Review 1311: Literary Wives! They Were Sisters

Cover for They Were Sisters

Today is another review for the Literary Wives blogging club, in which we discuss the depiction of wives in fiction. If you have read the book, please participate by leaving comments on any of our blogs. Be sure to read the reviews and comments of the other wives!

Emily of The Bookshelf of Emily J.
Eva of Paperback Princess
Lynn of Smoke and Mirrors
Naomi of Consumed By Ink

* * *

I jumped the gun on this book back in October because of the 1944 Club. I had already read the book when the club was proposed, so I published my review in time for that club, since it was written in 1944. So, you can read my review there. Suffice it to say that this was one of my best books of the year.

What does this book say about wives or about the experience of being a wife?

I like how balanced this book is in presenting marriage, especially as most of the books we’ve read for Literary Wives are about unhappy marriages. They Were Sisters is a good book for this club, because it depicts three very different marriages, although it spends most of its time on the two unhappy ones. The details of Lucy’s marriage are more implied. They married late after she didn’t expect to. She and William lead a calm, well-ordered life. They discuss their concerns with each other. When Lucy wants to provide a more stable environment for Judith, he is happy to oblige.

Lucy approves of Vera’s husband, Brian, but Vera’s marriage slowly disintegrates under the pressure of her boredom with him and his resentment of her series of admirers (whether they are actually lovers is not clear). They become more withdrawn from each other, and eventually Brian gives her a final opportunity to save their marriage. In this situation, Vera is depicted as at fault. Beautiful and spoiled, she is happy to use his money, but she cannot do without the admiration and constant entertaining. Theirs is a true mismatch.

From the beginning, Lucy thinks Charlotte is making a mistake in marrying Geoffrey. Charlotte is in love with him and at first thinks he can do no wrong. Later, she protects him even after he makes her life a misery and teaches their daughters to disdain her. This is a classic abusive relationship where he does everything to separate her from those she loves and to destroy her self-esteem. Nothing she does is right, although she only tries to please him. Eventually, she gives up and reverts to alcoholism.

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Day 1273: The 1944 Club! They Were Sisters

Cover for They Were SistersBest Book of Five!
I was going to save my review of They Were Sisters for our February Literary Wives club, but I saw it was also published in 1944, so applied to the 1944 Club! So, for Literary Wives, I will just have to refer back to this review and then make my further comments about the depiction of wives in fiction.

I previously read another book published in 1944. Here is its link:

Friday’s Child by Georgette Heyer

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Lucy’s sisters, Vera and Charlotte, are much younger than she, so much so that she was largely responsible for raising them when their mother died. Lucy never thought she would marry, but she is, happily, to William, who is a bit eccentric. She has misgivings, though, about her sisters’ choices of husbands, especially Charlotte’s.

Vera’s husband, Brian, is solid and devoted. Lucy likes him, but Vera, who is a stunning beauty, seems to be bored with him. She has a constant entourage of male followers and loves to entertain. They have two daughters, Meriel and Sarah. Meriel is close to her father and paternal grandmother, who hates Vera and is always trying to make trouble. Sarah is closer to her mother, but she is the volatile one, who has trouble making friends.

Charlotte married Geoffrey. As a young man, he was constantly pulling pranks, and Lucy couldn’t see what Charlotte saw in him. As a husband, he is hypercritical and verbally abusive, teaching his daughters, Margaret and Judith, to disrespect their mother.

1944 club logoThe three women have been apart for years when they get together at the beginning of the book. After that visit, Vera and Lucy vow to keep in better contact with Charlotte because they are worried about her. Only Lucy pursues this, however, and through her efforts falls completely for Judith as a child. Although Charlotte avoids Lucy as she loses herself to alcoholism, Judith becomes a regular visitor to Lucy and William’s home, where she sees a more normal home life than the one she has. She also makes unlikely friends with her cousin, Sarah.

This novel is an insightful study of the bonds of sisters, despite their differences. It is a lovely book, also about how the act of caring on Lucy’s part has ramifications beyond her own sisters’ lives. Again, Whipple gets better and better. I will be sad when I will have read all of her books.

More about this book in February for Literary Wives!

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Day 1253: Because of the Lockwoods

Best of Five!
I just have to say, Dorothy Whipple keeps getting better and better. I am so thankful to Persephone Press for reprinting her books and am sorry that I only see a few more in their catalog.

Because of the Lockwoods is about the complex relationships between two families, the Hunters and the Lockwoods. The families used to be neighbors and social equals, but Mr. Hunter died unexpectedly, leaving the Hunters in financial straits. When the novel opens, Mrs. Lockwood is preparing to patronize the Hunters by inviting them on New Year’s Eve to witness a production by her girls that she would not inflict on more important people and to dine on leftover treats from Christmas Day.

