A Circle of Sisters by Judith Flanders

I was absolutely convinced that I’ve read other books by Judith Flanders before, and on checking my shelves, I realised that I have – I own copies of The Victorian House and The Invention of Murder, both of which I thoroughly enjoyed. This is, in fact, her first book although from the looks of my copy, it’s been reissued recently. And in spite of being frequently irritated by her circle of characters, I’m enjoying this one rather a lot as well.
The sisters discussed are the Macdonald sisters, of which there were five and of which five, four played a part in history by being wives or mothers of much more famous men. Alice, the eldest, was Rudyard Kipling’s mother; Georgiana married the Pre-Raphaelite painter Edward Burne-Jones; Agatha was the wife of the President of the Royal Academy, Edward Poynter; and Louisa’s eldest son was the Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin. The fifth sister, Edie, never married and lived with the Baldwin family as unpaid housekeeper and governess.
It is a fascinating history covering a period with which I am fascinated anyway. I like the Pre-Raphaelites – although I like the Arts & Crafts movement more – and I enjoy political history. I’m learning to see the more radical side of Rudyard Kipling (apparently there was one) and how the British Empire permeated life during that time. It’s just that all the people in it are AWFUL. I think the only one I actually liked buggered off to America in Chapter 4 and never came back, the sensible chap. This isn’t the fault of the historian, because the book is exceptionally well written and really interesting; this is what the late Victorians were like and it’s striking just how different one’s outlook is these days.
None of these sisters could be called feminists and all of them were at least partially prepared to give up potentially promising artistic or literary careers to support their husbands and care for their families. None of them seemed to think it unusual to dump their children on friends or relatives for extended periods of time while Mummy went to care for Daddy while he worked in India. None of them seemed to think it unusual for their husbands to have affairs left, right and centre while they stayed at home. It’s hardly surprising that two of the sisters (Agatha and Louisa) essentially spent their entire married lives invalided with “nervous disorders” – what else was expected of them if they couldn’t achieve their own potential?
One interesting aside which I had missed previously is that the murderess, Madeline Smith, was employed by William Morris & Co as an embroiderer after she left Scotland under an assumed name. It was just a little throwaway fact I found tucked into a section about the early years of the Burne-Jones’ marriage. The book is full of little treats like this. It’s just a shame that the rest of the cast can’t be a little more entertaining.


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