The Importance of Brothers in Jane Austen’s Novels

In James Fordyce’s Sermons to Young Women (1766), Fordyce says, “The world, I know not how, overlooks in our sex a thousand irregularities, which it never forgives in yours; so that the honour and peace of a family are, in this view, much more dependant on the conduct of daughters than of sons; and one young lady going astray shall subject her relations to such discredit and distress, as the united good conduct of all her brothers and sisters, supposing them numerous, shall scarce ever be able to repair.” 

In 1806, Jane West in her Letters to a Young Lady says, “A girl is, unquestionably, a more tender care than a boy; every error is more glaring, and comes more feelingly to our hearts and bosoms. A false step is here irretrievable.” 

But what of a brother’s duty to the family? Austen’s stories are peppered with a variety of ‘the good, the bad, and the ugly’ when it comes to brothers. Occasionally, she provides us insights into her opinion of brothers, of which she had six: James, George, Edward, Henry Thomas, Francis William (Frank) and Charles John. More often, they are a plot device to move the main story line forward.

There is brotherly competition, such as we find in Sense and Sensibility between Colonel Brandon and his brother, and, naturally, we have the Dashwood ladies’ opinion of their brother, as well as the Ferrars brothers. “For their brother’s sake too, for the sake of his own heart she rejoiced; and she reproached herself for being unjust to his merit before, in believing him incapable of generosity. His attentive behaviour to herself and his sisters convinced her that their welfare was dear to him, and, for a long time, she firmly relied on the liberality of his intentions.”

And what of the brother’s opinion of his half sisters: “One other short call in Harley Street, in which Elinor received her brother’s congratulations on their travelling so far towards Barton without any expense, and on Colonel Brandon’s being to follow them to Cleveland in a day or two, completed the intercourse of the brother and sisters in town;–and a faint invitation from Fanny, to come to Norland whenever it should happen to be in their way, which of all things was the most unlikely to occur, with a more warm, though less public, assurance, from John to Elinor, of the promptitude with which he should come to see her at Delaford, was all that foretold any meeting in the country.”

In chapter 31, we learn of the deceit Colonel Brandon’s brother: ““If I am not deceived by the uncertainty, the partiality of tender recollection, there is a very strong resemblance between them, as well in mind as person. The same warmth of heart, the same eagerness of fancy and spirits. This lady was one of my nearest relations, an orphan from her infancy, and under the guardianship of my father. Our ages were nearly the same, and from our earliest years we were playfellows and friends. I cannot remember the time when I did not love Eliza; and my affection for her, as we grew up, was such, as perhaps, judging from my present forlorn and cheerless gravity, you might think me incapable of having ever felt. Hers, for me, was, I believe, fervent as the attachment of your sister to Mr. Willoughby and it was, though from a different cause, no less unfortunate. At seventeen she was lost to me for ever. She was married—married against her inclination to my brother. Her fortune was large, and our family estate much encumbered. And this, I fear, is all that can be said for the conduct of one, who was at once her uncle and guardian. My brother did not deserve her; he did not even love her. I had hoped that her regard for me would support her under any difficulty, and for some time it did; but at last the misery of her situation, for she experienced great unkindness, overcame all her resolution, and though she had promised me that nothing—but how blindly I relate! I have never told you how this was brought on. We were within a few hours of eloping together for Scotland. The treachery, or the folly, of my cousin’s maid betrayed us. I was banished to the house of a relation far distant, and she was allowed no liberty, no society, no amusement, till my father’s point was gained. I had depended on her fortitude too far, and the blow was a severe one—but had her marriage been happy, so young as I then was, a few months must have reconciled me to it, or at least I should not have now to lament it. This however was not the case. My brother had no regard for her; his pleasures were not what they ought to have been, and from the first he treated her unkindly. The consequence of this, upon a mind so young, so lively, so inexperienced as Mrs. Brandon’s, was but too natural. She resigned herself at first to all the misery of her situation; and happy had it been if she had not lived to overcome those regrets which the remembrance of me occasioned. But can we wonder that, with such a husband to provoke inconstancy, and without a friend to advise or restrain her (for my father lived only a few months after their marriage, and I was with my regiment in the East Indies) she should fall? Had I remained in England, perhaps—but I meant to promote the happiness of both by removing from her for years, and for that purpose had procured my exchange. The shock which her marriage had given me,” he continued, in a voice of great agitation, “was of trifling weight—was nothing to what I felt when I heard, about two years afterwards, of her divorce. It was that which threw this gloom,—even now the recollection of what I suffered—”

