18th Century Siblings and Some Johnsonian Reflections

At this time on Austen-L there had been a number of postings questioning the nature of Fanny and William's relationship; someone had gone so far as to say it was unnatural, perhaps even incestuous.

So to this I first wrote:

There are many significant differences between the way children are brought up in 1997 and were brought up in what we know of Western European middle class families (most of our sources are about this group) between the 16th and 19th century. One of the these was fostering of an intense attachment between brothers and sisters from a very young age. A secondary element was a strong sense of kinship which would often lead to marriage between cousins. One finds not only in Austen's life but in the lives of other male and female novelists and not only in Austen's books but in the books and private papers of other middle-class men and women an intensely strong tenderly affectionate attachment beween brothers and sisters and marriages between cousins. Some examples of intense attachment between brothers and sisters besides that we find in Austen's family are (using those novelists I am most familiar with): Anthony Trollope (intimately involved with brothers-in-law of long dead sisters until late in his life, deeply attached to brothers and sisters), George Eliot (worshipped her brother), Charles Darwin (ditto and married first cousin); Virginia Woolf (who in the 20th century mode began the usual accusation of abuse through memory recollections; she remained intensely attached to her sister); moving backwards: Henry and Sarah Fielding, Harriet and Sophia Lee, the Brontes. I shall content myself with this list.

The reasons are not far to seek. Middle class families were intensely careful not to allow their children to mix with children of people of another class or children of people of the same class who had not been thoroughly vetted. The reason Edmund agrees to playact is he is appalled at the thought the Bertrams and Crawford would be letting an unknown person come into their circle. Middle class people were determined to keep their children away from lower status people and were determined not to allow love to arise where the parents felt they might "lose" their child to some lower group or not keep their child in their class. The whole family was to be the solid network from which the individuals would find posts, positions, places to live. (This feeling is not yet dead; middle class mothers still try to monitor their children's friendships; pressure is put on young adults to marry the right sort of person--public school has of course shattered the exclusive imprisoning circle in which the Prices, Bertrams, Crawfords live.)

From these kind of behaviors and with these kinds of motives it seems many young people hardly ever met anyone outside a very small circle of people. The familiar and common instance of cousins marrying comes from this. So sisters would worship the brother who went "out into the big world" to struggle; the brother might take it as his duty and a test of his manliness to "protect" and shelter and provide for his sister

Now a young girl in this period would be brought up to worship her brother because boys were so highly regarded. Money was to be spent on boys; boys were sent out into the world to aggrandize the family on their own. Austen's two sailor brothers succeeded. One sees not only marriage arising between cousins (Sir Thomas's fear is actually justified--Edmund has made Fanny his reality, his judge, his alter ego; Fanny worships the ground he walks upon); but another result is also, given the position of the oldest boy in a family, a striking tendency in girls to obey their brothers as if they brother were a husband or father or lover. William is the oldest boy in the Price family. In Trollope's Can You Forgive Her? one subplot shows a sister who uses highly charged erotic language to describe her devotion to her brother. Her love is so dominant in her life nothing else will do. She talks of being a kind of wife to him; she betrays a friend into becoming engaged to him. These kinds of erotic attachments are today sometimes thought of as incestuous. We are just misunderstanding William and Dorothy Wordsworth or Charles and Mary Lamb when we start to talk like this. We are hopelessly anachronistic and often more sexually obsessed than the Victorians when we talk of some of the sibling and cousin relationships we come across in these earlier periods.

On another list I'm on (Litalk) we are reading George Eliot's Middlemarch and I have been remembering a book I detested: The Mill on the Floss. This is about a young girl's worship of her brother to the point of immolating herself. Well Maggie's behavior and when I read this week's chapters Kate's mirrors George Eliot's to her brother who apparently would not have anything to do with her during the long years of her at long last happy and fullfilled life with Lewes because Eliot and Lewes were not married. (He saw fit to make up when Lewes died.)

On the Trollope list I quoted a couple of sonnets from a sonnet sequence by Eliot which reveals the kind of inner life a presentation of Fanny and William's affectionate deeply felt relationship presupposes. Eliot is describing her youngest memories as a girl of 6 or 7 when her brother was just a bit older--a close parallel to Fanny and William.

I cannot choose but think upon the time
When our two lives grew like two buds that kiss
At lightest thrill from the bee's swinging chime,
Because the one so near the other is.

He was the elder and a little man
Of forty inches, bound to show no dread,
And I the girl that puppy-like now ran,
Now lagged behind my brother's larger tread.

I held him wise, and when he talked to me
Of snakes and birds, and which God loved the best,
I thought his knowledge marked the boundary
Where men grew blind, though angels knew the rest.

If he said, 'Hush!' I tried to hold my breath;
Wherever he said, 'Come!' I stepped in faith.

