A decade into the twenty-first century, Pride and Prejudice is beginning to read more like fantasy than the realist fiction it was written to be. And yet, Austen is more popular now than when she was first published. There are many theories as to why (and many essays on the topic, I am sure), ranging from its social significance to the appeal of the strong and silent hero. For me, however, it’s not the romanticized Mr Darcy that holds my interest, nor the feminist-for-her-time protagonist. It is the relationship between sisters.
Sisterhood is a strange phenomenon. A close friend will be affectionately called our “sister” and yet for many people, blood relations aren’t close at all. Throughout my childhood, I remember most people envied the only child. Siblings meant fights, sharing cars, teasing, embarrassing secrets revealed to all. The only child had the full attention of his or her parents and the full weight of their wallet. Friends of mine with siblings celebrated the day that they were given their own bedroom. I, however, celebrated the day my bedroom became a study and my sister and I shared. We were teenagers, supposed to be fighting over stealing each other’s clothes (not that any of my sister’s petite clothes could ever fit me). Instead, we went to bed at the same time so that we could talk deep into the night like ten-year-olds at their first sleepover party.
“Gute nacht,” I would say, when I was tired enough for sleep.
“Bonne nuit,” she would reply.
As adults, few sisters remain rivals. The expectation is that a sister is a friend, someone to respect and love. There is an obligation to have her as bridesmaid, to see each other at major holidays, and to share responsibility for an ageing generation of parents. I recognise these obligations and find myself resenting them; they seem to degrade our friendship, as though it, too, exists because it has to.
When I asked my sister to be my Maid of Honour, I didn’t see it as a question for my sibling, sparked by custom and etiquette. I was asking my best friend. I wanted her to sit with me and glue ribbon onto wedding invites, eating M&Ms. She assured me I would be beautiful despite a terrible make-up trial and she helped me to laugh when the bridesmaid’s dresses finally arrived at 10am the morning of the wedding. I wanted her to be the last person I saw before I walked down the aisle with our father, the last person to hug me as a single woman.
My elder sister is my favourite person in the world. There are no words that can adequately describe the complexities of our relationship, a fusion of lives, a shared history, a library of advice and dreams. She is my opposite and my complement, the one I protect like a mother and turn to like a daughter. When I read Pride and Prejudice, or for that matter any book that contains sisters, I can’t help but judge their relationship against ours.
The Bennet family of Pride and Prejudice contains five sisters. It might be a model for family life: a promise that friendships like Jane and Elizabeth’s exist, but a reminder that they are uncommon. The three younger sisters almost seem superfluous, there only to highlight the rare closeness between Elizabeth and Jane (and to drive the storyline involving Mr Wickham). Austen herself had six brothers and one sister – Cassandra. She and Jane adored each other. She was perhaps the inspiration for the eldest Bennet sisters, and certainly for some of Jane’s earlier works.
Jane and Cassandra Austen lived together for most of their adult life. After the premature death of Cassandra’s fiancé, both remained unmarried and they shared not only a house but a bedroom, until Jane’s death in 1817. It’s been suggested that this is the reason for their extraordinary closeness, but as anybody with a best friend knows, distance is no obstacle. My sister and I attended different schools and different universities. We now live 300km from each other and visits are not nearly frequent enough. And yet – it is she who travelled Europe with me, choosing two days at Disneyland Paris over the more cultural experience of the Louvre. She’s the one who keeps me up to date with the life of my kindergarten friend, now her flatmate. She sends surprise packages with water bombs and writing journals. To have stayed in the same bedroom, forever sending each other to sleep in foreign languages, would have been special, there is no doubt. But there is also no doubt in my mind that Jane and Cassandra Austen didn’t need the same address to remain confidantes and best friends.
Back in year eleven, first reading Pride and Prejudice, my sister would have played the role of Jane Bennet. She was always the quietest at the dinner table, overpowered by the rest of us. She was gentle, the sole ballerina in a family of soccer players. She was eternally caring and would visit my school at lunchtimes, bringing Tiny Teddies and the unconditional love that was lacking from my schoolgirl friendships. She always saw the best in people, forever giving me the benefit of the doubt when I acted like Lydia.
