Review: Luisa Dillner’s The Complete Book Of Sisters

I maintain on this blog, and to all the people who ask me in bewilderment, that the importance of Pride and Prejudice- for me, that is- is the relationship between the females.  It is only fitting then that, as I was curiously reading Dillner’s book about sisterly affection, Pride and Prejudice should be mentioned multiple times- and a quote from Cassandra Austen should grace the dust jacket “She was the sun of my life, the gilder of every pleasure, the soother of every sorrow; I had not a thought concealed from her, and it is as if I had lost a part of myself.”

I have put off writing this review, as when I read it I was going through a somewhat-ridiculous-but-still-horrible argument with my sister.  I think that statement explains how personal this book felt to read.  Obviously, the argument has since been resolved, but it allowed me to reflect on how important sisters, or sisterly relationships with friends, are in a woman’s life.  I found this at Basement Books, Sydney, for $4.95 (and the Pride and Prejudice link was purely fluke!).

Divided into chapters of the different types of sisterly relationships, these categories are an interesting guide to just how varied sisters can be.  “A History of Sisters”, “Sisters as Rivals”, “Multiple Sisters”, “Fairy-tale Sisters”, “Criminal Sisters”, “Royal Sisters” are just several examples.  And the Bennet girls?  They are mentioned all over the shop.  From a brief mention of Pride and Prejudice and the different personalities of the girls in “A History of Sisters” to within “Beloved Sisters” where it says “There is rarely the perfect sisterhood in her novels that Jane came close to with Cassandra… In Pride and Prejudice there are five sisters, the relationship of the eldest two most likely to resemble Jane’s own relationship with her own sister.” There is also a mention of where the characters may have been developed from to make each sister, and the role that each girl had to fill in society.  The chapter also breezes over Elinor and Marianne from Sense and Sensibility.

Jane and Cassandra’s relationship is featured very heavily in the section “Beloved Sisters”, with a somewhat miserable note about the few remaining clues to their sisterhood that has remained: “It is precisely because Jane Austen’s best friend was her sister Cassandra that we know so little about one of the best-loved novelists in English history” she writes.  “Out of the estimated three thousand letters sent by Jane (mostly to her sister) only about 160 remain, many of them funny…” and it continues on in this reflective way for a beautiful nine pages.

Sisters are important.  My own sister and I fall into many of the categories in the book.  We can be rivals, we can be close and we fall into the “Brothers and Sisters” section.  The relationship between sisters is a constantly evolving/changing one, but it is constant and can never be escaped.  Pride and Prejudice shows us how sisters can break each others spirits, or hold them up- picking up the pieces when a Bingley rejects you, can be the source of bullying and ridicule (poor Mary!) or can reject a very favourable partner as they have “ruined, perhaps forever, the happiness of a most beloved sister”.  In the Regency era, a sisters actions also had a strong impact on your wellbeing- for instance, Lydia’s elopement with Wickham could have resulted in destitution for the other sisters who would have been unable to make favourable matches.  The reputation of each relied on the actions of the whole.  It is particularly telling then, that Elizabeth and Jane were close in the book- and that they tried to encourage good behaviour in their younger siblings.

Each chapter is divided from another with biographical, fictional or occassionally poetic segments that detail the personal relationships between sisters from other points of view. It’s a nice technique that ensures the book is easy reading, and doesn’t drag.  There are also mentions of popular female figures such as Anne Frank (and her sister Margot), the Williams sisters, Simone de Beauvoir, Carly Simon, the Bronte girls, Virginal Woolf and so on.  While the book might not be 100 per cent of an accurate portrayal of sibling relationships (in an anthropological sense) it is definitely a great gift book, and a cute glimpse at what is means to be and have a sister.

Whether you read this for the Pride and Prejudice mentions or not, be safe in the fact that you will be able to reflect upon not only the Bennet girls, but also on your own relationships, through the experiences of others.  Are you a sister?  Which Bennet sisters’ experience matches your own relationship?

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