Linguist and author Deborah Tannen describes the unique bond of sisterhood as the “the coming together of connection and competition.” Tannen also talks about the ways that families often define sisters in terms of each other, thus creating identifying labels (i.e., the smart one and the pretty one, the bookworm and the athlete, the belle and the loner, etc.) that may become lifelong baggage to display with pride or refute with vigor. The ties and tangles of sisterly relationships are staples of women’s fiction, of course, but they occur frequently in romance fiction as well, serving, to borrow a phrase from Eloisa James, as “counterpoint to the hero.”
Jane Austen, whose sister Cassandra served as friend and confidante, created some of the most famous fictional sisters. The Dashwood sisters were the first to be introduced to the world, and Anne Elliot proves how uncomforting and uncongenial sisters can be. Best known of Austen’s sisters are the Bennets of Pride and Prejudice (1813): Jane, Elizabeth, Mary, Kitty, and Lydia.
Scholars have speculated that Jane’s and Lizzy’s relationship mirrored that of Jane and her sister Cassandra. Austen shows the mutual support the two sisters give one another, despite their very different temperaments. She also shows the openness and confidence in one another that these two share. “I will have no reserves from you,” Jane says to Lizzy after Jane receives the politely cruel letter from Caroline Bingley. Lizzy shares the news of her betrothal to Darcy with Jane, and the reader learns “[a]t night she opened her heart to Jane” and a couple of pages later, “All was acknowledged, and half the night spent in conversation.” Kitty and Lydia are also great friends, and the stronger-willed Lydia exerts an unhappy influence over her older but less assertive sister. Austen is careful to note in the final chapter that, removed from Lydia’s influence and under the guidance of Jane and Lizzy, Kitty grew “less irritable, less ignorant, and less insipid.”
Georgette Heyer had no sisters, but she gave them to many of her heroines. Some, like the heroine of Arabella, enjoy the affection, teasing, and understanding that characterize the best sibling relationships. I’ve always thought the observation that comes as Arabella begins her lie about her wealth reveals volumes about the Tallant siblings: “Any one of Arabella’s brothers or sisters would have begged her at this point to consider all the consequences of impetuosity.”
Heyer also created sisters like poor Hester Theale (Sprig Muslin) who receives no affection, appreciation, or understanding from her siblings. Frederica is my favorite of Heyer’s fictional sisters, but her relationship to her younger siblings includes a large measure of the maternal. More typical of sisterly relationships in romance are the Winwood sisters in The Convenient Marriage (1934). Each is a definite type; Elizabeth is the family Beauty, a blonde with a gentle spirit and a kind heart. Charlotte, the middle sister, is also beautiful, but a faded copy of Elizabeth. She speaks “palpitatingly” and in capital letters, and is determined never to marry in order to be a “Prop to Mama.” Horatia, the baby of the family, lacks the beauty and the height of her sisters. Her only family likeness is “the nose.” She speaks with a stammer and is possessed of frowning eyebrows that are considered a flaw by some, but her forthrightness and impetuosity make her a far more interesting character than her more proper sisters. The Winwood sisters share a family devotion to one another, but they don’t appear to have the close emotional ties that Jane and Lizzy Bennet share.
Sisterhood continues to be a relationship romance authors explore. In 2011, Julia London’s third contemporary Cedar Springs book, A Light at Winter’s End, dealt with the difficult relationship between Holly Fisher and her sister Hannah, and Loretta Chase introduced a new historical series about the dressmaking Noirot sisters with Silk Is for Seduction. My top five favorite sister acts in romance fiction (in chronological order) include a mix of historical and contemporary.
1. The Concannons—Nora Roberts
The fiery Maggie (Born in Fire, 1994) and the cool Brianna (Born in Ice, 1994) are polar opposites, but the sisters are close, sharing their lives and supporting one another on a daily basis. Shannon Bodine (Born in Shame, 1995), their newly discovered American half-sister has elements of Maggie’s fire and artistic temperament and Brianna’s reserve. It is Brianna who pushed for Shannon to be invited to get to know her Irish family, but Shannon and Maggie view one another with suspicion and hostility when Shannon first arrives in Ireland. They learn to care about one another, and since Shannon will be living on a neighboring farm, the reader assumes all three sisters will be family and best friends.
