Literary Sisters, Installment One: Why CAN’T Sisters Be Friends (or, must every sister relationship be dysfunctional?)

This post inaugurates a new series—Literary Sisters—giving me a chance to reflect (rather randomly) upon some of the great sister pairings from literary classics.  And what better way to start than with my favorite sisters of all time, Jane and Elizabeth Bennet from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.

Why Jane and Lizzy?  Well, I will admit they remind me (strikingly) of myself and my own sister.  But narcissism aside, the way the Bennet sisters are portrayed by Austen—as caring, supportive, best-friends—offers a refreshing change from a large number sister depictions I’ve read more recently.  You know the type—bitchy sisters, sisters who steal each other’s boyfriends, sisters who are rivals first and fellow-family-members second (or not at all).

Now I understand there are many unpleasant sister relationships in the real world (and I thank Divine Providence daily that I do not have one) but for HEAVEN’S SAKE, I refuse to believe they represent the majority.  “Nasty” certainly doesn’t describe most of the sisters I meet as I move through life.  The majority of sisters I come in contact with love each other to death.  They would lend their sister their last dollar, or give their sister a kidney if she needed it.  And they are far more likely to drive to their sister’s boyfriend’s house and kick his butt for dumping sis than they are to steal their sister’s fellow (“do you think anything might tempt me to accept the man who has ruined, perhaps forever, the happiness of a most beloved sister?”).  Certainly sisters fight (and those fights can be wicked, as they poke at every childhood sore), and yes sisters can sabotage each other occasionally, but most of the time they play on the same team.  Why then do writers (or perhaps it is publishers—after all they buy the manuscripts) assume only dysfunctional sister relationships are interesting to readers?

It’s the rule of conflict with a capital “C.”  Conflict is essential in fiction, that cannot be denied.  And nice is considered dull.  But there is no rule (none, I checked the rule book for writing good novels) that says the central conflict in a novel involving sisters has to be between those sisters.  It is possible to write a compelling “sisters versus the world” book.  Or a book in which the main characters are sisters and each face independent difficulties.  I would certainly argue that Pride and Prejudice is gripping and has conflict enough without Jane and Lizzy at each other’s throats.  I’ve read the book upwards of a dozen times and I am not tired of it yet. 

While Pride and Prejudice is not alone in offering a positive portrayal of sisterhood, there is room on the bookshelf for a few more books celebrating sisters as “comforter in chief,” in times of trouble and “celebrant in chief” in times of triumph.  And it is possible to write such books without whitewashing or over-simplifying the complex relationship between female siblings.

Why do I care so much?  Why do I pine for more books which, like Pride and Prejudice, give us positive models of sister relationships?  Because just as fiction imitates life, life imitates fiction (or rather culture in general). 

When our culture disproportionately depicts sister relationships that are riven by conflict or that are dysfunctional as they are daily lived, we imply that such relationships are the norm.  When something becomes normative we may, unwittingly, excuse people from trying to make bad behavior better.  Frankly, if (or when, because my kids sure aren’t perfect) I see my daughters behaving as some sets of sisters in books do, I will punish them and punish them severely.  I ask them to be Lizzy and Jane—to tease each other with love, to worry when they see each other looking pale, and to bust Mr. Darcy’s chops if he blights their sister’s hopes.  And in my library I keep a separate copy of Austen’s work for each, inscribed with an expression of my hope that they will find not only entertainment between the pages, but elucidation of what sisters should be.  After all, Elinor and Marianne Dashwood aren’t bad examples either.

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