Friday 22 September 2017

Mary Kenny: Soul sisters

Whether supportive or competitive, the bonds of sisterhood endure

Mary Kenny, writer and author. Photo: Tony Gavin
Mary Kenny, writer and author. Photo: Tony Gavin
Mary Kenny

Mary Kenny

Feuds between sisters are well enough known: the movie stars Joan Fontaine and Olivia de Havilland maintained a sisterly quarrel all their lives. The writers Margaret Drabble and her sister A.S. (Antonia) Byatt only meet - acknowledging each other with a formal nod - at funerals, never having patched up a family difference. Among the notorious Mitford sisters, Jessica was a Communist and Diana was a Fascist (and the mother of Desmond Guinness, who saved Georgian Dublin from destruction): throughout their adult lives they were not "on speakers".

But if there is sisterly feuding, there are also strong sisterly bonds between sibling sisters. The recent film A Quiet Passion featured the American poet Emily Dickinson and her sister Lavinia: had Lavinia not obsessively curated her sister's poems after Emily's death, her work would have been lost to posterity. (And if one Muriel hadn't squirrelled away her sister's letters, we would know less about the early life of Margaret Thatcher and her feminine penchant for pretty lingerie.)

Jackie Kennedy and her younger sister Lee Radziwill seemed to have had that sisterly bond which was both competitive and supportive: both were urged to "marry well" by their ambitious mother, and indeed both did - Lee got her prince and Jacqueline her president. They had depended on each other as young girls during their parents' divorce - which had not gone well and had attracted much gossip - and that emotional link seems to have remained.

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