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Sisters by Ada Cambridge – a bleak and cynical vision of marriage

May 20, 2020 14 comments

Sisters by Ada Cambridge (1904) Not available in French.

After reading The Three Miss Kings and A Humble Enterprise, I was ready for another feel-good novel by Ada Cambridge and randomly picked Sisters in my omnibus edition of Cambridge’s work. Forget about feel-good and fluffy novels, this one is bitter when the others are optimistic.

The book opens on sailor Guthrie Carey, who is on leave and taking his young wife Lily and their baby to their new house. They have to sail there and Lily dies during the crossing. He leaves the baby with a temporary nanny and comes back several months later to find a more stable home for his son. He doesn’t want to get married again, which rules out an easy way to find a new mother to his son.

This is when he gets acquainted with the Urquharts and the Pennycuicks, families who have been friends for a long time and live on neighbouring stations. Strong ties bind the two families and through the Urquhart, Guthrie and the reader meet with the four Pennycuick sisters.

The oldest, Deborah, is beautiful, in her twenties and everyone expects her to marry the local aristocracy, Mr Claud Dalzell. Deborah is lively, slightly self-centred and has a high opinion of her rank in the community. She’s the queen of her little world, boys and men are at her feet. Claud Dalzell, her godfather who’s old enough to be her father, Jim Urquhart and even Carey: all fall for her.

The second sister, Mary, is too plain to get married. She turns her affection on other people’s babies and takes care of the household.

The third sister, Rose, is pretty but not as beautiful as Deborah. Frances, the youngest, is still a child when the book opens but she promises to be even lovelier than Deborah.

Sisters tells the fate of the four sisters while Guthrie Carey appears on and off in the book, like a deus ex machina that throws their lives off balance and makes them go on a spin.

Ada Cambridge weaves a story with the underlying idea that love and marriage are not compatible. Love doesn’t survive the quotidian and people you love shouldn’t be the ones you marry since you should want different qualities in a spouse than in a lover. And also, loves remains beautiful when it stays an idea and doesn’t turn into a real relationship.

In Sisters, Ada Cambridge also shows that pride, prejudices and class conscience make people miserable. Deborah is only the daughter of a rich landowner. She’s the aristocracy in her neck of the woods. She’s very attached to her status and would never marry below her rank or what she believes her rank is. She behaves as if she were a princess.

Cambridge points out that, even in on a station where these people started from scratch, they managed to recreate a hierarchy, like in the old world. In Deborah’s eyes, trade is degrading and none of the Pennycuick sisters should marry a tradesman.

As the oldest daughter, she’s in charge of her sisters when her father dies and she’s not fit for it. Her pride will not allow her to make the sacrifices they should do.

She should have managed better with the resources at her disposal than to bring herself to such a pass, and that so soon; either Mary or Rose would certainly have done so in her place. But Nature had not made her or Frances—whose rapacities had been one cause of the financial breakdown—for the role of domestic economists; they had been dowered with their lovely faces for other purposes.

She was supposed to marry a rich man, and that’s all the preparation she had to face life.

In Sisters, men are all flawed. The pastor is a moocher, a greedy man and his temper is not fit for religious duties. Mr Pennycuick is weak, like Mr Bennet. Mr Thornycroft, Deborah’s godfather, lusts after her “ever since she was a kiddie” Eew! Claud Dalzell is a cad. Guthrie Carey falls in and out of love easily and doesn’t want to get married again. The only two decent men are the ones who work to make a living, Jim Urquhart who manages the station and Paul Breen, a draper who will marry one of the sisters, against her family’s will.

I won’t tell much about the plot, to avoid spoilers but the sisters’ lives are dictated by their marital choices. And Cambridge’s conclusion is that:

He did not know what a highly favoured mortal he really was, in that his beautiful love-story was never to be spoiled by a happy ending.

Wow.

I still wonder what she wanted to prove in her novel and why it’s so bitter compared to the others. She was a pastor’s wife and she spent her life in various parishes. Is Sisters the bleak offspring of her observations of married life?

Did she want to point out that men make women’s lives more difficult and that their hard work never has the recognition it deserves?

Mrs Urquhart and Mrs Pennycuick, plain, brave, working women of the rough old times, wives of high-born husbands, incapable of companioning them as they companioned each other, had been great friends. On them had devolved the drudgery of the pioneer home-making without its romance; they had had, year in, year out, the task of ‘shepherding’ two headstrong and unthrifty men, who neither owned their help nor thanked them for it—the inglorious life-work of so many obscure women—and had strengthened each other’s hands and hearts that had had so little other support.

Sisters has a feminist vibe but I found Deborah insufferable. Mary’s lack of confidence was her Achille’s heel. Rose was the most sensible one and Frances, frivolous and vain deserved her fate.

For this reader, it’s always interesting to catch glimpses of everyday life in the 19thC. If you tend to forget you’re reading an Australian book, Cambridge reminds you of it with scorching hot Februaries and by comparing something to an opossum.

Brona has read it too and her review is here.

This is another contribution to Australian Women Writer Challenge

AWW_2020

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