They Were Sisters by Dorothy Whipple

Screen Shot 2019-04-22 at 11.16.35 AM31ZWlCr9ZDL._SX356_BO1,204,203,200_Fiction – print. Persephone Books, 2005. Originally published 1944. 464 pgs. Purchased.

When their mother died of influenza, eighteen-year-old Lucy abandoned her dreams to further her education and returned home to care for her father and siblings, including younger sisters Vera and Charlotte. Their sisterly bond morphed into one where Lucy took on the role of mother – protective, worrying, quick to correct and provide advice – and Vera and Charlotte shared secrets and jokes and excluded Lucy from their fun.

By the 1930s, the three sisters have all married – Lucy to an older, patient man named William who is derided by Vera and Charlotte as boring and unkempt; Vera to a wealthy man named Brian whose purse strings are controlled by his mother; and Charlotte to Geoffrey Leigh, a man who turned her and her brothers’ heads when he arrived in their home village.

Lucy has never been particularly fond of her brothers-in-law, but she longs to spend time with her sisters and invites Vera, Charlotte, and Charlotte’s youngest daughter, Judith, to spend a short holiday at her home in Underwood.

After a few missteps and harsh words, the sisters finally fall back into the rhythm of their childhood – Vera and Charlotte avoiding all responsibility and inviting Lucy into their jokes when the moment suits them. Yet, they end up having such a grand time – especially Judith, whose boisterous and curious nature is praised by Lucy – that the sisters decide to extend their holiday.

Except Charlotte is terrified to call her husband, to inform him of the change in their plans out of fear of upsetting the delicate equilibrium within the Leigh household. Her sister’s evident unease coupled with Judith’s sometimes odd behavior tips Lucy off to the fact that something is not quite right at home, and she makes Vera swear to alternate check-in visits to Charlotte’s home with her.

While Lucy can only guess as to what is happening behind closed doors, the reader is shown just how monstrous Geoffrey is to his wife and children. He is emotionally abuse towards all of them, never lifting a fist but destroying his wife’s strength, his son’s trust in people, and Judith’s curiosity with words and whims. He molds his eldest daughter, Margaret, to be his secretary, robbing her of her interests outside of his orbit and squashing her ability to function independently.

Each action is more horrific than the next, and it would have been easy to hate Vera for failing to keep her promise to Lucy, who attempts to visit her sister as often as Geoffrey will allow and eagerly opens her home to Charlotte’s children for every school holiday.

When Vera begs off a visit or puts off answering Lucy’s letter or sends Charlotte’s daughters home without another thought, Charlotte’s suffering deepens and disgust over her vanity and selfishness builds. Yet, Whipple only allows the reader to hold onto these feelings for a portion of the book, shifting the focus of the narrative from the Leigh household to examine Vera’s marriage and home life.

All her life, Vera was praised for her beauty and her ability to be the life of the party, and she is unable to cope with the aging of her body or the end of her parties after her mother-in-law cuts her off. Her husband, who tried for years to interest their daughters in books rather the dancing and parties, is disgusted with how uninterested Vera is in motherhood and blames her for the appalling behavior of their eldest daughter, Sarah.

This peek into Vera’s life forced me to adjust my attitude towards her, to understand that the expectations people placed on her in childhood set her up for failure later in life. Like Charlotte, she and her husband married based on fleeting emotions rather than compatibility, a fact the father-in-law of Vera’s lover points out to her. Both she and Charlotte tried to maintain appearances; both based their self-worth on their ability to please a man.

The novel is packed with tragedy, but Whipple’s characterizations and her exploration of the relationship between sisters and young women who are like sisters made this an evocative read. Each time I pick up a novel by Whipple, I’m reminded of how wonderful her writing style is and then I face the dilemma of immediately reading all of her books or carefully rationing them.

One other reaction I want to note is, as a modern reader, I kept expecting Geoffrey’s behavior to take a sinister turn – physical abuse towards his wife or children, murder of his wife, hints at sexual abuse of his eldest daughter. Whipple never introduced those elements, but her portrait of marital abuse is one of the most harrowing I’ve ever read. Which now has me questioning how I’ve gotten to the point as a reader where I expect these despicable elements to be included in the narrative…

Note: The endpaper (above) is ‘Pattern of Anemones’, a 1935 cotton dress fabric manufactured by Calico Printers’ Association in Manchester. According to the Persephone website, the pattern was “manufactured in the part of the world in which Dorothy Whipple lived and wrote; and could have been worn by any of the three sisters but perhaps most especially by Vera”.

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