Deceased characters also affect the actions of the present day, through the mystery of Mrs. Tilney’s death in Northanger Abbey, as well as the absence of Mrs. Woodhouse in Emma. Austen uses these maternal characters to highlight social prejudices that contribute to creating these tropes by using irony and humor, and how an unjust system is in place to continuously silence strength in female leadership. By depriving the protagonists of mothers, a void is left that allows an interruption from matriarchal legacy by having the female protagonists subtly challenge older men in power.

The traditional women of this era were completely reliant on their male relatives, or through their own marriage, and this dependence not only supported the patriarchal society but was created by it in the first place. In Pride and Prejudice, Charlotte says, “Happiness in marriage is entirely a matter of chance” (61). Women’s social, economic, and financial safety was based on their relationships to men, a condition which provided and maintained the foundation for this culture and, because of this, females were cast in a subordinate role. Educations relied entirely on perfecting their social roles. Austen’s protagonists often gain insights and experience as they learn from situations outside of their prescribed schoolings, which Austen tends to reward with true love or self-awareness. The mother roles that do exist within Austen’s world seem to contribute to maintaining this patriarchy as they sometimes become obstacles for the protagonists to deal with directly.

The Jane Austen News includes a Judi Dench film-off!Lady Catherine, in Pride and Prejudice, is the extreme of maintaining the patriarchy, as well as embodying an illusion of matriarchy. While she is viewed as an antagonist, she is simply a product of her system, which could be viewed as tragic. She is first introduced as the widow of Sir Lewis de Bourgh, which defines her as her marriage connection. Considering Darcy, her nephew, she is under the assumption that she is “entitled to know all his dearest concerns,” while, in reality, she does not (355). Her assumption of control, or of possessing an influential role of her nephew’s personal decisions, presents this illusion of matriarchy. Lady Catherine becomes an obstacle for Elizabeth to circumvent. Elizabeth is disrupting the old or traditional social order through her and Darcy’s deviation from his intended match, and Lady Catherine becomes agitated with this expression of freedom from cultural conditioning. Elizabeth directly presents Lady Catherine’s lack of power when she states that, according to Lady Catherine, their marriage has been “declared to be impossible” yet Lady Catherine has journeyed there to ask if there is an engagement (355). Elizabeth, in a sense, effectively exposes Lady Catherine’s own perceived power through circumventing each question by answering with a new question or answering drolly. Elizabeth states, “that if he (Darcy) is so, you can have no reason to suppose he will make an offer to me,” and Lady Catherine “hesitated for a moment” (355). This scene effectively presents how Elizabeth has power over a matriarch due to the latter’s fabricated sense of power. The new generation is usurping the past generations necessity for tradition.

A shadow-self of Lady Catherine is Fanny Dashwood, in Sense and Sensibility. Fanny’s perceived power is by proxy through the manipulation of her husband, John Dashwood. While she lacks power, she acts as a puppeteer, swaying her husband through careful wordplay and timing by manipulating the established gender roles. This reduces John, who embodies power because he is male and landowning, to a weak instrument for his wife’s selfish motivations. Fanny also contributes to maintaining the system by actively using it for her selfish ends. The article, “Women Owning Property: The Great Lady in Jane Austen,” written by Rita Dashwood, states that,

In contrast to the way Georgian genteel women have been represented by scholars of the period, the great ladies in Jane Austen are not portrayed as either creators of spaces, managers of their property, or socially conscientious members of their community. Instead, they share various negative characteristics, with most of them being described as despotic and arrogant. (107)

Again, like Lady Catherine, Fanny is a product of the society in which she was born. To make matters worse, Fanny contributes to it, solidifying the foundation of patriarchy, which is a shame because her manipulations are calculated and intelligent. This begs the question as to why social maneuvering and spousal manipulation became a trademark within Austen’s characters. Emma, in Emma, seems to have barely avoided this fate through gradual self-awareness and witnessing of relational consequences, though she never actually had any obstacle to overcome, besides herself. Men, possessing a societal freedom when in control of wealth, are also a product of their society, yet are less tragic. The circumstance of being a white male with wealth allows them to possess societal freedom and individual choice by way of a prescribed path without having to succumb to arrogance or selfish acts for survival. Darcy, Edward Ferrars, Capt. Wentworth, and Henry Tilney are examples of this concept, despite the origin of their finances being vastly different. Money becomes the determining factor, defining the foundation of relations, the authenticity of character, and choice of romantic prospects. The anxieties of acquiring a tarnished reputation or prohibited from inheritance are never a factor for these men because the society operates in their favor. These men are allowed to retain their honesty and sensibility and never succumb to desperate acts in order to survive.

