Monday musings on Australian literature: Sisters in Australian fiction

Sara Dowse, As the lonely blyYesterday I posted my review of Sara Dowse’s novel As the lonely fly, which centres on the lives of three sisters (well, primarily, two sisters, and the daughter of the other sister), and today, playwright Joanna Murray-Smith mentioned another book about sisters, Shirley Hazzard’s The transit of Venus, when giving her Top Shelf on Radio National’s Books and Arts Daily program. It got me thinking about novels which feature sisters – and I realised that some of our best-loved classics deal with them. Think Jane Austen’s Pride and prejudice and Louisa May Alcott’s Little women, for a start. And, I can’t resist mentioning, though it’s not a novel, that infamous play, King Lear!

So, I thought it would be fun to talk about sisters in (Australian) fiction, about novels in which the sister relationship plays a significant role in the story. I have read all the books I mention here, but most of them before I started this blog, unfortunately.

Ada Cambridge’s Sisters (1904), which I read over three decades ago, now tells the story of four well-to-do sisters at a time when marriage was seen as women’s only option. She explores – unsentimentally – what this means for the sisters, who have to decide whether to marry for money, for love or not at all. By focusing on the experience of women from one family, by setting their decisions against each other, Cambridge is able to keep her exploration of matrimony tightly focused. I like Cambridge for similar reasons that I like Austen, her clear, somewhat acerbic eye on how social conventions can limit people’s real options.

In Sara Dowse’s As the lonely fly (2017), the three sisters, Frieda, Clara and Manya, have a somewhat awkward relationship, but then they face awkward times. They represent different responses to the same problem, increasing anti-Semitism and the resultant pogroms in their homeland. All migrate, but at different times and/or to different places, and with, significantly, different goals. They have a sense of responsibility for each other, but don’t always understand each other’s decisions. Their sisterly relationship provides a natural, organic basis upon which Dowse can explore various responses and outcomes. This might sound mechanistic, but it isn’t. The sisters live and breathe too – and I cared deeply about them, particularly Clara!

Elizabeth Harrower The watch towerA different sisterly relationship occurs in Elizabeth Harrower’s The watch tower (1966) (my review). Laura and Clare are effectively abandoned by their parents when they are young. There’s seven years between them, so the relationship is driven partly by Laura feeling a sense of responsibility for her sister and also by her not having some of the opportunities afforded her younger sister. It’s a close relationship, and as Laura’s life starts to unravel, Clare tries her hardest to make Laura see what is happening, while not getting caught up in it herself. It’s a chilling study of misogyny, of power and control, but one in which the sisterly relationship provides a source of support.

Shirley Hazzard’s The transit of Venus (1980) also deals with two sisters, Carolyn (Caro) and Grace Bell, and follows them for several decades. Orphaned when young, the girls move to England where they form relationships, and marry. The story mainly follows Caro, and I’m afraid I can’t recollect a lot about how their relationship is depicted, though I seem to remember it is supportive but also reflects those frustrations between sisters who choose different courses in their lives. Joanna Murray-Smith in her Top Shelf statement talked about loving the way Hazzard tells how the sisters’ lives “intersect over a lifetime”.

Elizabeth Jolley, An accommodating spouseElizabeth Jolley’s An accommodating spouse (1999) deals with a relationship that’s a little odd, which won’t surprise you if you know Jolley. It’s about a rather eccentric professor who is married to a woman, Hazel, who happens to be a twin. The twin sister, Chloë, lives with them, and the situation works, largely because there is an accommodating spouse (though who this is and how might not be what you think). Towards the end, after a disturbing event, the Professor

is sorry that his own agitation during the party will have been a burden on Hazel and on Chloë. He comforts the thought with the real fact that Hazel and Chloë always shared misfortune, so only shared half each, of any difficulty.

This is so Elizabeth Jolley to have a character justify himself that way!

Olga Masters’ Loving daughters (1984) reminded me, when I read it back in the 1980s, of Jane Austen – not just because it has a traditional marriage plot-line but because it is set in a small community and has some of Austen’s wicked wit. I remember laughing at the image of the young curate riding around town, while he pondered which sister should he marry – the lively, fun one or the practical, nurturing one. The book, though, is more serious than this comment suggests – and deals, like Austen does, with the way social rules and expectations impinge upon lives and the decisions people make. The sisters’ relationship is affected by both their different personalities and the pressures they find themselves under.

