This is the story of the three daughters of a clergyman, living lives that are terribly constrained, in a vicarage in a small town on the Yorkshire moors. You might think, particularly if you looked at the cover of the Virago edition, that those sisters were named Charlotte, Anne and Emily. But they weren’t.
These three sisters were named Mary, Gwenda and Alice, they lived in the early twentieth century, but the parallels that May Sinclair draws make it obvious that their lives were not so very different to the lives of the Bronte sisters nearly a century earlier.
At first I thought that it would be a simple story. Mary was the sensible, home-loving sister. Gwenda was the free-spirited sister, who loved to walk on the moors. And Alice was the wilful, headstrong youngest sister. I was inclined to draw parallels with Meg, Jo and Amy, but as the story developed I came to appreciate these three sisters for themselves. And to find out that they were more complex creatures than they had first appeared.
The vicar was a bitter man, whose faith had been twisted out of shape. His first wife had died giving birth to his third daughter, his second wife had been unable to cope with the hardness of her life and died, and his third wife had told him some home truths and left him. Left wifeless, and unable to marry again, he believed that his daughters should keep house, do good works in the parish and live lives that were beyond reproach.
But all three dreamed of other lives, of marriage, of children; and most of all they dreamed of escape.
When an eligible young man, a new doctor, arrives in the town, he draws the attention of all three sisters. One is so desperate for his attention that she makes herself physically ill; one is so fearful for that sister that she withdraws and leaves home, even though her own feelings run deep and are reciprocated; and one pushes another towards another man so that she can seize the prize.
But a prize seized – a relationship founded – like that may not bring happiness and security. Independence is hard to hang on to when you know that your family needs you. And a second choice, a less obvious choice, can sometimes be the right choice.
May Sinclair spins a compelling story, full of rich descriptions of people and places, and with a wonderful understanding of her characters and their relationships. Her writing was clear, lucid, and terribly, terribly readable. The three sisters and their world came to life, and I turned the pages quickly because I so wanted to find out what would happen, what would become of them.
There are echoes of Charlotte, Emily and Anne, but I thought more of Thomas Hardy – who I understand May Sinclair knew.
My understanding of the three sisters grew as the story progressed and more of their characters were revealed. I found a sister to love and admire, a sister to dislike, and a sister who made my feelings turn around completely several times. Their stories were in the foreground but I saw the authors concern about the position of women in society, in the world, in the background.
The characters and the stories of the three men – the vicar, the doctor and the farmer – are well developed, but they are secondary.
The only thing that didn’t quite work was the author’s attempt to catch the subconscious as well and the conscious thoughts of her characters. It felt awkward; it really didn’t work.
But as a whole the story worked: Mary, Gwenda and Alice spoke to me, and their stories speak profoundly for many of their generation. And that is what will stay with me.