Wednesday 24 February 2016
They Were Sisters by Dorothy Whipple
I've been hearing about Dorothy Whipple since I first discovered Persephone Books a few years ago and have always been mildly intrigued but never enough to actually buy one her books, until the Classics Club Womens Literature Event and a glowing recommendation from Lydia at Persephone conspired to make me buy They Were Sisters. It was the description of her books as 'hot water bottle books' that made me cave to the wonders of Whipple... There's something extremely comforting about Persephone books anyway and the (completely fantastical for me) image of curling up on the sofa on a rainy afternoon was too compelling to resist!
Somewhat as the title indicates, the book is about three sisters; Lucy, Charlotte and Vera, who all marry very different men. As Persephone books often are, its' focus is fairly domestic and as time passes the sisters' lives are shaped by the marriages that they've made and the people they become, often as a result of that. One of the sisters marries an awful man who is emotionally abusive and the book eventually centres around her daughter and her bid to extricate herself from the messes made by her mother and aunt.
Of the three sisters the only one I actually liked was Lucy,which I think is very much as Whipple wanted it. Lucy is the eldest sister and pretty much brought up the other two after their mother died, and throughout the novel she is portrayed as the sensible one, the saviour of her sisters (and more importantly, their children). She is eminently practical and entirely reliable and she is the only one who married well, by which I mean that the man she married is both lovely and loves her. Lucy and William's house is a haven for her relatives and is the safe space within the book.
The novel takes turns to focus on each of the sisters, starting with Lucy which may have something to do with my being so strongly on her side throughout. I struggled with Charlotte as a character. Having been in an emotionally abusive relationship myself as a teen I can slightly relate to the difficulty of leaving someone you love, but Charlotte literally never stands up to her horrible husband, Geoffrey, not even when he's terrifying their children and I find it hard to forgive her for that. It's difficult because at the time leaving him probably wouldn't have been the immediate thing to spring to mind, and she probably would have felt as if she had nowhere to go to get away from him, but all the way through I wanted to shake her and shout at her that she had her sisters! Lucy at least, but probably even flighty self-absorbed Vera would have taken her in and consequences be damned.
I am aware that I am judging her from a very 21st century position, but having been brought up with the knowledge and had the experience that the people who love you and want you to be happy will help you to get out of awful situations, if you're lucky enough, as I was and as Charlotte is in the book, to have good people around you, I find it very hard not to judge her for failing so hugely to do a single thing to help herself.
Vera, the youngest sister is a whole different kettle of fish. Because Charlotte married such a horrible man, she, the most incredibly beautiful woman, accepts the proposal of a very nice man whom she doesn't love and find extremely boring and then carries on a series of affairs and is generally shockingly selfish, to the detriment of her marriage and her children.
I feel like I'm being very negative about a book I actually have nothing but good feelings about. Whipple does an amazing job of showing the really bad bits of people and how they treat each other and I think part of the reason that I loved Lucy so much was because she is a worrier, and as the eldest of a large family I totally relate to her need to help her sisters and constantly worry about how they're doing. In the end it is her worrying that leads to action and her actions that reassure her nieces and nephews that Auntie Lucy is the one to go to when you need help. I hope that every family has an Auntie Lucy.
There was so much in this book. Some of it shocking, some uplifting and some heartbreaking, but all of it fantastically well observed and beautifully written. The more Persephone books I read the more I trust them to always be fantastic, and if you haven't read one I strongly urge you to try!