The absence of a matriarchically order can showcase more than having one to deconstruct. When a maternal figure is lacking, a void becomes louder than an actual presence. Emma’s mother, though deceased, still influences events throughout the present day. Her maternal influence was her governess Miss Taylor, who, although caring, can still be considered hired help. Emma had economic and social power over her own maternal figure, which lead to Emma being ‘slightly’ spoiled and “the power of having rather too much her own way,” due to the fact that she had “been mistress of his house from a very early period” (1). Emma is thrust into a powerful role at such a young age created in her the illusion of matriarchy. This is also evident in her reliance on the class system when marriage was being considered between two parties. Emma’s relationships are based entirely on her status and not because of who she is as a person. In the beginning, Emma thwarts Mr. Martin and Harriet’s pairing because a rebellion against the patriarchal foundation was needed for it to commence. Austen complicates the established foundation by rewarding risk taking with relations. Kathleen Dougherty, the author of “Marriage and Friendship in Jane Austen: Self-knowledge, Virtue, and the “Second Self”,” claims that, “In Austen’s world, those who choose well choose for virtue and compatibility, not merely status or security. And a seeming lack of status can even be overcome if one’s character is thought to be good enough” (Dougherty 54). Through Emma’s trials, with her own self the obstacle, she creates a moral system which is removed from the patriarchic foundation. The absorption of her mother’s role within the society has evolved with Emma’s winning battle over her own conditioning. Her true character overwhelms the societal illusion.

Austen’s absent mothers subtly undermine male authority. They are not partaking in it whatsoever. The void causes a vacuum for creating unlimited potential within the heroines, something that the patriarchy would be threatened by. Despite there being a loss, it allows the opportunity for social shifting. Emma is the epitome of this. Frances L. Restuccia’ article, “A Black Morning: Kristevan Melancholia in Jane Austen’s Emma,” discusses this, as Restuccia writes, “Emma begins by offering a glimpse of the abyss–sustained throughout the novel by the accumulation of lost, dead, and dying mothers–for which it attempts to provide compensation.” Emma has social luxuries and engages with the members of her community as if they were puppets. More importantly, she influences them and this freedom and control occurs after she is the only female living in Hartfield. Her father is considered impotent by social standards, with being designated as feeble and nervous, much akin to an infant baby. His greatest actions are merely walking the grounds or entertaining guests. Emma has no paternal influence over her, allowing her to flourish as an individual with power. She has freedom because she has personal choice. Knightly reinforces Emma to conform to the Regency’s social standards with his moving into Hartfield, establishing a dominant male presence within the home.

We see Mrs Allen ‘guide’ Catherine far more in Northanger Abbey than Catherine’s mother does.

Despite the absent mother remaining present within the story, Austen also uses them as a literary technique to highlight character traits with the mystery surrounding the death of Mrs. Tilney in Northanger Abbey. Catherine Morland, the youngest heroine, has several women in the position of matriarchy. Mrs. Allen is the obvious choice as she is the one to support her entrance into the social world. Mrs. Allen shares with her the societal rules, as Austen writes, “she was admirably fitted to introduce a young lady into public, being as fond of going everywhere and seeing everything herself as any young lady could be. Dress was her passion. She had a most harmless delight in being fine” (10). Mrs. Allen represents this false authority and Austen categorizes her as a woman, “whose society can raise no other emotion than surprise at there being any men in the world who could like them well enough to marry them” (10).  Mrs. Allen’s presence is presented as superficial and playful due to Austen using sarcasm her description of Catherine’s chaperone in view of society. Mrs. Allen’s greatest power is her ability to camouflage herself within her social structure, which lessens her illusion of power even more than the others. Nothing about her is special and her individuality, and power, is drowned under the weight of maintaining the patriarchal order. An impressionable girl like Catherine would gravitate toward a force that stands out of a crowd.