Of course, there’s the betrayal of Robert Ferrars that sets up the happy ending for Elinor and Edward. “Lucy’s marriage, the unceasing and reasonable wonder among them all, formed of course one of the earliest discussions of the lovers;—and Elinor’s particular knowledge of each party made it appear to her in every view, as one of the most extraordinary and unaccountable circumstances she had ever heard. How they could be thrown together, and by what attraction Robert could be drawn on to marry a girl, of whose beauty she had herself heard him speak without any admiration,—a girl too already engaged to his brother, and on whose account that brother had been thrown off by his family—it was beyond her comprehension to make out. To her own heart it was a delightful affair, to her imagination it was even a ridiculous one, but to her reason, her judgment, it was completely a puzzle.

Edward could only attempt an explanation by supposing, that, perhaps, at first accidentally meeting, the vanity of the one had been so worked on by the flattery of the other, as to lead by degrees to all the rest. Elinor remembered what Robert had told her in Harley Street, of his opinion of what his own mediation in his brother’s affairs might have done, if applied to in time. She repeated it to Edward.

That was exactly like Robert,” was his immediate observation. “And that,” he presently added, “might perhaps be in his head when the acquaintance between them first began. And Lucy perhaps at first might think only of procuring his good offices in my favour. Other designs might afterward arise.”

In Northanger Abbey, Austen introduces us to the Tilney brothers, Catherine’s brother, James, as well as, Isabella and John Thorpe, who prove quite the pair of scoundrels. 

Isabella addresses Catherine: “My sweetest Catherine, how have you been this long age? But I need not ask you, for you look delightfully.  You really have done your hair in a more heavenly style than ever; you mischievous creature, do you want to attract everybody? I assure you, my brother is quite in love with you already; and as for Mr. Tilney–but that is a settled thing–even your modesty cannot doubt his attachment now; his coming back to Bath makes it too plain.” 

Catherine’s first impression of Captain Tilney: “Having heard the day before in Milsom Street that their elder brother, Captain Tilney, was expected
almost every hour, she was at no loss for the name of a very fashionable-looking, handsome young man, whom she had never seen before, and who now evidently belonged to their party.  She looked at him with great admiration, and even supposed it possible that some people might thin khim handsomer than his brother, though, in her eyes, his air was more assuming, and his countenance less prepossessing.  His taste and manners were beyond a doubt decidedly inferior; for, within her hearing, he not only protested against every thought of dancing himself, but even laughed openly at Henry for finding it possible. From the latter circumstance it may be presumed that, whatever might be our heroine’s opinion of him, his admiration of her was not of a very dangerous kind; not likely to produce animosities between the brothers, nor persecutions to the lady.  He cannot be the instigator of the three villains in horsemen’s greatcoats, by whom she will hereafter be forced into a traveling-chaise and four, which will drive off with incredible speed. Catherine, meanwhile, undisturbed by presentiments of such an evil, or of any evil at all, except that of having but a short set to dance down, enjoyed her usual happiness with Henry Tilney, listening with sparkling eyes to everything he said; and, in finding him irresistible, becoming so herself.”

After Eleanor Tilney manages to marry the man she loved, we learn how the pair assist Henry in winning Catherine’s hand: “The influence of the viscount and viscountess in their brother’s behalf was assisted by that right understanding of Mr. Morland’s circumstances which, as soon as the general would allow himself to be informed, they were qualified to give.  It taught him that he had been scarcely more misled by Thorpe’s first boast of the family wealth than by his subsequent malicious overthrow of it; that in no sense of the word were they necessitous or poor, and that Catherine would have three thousand pounds. This was so material an amendment of his late expectations that it greatly contributed to smooth the descent of his pride; and by no means without its effect was the private intelligence, which he was at some pains to procure, that the Fullerton estate, being entirely at the disposal of its present proprietor, was consequently open to every greedy speculation.”

In Mansfield Park, the brotherly love varies greatly. We have Fanny Price and her brother William, along with Mary and Henry Crawford, and, then, of course, the Bertrams: Tom, Maria, Julia, and Edmund. If interested, you might find this article from Marcia McClintock Folsom on the choices of the brothers and sisters in Mansfield Park, quite enlightening. 

When Edmund asks Fanny of her first impression of Miss Crawford, he is surprised by Fanny’s candor: “Oh yes! she ought not to have spoken of her uncle as she did. I was quite astonished. An uncle with whom she has been living so many years, and who, whatever his faults may be, is so very fond of her brother, treating him, they say, quite like a son. I could not have believed it!”

