Sisters in Literature: Wonderful companions or competitors with a tinge of arsenic?
The inspiration for this piece on sisters in literature has been brewing in me since I was six years old when my little sister Susan aged three, sadly died from pneumonia. I’ve avoided writing about it for years, and now looking at it written so boldly on this page all these years later I’m shocked to see the fact of it in print.
I’m lucky enough to have two brothers but the sister thing, the broken link, has never stopped nagging at me. I have always imbued that relationship with what my head tells me is an unrealistic cosiness, while my heart continues to long for it.
I’ve been encouraged in my view that sisters walk hand-in-hand on enchanted ground, by those historic and literary sisters who play on our emotions such as: Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, Jane Austen’s Dashwood sisters, Blanche and Stella in, A Streetcar named Desire. Even those Kardashian girls, love or hate them, seem to share an enviable loyalty to each other which unites them against the world.
Of course, I know that it’s not all sugar, that spice is in the mix too, not to mention a dash of arsenic on occasion. Your sister can be both your companion and your competitor; she’s your best friend and your worst enemy, she can be a bitch, and from what I have observed she certainly can bring out the bitch in you.
Sisters in literature as in life suffer from the inevitable comparisons they are made subject to: one is the pretty one, or the talented one etcetera. The younger sister may feel outrage that her older sister got there first, that she is the one who gets the hand-me-downs. The older sister may think her younger sibling spoilt, complain that she gets more than her fair share of attention.
All this is the normal commerce of sisterhood, where despite these irritations it’s a given that the bond of love is taken for granted. In normal circumstances a sister is for life, and the ups and the downs of it all seem rather wonderful to me. Having said that, normal hardly ever makes a good story, normal lacks tension, normal doesn’t pose a question that needs answering.
As Tolstoy wrote in his wonderful opening of Anna Karenina, ‘Happy families are all alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.’ Unhappy poses questions, takes us down paths that allow us to explore the often destructive power in family passions. It is a seam of gold that many writers have mined to their advantage in the past.
It was working as a psychotherapist that first truly opened my eyes to the challenges that exist in being a sister, and to how occasionally the relationship gets out of hand and goes beyond normal behaviour. One of the closest sibling relationships we think of is twins of course. Even this bond though is not always ideal. I once attended a lecture on twins in the womb thinking we would see scans of babies holding hands or with their arms around each other. But no. A short film was shown where in uterus one twin seemed to be attempting to kick their sibling out of their shared space; this behaviour was on-going after birth, with the same twin attempting to exclude his brother from their toys, and from their mother’s affection, by pushing him aside, putting a lot of effort into attempting to get his brother out of their playpen.
I should point out that this is unusual behaviour, and that it may have no meaning other than that we are territorial animals needing our own space. But seeing that film rang the novelists bell in me. It posed the question, what if. What if the sibling relationship was skewed and only had love on one side? What if one sister was good, the other bad? One Cinderella the other the ugly sister. And taking the thought further, worse than simply being excluded from the ball, would be one sister’s obsessional hatred for the other leading to the darkest transgressions.
The complex relationships between sisters has been put to good use in such novels as, Atonement, where Briony and Cecilia have a huge effect on each other’s adult lives, and with Merricat and Constance in, We have Always Lived in the Castle, which speaks to sisterly loyalty. The one about lifelong guilt, the other concerning secrets in a Gothic suspense which highlights how diverse the sister relationship can be and the role of sisters in literature.
Stories of sisterhood enter our minds along with the fairy tales of our childhood. They can draw from us both tears and laughter have us paddling in calm seas or drowning in dark water. But no matter to me that the sister relationship is sometimes not all that it’s cracked up to be that there can be ugly sisters and Cinderella ones too, I still long for one of my own.