Shena Mackay’s outstanding anthology, Such Devoted Sisters, consists of 21 sisterly stories, all written by women, much more thoughtfully than the title suggests. Since this is a relationship which doesn’t change, the book isn’t chronologically arranged, and the earliest piece, Christina Rossetti’s ‘Goblin Market’, comes last of all. Placed there, it seems like a magical explanation of all that goes before.
Christina Rossetti herself said that her poem was not to be taken as an allegory. Her brother, Dante Gabriel, whose illustration shows the two sisters sleeping in each other’s arms, was fascinated by the intensity of feeling between them. Children are disturbed by the sexual jostling of the goblins and by the sinfulness of the delicious. Henry Morley, reviewing the poem in 1862, thought that the ‘gist’ of it was much the same as that of Swinburne’s ‘Dolores’ (‘Our Lady of Pain’). This was thought ridiculous, but was it? Laura has given way and gorged herself. She is sick unto death and knows that only more of the pernicious juice will cure her, but she is permitted to buy it only once. Lizzie has to brave the goblins’ sly animal ferocity and come home battered and torn, but smeared with ‘the fiery antidote’ which she has refused to swallow. ‘Hug me, kiss me, suck my juices ... Eat me, drink me, love me ... Laura, make much of me.’ Laura is not saved from experience so much as redeemed. What does Lizzie feel when Laura licks her clean? ‘For there is no friend like a sister.’ This, of course, is not a moral, it is a condition of life for the fortunate.
It seems, too, to be the key to this anthology, which could have been presented in quite a different way. Edna O’Brien’s small-town girl was fascinated, as a child, by the two grotesque Miss Connors, Miss Lucy and drunken Miss Amy. When she comes home on an awkward visit from England with her short-tempered husband, he makes their little boy return Miss Amy’s gift of sweeties from her coat-pocket. He has no way of knowing how much has been rejected. ‘By such choices we gradually become exiles until at last we are quite alone.’ In ‘My Sister Cherish’ the Grenadian writer Merle Collins describes the death of the youngest of the family, hydrocephalous since birth, much loved. The tragedy is not so much that Cherish died as that she had to die in hospital. And from Louisa May Alcott, Mackay has made the courageous choice of Beth’s last days. If we let ourselves read Alcott and Collins in the spirit in which they were written, we get to the very heart of loss.
Happiness is rare in these stories. Elizabeth Jolley’s ‘Five Acre Virgin’ stands almost alone, dissolving into You-Can’t-Take-It-With-You amiability when slapdash Mother finds a husband for her ample sister. There are, on the other hand, only two stories – Cynthia Rich’s ‘My Sister’s Marriage’ and Wajida Tabassum’s ‘Hand-me-Downs’ – about the jealous rivalry between sisters which seems to have been the ballad-makers’ staple. The strongest impression is of a heartening sense of alliance, although these women, writing about women, know that this is not a simple matter. Catherine, in Marjorie Barnard’s ‘Habit’, is, at 42, the younger of the Miss Bidens. She has her ‘chance’ when Angus, a newcomer to their New Zealand guest-house, asks her to marry him. But in the end she can’t face leaving her sister, and, worse still, dividing up the furniture. ‘ “It’s harder than anything is worth” ... Neither of them had considered Angus, nor did they now. She got out the bottle of ink, and the pen with the cherry wood handle, which they shared, and began the letter.’ Loyalty, destructive here, often takes unexpected forms. In the passages included from Cranford, Miss Jenkyns, the elder sister, has long ago destroyed Miss Matty’s happiness by dissuading her from marrying Mr Holbrook, who is ‘not enough of a gentleman’ and eats peas with a knife. But no one – certainly not Mrs Gaskell – ever suggests that Miss Jenkyns is not an essentially kind woman, and Miss Matty is proud of her, and could not carry on without that pride. Loyalty, however, is unhappily powerless sometimes. The Indian-born writer, Anjana Appachana, introduces an up-to-date Delhi family – the aunt is a doctor and an atheist – where the elder daughter is trapped in a hideous marriage. She confides only in her younger sister, who can’t bear the weight of what she hears. And yet her sacrifice helps nobody.
Claire Messud’s sympathetic first novel, When the World Was Steady, looks at some of the same cross-tensions. Mrs Simpson, inappropriately named Melody, is growing old, and possesses what D.H. Lawrence, an expert in such matters, called a ‘toad-like will’. She is eccentric, sociable and, owing to a surgeon’s error, breastless. Her grudge against life, however, isn’t this, but the lack of spirit and go in her elder daughter. Virginia, fiftyish, disappointed by some mysterious rejection, still lives at home and finds refuge in a Bible-reading circle. She looks after her erratic mother and quite often hates her. Her younger sister, Emmie, got away at the age of 20 by marrying a rich Australian. Mrs Simpson admires Emmie, who hardly ever writes, and yearns for her.
But at 47 Emmie finds, as Messud puts it, ‘the pin pulled out of her life’, when William, her husband, ditches her for her best friend. She has always devoutly believed that you make your own luck. Her advice to her daughter Portia is to ‘be sure that your life is your own.’ Perhaps in consequence Portia drops out of university, takes up with the son of an Italian labourer from Sydney’s outer suburbs, and changes her name to Pod. She is no consolation to her mother. Meantime, Virginia is told by her employer that she ‘needs a rest’. When she turns to the Church for reassurance, she chances on the vicar making love in the vestry to one of the congregation – ‘Philip Taylor, or was it Stephen Mills? The one with the glasses, anyhow.’
Both sisters are in shock, and both undertake pilgrimages of a kind. Emmie makes a trip to Bali, where Messud has scope for her gift of description. ‘The lake had glistened earlier, but now emanated darkness as though with the passage of the sun the spirits rose from its depth to skim across the surface.’ Virginia, for her part, is manoeuvred by Mrs Simpson into a journey to Skye, simply because the tiresome old woman wants to visit what is supposed to have been the family home. The rain streams down, the fish and chips are sodden. Mrs Simpson falls and breaks a leg.
We expect a resolution, but this is not what Messud has in mind. Neither of the sisters changes, or is changed. At the very end, at Pod’s wedding in Sydney, each of them celebrates a small personal triumph, shockingly unlike what we might have hoped for them. Messud is a deeply interesting young writer who has the perception to write about middle age. The trouble is that we can’t quite make out how seriously to take Emmie and Virginia. Emmie’s sense of betrayal, Virginia’s loss of faith, are both treated as light comedy, but seem to be worth something more than that.