Original date of publication: 1943
My edition: 2007 (Persephone)
Why I decided to read: browsing on Persephone’s website
How I acquired my copy: From the LCS shop, September 2009
“….they were sisters and loved each other, no matter how deeply the circumstances o
f their lives seemed to divide them.” (p. 138).
This is the story of three sisters, as different as three people could ever be. Charlotte marries Geoffrey, who’s not good enough for her; Vera marries Brian, she she’s not good enough for; and Lucy, the eldest of the three Field sisters, marries a man with whom she’s completely compatible. They each lie separate lives in separate parts of the country, but what brings them together, as the quote above shows, is their love for one another—and the children, who are visibly affected by the breakdown of two marriages. Happiness—the having or not having of it—is a strong theme in this book.
This novel had a strong impact on me. Geoffrey’s abusive behavior towards Charlotte never actually descends into the physical; but it’s the psychological aspect of it that really chills the reader to the bone (the scene with the dog especially left a bad taste in my mouth about him). It’s a textbook abusive relationship, with Charlotte constantly making excuses for her husband, the children cowering in fear of what he will think, say, or do. At the same time, Whipple manages to make her reader see things from Geoffrey’s point of view: what it all comes down to is that Geoffrey is an overgrown bully, extraordinarily selfish and unable to see other people be happy. He's insensitive, too; so much so that he actually laughs at Lucy when she expresses concern over Charlotte's drinking and drug-taking. It's interesting how each of his children reacts to him in a different way: one submits meekly, one rebels violently against him and runs away, and the third eventually ends up happy, with a little help from the people who care about her. My only complaint against the book is that Geoffrey doesn’t really get what he deserves in the end; but I suppose that the way in which Whipple wrote the story is more realistic, and serves to illustrate how the men have all the power in cases such as these.
Vera and Brian’s marriage is nearly the exact same as Geoffrey and Charlotte’s, except in reverse. Bored with her marriage, Vera turns to other people to cope; she’s is just a selfish as Geoffrey was, and it’s her selfishness that destroys her marriage and leads her daughter to resent her. One of the big themes of this book is how the behavior of adults impacts children; nowhere is this more true than in the case of Judith and Sarah, who seem adrift with parents who are unfit to raise them. It’s not surprising that they should find comfort in one another and in their Aunt Lucy, the most levelheaded and happy of the three older women.
Dorothy Whipple’s writing style has been described over and over again as “readable;” They Were Sisters is easily one of Whipple’s most readable books. The plot takes a back seat to the writing and the character descriptions, which are first rate. This is definitely a book worth thinking about, and one I enjoyed immensely.
This is Persephone no. 56. Endpaper below: