Reading with a Theme: Loyalty Between Sisters

Serendipity is a wondrous thing. I had no intention of reading about adultery and love triangles involving two sisters, but I somehow ended up with two books on the topic and a TV adaptation of the life and loves of the Bloomsbury Group.


Rosamond Lehmann: The Echoing Grove

Rosamond Lehmann in her youth, from the Frances Partridge archive, The Guardian.
Rosamond Lehmann in her youth, from the Frances Partridge archive, The Guardian.

Rosamond herself was linked to the Bloomsbury Group, part of the younger generation gravitating around it. Her brother John managed the Woolf’s Hogarth Press for many years, Virginia Woolf rather admired her books and invited her to dinner, so it’s not surprising that she later published a photographic memoir of many of her illustrious friends (including Cecil Day-Lewis. This is what Woolf has to say about Lehmann’s second novel A Note in Music

I am reading Lehmann with some interest and admiration – she has a clear, hard mind, beating up now and again into poetry… She has all the gifts that I lack: can give story & development & character & so on.

This book was originally published in 1953 and is most likely based on the unhappy love triangle with the married poet Cecil Day Lewis (who then left both Rosamond and his wife for the actress Jill Balcon who became his second wife – and continued to have many other affairs). Even more tragically, Lehmann lost her own daughter in 1958 (after this novel was published), so this brings an added poignancy to the description of the grief at the death of a child within its pages.

echoinggroveIt is the story of two sisters, Madeleine and Dinah, who love the same man, Rickie Masters (talk about a heavy metaphorical surname!) Madeleine is married to him, Dinah was his lover for a time.

It is not an easy book to read, not just because of the strong emotions evoked (with illnesses, threats, suicide attempts and melodrama galore), but because of the shifting timeframes. Such a contrast to the timelines alternating so neatly nowadays, marked with dates to avoid any possible confusion to the reader!

This novel moves from one POV to another, one moment in time to another with no qualms and no apologies. Yes, it does get confusing at times and I had to keep turning back to see what had been referenced earlier and when it took place.  But after a while I just surrendered myself to the cascade of destructive emotions and guilt trips. It’s a deliberate device, mirroring the jumble of memories and feelings we carry with us at all times, but it also gives us a fully rounded picture of a love triangle (or more than a triangle at times). We see each character through the eyes of everyone else and therefore end up condemning no one. This is a story that leaves no one happy or unscarred and where no one is an out-and-out scoundrel, merely weak.

However, it’s also a very English tale of passion, so we see very little of the drama happening in ‘real time’ or ‘onstage’. Most often, it is being recounted by the characters in (often endless) conversations. An interesting choice, which brings a running commentary to each of the events. The conversations themselves are more like monologues – telling the reader so much, but not really helping the characters to communicate. There’s a deadening of the soul at work there, which comes both as a relief and a regret.

For an excellent additional review of the book, see here.

drownedTherese Bohman: Drowned (transl. by Marlaine Delargy)

By contrast, this book set in rural Sweden, and has a very clear timeline: summer and late autumn, before and after a tragic event. The storyline is so simple, the reader may feel like it’s been done before, but it’s all about the telling.

Marina is spending the summer with her sister Stella, who lives with her older partner, successful writer Gabriel, in a romantic ramshackle old house in rural Sweden. Marina is entranced by the surroundings and falls for the charms of the charismatic but unpredictable Gabriel. This has predictably dire consequences, but the full extent is only gradually revealed.

The language is lush, as are the descriptions of landscapes and plants and of the old house they all live in. It all creates a dream-like atmosphere, almost soporific, which is perhaps what both Stella and Marina are doing – curiously passive, lulling themselves to sleep, deliberately closing their eyes to what they don’t want to see.

Those expecting a suspense novel or pyschological thriller will be disappointed at the slow pace and lengthy descriptions, but it is really all about close observation, pathetic fallacy (allowing nature and the weather to mirror our emotions) and the spaces between words. And if you want likeable characters, be warned that this is about the innate selfishness of all humans.

Virginia Woolf and Clive Bell on the beach in 1909, from
Virginia Woolf and Clive Bell on the beach in 1909, from

Life in Squares’ 3 part TV series on BBC 2

After the birth of Vanessa and Clive Bell’s first son, it is true that there was a flirtation between Virginia Wool and her brother-in-law. It was more prolonged and hurtful to all concerned than we were shown in the TV mini-series, but it began out of love towards Nessa. Both Virginia and Clive felt neglected by their beloved Nessa, who was one of those radiant and devoted Earth Mothers. Their flirtation was initially designed to get her attention back, but Virginia also felt flattered by Clive’s interest in her writing. As for Clive, he clearly wanted to take it further physically, but Virginia was never too keen. Their Bloomsbury friends disapproved of this turn of events – free love was all very fine, but some things went just too far. And it changed the relationship between the two sisters forever. But the great power of ‘Bloomsbury’ was that all could be forgiven, if not forgotten, that most things could be discussed (‘to death’ even) and that their friendship endured through affairs, marriages, deaths and heartbreak.

I can understand in a way what attracts men to the sisters of the women they have married. They seemingly offer them a second chance at happiness. They bear enough resemblance to their wives that it reminds them of those traits once considered lovable, but they are different enough that it makes the men feel that with that new person they could be happy, they could be understood, they could be their best version of themselves.

What attracts the sisters to these husbands is unfathomable to me, as I have no sister myself and know nothing of sibling rivalry. However, I can imagine that the betrayal by your sister (your flesh and blood) must feel even worse than being betrayed by a partner (essentially, a stranger, no matter how much-loved).

18 thoughts on “Reading with a Theme: Loyalty Between Sisters”

  1. How interesting, Marina Sofia, that you have three such different stories of sibling relationships. And what especially interests me is that they’re from different cultures. What a fascinating way to look at the sister bond, what impacts it, and what holds it together, if anything does. Thanks for sharing these.

  2. Three great takes on siblings .I just got round to watch life in squares this morning enjoyed it still very stylish take in the time but enjoyed it

  3. Goodness this is family drama ~ I enjoyed your review Marina and I do understand the dangerous attraction of in laws but I can imagine the consequences will be harsh and will strain family relationships ~

    1. I’m still fascinated by the coincidences – when I start reading a book and then so many other things congregate around the same theme. It must be like car makes: once you buy a certain model, you start seeing it everywhere…

  4. I really like your themed posts, Marina – a good way to compare/contrast and make connections. I missed Life in Squares so will have to catch up with it on the iPlayer.

    ‘Lush’ is the word for Drowned, all those descriptions of the hot, heady days of summer. I don’t usually like psychological thrillers, but the measured pace of this one drew me into the story. Great summary.

  5. I like that these have a theme. I’ve only read two Rosamond Lehmann novels so far – she’s terrific. I’m glad I’ve already got The Echoing Grove.
    I really like the sound of the Swedish novel.

  6. “drowned” is one of the books I’ve chosen to read for Women in Translation Month. I have to chuckle, though, at the thought of a Swedish heatwave while enduring this New Orleans summer.

  7. I’m not too keen on books with love triangles. Someone doesn’t manage to make up his/her mind and all I think about is “make a decision and put us out of our misery”. Not too charitable, I know.

    I agree with your last paragraph. I think nobody’s stupid enough to imagine their partner will never betray them. It might happen simply because they fall in love with someone else.
    But being betrayed by your sibling is not something you have in a corner of your mind. The blow must be very hard to take.

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