“The Half Sisters” by Geraldine Jewsbury

I love a good used book store! Halfway between a library and a “regular” book store, it can make me think I died and went to heaven. The Bookshop on Franklin Street in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, qualifies. I visited there last week.

I limited myself to two purchases. One was The Half Sisters by Geraldine Jewsbury. A winner! I got the Oxford World Classics 1994 paperback edition of this book, which was originally published in 1848. Jewsbury was simultaneously way ahead of her time and all over the map. But it adds up to a GREAT story!

We first meet the half sisters when they are about 15 years old. Bianca was the illegitimate daughter of an Englishman who had an affair in Italy just before settling into a highly conventional English marriage. Alice was the only child of the marriage. Neither sister knows of the others existence.

Bianca’s Italian mother brings her teenaged daughter to England, expecting to present her triumphantly to her father. But the father has died, and Bianca’s shocked mother suddenly becomes a helpless and senile.

Bianca is in deep trouble, on her own in a country where she barely speaks the language, with an invalid mother to support. Three men collaborate to help her out, and she (literally) joins the circus. Over time, it becomes clear that she has a gift for acting, and, again with help, she becomes an accomplished and reasonably wealthy actress. Improbable, but it works well enough for fiction. Jewsbury is much more interested in Bianca’s moral development and affairs of the heart, and in commenting on the role of women in 19th century England.

The sisters meet and establish a limited friendship, with only Bianca aware of their shared paternity. Alice marries a businessman who is kind and distant. She suffers from boredom and anxiety.

I won’t go into more of the plot, but it surprised me several times. The whole story would make a great BBC drama or movie. The books covers a ten year period, at the end of which Bianca finds love and marriage. Alice dies prematurely of “brain fever”, or possibly a broken heart.

Modern feminists will be disappointed that Bianca retires from acting after her marriage, but Jewsbury makes so many interesting observations and comments in the course of the novel that I think it is correct to describe The Half Sisters as an early feminist classic. And it reads very well!

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