Sisters in Fiction

Why do fiction writers so often use sisters in their novels? Is it because sisters usually have good relationships, certainly long ones, and allow authors to explore a variety of themes: growing up, marital prospects, contrasting experiences, enduring relationships or rivalries. Here are some thoughts on sisterly novels.

What little girls must learn? Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

Everybody’s favourite gives us the lessons that must be learned about how little girls turn into grown ups. Who doesn’t identify with Jo Marsh, and who doesn’t yearn for the simplicities of 19th Century New England childhoods? We learn that sisters must grow up right, and that more than two of them ensures terrible trouble for the family.

The marriage market: Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

Five sisters, again a problem for their parents, and here specifically in the meat market that was an un-moneyed middle class Georgian England search for husbands. How will the sisters get their men? They are beautiful (Jane), intelligent and with bright eyes (Elizabeth), wanton (Lydia), boring (Mary) and stay-at-home (Kitty).

The delights of this novel include the mutually supportive relationship between Jane and Elizabeth Bennet, and the satisfaction in them both getting nice (rich) husbands.

Contrasts: 1. Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen

Fiction is full of examples of sisters who grow up differently in the same household. The convenient contrast allows authors to look at the effects of birth order: the older having more responsibility than younger sisters. That is certainly true of the saintly Eleanor who is thwarted by Marianne’s gullibility in Sense and Sensibility. Jane Austen’s novels are full of contrasting sisters: Anne and her sisters, (patient, selfish and grasping) in Persuasion, and the play-acting rivals Maria and Julia Bartram in Mansfield Park.

Contrasts: 2. Easter Parade by Richard Yates

248 Easter Parade Cover


Richard Yates took the contrast between two sisters’ lives from before the war to the 60s to tell a sad story of alcoholism and marriage failure.

Sarah, the older sister, quickly settles for the most classy man her mother finds for her. He turns out not to be classy, and also turns out to be a wife beater. His attitudes are typical blue collar American despite his English education.

Emily, the younger sister, chooses lots of men, and also ends up lost, without success and unemployed. Only her nephew, who is an ordained minister, seems to offer any hope or understanding. Everyone else has been consumed by drink.

Easter Parade Richard Yates (1976) Published by Everyman 188pp

For a very good review check out Jacquiwine’s Journal on Easter Parade.

Contrasts 3: They were Sisters by Dorothy Whipple

248 Dorothy Whipple

I haven’t read this yet, but the Persephone catalogue describes it as ‘A 1943 novel by this superb writer, contrasting three different marriages’. Dorothy Whipple has a good eye for family relationships. See my review of Greenbanks.

They were Sisters by Dorothy Whipple, published by Persephone.

Loyalty: Housekeeping (1980) by Marilynne Robinson

This novel defies description. The sisters, Ruthie and Lucille, live in a weird and rather isolated environment, called Fishbone, in the American Mid-West. They are orphans and a succession of relatives fails to look after them. Finally, their aunt cares for them until the younger sister breaks away. The scene of the flooded house lives in my memory.

Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson, published in the UK by Faber & Faber 224pp.

Long-lasting: Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey

The central mystery of this successful novel is Maud’s attempt to find out what happened to her sister since she disappeared at the end of the war. She pursues the clues, despite the passage of time and her own fading mental powers.

Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey (2014) published by Penguin Books. 275pp

For more on this novel see the post in the older women in fiction series.

Rivalry: The Looking Glass Sisters by Gohril Gabrielsen.

248 Lglass Sisters cover

The unrelenting horror of this story of a co-dependent relationship turned worse and more destructive by the page is a contrast to the other novels mentioned here.

The story is set in the remote far north of Norway. Two sisters live in a house, their parents have died. They are middle aged but the narrator recalls their earlier lives. She is younger and disabled, having lost the use of her legs in childhood, an outcome she partly blames on her sister for not alerting her parents to her worsening illness. The younger sister riles and deliberately provokes and annoys her older carer. The situation is changed by the arrival of Johan, and his inability to cope with the invalid and the invalid’s jealousy of her sister. The situation declines and declines and in the end everything is terrible.

The Looking-Glass Sisters Peirene (2008) 183pp

Translated from the Norwegian by John Irons

Sisters in fiction always a happy ending?

Sisters are doing it themselves!

On the whole, sisterhood is good in fiction, as in life. It is not surprising that the second wave of feminism took to calling all women sisters.

But there is ambivalence in these novels (and perhaps life). The relationship is not always easy. In novels, especially from the 19th century it seems that there is always a fear that one woman’s marriage/achievements will spell another’s poverty.

Over to you

Have you any suggestions about why sisters appear so often in novels? What other fictional sisters would you recommend?

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Filed under Books, Older women in fiction, Reading, Reviews

20 Responses to Sisters in Fiction

  1. Terry Tyler

    I ‘did’ sisters in my novel What It Takes – bit of a classic Cinderella/ugly duckling scenario, but more unusually in Last Child, which was a much more complicated one full of love and jealousy all mixed up together.

    Great article; it’s made me want to read Easter Parade, so am just going to Amazon to explore – thanks!

    • Caroline

      Hi Terry
      thanks for stopping by again. I think feelings about sisters can be a bit ambivalent, and it probably depends upon the birth order. I am a sister to 5 siblings, and have two sisters. I recognise that there is a very complex web here.

      Easter Parade is quite short and the mother is also a wonderful creation alongside her two daughters. Let us know what you think if you do read it.


  2. Morag Goldfinch

    The only pairs of sisters I can think of tend to be Gothic – Vivien and Ginny from Poppy Adams’ s first novel -The Behaviour of Moths or the equally unhinged and murderous Constance and Merricat from We have always lived in the Castle – Shirley Jackson or the fey Cassandra and Rose from Dodie Smith’s classic I Capture the Castle ( a teenage favourite). Miriam Toews’ s All my Puny Sorrows ( based on her own experience) is harrowing but worth a read. For me, Housekeeping is just outstanding – and I agree, impossible to categorise. I wonder why tbere aren’t more contemporary novels dealing with sisterhood? Have yet to read Jane Smiley’s reworking of Lear and his daughters…

    • Caroline

      Thanks for these comments and responses Morag. I should have remembered All my Puny Sorrows, having reviewed it enthusiastically on this blog in August. And coincidentally I have just started reading the Jane Smiley you mention: A Thousand Acres.

  3. The sisters in Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn are rarely mentioned as good examples of the multi-faceted nature of the sibling relationship which is a shame.

    The book may not be high art but I struggle to think of another sisterly relationship which is so vividly and movingly captured on the page.

    • Caroline

      Thanks for this recommendation Nicola. I don’t know this book, can’t think it has ever come to my attention. Thanks for the information.

  4. Anne Gore

    “They were sisters” by Dorothy Whipple is a terrific book. Do read it. I shall certainly reread it as I know it has even more to reveal. One of the sisters marries a bully and the description of his treatment of her and their children is chilling. We learn about his behaviour through the children’s eyes and their naive but growing apprehensions about him are difficult to read. For one child her refuge and support becomes her aunt. The way that the sisters observe each others’ lives runs through the whole book. I loved it.

    • Caroline

      Thanks for the information on They Were Sisters. It sounds like I need to add it to my tar pile, especially as I have enjoyed other Whipple novels so much.
      Caroline x

  5. Hi Caroline, many thanks for the mention and link to my review of The Easter Parade – I really do appreciate it. Dorothy Whipple is definitely on my list for the future, so I’ll take a look at They Were Sisters. Another blogger recommended her to me fairly recently, more specifically her novel ‘Someone at a Distance’ – not about sisters, but the destruction of a marriage. I’m wondering if you might have read it? Greenbanks sounds excellent as well, so I must give her a try (so many writers to read, so little time). As for other novels featuring sisters, I can thoroughly recommend Dorothy Baker’s Cassandra at the Wedding, which features twin sisters with very different personalities. It’s absolutely brilliant – the characterisation is so sharp, and there’s some excellent stuff on identity in the novel. One of my favourite reads in recent years. (You might be familiar with it – but if not, there’s a review at mine if it’s of interest.)

    • Caroline

      Yes Dorothy Whipple is an author to be savoured. She provides a window into the inter-war years, and is critical of much social convention. She also wrote short stories: The closed Door and other stories. Persephone has done a fine job of republishing her work, most recently Because of the Lockwoods, which I haven’t read yet.
      I don’t know Cassandra at the Wedding, but will look into it.
      Thanks for the reviews on your blog.

  6. Eileen

    This is a great theme for a book and for your blog. It is a fascinating subject in fiction and in real life.

    The sisterly books I have read that spring to mind are:
    Maggie O’Farrell’s The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox
    The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver
    The Colour Purple by Alice Walker

    But my favourite sibling rivalry comes in the film What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? starring Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. Wonderful.

    • Caroline

      More great reads, and that fearful film. Bette Davis was amazingly awful – as the part demanded.
      Thanks for all these.
      C xx

  7. Interesting post, Caroline, considering the relationships of sisters in novels. I am sister to 9, three of whom were sisters to me (one is now deceased). It is a while since I read Louisa May Alcott and Jane Austen so I’m a little hazy on what I thought of the relationships at the time of readin. I am not familiar with any others that you mention and can think only of “Frozen” at the moment!

    • Caroline

      Hi Norah,
      that’s a lot of siblings!
      I can’t claim to know anything about Frozen. Are the sisters important?
      One thinks of the strength of the ugly sisters in Cinderella in children’s stories. Forever uglysisters.

  8. A great post, Caroline. you’ve highlighted a couple of novels I haven’t read. I find sisters fascinating too. I used the contrast theme in ‘Ignoring Gravity’ with two sisters growing up to be polar opposites, with adoption thrown into the mix. But I’m also fascinated by the mother/daughters dynamic and the parallels between generations.

    • Caroline

      Thanks for adding your comments here. Polar opposites, but perhaps with physical similarities – although not where adoption is part of the story!
      And mother/daughters, well there’s a theme and books too numerous/humorous to mention?

  9. Lucille Grant

    A very interesting post, thank you. I don’t have siblings myself but I think novels about sisters are often written because the writer has them and is able to draw upon the experience.

    I can also vouch for Maggie O’Farrell’s The Vanishing of Act of Esme Lennox and Colm Toibin’s Brooklyn.

    • Caroline

      Thanks Lucille,
      Esme Lennox has been mentioned already, so I should take account of it I think. And Brooklyn, yes also great read, not just for the sisters bit.
      And you are right about the experience of sisters being powerful, and an experience to draw on. But also one to look at from the outside?
      Thanks for the comments.

  10. Have you read ‘The Past’ by Tessa Hadley? – not just sisters but siblings (in fact 3 sisters and a brother) – a really fascinating look at how siblings interact with each other as adults – you can see a review of it on my blog

    Also it has just occurred to me that the Bronte sisters didn’t write much about about sisters, except the two sisters that Jane Eyre eventually lives with. I wonder why. Perhaps they thought it would be too much like real life?

    • Caroline

      Thanks for this addition to the theme. I’ll look at your review of The Past. I like Tessa Hadley’s fiction.
      Perhaps the Bronte sisters were too deeply into their sisterhood to be able to write about it?

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