Thursday, 26 March 2009
They Were Sisters
It is easy to determine why Dorothy Whipple is Persephone Books' most popular author: she is comfortably readable and engaging. Described by J.B. Priestley as the "Jane Austen of the 20th Century", Whipple is like a cup of tea on a cold and wet Spring day: comforting, soothing yet restorative. Also deemed as capable of making the "ordinary extraordinary" (Celia Brayfield in the afterword to They Were Sisters), Dorothy Whipple is a masterful story-teller, weaving a good yarn.
I consider Someone at a Distance as one of the best Persephones read so far (it closely follows Lady Rose and Mrs Memmary, which is a beautiful, charming and heartbreaking book) and reading a second Whipple novel did not disappoint; I will happily purchase her other two novels and collection of short stories that Persephone publish. They Were Sisters (the lovely endpaper of which is shown above) makes compulsive reading, a domestic drama, which is often harrowing. Lucy, Charlotte and Vera are the three sisters of the title who each marry very different men. Charlotte's husband is a bully who emotional abuses Charlotte and their children, to the detriment of their family and to Charlotte's health and happiness. Vera, on the other hand, marries a rich but boring man and lives a spoiled existence, which contributes to her own downfall. The novel focuses on the unsatisfying lives of these sisters with their older sister Lucy looking on, feeling and worrying too much but being quite content in her own marriage to William, despite their lack of children. The effect the lives of the sisters lead and the subsequent neglect of their children is traced in the story of Charlotte's daughter, Judith, and Vera's daughter, Sarah. I will not spoil the outcome of the novel or criticise its lack of feminism (it was written in the 1940s after all and being childfree by choice was not such a popular choice at that time) or even the stock male characters (excluding Geoffrey, Charlotte's husband, who is imbued with a realistic vileness) as these are flaws I can live with. They Were Sisters is an often unputdownable novel that examines the psychology of the sisters and children and tackles domestic violence in a forthright manner. Dorothy Whipple is twentieth century Jane Austen whose dramas in the drawing room are ugly, as opposed to romantic.