“My dear Jane, Mr. Collins is a conceited, pompous, narrow-minded, silly man: you know he is, as well as I do; and you must feel, as well as I do, that the woman who marries him cannot have a proper way of thinking. You shall not defend her, though it is Charlotte Lucas. You shall not, for the sake of one individual, change the meaning of principle and integrity, nor endeavour to persuade yourself or me that selfishness is prudence, and insensibility of danger security for happiness.”
Jane’s answer is understated and simple: “I must think your language too strong in speaking of both, and I hope you will be convinced of it by seeing them happy together.”
Jane is also right about Mr. Darcy. When Lizzy tells her about Mr. Darcy’s first proposal, Jane’s reaction is to pity him, saying, “Dear Lizzy, only consider what he must have suffered. Such a disappointment! and with the knowledge of your ill opinion too! and having to relate such a thing of his sister! It is really too distressing.” And when Lizzy observes that Darcy has “got all the goodness” and Wickham “all the appearance of it,” Jane says, “I never thought Mr. Darcy so deficient in the appearance of it as you used to do.” We may notice that all her sister’s persuasive, even exaggerated words never change Jane’s own impression of Mr. Darcy as a good man, worthy even of being her beloved Bingley’s friend. Later, when Lizzy tells her of her engagement, Jane quietly observes, “I always had a value for him.” And she has, though she never argued or insisted upon it, or tried to change her sister’s mind.
One reason for the serene temper and beautiful nature of Jane may be that she is a first child, born early in the Bennets’ marriage, perhaps before they were thoroughly at odds with one another. They doubtless both doted on this pretty, placid first child, and this love in turn fortified her sunny nature. Lizzy, perhaps a more restless, troublesome baby, born when her parents were starting to clash with one another, was adored by her father for her bright quickness, early showing mental powers superior to Jane’s, of the very sort he appreciated. Her mother consequently rejected her, and found fault with her. It is obvious throughout the book that there is not much love lost between this mother/daughter pair. By the time Mary came along, indifference was probably what the parents felt for each other, and Mary is indeed the child of indifference, so out of sync with everyone else in the family, that it’s clear no one has ever paid much attention to her development. Like Lizzy she was left to run through books, but probably with no guidance from her indifferent father, and she came to her own ill-thought-out, half-baked intellectual ideas that bore everyone. Kitty, the next child, was plainly a child of neglect. Girl children were becoming too abundant in the family, and if Mary had no beauty Kitty had few brains, and little of what Jane Austen called “resources.” Lydia, the last, the family baby, was too strong a personality, too vital an animal nature to be ignored, and she was so much like Mrs. Bennet that she became her mother’s favorite, her spoiled darling, while her father’s disapproval could do nothing to improve her mind or manners, but only made Mrs. Bennet support her more.
Mrs. Bennet admired and was vastly proud of her oldest daughter’s looks (“I knew you could not be so beautiful for nothing!”), but the flamboyant, loud, flighty personality of Lydia was actually much more to her taste than the prudent, judicious, quiet Jane. Jane, I think, did benefit from the early attention and devotion of both her parents, in her position as oldest child. Her manners, values and behavior were largely drawn from quietly grieved observations of her parents’ sad acrimony, which to her gentle sensitive nature, was infinitely painful. Lizzy being on her father’s “side,” and much more in sympathy with him, took a much harsher view of her mother, than Jane, who pitied Mrs. Bennet. The sisters’ opinions lasted even to the end, when Jane Austen writes that Mrs. Bennet “visited” Mrs. Bingley but only “talked of” Mrs. Darcy.
In portraying influences on children Jane Austen seems to be allowing for both “nature” and “nurture.” Jane, she implies, came by her “super-excellent disposition” naturally. But where did she acquire her “delicate sense of honour”? Neither parent seems to be rich in this characteristic, so who or what influenced her? Where did she learn to honour both parents, to never speak evil, or to betray confidences? Perhaps Mrs. Bennet spent time with her in early childhood, reading her the little conduct and prayer books written for children at that period, and they fell on more receptive ears in Jane than with more rebellious Lizzy, with her exposure to the worldly books in her father’s library. Both sisters seem also to have been influenced by their closeness to Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner, Mrs. Bennet’s brother and sister-in-law, who would have been well able to teach them, by precept as well as the example of their own gentle behavior. From them both might have learned morality, as well as acquired some worldliness, so that Darcy, early in his acquaintance with Lizzy, was able to exclaim, “But you can not have lived always at Longbourn.”
It inevitably occurs to us to wonder if this wonderful portrait of two close sisters, Jane and Elizabeth, is based on the real sisterhood of Cassandra and Jane. Jane Austen may have taken some of her examples of confidence, of sympathy between sisters, from her own experience, but that does not mean that Cassandra “was” Jane Bennet, or Jane Austen “was” Lizzy (though we must feel that there is a good deal of similarity between Lizzy’s cleverness and Jane Austen’s). From what we know of Cassandra, her personality does not sound much like that of Jane Bennet. Her nephew once wrote, “Cassandra had the merit of having her temper always under command, but…Jane had the happiness of a temper that never required to be commanded,” and that hardly sounds like a description of the Bennet sisters. For that matter, were Elinor and Marianne in Sense and Sensibility like the Austen sisters? It’s possible to imagine that Cassandra may have had the judiciousness and rationality of an Elinor, and Jane Austen may have possessed some of the romantic, emotional, and sometimes wrong-headed qualities of Marianne at some time in her youth; but drawing on traits and stages, both felt and observed, is not a slavish copying, and Jane Austen firmly insisted that she did not put her family and friends in her books. In her artistic method, rather than taking herself and her sister as models in creating her fictional sisters, Jane Austen might have used some traits, some memories, some sisterly feelings to color her palette, appplying them where they would make psychological sense and literary effectiveness.
Thus, Jane Bennet does not seem to personally resemble what we know of the firm, strong minded Cassandra Austen, but to be a more “reactive” personality, a sweet natured person who is shaped by her family circumstances. Above all, that sweetness of Jane’s is what is abundantly clear, from first to last, up to and including the moment of her long-hoped-for engagement, when she exults, “Oh! Why is not every one so happy!” Here at the height of her own joy, she is thinking, as always, of others. And that, in the end, might be Jane Austen’s tribute to sisterhood.