Tag Archives: Greenbanks

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

Bookword’s top ten stories of women’s old age

When Paul Bailey, novelist, compiled his list of Top Ten Stories of Old Age for the Guardian in February 2011 he mentioned only two by women writers: ‘The Bear Came Over the Mountain’ a short story by Alice Munro and Memento Mori by Muriel Spark – at 3rd and 4th place respectively. Where were the women writing about older women? There is an irony in this list, which I will reveal later.

Bookword’s top ten stories

There are plenty of strong, bold, feisty and resolute older women in fiction, mostly created by women writers. Some of these older women hate the idea of dying, some live as they always have, some take on new challenges, some are brilliant and some are ill or suffer with dementia. Here’s Bookword’s list of top ten stories of older women, (with links) in an order that reflects reading of the blog series (see below). It includes one male author.

  1. Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor explores some of the painful and amusing aspects of being older and neglected by family. A key word might be dignity.25 Stone Angel
  2. The Stone Angel by Margaret Laurence, a Canadian novelist, telling the story of Hagar Shipley as she resists the consequences of her family’s attempts to do what they believe is best for her.
  3. Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively. On her death bed, Claudia Hampton resists the infantalising aspects of hospital care and reveals that she has always been a feisty woman. As an old woman she is all the women she has ever been.117 All passion cover
  4. All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville West tells the story of Lady Slane released into widowhood after many years of being married to a great man. She blossoms with new friendships and independent decision-making.
  5. The Summer Book by Tove Jansson. Translated from the Swedish by Thomas Teal, this novel is about a grandmother and granddaughter and it reveals another strong older woman, with the full range of emotions and much wisdom. She is the kind of grandmother who has wisdom without being a Mrs Pepperpot.

    Dorothy Whipple

    Dorothy Whipple

  6. Greenbanks by Dorothy Whipple is another grandmother/ granddaughter story, set in a northern town in the early 20th century. The novel reveals the strength of the old woman in family relationships.
  7. A Passage to India by EM Forster. The portrait of Mrs Moore is one of the many attractions of this classic novel. Mrs Moore infuses the action long after she departed.164 cover S Riding
  8. South Riding by Winifred Holtby features several strong characters, including Mrs Beadows, an alderwoman, who provides compassionate service on the council to her impoverished inter-war Yorkshire community.
  9. A Reckoning by May Sarton focuses on Laura Spelman’s attempts to meet death on her own terms. Strictly speaking the heroine did not meet my criteria, being only 60, but the story is an interesting one, and the main character faces the end of her life with determination to do it her way.
  10. Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey. I loved the respectful portrait of Maud who is becoming increasingly confused. There is much humour in this book, but not at her expense. It does reveal the confusion and debility of cognitive decline. And it raises important issues about family and intergenerational care for people with dementia. 151 E missiing cover 3

Fiction about older women

I strongly believe that we need to see images, read books, watch plays and films about those who are less visible in our world than white, middle-aged, males or beautiful young people. Fiction allows us to enter other worlds and lives which we might not otherwise experience.

The series reviewing older women in fiction on this blog began after I attended a course about growing older. All the examples from literature we were given related to men: Odysseus, King Lear, Prospero, some poetry including, of course, Dylan Thomas’s Do not go gentle. Where, I wondered, were the older women? I began seeking out and reviewing fiction about older women for Bookword. To date there have been 16 reviews and there is a fine list of nearly 50 titles of fiction relating to older women compiled with the help of readers. Add to the list!

A note of an irony

The irony of Paul Bailey’s article is this. In Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor Mrs Palfrey makes friends with a young novelist, Ludo, who undertakes to act the part of her nephew in the Claremont Hotel. In his introduction to this novel Paul Bailey reveals that Elizabeth Taylor met him and based some of Ludo’s circumstances on his life.

Which book would you have placed in the top ten stories of women ageing? Is it even included in the Bookword list? Please add your comments.

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

Buying Books or In praise of the Independent Bookshop

Reading books, the whole blog is about books. Organising books, I’ve blogged about that too. And about decluttering books. And about publishing our own book. But I haven’t yet blogged about buying books. So here goes.

Second Hand Bookshops

166 Mr WestonI love exploring these. I get tempted by the old orange penguin books (which must be why I have got two copies of Mr Weston’s Good Wine by TF Powys. Some people would argue that you can’t have too many copies of Mr Weston’s Good Wine. And indeed it is a very intriguing and original book.) I love picking up copies of books I should have read but have passed me by, or even books that I read from the library and now want my own copy.

I like the idea that other people have read them, although I recently came across a reference to baking books from Boots Circulating Library in the oven to remove ‘other people’s germs’. And sometimes I find bookmarks between the pages, or pencil notes in the margins indicating someone else’s interest.