Learning about the death of Mrs. Tilney allows Catherine to formulate her own perspective, and version, of events that occurred before her connection with the Tilney family. Another void is opened and it allows Catherine to momentarily escape the Georgian society. Catherine delves into a fictional world where the monsters are defined by their murderous actions instead of their inability to recognize power in matriarchy. Mrs. Tilney’s absence elevates her into becoming something more than another Mrs. Allen, who is merely existing within the society. The search for answers about Mrs. Tilney’s death mirrors a yearning for a mother figure. Catherine is passionate about learning more. Austen writes, “Catherine had never heard Mrs. Tilney mentioned in the family before, and the interest excited by this tender remembrance showed itself directly in her altered countenance, and in the attentive pause with which she waited for something more” (131). Catherine is temporarily elevated away from patriarchy as well, and she becomes a heroine within a story that will lead to adventure, discovery, power, and an ability to self-govern, something that her actual society denies her. The absence of Mrs. Tinley allows this flight of fancy to occur, something that Mrs. Allen or her own mother would be unable to do. This allows Catherine to actively engage with General Tilney, circumventing safeguards like matriarchal figures.

Austen’s heroines need a minor escape from the patriarchal structure to realize the individual power that exists outside of domineering men and complacent women. In Austen’s world, the protagonists are journeying on unaccompanied explorations, creating their own sense of the world. In the article “Motherhood and Reality in Northanger Abbey,” written by Elvira Casal, the concept of embarking on solo journeys are necessary for emotional growth and connection. Casal writes:

The heroines of the novels are daughters, not mothers, and the novels focus on the stage of a woman’s life when she is least likely to feel close to her mother. Falling in love and marrying involve reaching outside a person’s original family for love, affection, and validation. Choosing a husband therefore implicitly requires the daughter’s emotional movement away from the mother. (146)

Elizabeth’s would-be husband

This scenario plays out in many instances in Austen’s texts. Mothers, or mother figures, represent traditions, usually imploring the heroines to make socially safe decisions and prevent societal risk. If this is the model that mother figures promote, then Elizabeth would have married Mr. Collins and Catherine Morland would have married John Thorpe. Safe decisions adhere to tradition, therefore losing individual choice and succumbing to patriarchy yet again. Women traditionally married to survive, promoting arrogant men, like Thorpe, or pompous men, like Collins, as suitable candidates, while forsaking good men like Mr. Martin or Capt. Wentworth due to their untraditional status.

The void of a maternal presence affects characters differently. There is a freedom with loss, as well as a grief.  Emma becomes a valued member of her town. She suppresses nothing. Catherine Morland creates her own experiences without influence from her mother or Mrs. Allen. There is no intermediary between her and courtship or adventures. The void of a mother figure results in creating unrecognized freedom from the patriarchal influence. Mothers were not present to steer their daughter’s paths along the established and conformed road. On the contrary, women a bit older than our heroines, not only exist in patriarchy, but they contribute to it with false power. Fanny Dashwood employs her husband’s gender for her personal use. Instead of challenging patriarchy, she accepts it and practices it. Lady Catherine not only accepts it but actively represents it. She operates under the pretense that she has power because of her lineage while her wishes seem to be ignored.

No matter the significance, Austen’s heroines have a loss of a powerful maternal presence in common. Some can find that the lack of a matriarch only reinforces patriarchy but there is significant evidence to suggest that power is created because of that loss. Austen subtly challenges her societal foundation by severing the link between generations, and by undercutting a powerful maternal authority, the heroines begin to rely on their own individuality for direction, sustenance, and power. They are personally prosperous, despite lacking maternal influence or societal power, and their wit and sensibility are often rewarded. As the possession of wealth being usually denied, with inheritance going to males, and women lacking supremacy of their fates, Austen’s heroines had to rely on their character for survival and guidance, and the lack of mother figures allowed for this situation to occur.


Work Cited

Austen, Jane. Northanger Abbey, Lady Susan, The Watsons, and Sandition. Oxford World’s Classics. 2008. Print.

Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice. ed. Robert P. Irvine. Peterborough: Broadview Press, 2002

Austen. Jane. Sense and Sensibility. Penguin Random House. 2014. Print

Casal, Elvira. “Motherhood and Reality in Northanger Abbey”. Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal. JASNA. No. 20, 1998. 146-153.

Dashwood, Rita. “Women Owning Property: The Great Lady in Jane Austen”Jane Austen and Philosophy. Edited by Mimi Marinucci. Rowland and Littlefield. 2017.

Dougherty, Kathleen. “Marriage and Friendship in Jane Austen: Self-knowledge, Virtue, and the “Second Self””Jane Austen and Philosophy.Edited by Mimi Marinucci. Rowland and Littlefield. 2017.

