A 2005 novel by Jonathan Safran Foer
Biographer Judith Flanders, born 1959 in England, raised from age two and educated in Canada, now lives in England. She demonstrated how to grab readers' attention in her very first book, A CIRCLE OF SISTERS. Here is how Chapter One begins:
"Four women connect four men by a slender but steely thread. One man is an earl, and three times prime minister; the second a Nobel prizewinner who turned down a knighthod, the Poet Laureateship and the Order of Merit; the third is a baronet and leading Pre-Raphaelite painter; and the fourth is also a baronet, who has been both director of the National Gallery and president of the Royal Academy. The thread is the Macdonald sisters -- four women who were the mothers of Stanley Baldwin and Rudyard Kipling and the wives of Edward Burne-Jones and Edward Poynter."
Like author Judith Flanders, I first became aware of the four famous married Macdonald women and their unfamous (because unmarried, infertile?) sister Caroline, while reading into the history of Rudyard Kipling. His father, John Lockwood Kipling, had courted and won the much engaged Alice Macdonald and then sailed off with her to a job teaching art in Bombay, where Rudyard was born in 1865. The witty, acerbic, literary, flirtatious Alice Macdonald Kipling soon fascinated more than one British Viceroy. And husband John Lockwood won the respect of a princely son of Queen Victoria and through that connection a commission to decorate in an Indian style a stately room of one of Her Majesty's residences.
As Flanders says in her Introduction, there had been two previous biographies of the Macdonald sisters. Both biographers had noted the four sisters' marriages and the economic, artistic and social rise of their initially obscure husbands and the fame of at least two of their sons. But earlier biographers simply noted that fact but failed to make sense of the interconnections. Desiring to fill in the blanks and explain what was special about the Macdonald sisters, Judith Flanders conceived a new form of biography: in which individuals like Nobelist Rudyard Kipling and his first cousin Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin are seen as products of larger family groupings, households and the rapidly evolving technologies of their age -- rather than as stand-alone super achievers.
In her next book, THE VICTORIAN HOME, Flanders looks at middle-class Victorian households and living conditions from marriage, childbirth, child rearing, entertaining, doing laundry (plunging bare hands into boiling water), being ill and dying. There are twenty or thirty detailed examples of evolving technologies, including rail transport, flush toilets, gas lights and much more in the earlier A CIRCLE OF SISTERS and they provide nuggets worth reading for their own sakes.
In the Victorian Age, authors asked the impossible of stereotypical British women. For their parents while they lived at home and later for their husbands, middle-class women were to be "fragile pillars of strength." Intelligent men looked for women of genius to become their mates. But if wives were conceded to have genius, it was to be a notably passive genius: genius for quietly intuiting and supporting the positive, forceful talents and superior points of their mates and of their husbands' circle of male friends.
Two of the Macdonald sisters, Agnes Poynter and Georgiana Burne-Jones, proved unnecessary to their husbands' success and fame as painters. In consequence, speculates biographer Judith Flanders, Louisa and Agnes retreated to their sickbeds for decades. "No one could fail to be aware of them, but it was awareness of an absence, not a presence." By contrast both Alice Kipling and Louisa Baldwin perceived themselves as (and were for a fact) essential to their husbands' careers. These two women, being so "present" in their times, also, therefore, tend to dominate the text of A CIRCLE OF SISTERS.
Read this fascinating book for any number of reasons: because of your interest in one or more of the sisters's husbands, sons, daughters or circle of friends. Or read A CIRCLE OF SISTERS for insights into competing trends in Victorian literature and art -- especially the Pre-Raphaelites. The Kipling siblings, Rudyard and younger sister Trix, were fascinated by their more affluent aunts, uncles and cousins and those families contributed much to what the siblings became (later in Lahore, India, Rudyard, Trix, John Lockwood and Alice McDonald Kipling formed a "family square" of four creative writers.) But before the small "family square" there had been the much larger "circle of sisters." Or delve into the many passages describing Victorian households, with their staggering number of deaths from cholera, with the ton of coal they burned every six weeks, with their transition to travel by train and their movement from lighting by candles or whale oil through gas to electricity.
In my opinion, author Judith Flanders largely pulls off her new way of conceiving writing biographies. The obvious weakness of her "fours sisters" narrative framework is that it involves five or six generations, especially of Kiplings, and sketches another few score relatives, in-laws, friends and fellow travelers. In short, unity of narrative is a bit on the weak side because of the sheer number of persons written about over so many decades.
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