The youngest Hunter, Thea, has grown to hate the Lockwoods for the way they treat her mother—Mrs. Lockwood patronizing her and Mr. Lockwood being irritable when Mrs. Hunter turns to him for advice. The Lockwood twins are bullies who continually ridicule Thea. What the Hunters don’t know, though, is that Mr. Lockwood cheated Mrs. Hunter just days into her widowhood.

The Lockwoods are not without their good qualities, just as Thea is not without bad ones, and it is this nuanced approach that makes the novel interesting. Mr. Lockwood adores his family, and Mrs. Lockwood is one of the few old friends who continues to visit Mrs. Hunter after the family’s move to a less salubrious neighborhood. Thea, on the other hand, is difficult, stubborn, and unforgiving. While despising the Lockwoods’ middle class values, she has adopted some of them herself, and is at first snobbish when she meets a new neighbor, Oliver Reade.

This novel is a long one, but it swept me up. I watched Thea suffer one humiliation after another at the hands of the Lockwood family and was interested to see how she handles her opportunity for comeuppance.

One feature of Whipple’s novels is how readable they are. Once you start reading, you don’t want to stop.

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Day 1192: The Priory

Cover for The PrioryBest of Five!
Saunby is an old estate that belongs to Major Marwood. It was once a priory, and the ruins are still there. The major is a poor landlord and manager who cares only for cricket. Although he has hundreds of pounds of unpaid bills and the house is falling to bits, he spends a huge amount of money every year in hosting two weeks of cricket matches.

The major is most unhappy about how the house is being run. His sister, Victoria, who is supposed to be in charge of the house, pays attention to nothing but her art, producing one atrocious painting after another. His two daughters, Christine and Penelope, are happy in their isolation up in the nursery, making odd-looking dresses and ridiculing the neighbors. The servants do what they want. Everyone in the household is completely self-absorbed.

So, the major decides it is time he remarried, principally to get someone to take care of the house and keep expenses in check.  He has his eyes upon Anthea Sumpton, a woman no longer young who he is sure will be sensible.

Unfortunately, Anthea is in love with him and doesn’t understand he is making a marriage of convenience. Soon, she will have a rude awakening.

Everyone in this novel is due for a rude awakening, however, as the focus of the novel moves to Christine and what happens when she falls in love with Nicholas Ashwell. He is one of her father’s cricket players who has been raised to be as selfish as her family is.

This novel is also somewhat an Upstairs/Downstairs novel at first, when the new maid, Bessy, falls in love with Thompson, who helps with the cricket. He returns her feelings but doesn’t reckon with the rejected Bertha.

This novel is the best kind, the type in which characters develop and you change your mind about them. Beginning in the late 1930’s, it is also winding its way slowly toward the war. I found the novel beautifully written, involving, and ultimately touching, as a dysfunctional family learns to become slightly more functional. I have enjoyed all of Whipple’s novels, but I think I liked this one best, so far.

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Day 859: They Knew Mr. Knight

Cover for They Knew Mr. KnightBest Book of the Week!
At the beginning of They Knew Mr. Knight, the Blakes are an ordinary, relatively happy middle-class family. Things are fairly tight for them financially, and their house is too small for the family. The two girls, Freda and Ruth, share a small room, and the boy Douglas lives up in the cold attic. Still, only two family members are discontented. Thomas Blake has always resented his feckless father having sold the family factory just as Thomas was old enough to work there and learn the business. He works there but only as an engineer, not as the owner. And his father left his mother and siblings penniless, so that Thomas and his wife Celia have had to support them ever since, his brother Edward being unable to hold down a job. The other discontented family member is Freda, the oldest girl, who dreams of leading a wealthy and fashionable life.

On the way to work one morning, Thomas saves Mr. Knight from falling on the stair to the train. Mr. Knight is a wealthy financier, and he immediately takes Thomas under his wing. He helps him buy back his family’s factory and gives him tips on investments. Soon, the family is doing enough better to move into a bigger house.

But Celia doesn’t like Mr. Knight or the effect he has on Thomas. She doesn’t like how Mr. Knight leaves Mrs. Knight alone all the time and flaunts his young mistress before her. She doesn’t like how Thomas has become a little self-important and doesn’t confide in her anymore or spend as much time with the family. She doesn’t like their new house and misses her old busy life.

