Friday, January 24, 2014

Shared Emotion

The most frequent examples in Austen of shared emotion involve the depiction of siblings, another affirmation of Hume's contention that we are naturally inclined to sympathize most with those to whom we are closest. She stresses the importance of fraternal ties, even over conjugal ties: "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 connexions can supply (MP 235). A brother or sister is someone with whom "every former united pain and pleasure [can be] retraced" (MP 234). Such a unity of past experience and recollection facilitates a continuing unity of feeling. In Sense and Sensibility, even the usually restrained Elinor shares Marianne's distress about Willoughby's desertion and gives way to a burst of tears, which at first was scarcely less violent than Marianne's" (SS 182). Catherine Morland weeps in sympathy with her brother's disappointment as she reads his account of Isabella Thorpe's perfidy (NA 203). Fanny Price's sister Susan "was always ready to hear [Fanny] and to sympathize" (MP 428). It is said of Jane and Elizabeth Bennet of Pride and Prejudice that "each felt for the other" (PP 334).

E. M. Dadlez, Mirrors to One Another, pp. 82-83. Austen herself was on excellent terms with her siblings, which probably accounts for the prominence of sibling relationships in her work. She spent an immense portion of her life with her sister Cassandra, and after the death of her father, she, Cassandra, and her mother lived for several years with her brother Francis, then afterward moved to a cottage on the estate of her brother Edward. Her relations with most of her other brothers -- Henry (who seems to have been her favorite brother), James, and Charles -- seem to have been fairly close, as well. (She had another brother, George, but we know very little about him, beyond the fact that there was something wrong with him, and it has been thought, based on a few scattered evidences, that he might not have been able to speak, so that he was sent away at a young age to be cared for. We know the family paid for his upkeep until his death in his seventies , but we have no indication of any other connections. He certainly would not have had "the same first associations and habits".)


  1. MrsDarwin8:51 PM

    I agree wholeheartedly with this sentiment, especially in regards to my own siblings, but it doesn't necessarily seem true of all Austen's characters. Bingley and his sisters come to mind (or Frederick Tilney) as characters with less than the usual family sympathy. Fanny is definitely out of sympathy with her middle brothers, though she didn't spend so much time with them as with William.

    I've put in a request for this book through interlibrary loan, though I tremble to think of my standing on account of the condition The Stupids was in when we returned it...

  2. branemrys9:58 PM

    It's one of those books that has many quite good parts without quite coming together properly. Dadlez studies Hume, and wants to argue that Austen fits Hume's philosophical approach quite well; she doesn't really manage to do this. Hume is a sentimentalist, basing ethics primarily on what we would usually think of as emotions; the entire ethical tone of Austen's work is based on reason and will, and, likewise, while her conception of happiness and virtue might not be taken from Aristotle, it's exactly the kind of view of happiness and virtue that is generally classified as Aristotelian. Almost all the connections she identifies can be explained either (1) by the fact that Hume and Austen are nearly contemporary, so there are broad commonalities in some of their vocabulary and reading; or (2) by the fact that both are very good observers of human nature. On the other hand, in the course of this failed ambitious argument, she does manage to draw out some excellent things by putting Austen and Hume in juxtaposition; the whole book would have been stronger if she had just aimed for that from the beginning.

  3. branemrys10:03 PM

    Incidentally, I see that Emsley has put up a post on her website noting that this year is the 200th anniversary of the publication of Mansfield Park! To celebrate, she's going to have a series of guest posts on the novel.


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