The Three Sisters, May Sinclair, Kindle, originally published: 1914.
I was pleasantly surprised by this book which is altogether a lot more interesting than I thought it would be. Having just finished Sinclair’s biography of the Brontë sisters, I thought I would press on and read this, which is said by critics to be a novel loosely based on Charlotte, Emily and Anne. Whilst it is true that the three sisters in the novel are daughters of a vicar and they live in a small village on the edge of a moor, I did not see much of a connection. The sisters do vaguely resemble the Brontës in height, and the tallest, middle sister, likes walking on the moors, as Emily did. Their father is a sensualist with a bad temper, which is how early biographers tended to portray Patrick Brontë, but that was about the extent of the similarities.
Mary, Gwendoline and Alice move to the village with their father after one of them ‘makes a fool of herself’ over a young man and becomes a social liability. The vicar, Mr Cartaret, has an eye for the ladies and has been married three times. His first wife died giving birth to Alice; his second wife gave up and died because she was unhappy; and his third wife ran away from him. Because she is still alive, he cannot marry again and assuage his carnal appetites, so he is forced to be celibate. He is rather bitter and twisted about this state of affairs and does not want anyone else to ‘be married’ (coded language alert!) if he cannot: he wants his daughters to be spinsters and stay at home and take care of him. The vicar is a bit creepy, actually, and his behaviour is sometimes quite disturbing.
There is one eligible bachelor in the neighbourhood, a young doctor, and the narrative explores the relationships the sisters have with him. There is also a Heathcliff-like character, rough around the edges, a drinker and womaniser, who gets involved with the sisters. Not a lot else happens in the book and the plot moves at a glacial pace as the sisters’ personalities are slowly revealed and their psychological workings are delved into. It sounds rather dull, but I found the pages zipping long because the writing is so gripping. Here is one of the characters, drink driving:
Morfe Fair was over and the farmers were going home.
A broken, straggling traffic was on the roads from dale to dale. There were men who went gaily in spring carts and in wagons. There were men on horseback and on foot who drove their sheep and their cattle before them.
A train of three were going slowly up Garthdale, with much lingering to gather together and rally the weary and bewildered flocks.
Into this train there burst, rocking at full gallop, a trap drawn by Greatorex’s terrified and indignant mare. Daisy was not driven by Greatorex, for the reins were slack in his dropped hands, she was urged, whipped up, and maddened to her relentless speed. Her open nostrils drank the wind of her going.
Greatorex’s face flamed and his eyes were brilliant. They declared a furious ecstasy. Ever and again he rose and struggled to stand upright and recover his grip of the reins. Ever and again he was pitched backward on to the seat where he swayed, perilously, with the swaying of the trap.
Behind him, in the bottom of the trap, two young calves, netted in, pushed up their melancholy eyes and innocent noses through the mesh. Hurled against each other, flung rhythmically from side to side, they shared the blind trouble of the man and the torment of the mare.
For the first two miles out of Morfe the trap charged, scattering men and beasts before it and taking the curves of the road at a tangent. With the third mile the pace slackened. The mare had slaked her thirst for the wind of her going and Greatorex’s fury was appeased. At the risk of pitching forward over the step he succeeded in gathering up the reins as they neared the dangerous descent to Garthdale.
He had now dropped from the violence of his ecstasy into a dream-like state in which he was borne swaying on a vague, interminable road that overhung, giddily, the bottomless pit and was flanked by hills that loomed and reeled, that oppressed him with their horrible immensity.
He passed the bridge, the church, the Vicarage, the schoolhouse with its beckoning tree, and by the mercy of heaven he was unaware of them.
At the turn of the road, On Upthorne hill, the mare, utterly sobered by the gradient, bowed her head and went with slow, wise feet, taking care of the trap and of her master.
As for Greatorex, he had ceased to struggle. And at the door of his house his servant Maggie received him in her arms.
There is also a good deal of dialect in the book, à la Wuthering Heights, and I am not sure this worked very well because I had to slow right down and read each word phonetically to make any sense of it. Mercifully, the characters who spoke in dialect were succinct and not great talkers. I do not know how a writer can convey the ‘otherness’ of a character without resorting to dialect, but I always shudder when I see it. Also, I thought the narrative sagged a bit in the middle of the book and became repetitive here and there, but it soon picked up pace and galloped off in another direction. The chapters are short and the focus kept changing, so that gradually, a picture of the whole was built from fragments, and I found that eminently satisfying.
I especially liked the way Sinclair manipulates the reader’s feelings with her slow reveal of the characters’ true natures. The people I thought were ‘nice’ turned out to be anything but, and the people I thought were a bit hopeless turned out to have hidden reserves of strength and perseverance. The three sisters are so beautifully written; they really got under my skin and even after finishing the book I am still thinking about them.
Sinclair managed to capture the pre-war zeitgeist of the early 1900s in a surprisingly realistic manner. The Cartaret sisters are nominally under the thumb of their would-be tyrannical father, but they do not take him seriously. Each has her own strategy for dealing with his controlling ways, and when the chips are down they do what they want to anyway, despite his huffing and puffing. The sisters felt real to me, even if their frustrations and desires were couched in alienating terms such as, ‘she needs to be married or she will go mad’. Because the book was published in 1914 there is a fair bit of coded language and you have to read between the lines sometimes. Sexual desire is the unspoken thing at the very heart of the narrative, and relationships did not always work out the way I expected.
Sinclair was born in 1863. She had only one year of formal education, but she was an acclaimed author and well-connected in literary circles, both in England and America. She was thought to be the pre-eminent woman writer of her day, before the advent of Virginia Woolf, that is. Sinclair was a suffragist and a feminist and her writing reflects her social interests. She was the youngest of six children, and her parents separated due to her father’s alcoholism and failed business ventures. She nursed four of her older brothers who had heart disease and died, and then settled down to earn an income as a professional writer in order to support herself and her mother. She had Parkinson’s disease in later life and withdrew from the public sphere. She died in 1946.
Clearly, there is much to admire about Mary Amelia St. Clair, and I look forward to reading more of her writing. She was also a respected critic, and was, in fact, the person who coined the term ‘stream of consciousness’ when writing about Dorothy Richardson’s sequence novel, Pilgrimage, which is comprised of thirteen highly autobiographical ‘chapters’. I have started reading the first in the series, Pointed Roofs, and I am in love with Richardson’s writing. Disappointingly, this is the only book I can find in the series that is available as an eBook, so I will probably have to buy them all. They were published by Virago in four volumes in the 70s and 80s. There is just no end to the list of books I ‘need’ to buy in order to read them…
Sinclair’s works at Gutenberg and Amazon.