My sister is still all of those things. She still has Jane’s quiet demeanour, her ability to offend nobody. She finished her honours degree the same year as her Advanced II ballet exam. When we get the chance to go swimming together, she still brings Tiny Teddies. But it’s not the quiet Jane Bennet side of her character that clings to my mind when I think of her. Instead, I’m inspired by her individuality and refusal to grow up. She has all seven stuffed toy dwarves from Snow White lined up on her windowsill and can quote every line from Aladdin. We take drives together singing along to boy bands. She loves roller coasters and Cadbury chocolate and thinks there should be no limit to either. She sleeps with her arm around the same doll she had as a child. There are days when we speak only in questions, days when we speak in the Yorkshire accents of a mostly-forgotten youth, days when we skip everywhere instead of walking. She is two and a half years my senior, but my sister keeps me young.
We live apart now, adults with different lives. I did the traditional thing: married at twenty-one and moved to the country, a salute, perhaps, to the Austensian era. She rents with two friends in the city and dances five times a week, teaching children’s classes on Saturdays. She still calls me “Smee” and writes me letters with wax seals, a consolation for our inability to talk every day. My sister’s letters are filled with the music of her character; they make me laugh and mourn simultaneously.
Jane and Cassandra Austen wrote each other, it is estimated, up to three thousand letters. One would go on visits without the other, usually to one of their brothers, and they would write daily. Jane’s letters to Cassandra form the basis of much of what is known about her life. Sections of them are quoted in biographies, alongside the comment that Cassandra had burned all but one hundred and sixty.
I can’t help but wonder why Cassandra would destroy those letters. Were they too painful to re-read, after losing her closest friend? Were they too personal to share with anybody else, if Cassandra were to die unexpectedly? Was it simply that nobody else could understand the words within, nobody else could do Jane justice? My sister’s letters contain phrases that make my chest ache with laughter, but my husband is mostly confused by them. To explain in detail those references and memories is to erase a portion of their magic. Perhaps, for Cassandra, it was a choice: have the letters destroyed by fire, or have them destroyed by someone else’s feeble attempt to understand.
One of Austen’s earliest writings, published in Juvenilia, was entitled The Beautifull Cassandra [sic] and dedicated to her sister. The dedication itself is more than enough evidence of the sisters’ devotion to each other:
You are a Phoenix. Your taste is refined, your Sentiments are noble, and your Virtues innumerable. Your Person is lovely, your Figure, elegant, and your Form, magestic. Your Manners are polished, your Conversation is rational and your appearance singular. If therefore the following Tale will afford one moment's amusement to you, every wish will be gratified of
Your most obedient
The adulation in those short words is overwhelming, and a little amusing. Personally, I couldn’t write such a piece for my sister (unless it was a joke). It’s not that we are incapable of genuine flattery, rather that our goal in life is to make each other laugh as much as possible. The achievements that we celebrate in each other go far beyond virtues and manners, even beyond achievements in work or study. For us, there is value in the silly things. “I listened to the same song on repeat for twenty-four hours, including in the shower and when I was asleep” deserves a high-five. “I get to play Geppetto in the kids’ end-of-year dance concert” leads to an impromptu sing-along of Pinocchio. “I gave up chocolate for a whole month” warrants some kind of hero worship, followed by a trip to Max Brenner’s chocolate café.
Jane Austen’s love for Cassandra was matched only by Cassandra’s to her – of her sister’s death, Cassandra said:
I have lost a treasure, such a sister, such a friend as never can have been surpassed. She was the sun of my life, the gilder of every pleasure, the soother of every sorrow, I had not a thought concealed from her, and it is as if I had lost a part of myself
I can’t imagine Cassandra’s pain. There could be no comfort, no replacement. Cassandra, unfortunately, was destined to live on 28 years beyond her sister. I don’t doubt that for her, this was the worst kind of punishment. As Winnie the Pooh said to Christopher Robin, “If you live to be a hundred, I want to live to be a hundred minus one day, so that I never have to live without you.”
In year eleven, I confessed to my English teacher that I had not read Pride and Prejudice, and my eyes were opened to Austen’s perception of sisterhood. Jane and Elizabeth Bennet, Jane and Cassandra Austen remind me that what we have is not unique – but it is perfect.