As the Blakes’ fortunes improve, we get a growing sense that all will not be well for long. Celia finds herself in a big house with maids and nothing to do. Her new garden doesn’t inspire her, and the children are grown and going about their business. The two eldest have unhappy love affairs, both with charming but morally lax people they meet at Mr. Knight’s parties.

Through all this, Mr. Knight himself remains a shadowy figure, appearing seldom. He seems generous, but we already know he is restless and prone to losing interest in projects. We wonder what will happen when he loses interest in Thomas, who keeps trying to pay back the money he owes him, only to have Mr. Knight point him toward a new investment opportunity.

Celia is the main character in this novel, which manages to build up a fair amount of suspense over everyday concerns. Part of the novel touches on her spiritual needs, as she has sometimes felt she’s had a glimmer of the knowledge of God and wishes she could get closer to it.

I was completely gripped by this novel and its picture of the fleeting quality of happiness, the corroding effects of greed. Except for Mr. Knight, the main characters are mostly very human and likable. You want the Blakes to come through their acquaintance scatheless, but you know they will not. If it’s not telegraphing too much about the book to say so, this novel reminds me very much of The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope, only we are more attached to the characters.

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Day 723: Greenbanks

Cover for GreenbanksBest Book of the Week!
This novel begins with a large family Christmas dinner at Greenbanks, the home of Robert and Louise Ashton. It is around 1910. Louise is in her late middle age, a quiet, kind woman who delights in her housekeeping skills and her garden. Her husband, a serial philanderer, has proved a source of pain and humiliation, but she has tried to live it down.

Although the Ashtons are grandparents, three of their grown children live at home. Jim works at the family business, allowing his father to devote little time to it. Charles also purportedly works there, but he prefers to spend time fiddling with inventions, tinkling the piano, and entertaining his adoring mother. Laura is just about to engage herself to Cecil Bradfield. Rachel, the five-year-old daughter of Letty and Ambrose, is Louise’s favorite grandchild.

Robert soon dies in embarrassing circumstances. But even though the novel follows the fortunes of the family over roughly 15 years, it concentrates on the relationship between Louise and Rachel. Rachel, with a self-absorbed mother and an officious father, loves spending as much time as possible at Greenbanks with her grandmother.

The novel has overtones that are feminist for the time, as Rachel finds she has a gift for scholarship. Her father’s rigid and old-fashioned ideas about the place of an education in the lives of young women cost her a scholarship at Oxford, but she manages to continue her education despite him.

Inside cover
The cover at the top is really plain, but for some reason Amazon shows this picture, which is actually the inside of the cover!

One source of disagreement in the family is Louise’s choice of companion. Louise always felt sorry for Kate Barlow when she was a child and tried to include her in family activities. When Kate was a young woman, it was rumored she became pregnant by a married man and had his child, then was thrown off by her parents. Louise meets her in town one day and begins a correspondence with the reluctant woman. After Charles leaves for South Africa and her other two children marry, she invites Kate to become her companion. But Kate never really accepts Louise’s kindness.

The story of the Ashtons is told in spare, matter-of-fact prose that makes no attempt to influence the reader. Many of the characters are flawed and some are unlikable, but there are no heroes and villains here, just a set of ordinary middle-class people. It’s difficult, then, to explain why I so much enjoyed reading this novel. Whipple is a master of style and shows us her characters in the fullness of their lives.

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Day 687: Someone At a Distance

Cover for Someone at a DistanceBest Book of the Week!
I would normally not give away something important that happens well into a novel, but the book blurb openly presents it as the novel’s central conflict. The Norths are an affectionate and happy family with little to discontent them in post-World War I England. Avery enjoys his work as a partner in a publishing firm and is a loving husband and father. He dotes on his daughter Anne especially. Ellen loves her family and her garden. Although she perhaps does too much for her family, she enjoys it. Hugh is serving his term in the army but can’t wait to get out and work at his father’s firm. Fifteen-year-old Anne loves her family and especially her horse.

The only small annoyance in the family’s life is Avery’s mother, who is critical and discontented, wanting more attention than the busy family can provide. But she soon solves her own problem by hiring a companion, a French girl named Louise Lanier.

Louise is a selfish and discontented young woman who is fleeing the end of an affair in which she was felt to be socially inferior to her lover and unworthy of marrying him. Eventually, she sets her sights on Avery, heedless of any destruction she may wreak with her harmful intentions and toxic personality.

I spent the first half of this novel entranced by this perceptive and layered novel and the last third in tears. The characters are wonderfully realized. Perhaps Louise’s character lacks a little nuance, but we have all met people who are able to justify their own bad behavior to themselves. This is a great book that should have had more attention since it was written in the 1930’s.

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