03 July 2013

Review: The Half Sisters by Geraldine Jewsbury

Trade paperback, 409 pages
Published 1998 (originally 1848)
Acquired October 2012
Read June 2013
The Half Sisters
by Geraldine Jewsbury

I bought this book because I was lead to believe that one of the eponymous half sisters, Alice, married a scientist. This is not quite true; she marries a man who works in business vaguely depicted, but she does meet him in a town where members of the British Association are meeting. I think he's there to hear about scientific breakthroughs that will affect his work, though he's not a scientist himself. I must trace the original reference to see if the error of understanding was mine or theirs.

In any case, this is a decent novel. I've seen Jewsbury compared to Elizabeth Gaskell, which I don't think is quite right-- Gaskell is better with interiority and less prone to overt moralizing-- but The Half Sisters is still a decent read. It chronicles two half sisters, one from a conventional middle-class background who marries too hastily, the other an Italian actress who tries to make it in England. Both women find their lives constrained by social pressures. Jewsbury is pretty scathing of contemporary women's education, and she shows how it warps both men and women's perceptions of women's roles in society: "A woman is a rational being, with reasonable soul and human flesh subsisting, and yet she is never educated for her own sake, to enable her to lead her own life better; her qualities and talents... are modified, like the feet of Chinese women, to meet an arbitrary taste" (219).

It's a little melodramatic at times, but Jewsbury avoids excess; I was particularly impressed with how characters who in other hands could have been simple villains (such as Alice's sometimes-thoughtless husband) were more complicated and understandable than that. This is very much a novel where social pressures and societal expectations are the villains, not individuals, not even the worst of them.

The Half Sisters sparkles with the occasional insight or witticism worthy of George Eliot, even; I liked Jewsbury's description of a "worldy" man: "his ideas about women became coarser and more rigid; and after the fashion of that style of men, he expected them to do all the virtue going in the world, in spite of their own individual efforts to thwart it in all the women they came near" (168). Or, in talking of the attempt of a man to remember his lover's suffering: "our own personality sits closer to us than any other feeling; no generosity can enable us to get rid of it; our 'self-negation' is at best but a generous fiction" (211). Ouch! But perhaps too true.

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