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.

So, we are getting my son a puppy.  My son is the shy type and likes constant companionship so a dog seems like a perfect fit.  A boy and his dog. . .you know the stories (not Where the Red Fern Grows or stories like that—the HAPPY stories).

I phoned my sister to tell her the news.

“This is going to be his dog right?” she asked.  I sensed a certain skepticism.  Perhaps she didn’t think he could handle a dog at nine-years of age.

“Oh yes, we’ve talked about the responsibilities,” I babbled.  “He helped select the breed and we picked an ultimate people dog, a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel.”

“You’re missing my point,” she replied somewhat impatiently.  “How are you going to keep the dog from bonding with YOU?  You are such an Alpha.  You had better line up a trainer before the puppy even arrives.”

Wow. ‘A trainer for who?’ I was tempted to ask.  My son, the puppy, or me?  But the question would have been facetious.  As soon as the words were out of her mouth and bouncing off the satellite to my mobile phone I knew exactly what my sister meant, and was left wondering why I didn’t see it before.  I am a very “in charge” person.  Dogs are attracted to dominant people. . If this dog is really going to be my son’s dog we will need some advice on how to get it to bond with my son and see him as the pack leader.

No.  I am not going to continue blogging about dogs.  I am going to blog about sisters.  Because what this story really illustrates (you were wondering, admit it) is one of the driving themes behind my novel, The Sister Queens—our sisters act as mirrors for us; when we forget who we are or when we fool ourselves into thinking we are something we are not, they call us on it. Continue reading »

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