Nicola here. Today I’m musing on sisters, real, literary and fictional. I’ve always been fascinated by the relationships between siblings. Perhaps it’s because I don’t have any full siblings that I’ve always wondered what it would be like to have a sister. Would we be very close, or different and distant? Would there be sibling rivalry between us or the sort of secrets you come across in books? What would it have been like growing up with brothers and sisters?
Today is the anniversary of the birth in 1817 of Branwell Bronte, the only boy amongst literary siblings Charlotte, Emily and Anne. Originally there were six Bronte children, five of whom were girls, so Branwell’s unique status as the only son of the family promised him more freedom and perhaps led to his being more indulged. Whilst the girls were sent away to school, in some cases most unhappily, Branwell was educated by his father at home (pictured above). The two older Bronte sisters, Maria and Elizabeth, died in childhood and their deaths made a big impression on all their siblings. Maria in particular showed all the signs of developing the same literary talents as her younger sisters. One wonders what might have happened had she survived and also whether Elizabeth, who was said to most resemble Anne, would also have grown up to be an author. Branwell, meanwhile, was a writer and an artist – one of his pictures is on the right – but he never achieved the literary success his sisters did, nor was he particularly successful with his paintings.
The feelings that the three younger Bronte sisters had for each other must, I imagine, have been as complicated as all sisters’ relationships. Whilst there is evidence to suggest that Anne and Emily were very close, Charlotte’s friend Ellen Nussey recalling them as being: “like twins – inseparable companions, and in the very closest sympathy…” Charlotte and Anne had a less straightforward relationship with Charlotte’s periodic bouts of depression putting further strain on her interactions with her sisters. With the three of them working in a similar field, would it have been possible for them to avoid comparing their work and experience a sense of professional rivalry?
Life was probably easier for Jane Austen and her sister Cassandra. A little while ago I wrote about the two of them in a blog piece called Excellent Women. It is Cassandra we owe for the likeness of Jane Austen that has become famous. Cassandra and Jane were very close and it was Cassandra who enabled Jane’s career as a novelist by running the household to give her sister the time and opportunity to write. It was also Cassandra who destroyed a lot of Jane’s correspondence after her sister died, another intriguing aspect of their relationship. Had Cassandra married and had a household of her own, what would have been the effect on Jane’s writing career? It’s another fascinating question.
Jane Austen’s books are full of sisterly relationships that may or may not have been influenced by her own with Cassandra – Lizzie and Jane Bennet in Pride and Prejudice might be the closest, perhaps, although of course that book also features three other wildly differing sisters! Eleanor and Marianne Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility are also very different in temperament and outlook, whilst their younger sister Margaret barely gets a look in. It’s tempting to think of Emma Woodhouse as an only child but in fact she too has a sister, who is married to Mr Knightley’s younger brother. With large families the norm, a family without sisters would have been unusual.
One of my all-time favourite books, and favourite sisterly relationships, is Rose and Cassandra Mortmain in I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith. There’s something very Sense and Sensibility about these two though in reverse; the beautiful older sister is far less practical than the younger one. They are chalk and cheese, infuriate each other but are also so very fond of each other. In Her Shoes by Jennifer Wiener is another book/movie that I think explores a sisterly relationship with real depth and poignancy.
When my editor suggested the title The Forgotten Sister for my latest book I was surprised because I hadn’t considered that it was about a sisterly relationship and yet that is a very strong element at the heart of the story. No spoilers, but sisters are crucial! Even though I never lived with a sister of my own, I have had ample opportunity to study other people’s and I do often write sibling relationships in my books. In fact one of the biggest complements a reader paid me was about my Scandalous Women series when she asked if I had sisters of my own because I had captured the complexity of sisterly relationships so well. That made me very happy, as does the fact that I have a step-sister who is great; it would have been nice to have grown up together but we have the benefits of a grown-up friendship now we are both adults.
There are some very thought-provoking quotations about sisters that reflect the many facets of the sisterly bond. "Help one another, is part of the religion of sisterhood." Was Louisa May Alcott’s advice. “Never let and angry sister brush your hair,” is a favourite of mine!
Do you have favourite sisters, real, literary or fictional? Are there any books or movies you particularly enjoy that feature sibling relationships?