The Three Sisters

by May Sinclair

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 818

The novel’s situation (a clergyman’s three lonely daughters living on the English moors) and its theme (the evils caused by sexual repression and self-abnegation) were suggested by the lives of the three Bronte sisters—Anne, Charlotte, and Emily—whose novels May Sinclair admired. The action covers a ten-year period in the little village of Garth and its environs, in which the only major events are the natural ones: birth, marriage, disease, and death. The story of a thwarted love affair is absorbing in itself, but the real focus is the psychoanalysis of the characters.

The atmosphere of the vicarage is oppressive and boring. The Vicar is a tyrant who unconsciously punishes his daughters out of frustration over his own situation (his wife has left him, thus “condemn[ing] him to a celibacy for which . . . he was utterly unsuited”). He does not allow them to marry or to leave his house. The stagnation brought about by the Vicar’s egotism is vividly shown in the opening and closing scenes of the novel as the household drags out the time until family prayers. Evening prayers are an enforced ritual which satisfies the Vicar’s lust for power.

Mary, the eldest daughter, is his favorite because she is submissive and therefore “good.” Alice, the youngest, disgusts him because of her strong sexual need; indeed, he persuades himself that he has sacrificed his career by moving to a remote parish where his daughter will not be tempted by young men. It is the middle daughter, Gwenda, however, of whom he is afraid; she stands up to him and tells him the truth, which he does not want to hear. Her fearless nature and mystic love of the moors vaguely suggest the figure of Emily Bronte.

All three daughters fall in love with the only available bachelor, Dr. Steven Rowcliffe. Alice, continually badgered by her father, falls dangerously ill. Steven diagnoses the problem as a case of hysteria. Although he is compassionate, he is repulsed by her attraction to him; he prefers the intelligent and spirited Gwenda. Gwenda and Stevin fall in love but do not get a chance to speak of it to each other. Every time they are about to come to an understanding, something interferes. Sinclair thus creates a fatalistic domestic tragedy in the manner of Thomas Hardy (whose work she admired). The timing is always wrong for the lovers. The bad timing is only partially a result of external events; Steven and Gwenda often misunderstand each other’s motivations. Gwenda is an idealist who underestimates the force of passion, and Steven is a practical man who resents Gwenda’s mystic relationship with nature.

Gwenda and Steven delay too long in straightening out their misunderstandings. Learning that Alice’s hysteria could result in madness or death, Gwenda decides to sacrifice her own happiness for her sister’s. She pretends that she does not love Steven and leaves the village so that he will marry Alice. Her idealistic sacrifice is thrown away when Alice gets pregnant by Jim Greatorex, a farmer who is in love with her. Meanwhile, Mary, the third sister, snares the doctor into marriage by misrepresenting Gwenda’s motives for leaving.

When the Vicar learns of Alice’s disgrace, he avoids having to face the situation by having a stroke. Gwenda is forced to return and care for him in his helplessness. Gradually she learns the consequences of her unnecessary sacrifice: Alice’s problem has been naturally taken care of by her marriage to Jim, but Steven’s incompatible marriage to her sister Mary results in unhappiness. Gwenda’s mistake becomes even more obvious when a potentially perfect partner for Mary...

(This entire section contains 818 words.)

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arrives on the scene to whom Mary cannot respond because she is Steven’s wife. Gwenda’s own situation is the final irony. The Vicar in his invalid state now has perfect control over his rebellious daughter.

Yet Gwenda has more to learn. She and Steven are still in love and suffer quietly over the years. Gwenda refuses to have an affair with him because she wants to keep the beauty of their “ideal” love—it is enough for her, she says. It is not enough for Steven, whose passionate nature needs an outlet. Once more, Gwenda’s noble ideas have unforeseen consequences. Steven’s wife eventually wins him over by catering to his domestic needs. He forgets his professional ambitions and his love for Gwenda. Gwenda realizes too late that she has been responsible for Steven’s loss of “soul” by leaving him to Mary.

Gwenda’s last consolation, her communion with nature, begins to fade as she grows older, thus undermining her grasp on any absolute solace. Jim Greatorex tells her that the only way to recover the poignant beauty of nature is through suffering. Steven’s growing indifference is the heartbreak which once again makes the “white thorn-trees flower in their glory.”