Mary welcomes her brother’s choice of whom to marry: “The surprise was now complete; for, in spite of whatever his consciousness might suggest, a suspicion of his having any such views had never entered his sister’s imagination; and she looked so truly the astonishment she felt, that he was obliged to repeat what he had said, and more fully and more solemnly. The conviction of his determination once admitted, it was not unwelcome. There was even pleasure with the surprise. Mary was in a state of mind to rejoice in a connexion with the Bertram family, and to be not displeased with her brother’s marrying a little beneath him.”

Mary Crawford declares: “What strange creatures brothers are!”

After Maria and Crawford’s elopement, the family is at sixes and sevens” “She was an altered creature, quieted, stupefied, indifferent to everything that passed. The being left with her sister and nephew, and all the house under her care, had been an advantage entirely thrown away; she had been unable to direct or dictate, or even fancy herself useful. When really touched by affliction, her active powers had been all benumbed; and neither Lady Bertram nor Tom had received from her the smallest support or attempt at support. She had done no more for them than they had done for each other. They had been all solitary, helpless, and forlorn alike; and now the arrival of the others only established her superiority in wretchedness. Her companions were relieved, but there was no good for _her_. Edmund was almost as welcome to his brother as Fanny to her aunt; but Mrs. Norris, instead of having comfort from either, was but the more irritated by the sight of the person whom, in the blindness of her anger, she could have charged as the daemon of the piece. Had Fanny accepted Mr. Crawford this could not have happened.”

In Persuasion, Captain Wentworth’s brother is a curate and his sister is Admiral Croft’s wife, Mrs. Musgrove’s nephew, Charles Hayter, is also a curate and is engaged to Henrietta Musgrove. Mrs. Musgrove is the sister of Charles’s mother, but as they often did in Austen’s time, Mrs. Musgrove refers to her brother-in-law as her brother Hayter. The Musgroves have their son Charles (the eldest), along with Louisa, Henrietta, and the late Richard (Dick) Musgrove. Meanwhile, Captain Harville is Fanny’s brother, such is the reason Captain Benwick resides with the Harvilles.

Mrs. Musgrove speaks of the engagement of Henrietta and Charles: “Mrs Musgrove was giving Mrs Croft the history of her eldest daughter’s engagement, and just in that inconvenient tone of voice which was perfectly audible while it pretended to be a whisper. Anne felt that she did not belong to the conversation, and yet, as Captain Harville seemed thoughtful and not disposed to talk, she could not avoid hearing many undesirable particulars; such as,
“how Mr Musgrove and my brother Hayter had met again and again to talk it over; what my brother Hayter had said one day, and what Mr Musgrove had proposed the next, and what had occurred to my sister Hayter, and what the young people had wished, and what I said at first I never could consent to, but was afterwards persuaded to think might do very well,” and a great deal in the same style of open-hearted communication:  minutiae which, even with every advantage of taste and delicacy, which good Mrs Musgrove could not give, could be properly interesting only to the principals.” 

Wentworth postpones his visit to his brother Edward in Shropshire once he has the chance to permit Anne Elliot to know regret as having refused him eight years earlier:  “Captain Wentworth was come to Kellynch as to a home, to stay as long as he liked, being as thoroughly the object of the Admiral’s fraternal kindness as of his wife’s.  He had intended, on first arriving, to proceed very soon into Shropshire, and visit the brother settled in that country, but the attractions of Uppercross induced him to put this off. There was so much of friendliness, and of flattery, and of everything most bewitching in his reception there; the old were so hospitable, the young so agreeable, that he could not but resolve to remain where he was, and take all the charms and perfections of Edward’s wife upon credit a little longer.”

Mrs. Musgrove asks her son Charles to speak to Wentworth to learn what the captain knew of Richard Musgrove’s passing. 

“And so then, I suppose,” said Mrs Musgrove, in a low voice, as if thinking aloud, “so then he went away to the Laconia, and there he met with our poor boy. Charles, my dear,” (beckoning him to her), “do ask Captain Wentworth where it was he first met with your poor brother. I always forgot.”

“It was at Gibraltar, mother, I know.  Dick had been left ill at Gibraltar, with a recommendation from his former captain to Captain Wentworth.”

“Oh! but, Charles, tell Captain Wentworth, he need not be afraid of mentioning poor Dick before me, for it would be rather a pleasure to hear him talked of by such a good friend.”

In Emma, we find several convoluted relationships to push the story forward, such as how Emma’s beloved governess Miss Taylor has now married Mr. Weston, who is the father of Frank Churchill from his first marriage. Frank is being raised by the late Mrs. Weston’s sister and brother-in-law. The only brothers mentioned that are of major importance to the plot are George and John Knightley. John just happens to be married to Emma’s older sister, Isabella. George is our “hero” in the tale.

