Abstract

We are--almost all--born into families, born into relationship. Like Mary Ann Evans, I was born a little sister--but had I encountered her "Brother and Sister" sonnets at twelve, I might have thrown the book across the room. George Eliot's fantasy of a perfected brother-sister relationship in these sonnets rings hollow and yet resonates profoundly with me. As a little sister myself, I wonder what could make the relationship--so often fraught with competition, envy, and neglect, yet potentially so richly rewarding--seem so powerfully right, so important to and adult woman's self-identification? For the narrator of the sonnets is certainly an adult woman, even if she is not George Eliot. Within the fantasy of the sibling relationship, Eliot invents and articulates female desire in the sonnets: desire for power, identification, and autonomy, mediated through memory and connection. Yet--and this is the source of my imagined anger at these lines--the sisterhood that Eliot chooses, younger sister to an older brother, seems simply to reinscribe existing power relations between men and women; older brothers, to put it bluntly, dominate younger sisters. What compensates, in Eliot's fantasy, for that fact (acknowledged implicitly in the sonnets, overtly in her better-known sibling fantasy/nightmare, The Mill on the Floss)? The sonnets' speaker places herself in the position of the unseen auditor in a Wordsworth poem, the recipient of and sharer in the poet's vision, and finds herself empowered through boyish games, lost in her own daydreams without paying any price for inattention. The brother, in other words, provides imaginary access to a world of power and freedom without cost. Yes costs, outside of fantasy, are never absent from familial relations. The speaker also envisions her own position as enhancing her brother's life: "His years with others must the sweeter be / For those brief days he spent loving me" (Eliot 1874, 431; sonnet 9, lines 13-14). In a letter to her publisher, William Black, Eliot wrote that "life might be so enriched if that relation were made the most of, as one of the highest forms of friendship" and also lamented that recent discussions of Byron had raised the specter of brother-sister incest, thus tainting the relationship with sexuality (Byatt and Warren 1990, 426).

Document Type

Article

Publication Date

1999

Publisher Statement

Copyright © 1999 University of Chicago Press. This article first appeared in SIGNS: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 24:2 (1999), 423-447.

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