Searching for The Sisters by Sally Beauman
It's always so hard to say where novels begin - it's a ghostly process, I
find. When I started writing The Sisters Mortland, I knew that it would be about
stories, the truths and lies they contain. I knew it had to be set in the depths
of the English countryside, and I knew the county I wanted to use was Suffolk,
still deeply rural in many parts, with a strong farming tradition -- I wanted a
place that has grown prosperous, but been ravaged by farming practices in the
post-war years. It isn't an area of England I know that well -- I've visited it
often, but never lived there. That was a plus: I don't like to write about
people or places I already know -- I like them to be foreign, so as I actually
write they have to be found.
I also knew it would be a novel that centred on three sisters -- two of them
young women and one a child when the book opens -- and one summer in the life of
the sisters, a summer when the portrait that gives the novel its title is being
painted by a Cambridge friend. I knew something terrible, an appalling event,
would happen in that idyllic summer of 1967 and I knew I wanted to investigate
the ways in which such events stain, distort and influence the lives of all
I knew too that it must be a novel of contingencies, where nothing is
certain, and where solutions are withheld -- and for that reason I decided to
use three different narrators, each of whom approaches these events from a
different viewpoint, over a span of twenty years. I wanted it to be a novel of
voices, each commenting on and contradicting one another --- and to make it
work, for the machinery to spin and grind, those voices had to be as familiar to
me as my own.
Maisie, who begins the novel is an outsider, a strange prescient
thirteen-year-old child - a little girl who talks to the dead, but a girl with a
tough, ascerbic mind. Maisie lures the reader in -- I intended a lure -- to what
may seem at first another assay at a familiar form, the English country house
novel -- a genre with a long tradition, Mansfield Park being at one end of it,
and Ian McEwan's Atonement at the other. Maisie's story, her account of that
summer, of her family, of the strange house in which they live (it's a medieval
Abbey, a former nunnery) and of the portrait an artist friend is painting forms
the first part of the novel. She describes her two sisters, clever, evasive Finn
and beautiful self-centred Julia, and she struggles to understand the young men
staying at the house who are irresistibly drawn to them. But I wanted the reader
to see gaps; I wanted readers to decide whether the persuasive Maisie was
telling the truth. Like Lucas, Maisie is also painting a portrait of three
sisters -- but what does she reveal, and conceal?
Then the novel takes a a sudden unpredictable turn. It breaks with the
conventions it seemed to be following, it hurtles off-piste -- there's a
substantial time-jump, and I introduce a second voice, that of a man, Daniel
Nunn. Dan, a friend of the sisters since early childhood, and worshipped by
Maisie, has grown up in the same village but in very different circumstances. He
is of Romany descent; his father is a farm labourer, and his grandmother, who
brought him up, and claims to have second sight, works at the Abbey as a cleaner
-- but Dan, who has won a scholarship to Cambridge, is on the cusp of change,
about to abandon his home, his family and his class.
Dan is self-destructive, anarchic, gifted and (I hope) funny -- I wanted
black humour, wanted readers to hate him, then maybe forgive him when they turn
the page. Dan embarks on a quest, determined to understand the appalling events
that happened at the Abbey in the summer of 1967 -- but he's hampered by several
factors. He's writing more than twenty years later; he's drinking too much, he's
lost his high-powered job, he's lost the woman he loved, he's riddled with
guilt, and overpowered by a sense of failure -- plus, like most of us, he's been
used to glossing over his past. So confronting it, trying to understand it is a
very harsh task.
Finally, Julia, the eldest, coolest, most beautiful, most successful and
apparently the least likeable of the three sisters takes up the narrative. She
weaves the final patterns of the story of the Abbey, of Maisie and Dan, and I
hope those weavings will surprise some readers -- but does Julia give closure?
In a sense, perhaps, but I distrust closure, and I certainly distrust easy
answers. And this is a novel about love -- love of place, of family, of
children, as well as love between men and women and all the lies and self
deceptions that such loves entail. So at the end of the novel, as one might
expect, questions remain.
Copyright © 2005 Sally Beauman.