Sister of the more famous …

Many women have had their creative spirit doused because they were women, and some more have been eclipsed by their more famous brothers. Here are a few examples.

Judith Shakespeare

Let me imagine, since facts are so hard to come by, what would have happened had Shakespeare had a wonderfully gifted sister, called Judith, let us say. [A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf 48]

Judith Shakespeare was invented by Virginia Woolf in A Room of One’s Own in 1928 to consider the question of ‘the possibility of any woman, past, present or to come, to have the genius of Shakespeare’. A bishop, no less, had declared it impossible Virginia Woolf charts a life for Judith, beginning with her lack of formal education.

She had no chance of learning grammar and logic, let alone reading Horace and Virgil. She picked up a book now and then, one of her brother’s perhaps, and read a few pages. But then her parents came in and told her to mend the stockings or mind the stew and not moon about with books or papers. (49)

She imagines Judith faced with the prospect of marriage arranged for the benefit of her parents and resisting until she decides to run away to London. But hanging around the stage doors of London theatres was not a safe place for a girl of 16, and she fell pregnant by Nick Greene, the actor-manager who took pity on her. So she killed herself … 

… and lies buried at some cross-roads where the omnibuses now stop outside the Elephant and Castle.
That, more or less, is how the story would run, I think, if a woman in Shakespeare’s day had had Shakespeare’s genius. (50)

Famously, Virginia Woolf claimed that Judith Shakespeare, and the many other women who put pen to paper were not successful because:

A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction. (6)

A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf. First published in 1928. I used my Penguin Modern Classics edition. 112 pp

Another Look at A Room of One’s Own on Bookword (2018)

Dorothy Wordsworth

Dorothy Wordsworth was much missed by her brother William after her death as recorded in these lines on the occasion of being surprised by joy:

Surprised by joy—impatient as the Wind
I turned to share the transport—Oh! with whom
But Thee, long buried in the silent Tomb,
That spot which no vicissitude can find?
Love, faithful love, recalled thee to my mind—
But how could I forget thee?—Through what power,
Even for the least division of an hour,
Have I been so beguiled as to be blind
To my most grievous loss!—That thought’s return
Was the worst pang that sorrow ever bore,
Save one, one only, when I stood forlorn,
Knowing my heart’s best treasure was no more;
That neither present time, nor years unborn
Could to my sight that heavenly face restore.

Dorothy was a diarist, letter-writer and poet herself. But she was not interested in being published.

‘I should detest the idea of setting myself up as an author,’ she once wrote in a letter, ‘give Wm. the Pleasure of it.’

Sister and brother were close, living together, walking in the Lake District, sharing accommodation even after William’s marriage. Occasionally Dorothy’s writing was used by her brother, for example in his guidebook to the Lakes. More famously William relied on her detailed accounts of nature scenes and borrowed freely from her journals. For example:

I never saw daffodils so beautiful they grew among the mossy stones about & about them, some rested their heads upon these stones as on a pillow for weariness & the rest tossed & reeled & danced & seemed as if they verily laughed with the wind that blew upon them over the Lake, they looked so gay ever glancing ever changing [Dorothy Wordsworth, Grasmere Journal 15 April 1802]

Not so lonely then.

Anne Brontë

Anne Brontë, author of Agnes GreyThe Tenant of Wildfell Hall, and poetry had two sisters and a brother. The reputations of Charlotte and Emily have grown over the years. Who takes account of Anne today? Even her wretched brother Branwell is better known than her. It has been claimed, however, that The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was the first feminist novel. She died aged just 29.

Fanny Mendelssohn

Born into a musical household, Fanny Mendelssohn was known to be as talented as her younger brother. She was a noted pianist and composer and she contributed to the musical atmosphere of their house which fostered the talent of her brother, Felix. She composed over 450 pieces of music and some were published, but under her brother’s name to satisfy the ideas of the time and the reservations of her family. Fanny’s father wrote to her: ‘Music will perhaps become his [i.e. Felix’s] profession, while for you it can and must be only an ornament.’

The death of Fanny Mendelssohn was the stimulus for one of her brother Felix Mendelssohn’s greatest string quartets: No 6 in F minor Op. 80. You can hear the raw grief in every bar. Felix died six months after his sister.

Nannerl Mozart

The Mozart family on tour: Leopold, Wolfgang, and Nannerl. Watercolour by Carmontelle, ca. 1763. Via WikiCommons

Another musical prodigy had a sister: Nannerl Mozart. She too was something of a prodigy and toured with her father and brother, performing to the courts of Europe. It is thought that she also wrote much fine music, but like Fanny Mendelssohn, she was not allowed to continue when she reached adulthood. Mozart mentions her compositions, but there is no record of them in her father’s papers. Mozart wrote many duets for himself and his sister, and they kept up a lively correspondence when he went on tour without her. 

Some have argued that she was the more talented musical artist. The Other Mozart is a play by Sylvia Milo, review in Guardian https://www.theguardian.com/music/2015/sep/08/lost-genius-the-other-mozart-sister-nannerl

Sisters ….

I acknowledge the theft of my title from Barbara Trapido’s novel: Brother of the more Famous Jack.

6 Comments

Filed under Books, Feminism, Reading, Virginia Woolf

6 Responses to Sister of the more famous …

  1. Really interesting post, Caroline. I had heard of all of these except Mozart’s sister. I guess the passing over of these talented women was a combination of factors – society’s inability to acknowledge women’s achievements and in some cases the women rejecting any recognition e.g. Dorothy Wordsworth. At least some of their work is now being recognised.

    • Caroline

      I think you are right about why these women were overlooked. It is also interesting that their brothers may have benefitted from their talent. Caroline

  2. What an interesting post. I’m wondering whether Margaret Drabble would fit into this as a contemporary example. She’s well regarded as a novelist but nowhere near as famous as her sister Dame (no less) A S Byatt

    • Caroline

      Interesting suggestion. My impression is not the same as yours of these two sisters. I know they have not been close, but I don’t think that one outshines the other as both have an impressive list of published works. I found The Dark Flood Rising (reviewed on this blog) to be an excellent novel. Have you tried it?
      Caroline

  3. Marianne Coleman

    Thanks Caroline, really interesting at a time when there is so much focus on male dominance. The intended and unintended suppression of women is really exemplified in your cases. Another duo to add to your list of musical siblings/ partners is Robert and Clara Schumann. Also, there must be so many cases in the art world, for example Gwen and Augustus John.

    • Caroline

      The Augustus and Gwen John sublings are a good addition to this list. It is hard to believe, from their paintings that tey are from the same family, the one so pastel the other so flamboyant!
      We could start a whole new thread with marriages where the wife is not allowed to shine, starting with the Mahlers, including Clara Schum,ann as a composer (although she supported the family as a pianist of great talent) and move on to all those women not acknowledged for their typing and editing skills, and perhaps even being pressured into letting their husband to take all the credit, like Colette’s first noveel.
      Thanks for this comment Marianne. You have set me thinking. Caroline x

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