Restuccia, Frances L. “A Black Morning: Kristevan Melancholia in Jane Austen’s Emma.” American Imago, vol. 51, no. 4, 1994, p. 447+


About the author of this Jane Austen essay

Mark Massaro received his Master’s Degree in English Literature from Florida Gulf Coast University with a focus on 20th Century American Literature. He is an English Instructor at two universities. When not reading or writing, he can be found in his black Chucks at a bonfire in his home state of Massachusetts, talking with friends and listening to classic rock. His creative works have been published in Literary Juice Magazine, The Pegasus Review, and The Mangrove Review. His happiness is being next to his wife, with their son in his arms, and their golden retriever curled up nearby.

Enjoyed this Jane Austen essay? Take a look at some of our Jane Austen books and gifts available in the Jane Austen online gift shop.

Posted on

Jane Austen News – Issue 103

Jane in Jane Austen the Musical

What’s the Jane Austen News this week? 


Jane In The West End

Some of our readers might remember that the UK was treated to a touring, musical-adaptation of Persuasion last year. Well now, rather than one of her novels, Jane’s life has been adapted into a musical.

Jane Austen the Musical is receiving great reviews as it continues its UK tour, which runs until March this year.

The tour began in October last year and has visited the likes of York, Norwich, and Birmingham. It is currently playing in London and, as London is a theatre hub, the theatre critics have been going to see the show and making their verdicts.

Rob Winlow has fashioned a diverting, grown-up, pleasant (but not without its bite) chamber musical that captures some of the dilemmas faced by the quiet girl who scribbled immortal novels in a Hampshire rectory.

Rob Winlow’s songs are pleasing, especially when the cast sing in harmony, with more than a hint of Gilbert & Sullivan in the patter numbers.

The audience amongst whom I sat were mostly women, though (as both the male director and male writer prove) Austen’s work is universal in its appeal, as all great art must be. See it if you’re a fan and, if you’re not, see it anyway

The highlight of the production is Edith Kirkwood’s assured performance as Jane. She has a charming voice and vivacious presence. Jenni Lea-Jones is enjoyable as Mrs Austen and Thomas Hewitt and Adam Grayson provide game support as the suitors and Rev Austen.

Of course it’s not everyone’s cup of tea, and some critics have said that it is too flimsy (“frustratingly thin portrait of an author”), but we thought that if you like musicals and you like Jane, this is a production you might like to know about.

Tour dates for the show are available here.

Continue reading Jane Austen News – Issue 103

Posted on

Jane Austen News – Issue 75

The Jane Austen News analyses genius

What’s the Jane Austen News this week?  

  Austen Letter For Sale  

letter written by Jane Austen is due to be auctioned for the first time on July the 11th.

Sotheby’s auction house have the letter for sale as part of the English Literature, History, Children’s Books and Illustrations sale, in which there will also be for sale two other fragments of correspondence between the two women (the lots are expected to sell altogether for as much as £162,000!).

The letter, dated 29-30 October 1812, was sent to one of Jane’s favourite nieces, Anna Lefroy, and shows how much enjoyment Austen had in making fun of the Gothic thriller genre (as she does to great effect in Northanger Abbey). The letter is addressed as a note, not to Anna herself, but to the author Rachel Hunter, whose 1806 novel Lady Maclairn, the Victim of Villany the two had recently read.

 Although the content was known, the letter itself has not been seen by scholars and it is very exciting to have it become available.

Gabriel Heaton, Sotheby’s specialist in books and manuscripts, declaring the letter a significant document.


Pride and Prejudice in Silk

We’ll shortly be adding an exciting new display piece to the Jane Austen Centre. Award-winning textile artist Linda Straw has kindly donated her beautiful Pride and Prejudice wall hangings to the Centre and they’ll be going up on display within the next few days!
In the past Linda has exhibited major works in Waterperry House, at exhibitions across the UK, at San Diego’s International Quilting Symposium, and even as far away as Tokyo! She is known the world over amongst the textile community, and specifically quilt makers, for her highly intricate and detailed machine-made quilts with examples being in the collections of global institutions such as the V&A and Art Institute of Chicago.
She developed her unique quilting method in 1981 by combining appliqué, quilting and embroidery, and the technique (known as the Linda Straw Method) has been widely taught in workshops throughout Britain, Ireland, Europe and America.
In the past Linda used the Pride and Prejudice wall hangings, which feature all of the major characters from the book, to illustrate the technique she spoke about during workshops and lectures, but now Linda has now retired she wanted to find an appropriate home for her work. We feel truly honoured that she chose us.

Continue reading Jane Austen News – Issue 75

Join Waitlist We will inform you when the product arrives in stock. Just leave your valid email address below.
Email Quantity We won't share your address with anybody else.