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)