Sister Dearest

Katie Roiphe in Slate:

VirgThere is a darker side to sibling love—especially for those very close in age—that even those with happy relationships with their siblings intuit. “Of course you love your sister,” we tell our children, reassuringly. Though sometimes they don’t, or sometimes the rage or competition or desperation burns so brightly that they can’t precisely access that love. We like to tame the harrowing struggles between siblings with phrases like “sibling rivalry” which reduce them to a harmless childhood phase one passes through, even though we know from casual observation this is not true. (There are, in fact, a spate of new books out recently, or coming out, that, each in their own way, explore the darker side of sibling love: Lucinda Rosenfeld’s The Pretty One, Curtis Sittenfeld’s Sisterland, and Lauren Sandler’s forthcoming celebration of only children, One and Only.)

…Rather than delve too deeply into my own depressing relationship with my sister, which went radically downhill in terms of sisterly love and support in the two years after the baby was born, I’ll trot out as Exhibit A Virginia Woolf and her sister, the painter Vanessa Bell. They were astonishingly, sort of beautifully close, and adored each other. In fact, when Vanessa got engaged Virginia wrote this in a whimsical letter: “We the undersigned three Apes and a Wombat wish to make known to you our great grief and joy at the news that you intend to marry.We have wooed you and sung many songs of winter and summer and autumn in the hope that thus enchanted you would condescend one day to marry us. But as we no longer expect this honor we entreat that you keep us still for your lovers …” Later, when Vanessa had a baby, both Virginia and Vanessa’s husband, Clive felt like they weren’t getting enough of Vanessa’s attention. In the difficult period that followed Virginia began a sort of affair, with Clive that was incredibly painful for Vanessa. The two sisters salvaged their relationship, and were closely attached to the end, though the episode remained, huge and looming, beneath the surface. (One way they managed, which is arguably a good way to manage siblings, was that they were English, so they just didn’t talk much about it.)

Picture: Sisters Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell playing cricket (in shoes that look strangely like modern day Converse).

More here.