Occasionally I buy second hand books on-line, but this is not as enjoyable as browsing through the shelves of the local Oxfam shop. The chief attraction of second hand books is the serendipity, finding that book. I found several novels by Elizabeth Bowen in this way, and my copy of Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock was (to coin a quite dreadful phrase) pre-read. It also means I sometimes obtain a copy of a book I think I really should have, only to get it home and find I went through the same process about 3 months previously. There is the second copy already on the shelves!

I make contributions to these second hand bookstores as well. It’s part of helping books go round.


166 Perseph bppkshop intHow bookshops have changed. For a start there are fewer of them (fewer than 1000 independent shops in the UK). So it is a rare treat now to come across an independent book shop, reflecting the individuality of the owner. Perhaps a cat lives among the shelves, or a dog guards the till. There may be a jug of flowers on the table. A chair invites you to linger, perhaps by an open fire. A local author has signed five copies of his book and they are waiting to be bought, by the till. There are maps and local walks, railway histories, an intriguing selection of fiction and that category called gift books.

The second thing that’s changed is the pricing. Who pays full price for books these days? It seems that books are marketed like pork pies or crumpets, as if one book is the same as any other. The principal idea is BOGOFF (Buy one and get one for free). And you can buy them in supermarkets along with your pork pies and crumpets. Chain bookshops blast you with offers, or the apparent attraction of being newly published, or that they are recommended by the staff. This last I do find interesting, although rarely decisive.

And then, of course, there is Amazon. Loved that they made it possible to buy any book, and quickly. Hate that Amazon is taking over the world. I don’t believe that Amazon acts in the best interests of authors, publishers or readers.

When I buy on-line I go first to Hive, still discounted, still free postage and in some mysterious way, supporting local independent bookshops.

But my ideal book buying experience is without stress. The shop feels domestic, cosy but full of possibilities. The shelves are interesting, inviting, categories easy to find, and the staff knowledgeable and opinionated. It is an independent bookshop.

In 2014 Dulwich Books was awarded the title Independent Bookshop of the year in the Bookseller Awards, Children’s Bookseller of the Year was The Edinburgh Bookshop.

Persephone Book Shop, Lambs Conduit Street, London

Persephone Books window

Persephone Books window

Last week I visited a bookshop that I love. Persephone Books sell their own books, those lovely dovegrey volumes by (mainly) women, books that need publishing. Books such as these, reviewed on this blog:

They are objects of aesthetic pleasure, chosen with great good taste. And they offer 3 for £30, or £12 each. This week I bought

  • The Happy Tree by Rosalind Murray
  • A Writer’s Diary: being extracts from the diary of Virginia Woolf
  • No Surrender by Constance Maud

166 Perseph bkshelvesThe pleasure of buying new books is enhanced by the domestic feel of the interior, the wooden furniture, cushions and fabric for sale (echoing Persephone’s trademark end papers and bookmarks, chosen from fabric designs contemporaneous with the contents of the book).

On the day I am there, as on previous occasions, office activities (such as receiving orders, enquiries about the Persephone Biennial Catalogue, payment issues) go on in the back of the shop.

Visiting Persephone Books reminds me of the importance of independent publishers, of the pleasures of buying books in nice shops and that I am not alone in wanting to go on visiting bookshops. (You can order their books online through the website as well as signing up for the daily Persephone Post, a visual treat).

Visiting Persephone Books reminds me that I am part of a community of readers.

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Filed under Books, Older women in fiction, Publishing our book, Reading, Reviews, Virginia Woolf

Greenbanks by Dorothy Whipple

For the second Readalong in the older-women-in-fiction Book Group I have been reading Greenbanks by Dorothy Whipple. Louisa Ashton’s life is more conventional than Claudia Hampton’s in Penelope Lively’s Moon Tiger and she is a quieter person than Hagar Shipley in The Stone Angel by Margaret Laurence. Her most attractive qualities are her steadfastness and generosity, and her love for her granddaughter, Rachel.

Louisa is first introduced to the reader through her portrait taken at the time of her marriage. Her youthful appearance is contrasted with the 56-year old Louisa at the Ashton clan’s Christmas table in 1909.

Louisa at the table was old, her hair was grey, she had no waist – not that she was fat, but her figure was gone past redemption – the trusting look had given way to a wise one, made wistful by a slight lift of the eyebrows. … She was a great housekeeper and derived great pleasure from looking after the bodily needs of other people. Their souls she dared not interfere with. (p2-3)

It can be quite a jolt to read that at 56 Louisa is already an old woman.

57 Endpapers

The novel follows the fortunes of her family for sixteen years from this event until 1925, when her granddaughter Rachel is 20. The main characters include her husband Robert (erring, suddenly and embarrassingly deceased), and her sons Jim (selfish, mean-spirited, full of his own worth) and Charles (her favourite, but regarded as useless and feckless by the males of the family and sent first to South Africa and then Malay before he joins up and is killed on the Western Front). Her daughters, Letty, Rose and Laura are all married, some more successfully than others.