After Emma and George have argued, in Chapter 12, she looks for a reconciliation when his brother and her sister are expected to come for a visit: “Mr. Knightley was to dine with them–rather against the inclination of Mr. Woodhouse, who did not like that any one should share with him in Isabella’s first day. Emma’s sense of right however had decided it; and besides the consideration of what was due to each brother, she had particular pleasure, from the circumstance of the late disagreement between Mr. Knightley and herself, in procuring him the proper invitation.”

Emma does not approve of anyone spending too much time with Jane Fairfax, including her brother-in-law: “The day came, the party were punctually assembled, and Mr. John Knightley seemed early to devote himself to the business of being agreeable. Instead of drawing his brother off to a window while they waited for dinner, he was talking to Miss Fairfax. Mrs. Elton, as elegant as lace and pearls could make her, he looked at in silence– wanting only to observe enough for Isabella’s information–but Miss Fairfax was an old acquaintance and a quiet girl, and he could talk to her. He had met her before breakfast as he was returning from a walk with his little boys, when it had been just beginning to rain. It was natural to have some civil hopes on the subject, and he said, ‘I hope you did not venture far, Miss Fairfax, this morning, or I am sure you must have been wet.–We scarcely got home in time. I hope you turned directly.'”

Emma belated realizes the brothers Knightley understood Mr. Elton’s intentions, when she did not: “To Mr. John Knightley was she indebted for her first idea on the subject, for the first start of its possibility. There was no denying that those brothers had penetration. She remembered what Mr. Knightley had once said to her about Mr. Elton, the caution he had given, the conviction he had professed that Mr. Elton would never marry indiscreetly; and blushed to think how much truer a knowledge of his character had been there shewn than any she had reached herself. It was dreadfully mortifying; but Mr. Elton was proving himself, in many respects, the very reverse of what she had meant and believed him; proud, assuming, conceited; very full of his own claims, and little concerned about the feelings of others.”

As to Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, we discover the Fitzwilliam brothers, the charming Colonel Fitzwilliam and his elder unnamed brother, the heir to the earldom. There is also the pseudo “brotherly” connection between Darcy and Wickham, as well as Bingley being brother to Carolina and Louisa and Darcy being brother to Georgiana, and we know that Charlotte Lucas has MANY brothers and sisters.

Jane explains Caroline Bingley’s situation to Elizabeth: “Certainly not; at first. But they are very pleasing women when you converse with them. Miss Bingley is to live with her brother and keep his house; and I am much mistaken if we shall not find a very charming neighbour in her.”

As noted previously, Mr. Bennet refers to Mr. Gardiner as his “brother,” not “brother-in-law,” as we might nowadays. “When Mr. Bennet wrote again to his brother, therefore, he sent his permission for them to come; and it was settled that, as soon as the ceremony was over, they should proceed to Longbourn. Elizabeth was surprised, however, that Wickham should consent to such a scheme; and, had she consulted only her own inclination, any meeting with him would have been the last object of her wishes.”

Caroline’s letter to Jane boasts of Mr. Bingley’s preference for Georgiana Darcy: “Caroline boasted joyfully of their increasing intimacy, and ventured to predict the accomplishment of the wishes which had been unfolded in her former letter. She wrote also with great pleasure of her brother’s being an inmate of Mr. Darcy’s house, and mentioned with raptures some plans of the latter with regard to new furniture. Elizabeth, to whom Jane very soon communicated the chief of all this, heard it in silent indignation. Her heart was divided between concern for her sister, and resentment against all the others. To Caroline’s assertion of her brother’s being partial to Miss Darcy she paid no credit.”

Mr. Darcy’s functioning as a brother is a part of his nature that Elizabeth does not initially recognize. 

Wickham subtly speaks of Darcy’s brotherly pride as being a detriment: “He has also brotherly pride, which, with some brotherly affection, makes him a very kind and careful guardian of his sister, and you will hear him generally cried up as the most attentive and best of brothers.”

“What sort of girl is Miss Darcy?”

He shook his head. “I wish I could call her amiable. It gives me pain to speak ill of a Darcy. But she is too much like her brother–very, very proud. As a child, she was affectionate and pleasing, and extremely fond of me; and I have devoted hours and hours to her amusement. But she is nothing to me now. She is a handsome girl, about fifteen or sixteen, and, I understand, highly accomplished. Since her father’s death, her home has been London, where a lady lives with her, and superintends her education.”

