Review: The Three Sisters, May Sinclair

I have distinctly mixed feelings about the cover to this book.  On the one hand, it points to the book’s inspiration, but on the other it threatens to overshadow the plot itself.  Despite the fact that Anne, Emily and Charlotte gaze blankly out, they are not the titular Three Sisters.  May Sinclair has taken the detail of the Brontë family’s isolated situation and transmuted it into a story of her own.  Her characters are Mary, Gwenda and Alice Cartaret, living with their dictatorial vicar father in the wilds of Garthdale.  Rather than the early Victorian era, Sinclair has brought the action forward to then-contemporary 1913. However, the situation for women is little different.  The Three Sisters is an exercise in female frustration; with the creative release which poured from the Brontë women absent, the Cartaret sisters have no escape from the vicarage’s suffocating atmosphere.  The arrival of the new village doctor, the area’s only eligible man, catches the attention of all three in different ways as each tries to claw her towards liberation.

The parallels between each of the Cartarets and their Brontë counterparts are easy to see.  Sinclair introduces Mary as the dutiful daughter, ‘shorter than her sisters, but […] the one that had the colour.  And with it a stillness that was not theirs’.  Charlotte then.  Gwenda is introduced while reading, ‘the tallest and the darkest of the three.  Her face followed the type obscurely, and vividly and emphatically it left it.’  Later Sinclair also notes that Gwenda’s ‘very supineness was alive.  It had distinction, the savage grace of a creature utterly abandoned to a sane fatigue’.  She is the Emily of the story.  Alice has a looser relationship with her Brontë original, described as ‘slender and small boned’, the delicate one.  And given that The Three Sisters was first published in 1914, it is unsurprising that Sinclair’s vision of the Brontës was heavily influenced by the falsehoods and fictions fabricated by Mrs Gaskell.

Still, the Brontës do indeed have little to do with the novel’s plot and Sinclair plays free and easy with the family circumstances.  The Cartarets have no wastrel brother, nor indeed any other siblings who died in infancy.  They have only their authoritarian father.  His first wife was their mother, who passed away giving birth to Alice.  Then there was ‘Mamma’, who ‘turned into a nervous invalid on his hands before she died of that obscure internal trouble which he had so wisely and patiently ignored.’  Then there was Robina, known to the girls as ‘Mummy’, who told him some home truths and left after five years of marriage, sending bright and cheery messages of support back to his daughters while pleading with the vicar for a divorce.  Mr Cartaret silently longs for Robina’s death, her unfaithfulness having ‘condemned him to a celibacy for which, as she knew, he was utterly unsuited’.  It is Mr Cartaret’s sexual frustration which is the undercurrent to his conduct towards his daughters and indeed his loathing for all womankind.

Mr Cartaret’s vitriol is particularly focused on youngest daughter Alice, she who is responsible for her mother’s death, who drew the attention of men at his previous parish and so he has moved his family out to Garthdale, where there will be nobody for her to attract.  In despair at her situation, Alice falls ill and young Dr Steven Rowcliffe is eventually summoned to attend her.  Each sister responds to the young doctor differently and yet each becomes transfixed by him.  Sinclair portrays powerfully how it is not about Rowcliffe as a man but rather about the sisters’ stifling situation.  When there is only one possible outlet, it becomes all-consuming.  For Rowcliffe, it is the free-spirited Gwenda who catches his eye but while the novel hinges on a marriage plot, this is not a love story.

The Three Sisters is a gloomy story that keeps its eyes firmly on all that is grim and grey and grubby about Yorkshire.  What was more confusing was the transcribed dialect and accents of the Yorkshire characters, which as a reader came across as more akin to Birmingham.  It was difficult to take these characters seriously when one had to concentrate carefully to keep track of what they were actually saying.  Essy the maid is thrown out of the vicarage for being pregnant and I had a feeling that her character should have seemed more interesting – she has fallen victim to the passion which the Cartaret sisters crave – but yet she could only ever be a figure of ridicule.

Of the three sisters, it is Gwenda who is the most sympathetic.  Her compassion for Alice makes her hesitant to accept the offer of love from Steven, it makes her willing to sacrifice her own happiness.  Alice’s hysteria makes her a difficult character to warm to and her inability to look after herself irritated me even while her father’s very particular cruelty made me feel so sorry for her.  For the first section of the novel, Mary seems so very sweet and good, carrying out parish duties and being the ‘good’ daughter and sister.  When we realise what Mary is capable of, it is too late. Yet via Robina, Sinclair warns us that we should not have been surprised.

The Three Sisters is understated but truly savage.  For all that they have grown up together, lived together, shared blood, these women cannot rely on each other’s loyalty.  The viciousness with which Alice is picked apart and then harangued for being in tatters was truly affecting.  Throughout, Sinclair maintains a wry style of narration, never outright condemning her characters but quietly illustrating how they grind each other down.  I hoped so much for some kind of happy conclusion and realised only belatedly that none would be forthcoming.

Charlotte Brontë’s wedding bonnet

It was interesting to reflect on the Cartarets in connection with their Brontë counterparts.  Sinclair had a strong interest in psychology and it was obviously this which she had responded to while researching a non-fiction book on the Brontës.  Neither Charlotte, Emily or Anne ever seem to have been particularly driven towards finding husbands.  Charlotte is known to have rejected three different suitors before finally, after protracted consideration, deciding to marry Arthur Bell Nicholls.  Emily and Anne have no known suitors, although biographers have long tried to cook up a supposed flirtation that Anne had with William Weightman, one of her father’s curates.  The way in which all three sisters returned like homing birds to Haworth with such regularity suggest that it was not the nightmare situation imagined by Sinclair.  When they struggled, it seemed to be a result of the loneliness and lack of self-expression typical to the low-status governess roles to which they were confined.  They were treated with contempt by employers, not by family.

The Three Sisters depicts three women who want space of their own with Sinclair describing the lengths gone to, and the compromises and sacrifices made in the search of this.  Sinclair suggests that marriage is less of a prize than earlier writers might have had it, that it is a trap very difficult to escape once entered into with the wrong partner.  Sinclair is a thought-provoking novelist, her characters are compelling and her writing is richly descriptive.  She has taken one point of inspiration and made something entirely her own, a story well worth the reading and one that lingers long in the mind.  Unlike the Brontës, Sinclair makes her point quietly; this is a novel with few major incidents, but which nonetheless makes a bold statement about the situation of women.


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The Three Sisters by May Sinclair
Published by Virago on January 1st 1970
Pages: 388
ISBN: 0860682439

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4 thoughts on “Review: The Three Sisters, May Sinclair

  1. This sounds interesting in how it plays with the image of the famous sisters, while in going in quite different directions to explore women’s lives in another era … the cover does seem to promise a biographical novel though! A bit misleading, for sure.

    1. I know – I’ve read a few other reviews that disagreed with the use of the cover. I kind of get why – you read the first few pages and the reference is hard to miss, it’s just a completely separate piece of work apart from that. She wrote it right after writing a biography of the Brontes so I guess she just wanted to play around with the idea. It’s worth reading, not exactly uplifting though …

  2. I’m loving this series of Brontë-inspired books! 😀 Sure, this one sounds like it takes more creative liberties than most (to put it kindly), but it still sounds fantastic. I’ll keep my eye out for a copy at my local secondhand bookstore, thanks so much for sharing your thoughts!

    1. It’s been so much fun to go Brontë again! I think this was just taking one spark of an idea off in a really interesting direction – the choice of cover was maybe pushing the connection a little. I did find it an interesting read though, would be really interested to hear someone else’s thoughts 🙂

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