Relationship between a woman and her brother can be one of life's most cherished
Published 05/05/2014 | 02:30
The sight of Camilla Cornwall's weeping face at the funeral of her brother Mark Shand was itself a tribute to the attachment that can exist between sister and brother.
To lose a brother is to lose part of your own narrative, your childhood's memory, your shared family experience: and, for a grown woman, to lose an influential masculine presence of platonic kinship. Many a woman, looking at that picture, must have reflected on the impact of a brother's loss.
Mark Shand was not exactly stable husband material – men who run off on the hippy trail to Bali seldom tick that box. Expelled from his posh boarding school at the age of 16 – allegedly for smoking dope – he led an adventurer's life in his prime, and "never tied himself to anything so tedious as a full-time job", as one obituarist wrote.
He was covered in tattoos – one acquired while he got drunk with a bunch of Algerian soldiers – and was only saved from a life of "exotic dilettantism" by suddenly developing a sense of compassion for the plight of the Asian elephant. The welfare of elephants then became his life's mission, and, like many an adventurer before him, he married late – aged 49 – and for a brief nine years. Wives are encumbrances to men who need to go chasing off to India to save elephants.
But if Shand wasn't an ideal husband, he seems to have been fun as a boyfriend, and a great lark as a brother. Few women want a 'playboy' as a husband or longtime partner, but sisters are more likely to be more indulgent than wives.
To look at quite a contrasting sibling relationship: it was observed that while Bobby Sands' wife was seldom in the picture during his famed hunger strike, his fanatically devoted sister, Bernadette Sands-McKevitt, emerged as the principal keeper of the flame after his death.
Indeed, the veteran poet Maire Mhac an tSaoi suggested, when she was researching her own family history as a prelude to her memoir 'The Same Age as the State', that in Irish families, brothers and sisters often formed a particularly close sibling bond because families were big and extended.
This sometimes became even more pronounced when family members became priests or nuns – a case which occurred in her own family. While her father, Sean MacEntee, was busy as one of De Valera's ministers, her mother often relied on her own brothers – both priests – to provide a male presence in the household. It was from her maternal uncles, Maire said, that she learned so much.
For celibate priests, this could also be a helpful way of gaining practical experience about the stresses and strains, as well as the rewards, of family life. In the novels of Kate O'Brien, the sisters of Irish priests often joshed and teased them, which was a wholesome counterpoint to the deference they might receive in their clerical lives.
It is well established that fathers play a crucial role in girls' lives – young girls without fathers are more likely to go off the rails in adolescent years, more likely to become recklessly pregnant and to experiment with drugs. A good father helps a growing female's self-esteem and self-worth. A warm relationship with a brother may have a similar effect.
A brother can also be a template, for young women, for other masculine relationships. A brother can help a young female develop the art of talking to men – and knowing how to handle them.
And when a brother departs this life, we may look for brother substitutes. I noticed that after I lost my own brothers I developed closer friendships with men who filled that brotherly space. I warmed to males who talked like my brothers and had a similar sense of humour (even though nobody really measured up to my brothers).
Of course there are women who have had bad relationships with their brothers, which can warp their experience of life: the writer Virginia Woolf was sexually abused by her brother – he was her half-brother, her father having married twice, but they grew up as siblings – and that probably played some part in her terrible, life-long depression.
In some Islamic cultures, brothers are expected to defend the "honour" of their sisters, and in some extreme cases this has led to savage punishments – even 'honour killings' – where a sister is said to have betrayed the code. At a less ferocious but still contentious level, Edna O'Brien describes in her autobiography 'Country Girl' a noxious quarrel with her brother over family inheritance issues – a young woman, too, she felt that her brother was too controlling.
In Camilla's case, Mark Shand was her "kid brother" – some years younger than she, so she would have recalled him as a little boy under her tutelage, rather than the other way around. During the years when she was sometimes anathemised by the British public – in the wake of Diana's death – Mark apparently often came to her rescue, and she felt she could lean on him. That is what brothers are for, and any woman who has had a close and loving sibling relationship with a brother will know what a boon it can be.
Mark Shand died at 62, from a fall on a New York sidewalk, while lighting a cigarette at 3am – perhaps a careless death.
But his big sister will have forgiven whatever heedlessness may have caused it.
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