The Suppressed Sister: A Relationship in Novels by Nineteenth- and Twentieth-Century British Women. (R
AMY LEVIN's well reasoned account of the narrative function of siblings in the works of Jane Austen takes us from the dualism of Elinor and Marianne in Sense and Sensibility to the more complex establishment of role and identity amongst the Bennet sisters. It is in Austen's work that we see the closest connection between biological sisterhood and the structure of the narrative. Where would Pride and Prejudice be without the adventures of Elizabeth Bennet's sisters? The story of an elopement and of an apparent betrayal are incorporated into the main narrative by linking the events through the family.
In the social sphere the Bennet sisters are, initially, of equal status. Therefore the prospective husband, Mr Collins, has no difficulty in redirecting his courtship from one sister to another. The distinguishing characteristics which they have adopted have no significance for him. This social convention fosters rivalry among the sisters and contributes to both Lydia's outburst and Mary's pedantry. However, Austen rarely questions the demands of sisterhood. Only when the |sister' is not a family member, or when the sister is socially removed, is the tension dramatized. In Emma the heroine's failure to befriend the only other girl of her age and class in the neighbourhood is seen as a dereliction of her social duty. Similarly in Mansfield Park Mrs Norris's jealousy of one sister's wealth and the other's children causes her to interfere in both sisters' lives.
Levin does not confine herself to biological sisters. She deconstructs the metaphorical meanings of sisterhood in Mrs Gaskell, George Eliot, Barbara Pym, Margaret Drabble, and Elizabeth Jane Howard. However real sisters are scarcely examined. Jane Austen's relationship with her sister Cassandra, and Marian Evans's with Chrissy are only mentioned in passing. The Bronte sisters feature in the context of Mrs Gaskell's biography of Charlotte and the other sister novelists, Margaret Drabble and A. S. Byatt, are treated separately. By avoiding the comparison Levin also misses the changes in the social requirements of the relationship over the 150 year period. For although Austen depicts the Bennet sisters' struggle for identity, she upholds a masculine rule of primogeniture. It is Fanny who is sent off to the Bertrams in Mansfield Park, not her more vivacious sister. Eliot also respects the conventions; in Daniel Deronda Gwendolen is the first born and expected to tutor her younger siblings, and in Middlemarch, Dorothea, Rosamund, and Mary Garth are the eldest daughters. These British novels lack the communality of the sisters in Louisa May Alcott's Little Women. Only when conventionalities are ignored do these heroines rise to the ideal of sisterhood and 7provide sympathetic support for each other.
When Drabble depicts the surrogate sisterhood of Liz, Alex, and Esther in The Radiant Way we move onto a further level of the metaphor. The bond formed at university has many similarities to the sibling relationship. They have a shared reference and employ codes which reinforce the relationship. They suffer similar jealousies. However their sisterhood is by consent, a consent which must be renewed if the friendship is to survive. In contrast Byatt's The Game shows the thraldom of the younger sister. Their shared reference, their parental home, is broken up after the death of their father and this marks the beginning of a breakdown between them. In the novel the younger sister destroys the elder by fictionalizing the elder's life-story.
Levin's contention that critics have not paid sufficient attention to the role sister relationships play in novels by British women is borne out by her book. The reader is left thirsty for more, particularly on the twentieth century novelists. (What about Angela Carter's Wise Children?) Let us hope that there is more to come.
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|Publication:||Notes and Queries|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Jun 1, 1994|
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