That is the opener to the sequence.

Here's the first two quatrains of another:

We had the self-same world enlarged for each
by loving difference of girl and boy:
The fruit that hung on high beyond my reach
He plucked for me, and oft he must employ

A measuring glance to guide my tiny shoe
Where lay firm stepping-stones, or call to mind
'This thing I like my sister may not do
For she is little, and I must be kind.'

And finally the opener of yet another:

His sorrow as my sorrow, and his joy
Sent little leaps and laughs thorugh all my frame;
My doll seemed lifeless and no girlish toy
Had any reason when my brother came
(Victorian Women Poets, ed Leighton and Reynolds)

I am an only child and so never had a brother, and it's hard for me to know if anything like these patterns are fostered today in our society (they are perhaps still known in other societies--Muslim, African, Eastern?). Perhaps other people on our list can think of others. At any rate Fanny, Maggie Tulliver, nor Trollope's Kate Vavasour (nor other of his loving sisters and brothers) are not abnormal in any way.

Austen too makes a kind of fond joke showing the kind of irony she usually "subjects" both Fanny and William to. While William and Fanny are riding to Portsmouth, what does William dream? He dreams of a cottage he and Fanny are going to have and share and live a blissful life together for the rest of their lives just as soon as he gets his next promotion. Austen expects us to laugh sympathetically at William here.

Ellen Moody

To this Ursula Rempel replied:

I enjoyed Ellen's and Dorothy W.'s posts today about the close relationships of siblings both in the nineteenth century and now. I recall a discussion on this list many months ago about the strangeness of Jane and Cassandra sharing a bed and the hints by some of lesbianism. Ellen's post reminded me that in these often large early C19 families,elder children were frequently given an almost parental role in looking after younger children-- whether by design or by happenstance. The pairing of elder and younger children would, therefore, have created a strong bond--an imprint, if you will--similar to what both domestic and feral animals experience. Puppies bond quickly--and for life-- with one another if there is little human intervention. In large families (such as the Price's) the "adoption" of one sibling by another makes a great deal of sense (and don't we also see this to some extent in Litle Women with Meg/Amy and Jo/Beth?) The attention given to very young children by their parents would have been minimal if there was another baby to be cared for. And this issue only addresses the "middle class." The whole perception of family life in Austen's time is fascinating.

Then Nan S. LoBue wrote as follows:

Subject: amore fraternal

Though originally a little startled by the intensity of expression of Fanny and William's love in Mansfield Park, I for one have never been surprised by the love itself or felt that there was anything fishy about it. A certain passage in particular always resonates with my own feelings for my brothers and sisters, especially those closest to my age:

Fanny had never known so much felicity in her life, as in this unchecked, equal, fearless intercourse with the brother and friend, who was opening all his heart to her, telling her all his hopes and fears, plans, and solicitudes...who could give her direct and minute information of the father and mother, brothers and sisters, of whom she very seldom heard...An ad- vantage this, a strengthener of love, in which even the con- jugal tie is beneath the fraternal. Children of the same family, the same blood, with the same first associations and habits, have some means of enjoyment in their power, which no subsequent connections can supply... (Chapman 234-5)

I remember reading this for the first time and feeling the conviction of its truth as an absolute thrill. For me, this is one of those passages in Austen that reaches directly across time to universal human experience.

Nan LoBue

Statesboro, Georgia

Then I wrote in response to Nan LoBue's posting and another by Edith Lank in which Edith mentioned the death her sister. Nan quoted a deeply felt passage from Mansfield Park which concluded:

"An advantage this, a strengthener of love, in which even the con- jugal tie is beneath the fraternal. Children of the same family, the same blood, with the same first associations and habits, have some means of enjoyment in their power, which no subsequent connections can supply...

in which Austen, as narrator, carries on to say:

"and it must be by a long and unnatural estrangement, by a divorce which no subsequent connection can justify, if such precious remains of the earlier attachments are ever entirely outlived..." (Chapman II:6, 234-5).

As I wrote, I am an only child, but my earliest years from literally 9 months old (when my mother went out to work) were spent--just a bit like Fanny Price--for considerable amounts of time in the home of my father's sister, an aunt, and she had 3 children, 2 boys, one a year older than me, one 3 years younger and 1 girl, just my age-- cousins. The younger boy and I were not consciously close; we didn't make any kind of big deal about it; but as babies we shared a crib; he always rode me on the bar of his bike (because I didn't have one). These cousins moved away from NYC to Kentucky when I was 12, and I have not seen them very much since. We do not have very much in common. Yet when my father died the funeral director proved to me how alert he was, how much he had been paying attention to everyone, and his understanding of families and human nature when just at the moment he wanted me to move from my father's grave and apparently had grasped this was going to be very hard, he reached for my younger boy cousin to take my hand somehow encircle me away. I found while all the while I knew the funeral director had done it, I couldn't resist my now tall cousin's appeal to come away when he looked at me.