Although she had heard Darcy speak of Georgiana’s “affectionate hear” and had noted how often he wrote to his sister, it was at Pemberley that Elizabeth begins to think more favorably on Darcy’s role as Georgiana’s brother: “There was certainly at this moment, in Elizabeth’s mind, a more gentle sensation towards the original than she had ever felt at the height of their acquaintance. The commendation bestowed on him by Mrs. Reynolds was of no trifling nature. What praise is more valuable than the praise of an intelligent servant? As a brother, a landlord, a master, she considered how many people’s happiness were in his guardianship!–how much of pleasure or pain was it in his power to bestow!–how much of good or evil must be done by him! Every idea that had been brought forward by the housekeeper was favourable to his character, and as she stood before the canvas on which he was represented, and fixed his eyes upon herself, she thought of his regard with a deeper sentiment of gratitude than it had ever raised before; she remembered its warmth, and softened its impropriety of expression.”

Yet, Darcy also describes himself as serving another role with Georgiana: “I joined them unexpectedly a day or two before the intended elopement, and then Georgiana, unable to support the idea of grieving and offending a brother whom she almost looked up to as a father, acknowledged the whole to me.” 

And Elizabeth explains to Georgiana how a wife may speak to her husband in a manner that sisters may not speak to their brothers: “Pemberley was now Georgiana’s home; and the attachment of the sisters was exactly what Darcy had hoped to see. They were able to love each other even as well as they intended. Georgiana had the highest opinion in the world of Elizabeth; though at first she often listened with an astonishment bordering on alarm at her lively, sportive, manner of talking to her brother. He, who had always inspired in herself a respect which almost overcame her affection, she now saw the object of open pleasantry. Her mind received knowledge which had never before fallen in her way. By Elizabeth’s instructions, she began to comprehend that a woman may take liberties with her husband which a brother will not always allow in a sister more than ten years younger than himself.”

Often, in Austen we observe the absence of fraternal affection, at least, not as we think upon the concept 200 years later (Colonel Brandon and his brother, the Tilneys, the Ferrars, etc.) Austen, like many writers of the period, dwells more on the “fallen” woman (Isabella Thorpe, Lydia Bennet, Maria Bertram) than she does on the men causing the downfall, likely because she writes from the “female” point of view.

The “brothers” we deem as poor examples are the ones that do not assist their siblings, i.e., Dashwood, Tom Bertram, Henry Crawford, etc. The “bad” brothers do not prove trustworthy. For example, Catherine Morland cannot speak to James of her growing affection for Mr. Tilney. Neither does Mary Crawford confide in Henry something of her interest in Edmund. The eldest son in a family was meant to be the protector of his younger siblings, especially the females. However, Charlotte Lucas’s brothers are “relieved from their apprehension of Charlotte’s dying an old maid,” essentially meaning they are happy not to have the responsibility of her in the future. John Dashwood’s denial of his obligation to Elinor and Marianne is probably Austen’s greatest fault. “What possible claim could the Miss Dashwoods, who were related to him only by half blood . . . have on his generosity to so large an amount?”

One thing that always bothered me about the brothers in Austen’s tales, and this is including our dearest Fitzwilliam Darcy (as mentioned above), along with James Morland and Edmund Bertram, is how they neglect those they should protect for the benefit of their own. Edmund’s fascination with Mary Crawford greatly reduces his appeal as the “romantic hero.” Moreover, he offers no “brotherly advice” to either of his two sisters nor does he continue to “protect” Fanny once he becomes infatuated by Mary, going so far as to use the horse belonging to Fanny to teach Mary Crawford to ride. When, after reading Henry VIII, Fanny attention switches to Henry Crawford, Edmund retreats to a corner and reads his newspaper, rather than to become involved, “earnestly trying to bury every sound of the business from himself in murmurs of his own, over the various advertisements.” 

To please Isabella Thorpe, James Morland ignores the rough manner in which John Thorpe treats James’s sister Catherine. In fact, James encourages Catherine to choose Thorpe.

For those who wish more on the topic, I would suggest:

Exactly What a Brother Should Be by Susan Allen Ford, whom I heard at the JASNA 2009 session entitled “Jane Austen’s Brothers and Sisters in the City of Brotherly Love.” Several of the ideas in this piece, I took from my notes on that presentation.  In that year, we also had…

Brothers of the More Famous Jane by Maggie Lane

Lady Susan, Individualism and the Dysfunctional Family by William Galperin

All of these are available online with a simple Google Search for the title.

About reginajeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and historical romantic suspense.
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