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Review: The Three Sisters, by May Sinclair


Pages: 388

Original date of publication: 1914

My edition: 1982 (Dial Press)

Why I decided to read: it’s on the list of Virago Modern Classics

How I acquired my copy: Ebay seller, July 2010

After a reading slump during Virago Reading Week, I was actually thrilled to come across a book that redeemed things for me! The Three Sisters is a novel that is loosely based upon the lives of the Bronte sisters, though the similarities are superficial. Alice, Gwenda, and Mary are the daughters of the Vicar of Garthdale, spinsters living lonely, bored lives on the moors. All of that changes, however, when a young, attractive doctor arrives in the village…

Originally published in 1914, this book is a strange hybrid of Edwardian values and Victorian conventionality. The time period in which this book is set is indeterminate (definitely not as early as the Brontes, though, since a brief mention is made of a car later in the story). The novel is loosely based on the lives of the Bronte sisters, though of course there are many deviations to it. However, I can easily see Emily Bronte’s personality in Gwenda, Charlotte in Mary, and Anne in Ally.

The story deals heavily with repression, personified in the character of Mr. Cartaret, the girls’ unforgiving and intractable father. The girls’ various (realized and unrealized) passions for Steven Rowcliffe are what drive the plot of this novel—leading Gwenda to run away from Garthdale so that her sister Mary may marry Rowcliffe and Ally to marry a local yeoman. All three women exude passion, but because of circumstances, it’s never allowed to fully come out. Another theme that this book deals with is that of self-denial, especially in the case of Gwenda. Psychologically, it’s interesting to watch how Mary’s marriage has an effect on all her sisters. Also, the book deals to a certain extent with obsession, personified in the character of Steven Rowcliffe. Living in a small village with very few marriage prospects, the arrival of a young, handsome, eligible doctor of course would of course lead the three Cartaret sisters to obsess over him—especially since all three women are of a passionate nature. It’s a very powerful novel, but so very understated in its own way.

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