'Loving Difference': Sisters and Brothers from Fances Burney to Emily Bronte

Elisabeth Rose Gruner, University of Richmond


Who or what is a sister, in nineteenth-century England? In conduct literature, Romantic poetry by men, and novels by Scott, Dickens, and Thackeray, women cast as sisters are self-sacrificing helpmates to heroic men—or even solipsistic reflections thereof. Dorothy Wordsworth, David Copperfield’s Agnes Wickfield, and Pendennis’s Laura Bell are notable examples of this tendency. The sister is the extreme version of the relational self: a woman who, as Mary Howitt says of her children’s book heroine Mary Leeson, “cannot be taken apart” from her family and friends (10). Howitt—like her fellow conduct writers Sarah Ellis and Charlotte Yonge—promotes a model of sisterly self-sacrifice for all women. Sarah Ellis memorably terms women “relative creatures” in The Women of England, taking (what seems to a twentieth-century reader) the extreme position that—unlike men—“women, considered in their distinct and abstract nature, as isolated beings, must lose more than half their worth” (123). In a later conduct book, Charlotte Yonge’s Womankind (first published in 1876), the author advocates “giving up” to family members, following the model of “our great Elder Brother,” Jesus (142, 143); Yonge’s model for sisterhood is more self-denying and self-effacing than even a Mary Howitt or a Sarah Ellis could want. But other models also prevailed among women writers, models which modify and even challenge this notion of purely relational selfhood.