03 June 2018

My novel After the Party is about three sisters and how they influence each other. It’s set in the late 1930s, when right-wing politics were attracting followers from all walks of life, so there are parallels with what’s happening in the West now. My sisters are all grown-up married ladies by the time the novel begins, yet in their behaviour we can see glimpses of their girlhood rivalries. They’re capable to being cutting to each other without really noticing, by not listening or in a passing remark about a dress, or even a garden plant. They’re quite snobbish, in an unthinking way. It’s not such a big step when this thoughtlessness begins to translate into casual racism.

The way sisters speak to each other - with such a lot of shared assumptions and history - made the dialogue in After the Party a lot of fun to write. I was influenced by Elizabeth Bowen’s stories about sisters, in particular by Friends and Relations and To the North. These were her third and fourth novels, before the books which made her name: The House in Paris and The Death of the Heart. Friends and Relations begins with a wedding, which is a clever way of introducing the reader to the whole cast of characters. Both sisters are brides, in this novel, but once the wedding bells have gone silent it becomes clear that each would’ve been better suited to a life with her sister’s husband. To the North shows lives similarly affected by choosing the wrong man. In this case, the two women aren’t sisters, but sisters in law. They’re very different, even though they live under the same roof. The young widow, Cecilia, is brittle and self-centred: “exacting and restless, with such a sharp edge of unfriendly melancholy”; while her late husband’s sister, Emmeline, is: “delicate, ignorant, with an abstract mildness.” Needless to say, this book does not have a happy ending.

Little Women

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Anne de Courcy’s biography of the three Curzon sisters, The Viceroy’s Daughters, was a great source of background material for my novel. It describes the lives of these extraordinarily privileged women, one of whom was very close to the Prince of Wales, (who abdicated his throne and became the future Duke of Windsor). Her sister Cimmie, who died young, was married to Sir Oswald Mosley. Mosley certainly had an affair with one of his wife’s sisters and very possibly with the other, as well. Gossip at the time suggested that he’d also slept with their step-mother. This milieu of careless infidelity found its way into the edges of my book. So too did the use of nick-names, as a covert way of claiming status and one-upmanship.

More broadly, I’d always enjoyed stories about sisters. Chekhov’s play, The Three Sisters, is a long-standing favourite; although it’s too sad to see more than a couple of times a decade. His sisters find themselves living in a parochial little garrison town. At first they have grand ideas about their futures, but gradually the realisation dawns that they won’t in fact get back to the bright lights of the city they yearn for. Their heartfelt cry - “I’ll never get to Moscow!” - is perhaps the most poignant expression of FOMO in literature.

It’s remarkable how often groups of sisters turn up in fiction, from the Greek myths (the Fates were sisters), through fairy-tales (Cinderella and the Ugly Sisters) to contemporary fiction, such as Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides or the twins, Olanna and Kainene, in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half a Yellow Sun. For many readers, early encounters with literary sisters come in Little Women, or I Capture the Castle, before arriving at Howard’s End, Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility and, of course, Middlemarch. (I say, of course, but it’s confession time: I have never finished Middlemarch, something I plan to make good this summer. Again.)

Wicked sisters are especially enjoyable in stories, as admirers of King Lear will attest. Goneril and Regan are among the baddest baddies ever created, much nastier than the sisters in Jane Smiley’s modern-day retelling, A Thousand Acres. Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin unfolds a morally complex series of stories within stories, concerning sisters Iris and Laura. But perhaps my favourite book concerning sisters is Marilynne Robinson’s masterpiece, Housekeeping. I wish I could claim it as an influence on my own work, but Housekeeping is one of a kind. It’s such an odd, affecting story. The word haunting gets bandied about a lot, when books are talked about, but this is one that you never forget. There’s simply nothing like it.

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