I don’t have a sister and I never really wanted one. People have told me that older sisters can be bossy and younger ones sometimes behave in a tetchy and clingy way.
Of course, these stereotypes are not real and they are perhaps often fuelled by sibling rivalry. What about the older sister who fights your battles in the playground, or the younger one who is a calming influence and offers sound advice?
A sister could be really symbiotic, useful, fun, grounding: a friend who shares your history and biology.
So, having no sister of my own, and being confused by what friends who have sisters say – some love them and some don’t – I turn to literature to find answers. Am I missing out by not having a sister? Surprisingly, there are few role models for me to use as evidence in my search to answer my question. Would I have benefited from a sister and which one would I like to have had?
My first experience of sisters were Cinderella’s two ugly ones. The moral is that you have to be either a meek and pretty subservient heroine or a bossy, unprepossessing villain. These jealous and ugly broads bully in twos and have to cut their feet to bits to get a man!
That’s an ideal lesson for a little girl: judge women only by looks and fear all other women: they are your rivals in the dating game. I moved away from this idea before my sixth birthday.
Like many little girls, I read books like some people eat sweets or hang around in gangs. The appetite for female role models was insatiable but what could I feed it with? The Railway Children gave me no answers, nor the Famous Five, nor Katy and Clover Carr.
I didn’t want to be sister to any of those boring, predictable girls. So the March sisters beckoned: four Little Women, perfect stereotypes which could have come from a Hargreaves book: Miss Sensible, Miss Creative, Miss Prettily Vacuous and Little Miss Martyr. I have to admit, I enjoyed the book because there was precious little else around. Jo March can just about hack it as a role model when you’re nine.
At thirteen years old, I met the Bennets. I think they were solely responsible for my dislike of Austen, which has endured ever since. Don’t get me wrong; she’s a great writer and I so wish I liked her but I couldn’t care less about all those sisters whose conversation was about dancing at balls and batting eyelids at boys and marriage and money. Pride and Prejudice is a great classic, but the Bennets were never going to be my sisters.
Two years on and I found an interesting pair of Shakespeare’s sisters. Bianca the meek and Katherine the shrew, whose roles change after marriage, one newly assertive and one newly tamed. Depending on interpretation, of course; I have seen the scene where Katherine puts her hand beneath Petruchio’s foot ‘to do him ease’ done in some clever ways, suggesting a range of meanings.
However, I have no interest in subservience in any form and the moral is don’t marry the meek pretty one; she may turn into the shrew. Tame the feisty one instead? I move on.
Trust Angela Carter to give you some good girls to get your teeth into. Dora and Nora Chance, born out of wedlock, with a mad actor for a Dad. Two sisters who bond, who sing and dance through laughter and sadness, are great examples of sisters in literature. I’d have been happy having either of them in my family.
The same goes for The Color Purple: Celie and Nettie are close, supportive sisters, although their closeness is treated with suspicion and jealousy by the patriarchal Mister and they are separated as girls and don’t meet again for over thirty years. The real soul sister act in Walker’s novel is found in Celie’s relationship with the independent and talented Shug Avery. Now there’s a role model!
Examples of brothers bounce from the pages in literature: fighting, feuding, finding out dark secrets. From the wonderful Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov to the well-intentioned but often misinterpreted stereotypes of Russell’s Blood Brothers; Maupassant’s Pierre et Jean; Rowling’s The Tale of Three Brothers, Munro’s Monsieur Les Deux Chapeaux; Miller’s Death of a Salesman: examples of exciting novels and plays about men’s fraternal exploits abound. It must be great to have a brother!
I believe we often select our own spiritual siblings and I know many women and men whom I consider as family, so I don’t have a strong desire to invent a secret sister any more.
To be honest, literature hasn’t helped me much in my quest to discover whether I’m missing out or not. All it has done is to offer me a range of examples of sisters, most of whom I’d probably prefer not to have had. This leads me to conclude that there is perhaps a niche in the market here for new books about women who have strong, interesting and productive relationships and who share one or more parents.
That’s started me thinking…