It’s interesting – though perhaps not surprising – that these books, with the exception of Sara Dowse’s, deal in some way with marriage. These are not romances so it’s not because the authors are focusing on marriage as the goal of women’s existence. In fact, it’s pretty much the opposite, it’s that they question, in some way, society’s assumption that getting married and being a wife is the nub of women’s lives, or they tease out the implications for women of being married. I wonder if we’d find any trends in a selection of books about brothers?

Anyhow, do you have any favourite books about sisters?

(Oops, I finished this in time for a Monday post, and forgot to hit the SCHEDULE button! So, most of you anyhow have this week’s Monday Musings on Tuesday)

28 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Sisters in Australian fiction

  1. Dare I say that the horror in my novel Family Skeleton in fact depends on the main character’s childhood longing for a sister. She did have a sister, but she never knew, and the revelation of the sister’s existence seventy years on is what brings the main character undone.

    • Yes, Anna, I thought of your book as I was choosing my books, but decided to keep it to fiction. But, commenters are very welcome to mention anything they like, so I’m glad you did.

  2. PS When I first saw the title of this post, I thought it was going to be about sisters who write books together. So there’s an idea for a new post, Sue:)
    I immediately thought of Gert Loveday, so that should get you started….

    • Haha, Lisa – and they might be the end too! I know of husbands and wives, but I’m not sure of many other sisters. Still, a literary collaboration post might be good. I’ve done literary couples but I’ll have to check whether I’ve done collaborations specifically.

  3. Ada Cambridge also wrote The Three Miss Kings about sisters, maybe she had sisters of her own and it was something she worried about. Then there’s My Brilliant Career where Sybylla worries about not being the good/good looking sister.

    • Thanks Bill for these. I’ve still to read The three Miss Kings. As for Sybylla, yes, thanks for naming that book. It’s an issue that is often explored in novels isn’t it – the pretty sister vs the intellectual or accomplished in some ways plainer (or so she thinks) one.

  4. Snap! I have an e-novel, simply titled SISTERS, which I’ve just finished editing and which will appear with a French press in a couple of months. It involves three sisters who come together in their sixties for one last summer in a childhood on the northern coast of NSW. It is a book about memory, about how strong, how frail, and how mistaken what were thought to be common memories can turn out to be. And how tragic those failures can be for the sisters’ present lives. PS: I seem to be the only male in this conversation. I’m not regretting that, merely wondering whether ‘sisters’ is an unusual subject for male writers to make central to their writing in Australian fiction? John Clanchy

    • Oh John, do let me know when that comes out. I’d love to read it: Sisters in their sixties sounds, dare I say it, rather up my alley.

      BTW, he’s not a novelist, but blogger wadholloway who commented just above you is also male!

    • Got it! I do wish WordPress would let people edit their own comments. I can’t count how many times I’ve commented on a blog and, as soon as I’ve submitted it, I’ve noticed an error and done what you did!

  5. Hi Sue, I like the ones you mentioned, and I thought of Steeplechase by Krissy Kneen. It is a deep, dark, disturbing, and sexual novel about sisters. It got me in. Another one I won’t forget is Little Women by Louisa May Alcott.I

    • Ah yes, Steeplechase. Good one Meg – and I’ve even reviewed that one on my blog so could have pointed to a review!

      I wonder how many of us loved Little Women and wanted to be Jo.

  6. Perhaps the marriage-sister connection can be explained that when marriages go south, sisters connect or rely on each other. No idea really, just a guess.

      • Jane Smiley’s powerful take on King Lear, 1000 Acres is an obvious one. There is almost every other family relationship in Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children so there must be sisters in that book!

        • Great Ian, I hoped someone would mention Smiley’s book. I was thinking Stead, but I’ve only read For love alone and I don’t think sisters feature there though as I recollect they are there in the beginning.

  7. So many good books! I don;t have a favorite book about sisters but Angela Carter’s Wise Children about twin sisters Dora and Nora is pretty good

    • Oh , Stefanie, you’ve reminded Me of another embarrassing reading gap of mine, Angela Carter! I’ll try to remember this one. One day I should go through all my blog comments and jot down book recommendations I think (in my spare time!)

  8. I am sitting here wondering what books I have on the shelf about sisters. I am sure there are several Marian Keyes and Monica McInerney come to mind. Do you think there is more writing about sisters than brothers? Another post?🐧🐧🐧🐧🐧

  9. A S Byatt’s first “Frederica” novel “The Virgin in the Garden”, Dodie Smith’s “I Capture The Castle” and Shirley Jackson’s “We Have Always Lived In The Castle” all have sisters.

    • Thanks Anne. I’ve read Dodie Smith’s book, so thanks for reminding me, but haven’t read the others though I’ve read those authors, so thanks for informing me!

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