The title of this novel implies something unsaid: They were sisters … but they were so different, … they never knew, … you wouldn’t know it. Dorothy Whipple’s novel takes the first idea, they were so different, but also emphasises the family connections between them, their contrasting marriages and the influence of the sisters on each other’s lives.
The novel is set in the 1930s, as war was approaching. She wrote it during the first years of the war, and it was published in 1943. The publisher was concerned about the length of the book in times of shortage of paper. But her readers enjoyed the setting in the years before the war. Persephone Books has republished many of Dorothy Whipple’s novels and I used their lovely edition for this post. I have reached the 1940s in the Decades Project.
The sisters come from a large family of three brothers and three sisters. The two older brothers are despatched early on, and the youngest brother only reappears at a funeral. Dorothy Whipple wants to focus on the three sisters: Lucy, Charlotte and Vera.
Lucy is the oldest, who on their mother’s early death takes on the responsibility of bringing up the other two girls, giving up her place at university. In time the three girls get married. Charlotte’s husband is a practical joker turned bully. His youthful larks lead the older brothers to drink, very bad behaviour and their banishment to the colonies. Geoffrey’s behaviour to his wife and three children is abusive. Over time Charlotte takes the line of least resistance, drinks, takes drugs and eventually dies young and broken. They have three children: Margaret, who becomes her father’s favourite, which is a bit yucky. Stephen runs away at 16 and Judith who is her aunt’s favourite and rather ignored by parents, finds an eventual escape.
Vera, the second sister, is a stunning beauty and always has people doing things for her. She chooses a steady, decent man to marry who she thinks she can count on to provide her with the money and tolerance she wants. As their marriage weakens she proceeds to ignore him, and her two children Sarah and Meriel. When Brian has had enough he goes to America and she has to live on much less money, and on her fading looks.
Lucy marries a slightly awkward older man, but he has respect for her and down to earth opinions. She tries to rescue her sisters, but in the end rescues their daughters.
The action takes place over 20+ years, and covers all three sisters and their families. Sometimes there are jumps of a year or more in the narrative. At each crisis Lucy dashes to help, to provide guidance to the children, while the other sister is too immersed in her own life to offer help.
Although the approaching war barely intrudes upon this novel Lucy represents a version of what was worth fighting for: decency, doing things for others, helping those you love, providing assistance to the needy. She has a Christian faith to support this, although this is not a prominent theme.
The two monsters of the novel together with the many weak characters represent dangers to this simple morality. Geoffrey is hideously cruel, have himself been ignored and abandoned in his childhood. The episode with the dog is heart breaking. His mastery over his family reminds us of the power that men and fathers wielded even into the post-war years. His behaviour can be represented to the world as for the good of the family, although Dorothy Whipple makes it clear that he only thinks of himself.
The other monster is Vera, who is so beautiful that every door is opened to her, all difficulty smoothed out of her way, all misdemeanours forgiven, until she becomes middle-aged. She treats her husband with flagrant unkindness, and when he leaves her, looks round for another admirer. Her nemesis is age, and she is forced to face her weaknesses when her niece replaces her in her young man’s attentions. Vera is too weak to give up the young man and they run away to a life of more unhappiness in South Africa.
Lucy and, through her influence, two of her nieces counter these examples of selfishness. She has no children of her own, but provides guidance for her sisters, who cannot follow it, and for the next generation who can. This is the final paragraph of the novel:
Her sisters had been like two fair ships with no hand on the wheel; one had foundered and gone down, the other was racing before the wind, headed for disaster. Lucy, grieving that she had not been able to help or save them, never thought – she had no idea – that she herself had been the beacon to bring their children to harbour. (445)
They Were Sisters by Dorothy Whipple, first published in 1943. I used the Persephone edition from 2015. It has an excellent Afterword by Celia Brayfield. 455pp
A film was made of They Were Sisters in 1945, starring James Mason as Geoffrey, Phyllis Calvert as Lucy, Anne Crawford as Vera and Dulcie Gray as Charlotte.
The Decades Project
I took my idea for the Decades Project from my library’s Reading Passport scheme. To encourage readers the passport is stamped on completion of a book from a different decade. I select a book from every decade from 1900 onwards, reading one a month, and reviewing it here.
Previous posts in the Project
Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier published in 1938
The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie, published in 1926
O Pioneers by Willa Cather, published in 1913
The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton, published in 1905
The next decade: 1950s
I have not yet decided what to read from the 1950s in June. Please make suggestions for subsequent decades, 1960s and 1970s.
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