Jane Austen’s ‘The Three Sisters’ was written in the nineteenth century. At this time life was dominated by society and a women’s desire for the company of a man in marriage. This was seen as a competition between a family and others in society. A woman’s life revolved around reading and socialising, and with no education, life was very quiet. This meant that a man was a way of conceit to others in the social order, and would create a whole new context to her life.
Love was very rare because of this. If a man were to marry a woman it would be as if she were a trophy and a symbol of his manlihood. From a woman’s perspective, she would have no choice who she was to marry for it would be up to her parent’s to decide. This decision would be based on the man’s wealth and status in society.
Jane Austen uses the three sisters in the story as a way of reflecting life at the time and uses it to rebel against the way of life.
Jane Austen was very much against women’s stereotypical lifestyle. Austen’s views are portrayed mainly through the character of Georgiana. Georgiana stood for a change in the way society worked, so that men were the not totally domineering over the women, and so women had some freedom in expression and choice.
‘The Three Sisters’ revolves around the life of three sisters: Georgiana, Mary and Sophy, and their mother.
The eldest sister, Mary has been offered a hand in marriage by Mr Watts, the family’s neighbour. Being the family’s neighbour is a way of Austen emphasising men’s randomness in choosing who is to be his wife, and how it is only the fact that it is a woman, a trophy and nothing more. Mr Watts is offering his hand in marriage to Mary, but if she rejects it one of the other sisters will be offered. The sisters all find him repulsive but society expected them to be more interested in his wealth and possessions. Mary has the choice of spending a lifetime with a man she hates or letting one of her sisters marry him instead. This was seen as a great tragedy if a sister was to be married before you, as the other sisters were considered better than you.
The story is written in the style of four letters. This epistolary form allows Austen to give a detailed and more personal insight into the characters deep feelings without having to include background information, of which is irrelevant to the message Austen is trying to convey. She has used each character as a way of showing caricatures of typical nineteenth century women. ‘The Three Sisters’ is written as a short story for the reason that the reader can get a concise idea of what life was like.
Jane Austen’s audience was society and the stereotypical image of both men and women in the nineteenth century. She was trying to attack these ideas and attempting to change how men and women treated each other. This is proven in her sarcasm and irony and also her use of the character’s personalities and actions. For instance Mary’s completely mindless, childish attitude to the competition between her and her sisters reflects how Austen sees women’s outlook to men:
“I shall certainly marry him myself’ (Mary, letter2)
Followed by an instant change of mind, as a child would:
“I have not settled whether I should have him or not” (Mary, letter2)
This character trait shows her insecurity and indecisiveness, which affects her actions later on in the proceeding letters. The letters are written by both Mary, in letters one and two, and Georgiana in letters three and four. Both character’s letters convey a different style and attitude in how they are written. Mary’s first letter is fast paced and written in a stream of consciousness. This shows Mary’s excitability and childish attitude. The emphasis on the childishness of Mary may be Austen trying to attack the age of marriage in the nineteenth century, and how it was rushed. Mary is only seems young minded in the story. The second letter is far more organised, and now contains dialogue.
Georgiana’s letters however are much more intellectual than Mary’s as her vocabulary is greatly developed. Her sentences are longer which shows that her thought processes are more mature. Austen is using Georgiana as a way of conveying her thoughts across, and show her attitude must be clear and concise.
In these letters, the roles of Fanny and Anne represent society in general, and so emphasises how Austen is trying to get her message across to society itself; that the way society acts at present is ruled by stereotypical views and the acts of men.
Austen’s first character, Mary is young minded and unable to make decision without dissecting the situation, but in a careless way. She is competitive towards other members of others in society:
” How I will triumph over the Dutton’s!” (Mary, page 1, letter 1)
‘Triumph’ emphasises her thought of marriage as a competition, by using a word associated by a victory. The exclamation mark also shows her excitement towards the situation. This competitive attitude shows throughout both sisters’ letters. This use of the word triumph is repeated again later in the letter. This repetition emphasises the competition and how much she values it.
Mary’s fickle and irresponsible attitude is shown by the sacrifices she must endure if she is to marry:
“If I accept him I know I shall be miserable all the rest of my life” (Mary, page 1, letter 1)
She values her status in society and how others see her over her own mind and future. Even considering it seems overdramatic.
Mary sees herself as an adult, as she thinks she is making her own decisions, but really she has no choice in the matter. She is unable to see her own flaws in her personality. She also describes herself as determined, although the reader only sees this as indecisiveness:
“I hope you like my determination” (Mary, page 2, letter 1)
Austen sees Mary as a weak person, a caricature. Mary is exactly what Austen is trying to fight against in her stories. The repetition of indecisiveness emphasises this weakness and creates a firm message to the reader.
Mary thinks of Mr Watts as the worst person in the world that she could ever marry but is still considers marriage:
“for he is very ill tempered and peevish, extremely jealous, and so stingy that there is no living in the house with him” (Mary, page 1, letter 1)
Although she thinks this, she knows that it would be her only chance to get married before her sisters. This could be an excuse to hide her desperateness to getting married.
The only things that are important to her are the physical objects that she will be given by Mr Watts after marriage, and how her status will be affected. This is finalised in the last line of the letter:
‘if he will promise to have the carriage ordered as I like, I will have him, if not he may ride in it himself for me’ (Mary, page 2, letter 1)
This attitude causes the reader to think of Mary negatively, as she is only thinking recklessly about her future. Mary, being the link to how women’s society worked, shows that the way of life was careless and self possessed, with no respect for love and the future.