The men do not emerge as good moral examples from this novel. Charles may be her favourite son, but he abuses Louisa’s goodwill and generosity, and in his casualness causes her pain. Her oldest son Jim is a very selfish creature, one of those sons who say things like ‘now I’m the head of the family’. He has no understanding of Louisa’s life or needs, has never considered her. In his own way he is as abusive as Charles, which Louisa mildly points out to him.

In a series of attacks by Ambrose and Jim, she placed herself firmly between them and Charles, and finally routed Jim by pointing out to him that he himself lived at Greenbanks at her expense.

‘You pay nothing here,’ she said, while he stared at her aghast. ‘If Charles pays nothing either, I see no difference between you.’ (p160)

Letty’s husband Ambrose is an entertaining character, but very destructive in his lack of imagination (all the men lack imagination except Charles who suffers from lack of realism). Ambrose’s behaviour is authoritarian towards his daughter, wife and mother-in-law, all in the name of appearance and convention. This is an interesting deviation from the assumption that older women are interested in keeping up appearances, minding what people think and say. Dorothy Whipple shows that in a conventional middle-class family of the time normality meant male selfishness, brutality, bullying, authoritarianism.

The women are flawed too but for the most part they are their own victims: Louisa is indulgent of Charles; Letty too keen to make a good marriage to notice that it would not make her happy; Laura follows her heart and causes scandal; Kate Barlow rejects Louisa’s kindness.

57 D Whipple

The scope of the novel – 16 years and 370 pages – allows Dorothy Whipple to follow the changes for women during this period. It was published in 1932. The rather unattractive Kate Barlow reveals some of these. She was a social outcast before the Great War but her transgression is less significant in the 1920s. And Rachel’s success in winning a State scholarship to study at Oxford indicates possibilities that a young Louisa could not have imagined. She is, however, opposed by her father who has a range of objections to the education of women, and to accepting ‘State aid’ for his daughter. He asserts his knowledge of what is best for her.

So what of the older woman in this novel? There are no counter-models in Greenbanks, and Dorothy Whipple is not endorsing early twentieth century conventional behaviour. Rather, she gives us a sympathetic portrait of an older woman, in whose life events are rarely dramatic. Her calm writing style depicts Louisa’s life as an accumulation of small events. She has been a witness to these events, rather than a player: her husband’s death; the emigration of her favourite son, his death in the Great War; her married daughter’s elopement; Kate Barlow’s infatuation with a celibate priest and her rejection of her own son. But when faced with difficult decisions and moral dilemmas Louisa consistently chooses the humane, the generous, the warm response over the mean-spirited and conventional stance recommended by the men.

The opening paragraph suggests that we should look beneath the surface and not accept things are as they are presented. Louisa appears conventional, but rejects conventional behaviour when it offends her more humane beliefs..

The house was called Greenbanks, but there was no green to be seen today; all the garden was deep in snow. Snow lay on the banks that sloped from the front of the house; snow lay on the lawn to the left, presided over by an old stone eagle who looked as if he had escaped from a church and ought to have a Bible on his back; snow lay on the lawn to the right, where a discoloured Flora bent gracefully but unaccountably over a piece of lead piping that had once been her arm. Snow muffled the old house, low and built of stone, and of no particular style or period, and made it look like a house on a Christmas card, which was appropriate, because it was Christmas Day. (p1)

And, like a silver thread, beginning with the opening scene at the Christmas table through to Rachel’s assertion of herself in the face of her father’s authority aged 20, Louisa stands by Rachel. A lovely model for grandmothers everywhere. Rachel is fully aware of everyone’s debt to Louisa, as the following exchange, near the end, shows. Rachel asks her grandmother to prepare Kate Barlow for a second visit from her son.

‘Eh, dear me,’ sighed Louisa. ‘You do give me some uncomfortable jobs …’

‘We do don’t we?’ said Rachel, laughter in her eyes. ‘We lead you an awful life. But what should we do without you I can’t think! Everybody depends on you, precious! Deserted husbands descend on you, defaulting wives apply to you for divorce, vicars, who go too far, place the onus of their celibacy on you, and now you have to prepare an unaccommodating mother to receive her son! And you’re such a little mild thing, darling! I could laugh at the sight of you, bless you!’ (p348)

This picture, called A June Interior, was suggested on The Persephone Post as a good representation of the relationship at the heart of Greenbanks. It’s by Louis Ginnet (at the Ditchling Museum/PCF).

(c) Jeremy Carden; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Dorothy Whipple deserves to be better known. Persephone has been republishing her novels and short stories are they are among their top sellers.

  • Someone at a distance
  • High Wages
  • They were sisters
  • The Priory
  • They knew Mr Knight

Three blogs reviews of Greenbanks by Dorothy Whipple that I enjoyed can be found here:



Fleur in her World


NOTE: The next older woman in fiction Readalong will be in December: A Reckoning by May Sarton, first published in 1978.


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