Austen is not a sentimentalist; she goes on to say:

"Too often, alas! it is not so--Fraternal love, somtimes every thing, is at others worse than nothing. But with William and Fanny Price, it was still a sentiment in all its prime and freshness, wounded by no opposition of interest, cooled by no separate attachment, and feeling the influence of time and absence only in its increase" (Chapman II:5, 235).

To this I added on the next day:

After I sent off my posting yesterday in which I quoted the following passage I got to thinking about why it's not sentimental:

"...and it must be by a long and unnatural estrangement, by a divorce which no subsequent connection can justify, if such precious remains of the earlier attachments are ever entirely outlived. Too often, alas! it is not so--Fraternal love, somtimes every thing, is at others worse than nothing. But with William and Fanny Price, it was still a sentiment in all its prime and freshness, wounded by no opposition of interest, cooled by no separate attachment, and feeling the influence of time and absence only in its increase" (Chapman II:5, 235).

It's not just that the second sentence tells us that it is as common for brothers and sisters to feel nothing as it is common for the earliest memories from experiences shared in our childhood to bond people together no matter how tenuously when once they meet again; it's the last sentence that carries the important sting. The narrator is telling us that William and Fanny love one another so easily because they are so young--they have not been "wounded" by "opposition of interest, cooled by" "separate attachment" and thus time and absence have not had an opportunity to work on them in such as way as to estrange and maybe make them enemies. Implied here the idea that this may not last. Although we now see Fanny and William with their "sentiment" of love "in all its prime and freshness," this cannot be used to prove in any way that after the book shuts it will have continued. The deep emotionalism of the passage then is not founded on lies, on sentimentalizing, on pretense, on a refusal to recognize the ravages of time, absence, the bitternesses that circumstances beyond our control can create (especially between relatives), but rather on the author picking just that moment where she can rejoice for a passage in the splendour of the hour--and laugh at this innocent pair all the more fondly and poignantly for knowing how fleeting such a moment can be. I'd like too to call attention to the Johnsonian quality of the passage: the language is Johnson's in his Ramblers, Idlers, and Adventurers; the thought is his curious blend of saturnine tragedy with comic satire shot through realistic pyschological analysis. As I reread it--and as I read Mansfield Park, I keep remembering Johnson's Rasselas which so strongly influences the close of Sense and Sensibility. In one famous passage in this novel Johnson's Imlac says: "Human life is every where a state in which much is to be endured, and little to be enjoyed." Well Austen offers us that little to be enjoyed in the above scene of her Fanny and William--but without losing that "stability of truth" upon which Imlac also tells us happiness must be founded or it will shatter into despair or linger in continual fatuous desperate illusions.

Ellen Moody

Then Nan LoBue quoted W. Jackson Bate's book on Samuel Johnson:

Yet Johnson was not and could not be a satirist...Against this background, Johnson's lifelong struggle for good humor (a "willingness to be pleased") and his efforts to check or suppress anger suddenly light up. They show that he did not dare release the impulse partly because it was so strong...What happens, therefore, is that ridicule, anger, satiric protest, are always in the process of turning into something else. It is this process that is important. We have here what amounts to another genre or form of writing, the essence of which is not satire at all but which begins with satiric elements and an extrememly alert satiric intelligence...but then the writer--still fully aware of the satiric pontentialities, still taking them all into account-- suddenly starts to walk backward and then move toward some- thing else. Much of Johnson's greater writing on human nature and human life falls into a distinctive literary type, eminent- ly characteristic of him, that we might call "satire _manque_" or "satire foiled." It involves a kind of double action in which a strong satiric blow is about to strike home unerringly when another arm at once reaches out and deflects or rather lifts it. (W. Jackson Bate, Samuel Johnson, 493-4)

Nan quoted my words on Johnson's deeply felt journalism, and went on to add that:

This quality of simultaneously seeing people's faults and rejecting the right to mock them (because, after all, we're all traveling together through this vale of tears) is what makes Johnson one of my heroes. I know JA read Johnson and probably knew his writings better than I do. Still, it's interesting to think about how she developed her own style of writing and her own moral view. In Austen's writing, it's almost as if we see the opposite of what Bate calls "satire manque." Whenever she seems on the verge of sentimentality, she reminds us (as in the Fanny and William passage) that life is short, or that circumstances change, or that people are silly.

