I love reading Dorothy Whipple novels, and I wrote my Master’s thesis on her book The Priory (1939), but for some reason, I didn’t remember They Were Sisters (1945) even though I read it a few years ago. Rereading it was a pleasure, and it reminded me why I enjoy forgotten mid-century women’s fiction. Luckily for all of us, Persephone Books keeps us fed on a steady diet of these types of books.
The Literary Wives bloggers picked They Were Sisters for our “wife” book to read this month. Please visit the other bloggers’ sites and check out their posts.
Naomi of Consumed by Ink
Kay of What Me Read
Lynn of Smoke & Mirrors
Eva of The Paperback Princess
My first impression is that this book isn’t about wives at all, but instead about mothering. There are three sisters: Lucy, Charlotte, and Vera. Lucy spends her youth caring for her sisters and when they all grow up and get married, Lucy continues to play the role of mother. She isn’t always wanted, but she ends up being a steady presence in their lives and in the lives of their children. Charlotte’s youngest child, Judith, ends up spending more time with Lucy than anybody else and it literally saves her from the dysfunction of her family and allows her to escape as an older teenager.
The reason Judith has to escape is because of a marriage: a bad one. So in Charlotte’s story, we get the sense that wifehood isn’t all she hoped it would be. When she married Geoffrey, Lucy worries. Geoffrey is a jokester and immature and always loud and playing to his friends. As they settle into marriage and having children, Geoffrey is controlling and manipulative. He keeps his family in a constant state of frightened tension, even faking heart spasms to scare them into caring about him, even though he is a tyrant. He plays games to divide the children from one another and ultimately breaks Charlotte, who takes to drinking, taking sleeping pills, and using other drugs.
At one point, the most heart wrenching and illustrative of this family’s story, Geoffrey brings home a dog for the children, who had been begging for one for years. After they become attached, he sends the family on vacation but says they can’t take the dog. Well, his son sneaks the dog to the vacation home anyway, and when Geoffrey finds out at the end of the vacation, he gives the dog to the vacation rental owner. The children are devastated.
But that’s not the worst of it. The dog finds its way home, the children are overjoyed, and the cook helps to keep it a secret. However, Geoffrey discovers the deception and takes the dog to be destroyed. His son never forgets this and ends up running away from home a short time later. Geoffrey is clearly emotionally abusive, and the children are constantly on alert for the next time their father will lose his temper and take it out on them. “The trouble in this house was that though some of the alarms were false, they were as alarming as the real ones” (p. 103).
The man is a tyrant, and described by the maids in these terms: “The master’s the mistress here. A house is no place for a man” (p. 76). Further, “Charlotte was merely his anxious subordinate, reprimanded more severely than the maids if things were not kept up to the standard Geoffrey required. Nothing was too small for his notice” (p. 76). I’m not really sure what his relationship with Charlotte says about wifehood. I mean, it isn’t normal, as even the domestic servants can see. Geoffrey is clearly a sadist and possibly has borderline personality disorder. Charlotte loses herself in this chaos and cannot recover. Lucy mourns the difficulties of her sister’s family and tries to help, but Charlotte only wants to be oblivious to the tension of her marriage. Ultimately, her goal is to be invisible, and she is. She is abused, neglected, bullied, and ultimately forgotten.
Vera’s marriage is different but not better. In her case, she is the demanding and cheating spouse who fails to recognize the goodness of Brian. Although he is boring, he is steady and puts up with her. He is a force of stability for his children, but Vera continues to flirt with other men and throw extravagant parties. Lucy also tries to help in this situation, but it does no good. In the end, Vera cannot change, even after Brian leaves her, and she continues her self-destructive and selfish behavior. Perhaps we learn that wives should not act this way, as the book makes it clear that her choices and her path are immoral and wrong.
Lucy, in contrast, is the perfect wife (and a motherly aunt and sister). She, however, does not have children of her own. It is this absence that is said to explain her goodness and motherly instincts to everybody else in the family. But I would argue that she was always that way. Lucy is the “good” sister, the one who always makes the right choices and who does her duty even when it is hard. She doesn’t complain and she doesn’t cause drama. Her husband is equally as level headed and the two of them, without children (interestingly), are the model of a good marriage in this book.
There are some moral lessons in this somewhat didactic relationship novel. We learn how NOT to treat family members and what damage it can do. Brian, Vera’s husband, is starved for affection and attention, and when he finds it, Whipple noted: “All our lives we are seeking for others to share our pleasures and when at times we find them, life takes on a new warmth and we bloom” (p. 196). Further, when Lucy tries to help Vera and Vera confesses a lack of belief in eternity and a doubt that anything in life really matters, Lucy responds, “It matters to ourselves, of course, but it matters terribly to other people” (p. 372). Lucy learned at an early age that her actions were important in the lives of others, which is why she is giving and nurturing and puts others’ needs before her own. In the end, she is the only one who can claim a measure of happiness.
Have you read any of Dorothy Whipple’s novels? I haven’t read all of them, but this reread makes me want to finish reading her work and enjoy the complex moral messages, the seeming simplicity of mid-century life, and the hidden darknesses of human relationships.