In Mary’s second letter, we can learn a lot more about her relationship with her mother. The letter focuses on the situation of Mary’s sisters marrying before her, and how her mother contributes to her decisions. Mary’s character develops subtly on her uncertainty on the matter. Her competitive side shows more throughout this letter as she becomes more frustrated and confused. We can see this from Mary’s short sentences of speech when speaking to her mother, whose speech is much lengthier and in greater detail. The inclusion of dialogue allows us greater insight into each character, and how they act around others.
Throughout the letter Mary’s mother shows desperateness and egotism towards the outcome of the marriage:
“I am not going to force you child, but you only want to know what your resolution is with regard to his proposals, and to insist upon your making up your mind one way or t’other, that if you don’t accept him she will” (Mother, Page 2, Letter 2)
This shows irony from the mother. The italics emphasises the words, and therefore emphasises the manipulation, claming that she is not forcing her, when she blatantly is.
This selfishness is continued later throughout the letter, although her reasons become clearer:
“That depends on me” (Mary)
“No it does not, for if you do not give him your final address tomorrow when he drinks tea with us, he intends to pay his addresses to Sophy” (Mother, Page 2, Letter 2)
This proves that she does not have any concern about which of the three sisters is to be married, only that one of her daughters will.
Both the sister’s mother and Mr Watt’s attitude are shown by mentioning the word ‘allies’:
“Why! Because he wishes to be allied to the family and because they are as pretty as you are.” (Mother, Page 2, Letter 2)
By giving the only reason that he should marry another one of her sisters because of their looks finalises the need for image only in a relationship. It also shows how the three sisters would only be a trophy for Mr Watts. This also tells us of Mr Watts’s intentions being similar to those of the mother’s. Both wish the marriage to proceed only for their own benefit, to increase their position in society. Austen uses Mr Watts and the mother as a way of showing how society works, as a way of showing others in society at the time how people like her see them.
Society in the nineteenth century as told by Austen differs from today’s way of life greatly. Firstly the need for wealth was not to live off but to brag to others. It was a way of climbing the way up the ranks of society, whilst now there is not such a large breach between each class. Marriage was influenced to the highest degree by parents and in the sister’s case, by the competition within the family itself. In this day and age the influence of society is slight, and gives us our own personal choice of who we are to marry.
Men were seen as a gateway to a new life, of riches, and reputation, and personal feelings between the couple were rare. Throughout the story the mother’s or Mr Watt’s names are never mentioned by their closest relations, their daughters and brides-to-be. This was something that was not to be revealed in public and Austen emphasises it throughout the story, although the three sisters names are constantly used. This shows how men are seen as in a higher state over women. Conversation and meeting places were exceptionally formal, with no personal subjects being brought up, but merely structured conversations within the company of everybody concerned. This is shown in Georgiana’s letters when the family meet with Mr Watts.
In Georgiana’s letters she also writes about her other sister, Sophy. Sophy is a very weak character, unable to make any real comment or stand for what she says. This is not a negative thing as it creates a more honest character:
“Sophy did not like the idea of telling a lie and deceiving her sister”
(Georgiana, Page 5, Letter 3)
Sophy following Georgiana’s suggestion in betraying her sister, which in turn, sums up Sophy’s feeble personality, follows this.
Georgiana’s letters seem less hasty, maybe from the fact that as she was the last choice of the three sisters, she has less to worry about. This may also explain why Georgiana is plotting against Mary, because she is jealous of the fact that she is the initial preference, above Georgiana:
“‘If Sophy won’t then Georgiana shall.’ Poor Georgiana!”
The reference to herself in third person shows that she does care about the fact that she is last choice, but this often shows sarcasm portraying the fact that she does not care. Georgiana’s consistency in her betrayal shows that this is not true. Although she seems annoyed at the fact, Georgiana even admits herself that she would not be suited to married life:
“These things however would be no consolation to Sophy or me for domestic misery”
Although Georgiana admits that material possessions could never satisfy her we are never shown the true feelings of Sophy on the matter, only through Georgiana herself are we shown how she feels.
Georgiana’s relationship with her mother is strong, although it is does not seem to be a close one, rather a relationship out of respect than care:
“We neither of us attempted to alter my mother’s resolution, which I am sorry to say is generally kept more strict than rationally formed”
This shows that although Georgiana is opposed to her mother’s attitude towards the marriage she has to show respect towards her and therefore doesn’t express this to her. The mother seems to be organising the marriage for her own benefit, rather than the interest of her daughters. She sees the marriage as a way of creating a position for herself in society, rather than for the goodwill of her daughters. Mary is oblivious to this, but Georgiana is able to see that being wed is not about love, but rather status. This proves her strong feelings for how society was in the nineteenth century. These feelings are exactly what Austen has tried to portray through the character of Georgiana. Her defiance of society is why the story was written, so she could express her feelings to others.
Also Austen writes of The Dutton’s in the story, not to represent her defiance, but to represent the main cause of the way society acts. They are in the story as a way of Austen showing why people like Mary and her mother are so interested in marriage. The reason is to compete with other families in society such as the Duttons, to get married first and be noticed and respected in society. Mr Brudenell is much like Mr Darcy in pride and Prejudice. He is included in the story as Austen’s representation of her ideal man, with Georgiana being Austen herself. This is shown especially when the sisters meet him for the first time. Mr Brudenell is opposed to Mary’s attitude and merely ignores her. This can also be seen as Mary being society in general, with Mr Brudenell also opposing it.
Through ‘The Three Sisters’ we can learn a lot about women and their roles in the nineteenth century. The focus on how women are lead to marriage by material possession and not through emotion is effectively shown throughout the story and how status in society is the cause. Austen is able to achieve her aim of showing that society revolves around status and that her ideals should be part of society. Although the story did not greatly affect people thoughts in the nineteenth century, it did mean that others like Austen could demonstrate their feelings on society.