Many of Austen's novels have the marriages of three sisters at their core. Sense and Sensibility has the Dashwood sisters: Elinor and Marianne are of perfect, marrying age, though Margaret is rather too young to fit this pattern well. Mansfield Park begins with the three sisters Ward, whose fates we discern after many years as Mrs. Norris, Lady Bertram, and Mrs. Price. And of course Persuasion finds the daughters of Sir Walter Elliot in a mixed way, one acceptably married while the other two are quickly surpassing the common marriageable years. Parallels are easy to draw between these many sets of sisters' circumstances, and have been done so to particular effect particularly in Jane Greensmith's story Three Sisters, which I will return to in a moment. However, when I review Austen's The Three Sisters, I think it is the antecedents of Pride and Prejudice, a story of five sisters, which are most obvious in this quirky text, certain of it's characters baring a strong resemblance to those of her most famous novel.
In this story, the eldest sister has been proposed to by a man her mother approves of, for he has "six times as much" income (which makes her's five hundred a year, approximately the Dashwoods' - if you include the three thousand left by their grandfather to the girls), but there are other objections to Mr. Watts, namely that Miss Stanhope declares, "He is extremely disagreeable and I hate him more than any body else in the world." If Miss Stanhope declines the offer, he will ask Sophy, and then Georgiana, much in Mr. Collins' style of deference to the claims of birth order. The story lasts only long enough to see the decision made, reveal some of its consequences, and demonstrate the character of each sister.
Mary, Miss Stanhope, is immediately revealed to be a shallow lady as she writes to her friend Fanny of the honor of the proposal. She says, "I do not intend to accept it, at least I beleive not, but as I am not quite certain I gave him an equivocal answer and left him." Quite in the manner of "elegant females", isn't it? Why is Mary uncertain of her intentions? Because, while it would be "such a triumph to be married before Sophy, Georgiana, and the Duttons" and she "could not bear to have either of [her sisters] married before" her, she cannot decide if that would be worse than being married to a man who would make her "miserable all the rest of [her] Life, for he is very ill tempered and peevish extremely jealous, and so stingy there is no living in the house with him." Imagine how Lydia Bennet would have felt about the import of marrying first had she been the eldest rather than the youngest! Miss Stanhope decides to turn to her sisters, not for advice but to learn if they would accept Mr. Watts if she rejected him. If they will, she will marry the man, if not, it is safe to refuse.
This is where Georgiana claims the pen, and the rest of the story is told via a letter to her friend Anne. She and Sophy have been warned by their mother that "she certainly would not let him go farther than our own family for a Wife. 'And therefore' (says she) 'If Mary won't have him Sophy must, and if Sophy won't Georgiana shall.' Poor Georgiana!" Echoes of Mrs. Bennet perhaps? Anyway, these two younger Stanhopes are not so silly as their elder sister, and, not wanting to be forced into the marriage themselves, engage in a "little deceit" with which they "are not perfectly reconciled". In short, they allow Mary to believe that they would certainly snatch up an opportunity to marry Mr. Watts, though their feeling are quite the opposite. In the following quote the younger Miss Stanhopes are assessing the predicament when Mary comes in to feel out their opinions of Mr. Watts. Notice that both have qualms about their deception, but that it is Georgiana who can laugh them both into comfort while Sophy demurs, deterred by her conscience:
While I can't actually imagine Jane and Elizabeth Bennet behaving quite so shabbily (and it is fortunate their circumstances never required it), I can't help but see parallels between their sisterly confidences and those portrayed here . Clearly, Sophy and Georgiana are far superior in understanding to Mary, and it is Georgiana who has the wit while Sophy is a kinder creature. Do I reach too far in seeing a resemblance to the eldest Bennet ladies? When Mary and Mr. Watt squabble over her very unreasonable demands for the marriage, he, with absolutely no sensibility, proceeds to carry out his threat of pursuing her sisters:
"Let us flatter ourselves (replied She) that Mary will not refuse him. Yet how can I hope that my Sister may accept a man who cannot make her happy."
"He cannot it is true but his Fortune, his Name, his House, his Carriage will, and I have no doubt but that Mary will marry him; indeed, why should she not? He is not more than two and thirty, a very proper age for a Man to marry at; He is rather plain to be sure, but then what is Beauty in a Man? -- if he has but a genteel figure and a sensible looking Face it is quite sufficient."
"This is all very true, Georgiana, but Mr. Watts's figure is unfortunately extremely vulgar and his Countenance is very heavy."
"And then as to his temper; it has been reckoned bad, but may not the World be deceived in their Judgement of it? There is an open Frankness in his Disposition which becomes a Man. They say he is stingy; We'll call that Prudence. They say he is suspicious. That proceeds from a warmth of Heart always excusable in Youth, and in short, I see no reason why he should not make a very good Husband, or why Mary should not be very happy with him."
Sophy laughed; I continued,
"However whether Mary accepts him or not, I am resolved. My determination is made. I never would marry Mr. Watts, were Beggary the only alternative. So deficient in every respect! Hideous in his person, and without one good Quality to make amends for it. His fortune, to be sure, is good. Yet not so very large! Three thousand a year. What is three thousand a year? It is but six times as much as my Mother's income. It will not tempt me."
"Yet it will be a noble fortune for Mary" said Sophy, laughing again.
"For Mary! Yes indeed, it will give me pleasure to see her in such affluence."
Thus I ran on, to the great Entertainment of my Sister, till Mary came into the room, to appearance in great agitation. She sat down. We made room for her at the fire. She seemed at a loss how to begin, and at last said in some confusion,
"Pray Sophy have you any mind to be married?"
"To be married! None in the least. But why do you ask me? Are you acquainted with any one who means to make me proposals?"
"I -- no, how should I? But mayn't I ask a common question?"
"Not a very common one Mary, surely," (said I). She paused, and after some moments silence went on --
"How should you like to marry Mr. Watts, Sophy?"
I winked at Sophy, and replied for her. "Who is there but must rejoice to marry a man of three thousand a year?"
"Very true (she replied), That's very true. So you would have him if he would offer, Georgiana, and would you Sophy?"
Sophy did not like the idea of telling a lie and deceiving her Sister; she prevented the first and saved half her conscience by equivocation.
"I should certainly act just as Georgiana would do."
"Well then," said Mary, with triumph in her Eyes, "I have had an offer from Mr. Watts."
We were of course very much surprised; "Oh! do not accept him," said I, "and then perhaps he may have me."In short, my scheme took, and Mary is resolved to do that to prevent our supposed happiness, which she would not have done to ensure it in reality. Yet after all, my Heart cannot acquit me and Sophy is even more scrupulous. Quiet our Minds, my dear Anne, by writing and telling us you approve our conduct. Consider it well over. Mary will have real pleasure in being a married Woman, and able to chaperone us, which she certainly shall do, for I think myself bound to contribute as much as possible to her happiness in a State I have made her choose. They will probably have a new Carriage, which will be paradise to her, and if we can prevail on Mr. W. to set up his Phaeton she will be too happy. These things however would be no consolation to Sophy or me for domestic Misery. Remember all this and do not condemn us.
Sophy's scrupulously honest reply so reminds me of Jane's sincerity. This indeed seems how she might respond if confronted with such a situation, though the frankness is more reminiscent of Elizabeth. We feel bad for Mary marrying such a man, as do the Duttons, for whom "that anyone who had the Beauty and fortune (tho' small yet a provision) of Mary would willingly marry Mr. Watts, could by them scarcely be credited," but see the tragedy would have been far worse for Sophy and Georgiana, who would find no solace in mere material triumph. Young ladies of small fortune, especially those without father or brothers to aid them, certainly did face a terrible position during Austen's time. We modern readers tend to be harsh on characters, like Charlotte Lucas, who succumb to the very real pressures of survival in their choice of spouse, while undermining what courage rejecting a suitable offer really took, as well as the consequences for
"And pray, Miss Stanhope (said Mr. Watts), What am I to expect from you in return for all this."
"Expect? Why, you may expect to have me pleased."
"It would be odd if I did not. Your expectations, Madam, are too high for me, and I must apply to Miss Sophy, who perhaps may not have raised her's so much."
"You are mistaken, Sir, in supposing so, (said Sophy) for tho' they may not be exactly in the same Line, yet my expectations are to the full as high as my Sister's; for I expect my Husband to be good-tempered and Chearful; to consult my Happiness in all his Actions, and to love me with Constancy and Sincerity."
Mr. Watts stared. "These are very odd Ideas, truly, young Lady. You had better discard them before you marry, or you will be obliged to do it afterwards."
Here's where I return to Jane Greensmith. If you do not own a copy of Intimations of Austen, I highly recommend you buy one (read my review of the book here), but the short story Three Sisters can be read at The Derbyshire Writers' Guild, where it was originally published under the name Jane GS. Before you read this, read that. It will only take a few minutes and will prevent me from spoiling an excellent tale, as I have every intention of now doing.
Three Sisters crosses the story of the Misses Elliots with that of the Misses Ward. It begins with what is clearly a description of the Elliots:
Sadly, their mother died when they were still young—the eldest being sixteen and the youngest but twelve when this sad event occurred. The girls were left to the care of their father, a vain man, more concerned with the hue of his complexion than the order in his household. Fortunately, an old family friend stepped into the breach left by the mother's passing, and this lady—Milady as she was called by the girls—counciled the daughters of her friend as if they had been her own.Each sister declares her hopes for marriage - the eldest wants wealth, the youngest respectability, but the middle sister will marry only for "the deepest love". A young sailor comes into her life and they fall in love but, unlike Lady Russell, "Milady" does not succeed in stopping the engagement. The fate of what seems to be Anne Elliot becomes that of Francis Price, living in squalor, with too many children, and demanding of Milady, "Why did you let me marry for love and love alone? You were the one I looked to after my mother died. Why didn't you persuade me to give him up? I would rather be alone than to have married for love."
I adore this story, turning as it does all our assumptions about Austen on their head. Seen in this different context, Lady Russell's persuasion becomes admirable prudence and Francis Prices' choice far more sympathetic. It reminds us how very different was Austen's world from ours and that those dear beliefs and moral code that pervade her work, which Janeites so proudly promote, can be seen as rash and foolhardy in their contemporary context. Three Sisters highlights the extreme difficulty of the Miss Stanhopes' circumstances, even as I laugh at Mary's contradictory nature and Georgiana's feisty social critique. While Austen's work is almost always humorous, it is useful to sometime stop and remember that the issues she tackled were of the utmost consequence. Truly her work is a towering example of laughter therapy.
Just one last thought I cannot resist sharing - how about that song from Fiddler on the Roof, "Matchmaker"? Could the writers of the musical have found inspiration for their three young, Russian Jewesses, Tzeitel, Hodel, and Chava, in Austen?