Tag Archives: They were Sisters

They Were Sisters by Dorothy Whipple

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 Story

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.

Dorothy Whipple

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.

Dorothy Whipple

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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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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