Nan LoBue

Statesboro, Georgia

Upon this I went back to an interesting passage in Mansfield Park, Volume I, Chs 16-17:

I'd like to respond to Nan LoBue's posting in which she quoted Walter Jackson Bate on Samuel Johnson's continual slipping from what we may call a more objectively satiric and therefore comic satiric mode into a satire which includes compassion for others; a desire to help the reader and himself through them see the world more clearly and thus live better or at least with more contentment and less harmfully to others; and identification with all of his characters at some point in his delineation of them. I think Johnson is always saying, as Pope rarely does when he pins his satiric victims on the wall, there but for the grace of God go I--and you, my elusive reader. We see this perhaps best in Johnson's Life of Richard Savage which I recommend if anyone would like to ask which of Johnson's works do we see this most clearly in. Richard Holmes wrote a disappointing book on Johnson's Life of Savage, but he is a good source to read on the story for background and an interpretation similar to Bates's.

Bates's book is also very great. I loved it. It actually comes up to Johnson's ideals for biography, and, if you are interested in Johnson the inner man and his works, is the better book than Boswell's famous Life.

Perhaps (this is no new thought, I have seen it in print before) MP is the most Johnsonian of Austen's novels. He is a presence in all of them; one can find echoes of him, and the same use of abstract psychological terms to present the world as a place driven by psychological forces which have a moral impact on us; Austen alludes to him more than once.

Nan says that there is a skirting of sentimentality in this kind of mode. One can slip from satire into passion so strong that one is in danger of attributing more emotion to someone or a situation than that someone or situation would probably have. But Austen and Johnson offset this by suddenly objectively the situation, and undercutting the emotionality by bringing in another perspective. In the case of William and Fanny in their coach we are suddenly asked to remember that William and Fanny have not had to live those long years the rest of us may have to live in which distance, opposition of interests, selfish hard behaviors, and pressures may just part them farther than they could at present ever imagine. I'll take this occasion to point to the strong use of a kind of stream of consciousness meditation at the close of this week's Chapter 16 in which we see Fanny break down when Edmund leaves after having come to her for her "approbation" of his decision to join the players. He cannot rest easy unless she approves, unless she is with him. Austen I suggest expects us to see in this Edmund's blindness to his intense attachment to Fanny. But it's interesting how Austen ends Edmund's self-justifications. The reason he brings forward last, as a clincher to show just how wonderful Mary is, and how he must step in to save her from making love (even through a play) with a stranger is how "amiable" Mary had appeared the night before when Mrs Norris publicly savaged Fanny (partly because he, Edmund, was dismissive of Mrs Norris's right to pressure Fanny, goad her into doing something). It's when he brings this up, that Fanny relents and agrees:

'She never apeared more amiable than in her behavior to you last night. It gave her a very strong claim on my good will.'
'She was very kind indeed, and I am glad to have her spared....'
She could not finish the generous effusion. Her conscience stopt her in the middle but Edmund was satisfied (Mansfield ParkChapman I:16, 156).

Very cheered, and now complacent, Edmund marches off to tell the others; he congratulates Fanny upon staying up in her retreat to read Lord MacCartney and visit China. But, like the heroine closest to Fanny, Anne Elliot, on the night she sends her brother-in-law and sister over to the Musgroves to meet with Wentworth, and while relieved, at peace, grateful not to have to get up that energy she thought was beyond her to meet him, is at the same time desolate to be the lonely outcast, in darkness, silence, and with a sick child, so for Fanny "there was no reading, no China, no composure..." As in the later sections of the book when Fanny reads Edmund's letter what is so moving here is when Fanny's reasoning breaks down, when she stops referring to Mary Crawford or the play, or any we can delineate coolly, and she falls into the grip of her passion, here misery:

"The doubts and alarms as to her own conduct, which had previously distressed her, and which had all slept while she listened to him, were become of little consequence now. This deeper anxiety swallowed them up. Things should take their course; she cared not how it ended. Her cousins might attack, but could hardly tease her. She was beyond their reach; and if at last oblged to yield--no matter--it was all misery now" (Mansfield ParkChapman I:16, 157).

Austen goes beyond her master. Johnson never enters into the mind of any character in this way. At the same time such a passage is "saved" because as we turn the page we find ourselves in the morning light of ordinary daily activity. Again the mood is sombre. Everyone exults over Edmund; Fanny feels for Julia who is too proud to admit her misery. But in all sorts of details and perspectives Fanny's meditation is placed: we see her in her just that small amount of jealousy when Mrs Grant agrees to take Cottager's wife that we would expect, undercut by Fanny's telling herself and realizing, well Mrs Grant was entitled to respect because she had the nerve and presence of mind Fanny doesn't (I:17, 158-61), and we move into Mrs Grant's conversation with Mary in which we get a very sharp conversation between the two in which Mary shows herself utterly indifferent and cold about to any hurt Julia might be feeling (161-2).

Mansfield Park is a very difficult book to pigeonhole or categorize. But I suggest that seeing it in the light of Johnson's combination of tragic compassion and sardonic satire helps.

Ellen Moody

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