They Were Sisters by Dorothy Whipple – Book Review

Blurb from Goodreads

Three sisters marry very different men and the choices they make determine whether they will flourish, be tamed or be repressed.

Lucy’s husband is her beloved companion;

Vera’s husband bores her and she turns elsewhere;

And Charlotte’s husband is a bully who turns a high-spirited naive young girl into a deeply unhappy woman.

Content warning

Please be aware that this book features a domestic abuse stroyline which I discuss in my review. If this is triggering for you read with caution.

My Review

Dorothy Whipple was an amazing writer.

Her characterisations are second to none.

Every character, even the minor ones, were written with such exquisite detail.

And the story as it unfolded…oh this book absolutely floored me. As this is a book published by Persephone books it did not have a blurb on the back so I did not know what it was about when I picked it up in the library. I just knew that I had enjoyed Someone at a Distance by the same author and I had to read more of her writings.

“It seems as if when we love people and they fall short, we retaliate by falling shorter ourselves. Children are like that. Adults have a fearful responsibility. When they fail to live up to what children expect of them, the children give up themselves. So each generation keeps failing the next.”

They Were Sisters predominantly follows the married lives of three sisters in the thirties and how each marriage varies wildly.

What I was taken aback by when reading this book was the domestic abuse storyline. I certainly didn’t expect it in a book published initially in the 1940s. I guess I like to think that feminism and feminist writing is a modern thing but both this book and a recent non-fiction work I read, A Notable Woman have made it painfully clear that I am an idiot in thinking like this!

I have to describe the handling of the domestic abuse storyline.

It was so painful, the writing so clear and so visceral.

The young girl falls madly and passionately in love with a strong over-bearing sort of man and ignores the words of her sisters that he isn’t a suitable match because they can’t understand her, they don’t understand him and they don’t understand love.

And what is chilling is how this just so simply happened. In this instance, this beautiful, innocent girl opened her young heart to the wrong person and he ensnared her before she even realised what was going on. She wasn’t stupid, she wasn’t deserving of this… she was just unlucky in love. That’s a bit too blasé to simply say ‘unlucky in love’ but you get the idea. It could so easily have been anyone else who fell to this man’s charms.

And he never once raised a fist to her. Never once a black eye… but what did happen was so cold, so callous.

I think this was at times the scariest thing I ever read.

Reading about emotional abuse is profoundly terrifying.

How any person can become so dominated by another; how they are made to feel weak, powerless. How they live for the days that he is happy, that they can please him…but they live constantly on edge.

The tension was palpable.

It just burst off the pages at me.

There was a beautiful description in the novel of how this woman’s spirit was being ebbed away over the years. Imagine a writer with an ink pen: the writer lets a blob of ink fall over a hapless fly; the fly has to somehow clean the ink off its wings before it can fly again so they try to do this by flapping their wings and letting the ink fall off them. But just when they are about to take flight again the writer lets another blob of ink fall on them and the cleaning process starts all over again except this time the fly is that bit more tired, it takes longer to get to that point where they are about to fly… and then as before, another blob of ink is let fall all over their wings and they remain flightless. If this keeps reoccurring there is going to come a point that it gets too much; the battle too long, the fight too hard. Until the day that a blob is let fall on their wings and they don’t even move. They just lay there; battered, bruised and broken.

That was how domestic abuse was described. If you have to spend your life fighting, every day pushed to the brink… there is going to come a point that you are going to be defeated. That they win.

But why did this character not leave? She had children, she was dependent. And sadly she still thought that this was love; he had such huge psychological power over her… and she had what you could call a misguided sense of pride too. Who wants to be thought of as being foolish or naïve or similar for having gotten into a situation such as that?

Domestic abuse certainly was not discussed much back when this novel was originally published and even today people can judge the victims because it can seem almost unfathomable why anyone would choose to remain.

I think the simplest thing to say is no one ever truly knows what is going on inside someone else’s head, what happens behind their closed doors, how abusers can have such psychological and emotional power over their victims.

That is what is wonderful about this book. There is no judgment cast. The two other sisters knew that their sister was in a bad situation but they could not do anything about it because she never spoke about it with them. Everyone was so utterly helpless. Even the children reared within the family home were so altered, their childhoods so tarnished….

I don’t want to give away the plot but it was just earth-shatteringly brilliantly written. So I guess the moral of the story is if you ever find yourself in a situation where someone is abusing you in whatever manner… just talk. Tell someone. It’s the first step to getting out. And it is not the victim’s fault that they have ended up in this situation.

I recently read Amy Schumer’s book The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo and she related a story about an abusive relationship that she found herself in. Amy Schumer… Confident, independent, in control, a thoroughly modern woman… you’d never think she would be a victim right??? What she bravely showed us in her book was that domestic abuse can happen to anyone. No one is immune.

I know I have completely gone off on a tangent from the other plot lines within this truly stunningly written book but that is what this book has done to me. It has given me such pause for thought and such insight into a life and a world that I am fortunate to know nothing about. Books like this one are hugely important in how they open our eyes and our hearts to that which we do not either know or understand.

There are other themes in this book too, as the book follows not one but three marriages, and although some aspects of the storyline are of their time, the quality of the writing certainly isn’t. Simply put, the writing is timeless and in just the space of two books, Dorothy Whipple has become one of my all-time favourite authors.

11 thoughts on “They Were Sisters by Dorothy Whipple – Book Review

  1. Amazing review, Emer! I’ve never heard of this author and I probably would’ve skipped right on by this book if I ever came across it in the library or store. But I’m very intrigued by it. It sounds like an intensely emotional read but eye-opening and thought-provoking as well. Will definitely keep an eye out for it!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I have never heard of this one but it does sound like a very good read, even though I’m sure it is heartbreaking. Great review!

    Liked by 1 person

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