The conflict between woman’s desire for autonomy and her internalization of society’s conservative values in May Sinclair’s The Three Sisters
To be a woman in the Edwardian age, was to live a double life, one that was alternately Victorian and modern, repressive and liberating, traditional and radically new. In The Three Sisters Sinclair represented the self-division that can arise from living in a time of transition as the conflict between a character’s expressed desire for autonomy and agency, and her internalization of society’s conservative values. The novel is both a dramatization of subconscious drives and a novel of ideas that exposes the tyranny of the family and of religion. Gwenda, Mary and Alice are all in love with the village doctor, Steven Rowcliffe. The eldest sister, Mary, is the archetypal Angel in the House. Of all the three sisters, she is the most obedient to her father, pious, and devoted to making the lives of others comfortable. Through Mary, Sinclair demonstrated that the conventional view of wifehood as the only respectable role for woman, robs her of her integrity by driving her to deceptions and schemes to win a husband. Gwenda is aware of her feelings and can also act with intelligence and moral will. When she is told that Alice has become dangerously ill from unrequited love for Steven and she must either marry or go mad, she feels strong enough to sacrifice Steven. Alice’s illness is hysterical and it turns out that it is not Steven himself, but sexual pleasure, that she craves: sex and then marriage and children with local farmer Jim quickly put her right. Unlike Mary and Alice, who act on their drives without a clear knowledge of what they are doing, Gwenda is the least driven. She is a typical Edwardian heroine in several ways. She is independent, physically strong, the most intelligent of the three sisters and the most perspective. But rather than allow this modern woman to rebel, Sinclair uses her to examine the difficulty of maintaining one’s independence and the personal price one must pay when one rejects the status quo. Sinclair shows how even when one rejects the patriarchy intellectually, one can still internalize and suffer from its system of values. First, in the interests of Alice’s health, then in order to nurse her father, Gwenda denies herself and succumbs to the Victorian ideal of feminine self-sacrifice and sexual repression.
Key words: May Sinclair, Victorian domesticity, New Woman, female sexuality, religious orthodoxy