The Three Sisters by May Sinclair

The Three SistersI want to have a stern word with Virago Modern Classics – or, at least, whoever was in charge of cover design back in the 1980s. Normally pretty great, the choice of cover image for their reprint of May Sinclair’s 1914 novel The Three Sisters is pretty unforgivable. I’m going to give you a top tip, right from the start: this is not a novel about the Brontes.

It seems, to me, completely bizarre to put this famous painting on the front of a novel which is only very, very loosely inspired by the Bronte sisters – an ‘imaginative starting point’, as the blurb acknowledges. But we’ll forgive that and put it to one side. The similarities are that there are three sisters in a remote Yorkshire vicarage – that’s about it. They don’t have a brother or two deceased sisters; they aren’t writers; their personalities aren’t even that similar. And the vicar has lost three wives – variously to death and abandonment – and has settled into an angry, unwilling celibacy.

The sisters are Mary, Gwenda, and Alice Carteret. Gwenda is passionate and artistic, striding over the moors and wanting much more than the small community can offer her. Alice is considered weak by all, but has an iron core of determination – and not a little spitefulness. Mary is rather less easy to grasp on the page – starting off staid and dependable, and gradually getting rather less pleasant.

Into this world comes the one eligible man in the district – Dr Steven Rowcliffe. In turn – or, indeed, somewhat all at once – the sisters fall in love with him. He finds these attentions annoying and beguiling, depending which sister is under consideration: it is clearly Gwenda that has caught his eye, but he must cope with all three of them eyeing him as a prospective husband material.

Their father is firmly against any of them marrying anybody, though. He is fired by selfishness, cloaked in supposed holiness. Like most vicars in fiction, he sadly doesn’t come across very well. (Septimus Harding might be the only sympathetic clergyman I can remember, and also by far the closest to the real vicars I have known. Do better, novelists.) His faith and morality seems mostly to emerge in unkindness – such as making the maid Essy leave when she is discovered to be pregnant. It does, at least, lead to an amusingly handled scene where Essy tells her mother – who pretends astonishment, whereas she really ‘only wondered that she had not come four months ago’.

Despite a slightly stereotypical set up, The Three Sisters is really engaging. Sinclair was ahead of the curve, in terms of the psychology of romantic relationships, but – more importantly – she knows how to make the reader find the relationships between all the characters interesting, whether sister/sister, father/daughter, or maid/employer. The dialogues between Gwenda and her father remind me of Austen’s battle-of-wits exchanges, and the prose treads the line between beautifully descriptive and pulling-the-plot-forward extremely well. Sinclair was a very good writer.


Oh, but…

WHY the dialect and transcribed accent? This accounts for probably no more than one in eight pages, but it’s pretty unbearable when it comes. Only the working-class characters speak this way, in what I suppose is meant to be Yorkshire voices, but could equally be anything from Cornwall upwards. I can’t face typing out any of it, but here’s a photo of some of the dialogue…

The Three Sisters accent

Unsurprisingly, I skimmed most of this. Why not just write ‘she spoke with a heavy Yorkshire accent’, and leave it at that? But the rural/dialectical novel was running unchecked around 1900-1920, so Sinclair was only falling into the trap of her time. Suffice to say, if this had accounted for much more of the novel, I definitely wouldn’t have finished it.

But, if you can face with skimming over these pages, there is a lot to like in The Three Sisters – particularly in the second half, where the wheels start to fall off a bit. It’s a sensitive, often fairly wryly amusing, and very well crafted novel. Just don’t expect it to be about the Brontes.


Others who got Stuck into it:

A Girl Walks Into a Bookstore: “this book is a strange hybrid of Edwardian values and Victorian conventionality”.

Fleur Fisher (Beyond Eden Rock): “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.”

11 thoughts on “The Three Sisters by May Sinclair

  • May 9, 2017 at 9:09 am

    I love Sinclair’s “LIFE AND DEATH OF HARRIETT FREAN” but not read any of her other work.

  • May 9, 2017 at 12:02 pm

    Almost ALL my Virago Modern Classics’ covers fall short of the mark. They failed with Rebecca West’s (worst: The Fountain Overflows) and with Rosamond Lehmann’s (one of the worst: The Weather in the Streets). I try not to look at them when I pick one to reread. I suppose I could put plain covers on all of them!
    I remember a similar discussion on Rachel’s blog when she co-hosted a Virago reading marathon. It would be good to know who takes responsibility for the choice of paintings. So many to choose from!

  • May 9, 2017 at 12:16 pm

    The Life and Death of Harriet Frean is the only May Sinclair novel I have read. The cover art chosen for this does seem uncharacteristically odd – (1980s vmcs are usually great – modern ones not so much). I agree about Septimus Harding by the way.

    • May 9, 2017 at 1:01 pm

      I think HARRIETT FREAN has 2 letter T”s in HARRIETT–i do not know why but i have tried checking it with the MAY SINCLAIR SOCIETY.

  • May 9, 2017 at 1:02 pm

    Life and Death of Harriett Frean (London: Collins, 1922); (New York: Macmillan, 1922

  • May 9, 2017 at 1:03 pm

    Life and Death of Harriett Frean (London: Collins, 1922); (New York: Macmillan, 1922

  • May 9, 2017 at 2:30 pm

    What an unfortunate cover choice, indeed! The vicar in Winifred Peck’s “Bewildering Cares” is OK, too.

  • May 9, 2017 at 9:16 pm

    I totally agree that the cover art should be more carefully chosen when classic paintings are being used. In particular, I wish publishers wouldn’t use the SAME picture for different titles…but they do sometimes.

    The story does sound interesting, even with the tricky dialect (one of my pet peeves too and as a lover of Dickens’ works, I confront it rather often)

    If you want to read a book with a sympathetic vicar, try Elizabeth Goudge’s The Rosemary Tree. I found John Wentworth to be quite charming and adorable. Not quite up to Septimus’ level (no imaginary violoncello playing) but pretty sweet.

  • May 10, 2017 at 9:56 am

    No, that’s a very silly choice for the cover art – which is a shame, because I usually like the Virago classic art covers. And I’m with you on the dialogue – it sends me screaming off to the hills!!

  • May 10, 2017 at 11:59 am

    I agree about the dialect — it always puts me off, and I tend to skim those sections. I think the only book with dialect I’ve actually liked was Their Eyes Were Watching God — but it’s a short novel, and only about a third of it is in dialect. I was able to get used to it pretty quickly and it wasn’t a difficult read.

    And you’re right about the covers — some are just beautiful, and others really seem to miss the mark. I looked up some of the covers mentioned in the comments and The Fountain Overflows seems like a huge miss — she looks like she’s going to the opera, and doesn’t seem to belong to the story at all!

  • May 12, 2017 at 4:46 pm

    As a rule, I don’t much like dialect either. Except in Thomas Hardy’s novels, because it’s so brilliantly done it feels quite natural.

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