2. The Marcellis—Susan Mallery
Susan Mallery has written several series centering on sisters: the Bakery books with the Keyes sisters, the Lone Star books with the Titans, and the triplets in her current Fool’s Gold books, and my favorites, the Irish-Italian Marcellis. The book titles make them sound one-dimensional, but they aren’t. Katie (The Sparkling One, 2003), the oldest and, to her family’s dismay, still unmarried, is a successful events planner, who loves her sisters but has always felt a bit of an outsider since Francesca and Brenna are fraternal twins and Mia is nine years younger than she. Francesca (The Sassy One, 2003), with a bad marriage behind her, is a graduate student in social psychology. Brenna (The Provocative One, 2003), a widow, has a deep love for the family vineyards and a determination to follow the family tradition regardless of obstacles. Mia (The Marcelli Princess, 2007) is a former spy, a single mother, and a law student. The sisters confide in one another to a degree, tease one another, share traditions, and are nosy about one another’s lives, but they also have their secrets.
[The Marcelli Bride (2006) is part of the series but not a sister book.]
3. The Essexes—Eloisa James
James said her inspiration for the Essex sisters was Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. Perhaps this is the reason that the relationships among the sisters is such a prominent part of the series. Tess (Much Ado About You, 2005) is the eldest. She mothers her younger sisters, comforting them in grief, worrying about inappropriate behavior, and loving them through scandals and tempests. Annabel (Kiss Me, Annabelle, 2005) is the practical one. She hates being poor and is determined to marry wealth, but her pragmatism does not lessen her devotion to her sisters. Imogen (The Taming of the Duke, 2006) is the difficult one, determined to overcome all obstacles that would separate her from her first love, she grows bitter and sharp-tongued in her grief after his death, even turning against Tess for a period. But she finds healing and happiness, and harmony in the sisterhood is restored. Josie (Pleasure for Pleasure, 2006) is the youngest—vulnerable, always pushing to catch-up to her sisters, and possessed of a wisdom beyond her years. When fans voted for the extra chapter they wanted James to write for Pleasure for Pleasure, fittingly their choice was another of the sisters’ conversations, this one ten years after the ending of the series.
4. The Merridews—Anne Gracie
Four of the five Merridew sisters are beautiful. The oldest, Prudence (The Perfect Rake, 2005), is plain, loyal, and fierce in protecting her younger sisters from their abusive grandfather. Charity, the only sister who doesn’t have her own book, is the least developed of the sisters; she is beautiful, outgoing, and willing to sacrifice herself to come to the aid of her sisters. Hope (The Perfect Waltz, 2005) and Faith (The Perfect Stranger, 2006) are twins. Faith is exuberant, kind-hearted, and assertive with some insecurity about her clumsiness. Hope is romantic, and impulsive, and ultimately courageous and wise. Grace (The Perfect Kiss, 2007) is a warm-hearted charmer who will go to great lengths for those she loves, sister or friend. The sisters are all devoted to one another and share a greater than ordinary commitment to protect one another because of their years with their deranged grandfather.
5. The Huxtables—Mary Balogh
The first three books of Mary Balogh’s Huxtable quintet are sister books. Vanessa (First Comes Marriage, 2009), the middle sister, is the plain one in a family of extraordinary beauty. (Why is there always a plain one?) She is also outgoing, funny, irrepressibly cheerful, and fearless in her determination that her older sister not sacrifice herself on the marriage altar. Beloved by her siblings and her dead husband’s family, she harbors insecurities about her looks. Katherine (Then Comes Seduction, 2009), begins as a naïve heroine with a desire for adventure that leads to some unwise choices. She gains experience, wisdom, and a greater understanding of how her actions affect her family. Margaret (At Last Comes Love, 2009), the eldest, has devoted herself to rearing her younger siblings, even forfeiting her own chance for love to do so. At thirty, she is a spinster with an empty nest and a longing for marriage and children. The Huxtables are a closely knit, loving group who share a strong commitment to family.
[Seducing an Angel (2009) and The Secret Affair (2010) are part of the series but not sister books.]
Do you have favorite sister acts?
Janga spent decades teaching literature and writing to groups ranging from twelve-year-olds to college students. She is currently a freelance writer, who sometimes writes about romance fiction, and an aspiring writer of contemporary romance, who sometimes thinks of writing an American historical romance. She can be found at her blog Just Janga and tweeting obscure bits about writers as @Janga724.