They Were Sisters by Dorothy Whipple

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  • Excerpt: Three sisters marry three very different men. Lucy, the eldest is happily married to William. Charlotte, is besotted with Geoffrey who is a cruel, dominating husband and Vera, the beautiful youngest sister marries caring, wealthy Brian, whom she marries for  security. The story deals with the fact that choosing a life partner can have far-reaching consequences, and that this decision can dictate to a large extent a person’s individual happiness and the happiness of their families.
  • Title: They Were Sisters
  • Author: Dorothy Whipple
  • Published: 1943 New York MacMillan, later published by Persephone Books.
  • Location of the story: England, in the years preceding World War II.
  • Main Characters: Lucy (elder sister, married to William), Charlotte (married to Geoffrey), Vera (younger sister, married to Brian).

I was fortunate enough to read an old first edition that my local library managed to procure for me. This was an intense book with so much emotion that it became quite oppressive to read at times. Nevertheless, Whipple delivers such a compelling story line that despite my distress at reading about the most unkind characters and unfortunate circumstances, I was unable to put the book down.

At the beginning of the story we are introduced to the Field family. Mr. Field, a lawyer quite suddenly loses his wife to influenza and the responsibility of caring for the large family is transferred to the young shoulders of the eldest daughter of the family, Lucy. Lucy’s siblings include: Harry (the eldest), Aubrey, Jack, Charlotte and Vera. At the time of their mother’s death Charlotte and Vera are just thirteen and eleven years of age.

Lucy sacrifices her entire life to look after the family, a fact that goes largely unappreciated. Charlotte and Vera,love her, but rarely confide in Lucy, preferring to keep their closest secret to themselves. The younger sisters grow up to be beautiful young women, in particular Vera, who draws everyone’s attention the minute she steps into a room. Charlotte falls in love with a young man, Geoffrey Leigh, who delights in partying and playing the fool with her elder brothers. When Charlotte and Geoffrey decide to marry, Vera out of sheer boredom and a need for security marries the attentive,  wealthy, devoted Brian. With Harry and Aubrey emigrating to Canada, Charlotte married and Vera engaged Lucy meets and falls in love with William Moore, at a tennis party.

Soon after Vera’s marriage, Lucy is married herself and goes to live with William in a quaint cottage, in a sleepy village, surrounded by parks and woodland. Despite not having any children, Lucy and William lead a happy, quiet married life, and Lucy finds joy in reading books, taking long walks with her dog and helping the village folk with advice. She is however, very worried by the troubles her sister Charlotte faces in her marriage. Charlotte has three children with Geoffrey and their household is ruled and dominated by high-handed Geoffrey. He critically manages every minute detail of his household, children and wife. He is a manipulative, cruel person who realizes the misery he can produce on other human beings and delights in mentally torturing those around him.He delights in his domination over other human beings. Mostly, he uses devoted Charlotte as his target. In creating the abhorrent character of Geoffrey, Whipple brings to light aspects of domestic cruelty and dominance that may have been prevalent in certain pockets of society, at that time.

Geoffrey’s demeanour is interspersed with  behavioural lapses whereby, he tries to befriend his family again with random acts of kindness.

Geoffrey’s attitude is described in the book in great detail:

Geoffrey’s behaviour went in cycles. He made a violent scene and frightened his family off; he then had an attack and drew them all round him again. Then he was violently good-tempered and took them on a treat.

When I read the book myself, I had periods of anxiety, especially out of compassion for Charlotte. Charlotte, whose nerves are constantly on edge out of fear for Geoffrey’s attacks, takes to drink and anxiety reducing drugs, that slowly but surely, convert her into the shadow of a human being, she once was.

Whipple liken’s Charlotte to a fly described in one of Katherine Mansfield’s stories:

Katherine Mansfield wrote a tale about a fly upon which a man, over and over again, idly dropped a great blot of ink. Over and over again the fly struggled out, dried its wings, worked over itself, recovered, became eager to live, even cheerful, only to be covered by another blot. At last, the fly struggled no more; its resistance was broken. Charlotte was like that fly.

As Charlotte sinks further and further into depression and dormancy, Lucy on multiple occasions tries to save her sister, but to no avail. Charlotte has been reduced to a state where she no longer cares about anything, except that she wants to feel numb.

Watching Charlotte, Lucy was sad. She had loved Geoffrey with all her heart. Too much. “You shouldn’t love as much as that,” thought Lucy,”Its a bit abject. You should keep something of yourself.”

Unable to save her sister, Lucy does manage to create a safe environment for Charlotte’s youngest child, a girl by the name of Judith. Every summer, Easter or Christmas holiday, Judith is welcomed by her childless aunt and uncle and this act of care-giving provides Lucy, at least some comfort.

Charlotte’s plight is largely ignored by her younger sister Vera, whom she was very close to as a child. Vera is unimaginably beautiful, self absorbed and permanently bored with her own life. On one occasion she visits her sister Lucy’s small village for a short stay. The sisters get on to a public bus with the other village folk.

The bus was  a rattling contraption in which the passengers sat facing one another. Usually it was full of friendly talk and laughter but this morning when Vera got in, silence fell and remained. Such beauty was an embarrassment, as if everybody were put to shame somehow.

Even though aware of Charlotte’s state of household affairs, Vera fails to pay any attention to her plight. Vera, also ignores her devoted husband and two demanding daughters. After several years, Vera finds herself in dire financial circumstances due to a turn of events. Lucy is equally upset with the state of Vera’s personal life and that of her families but is again unable to help her sister. This is partly due to the fact that Vera is too headstrong take advice from her sister.

At two ends of the spectrum we witness two very different types of domestic cruelty. That of the dominance and manipulation of Charlotte by Geoffrey. Similarly, we find Vera grossly neglecting and ignoring her husband and daughters in a differential show of cruelty. Will there be any sort of retribution for these acts of cruelty? Will Lucy be able to help her sisters?

This is a frustrating story of sorts. It would be impossible to say anymore without giving away more of the story line. It s a harrowing tale and has affected me more than I can say. Whipple delivers a masterful plot and powerful cast of characters. She creates extraordinary drama and turbulence within the boundaries of everyday domestic occurrences.

 

 

 

6 thoughts on “They Were Sisters by Dorothy Whipple

    • Jane, I have just begun to discover Dorothy Whipple’s writing. In a way she reminds me of Austen, with her domestic dramas, but on the other hand she lacks the light, spark and wit of Austen.I really appreciated how she built up psychological tension in this book. I wonder why she has been so neglected ?

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      • I suspect so. I thought ‘The Priory’ had larger scope as a novel than this one, but ‘They Were Sisters’ had more dramatic tension. I am quite interested to watch the movie, ‘They Were Sisters’, starring James Mason, based on this book, but finding it hard to find 🙂

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