A Circle of Sisters by Judith Flanders

A dynasty of disappointment and debility
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The Independent Culture

There was a time when readers (and publishers) liked discovering the lives of women "hidden from history" in the shadow of their menfolk. Then fashion changed and overlooked figures were again neglected. Judith Flanders has revived the genre, albeit with disarming lack of conviction: on her penultimate page is a surprise query as to whether the Macdonald sisters are "worth the 300–odd pages" one has just read.

Of course Alice, Georgiana, Agnes and Louisa Macdonald are worth writing about. Their story deserves to be told with wit and spirit, for their own sakes as much as for the sake of their husbands and sons. Born between 1837 and 1848, they were four of seven surviving children of an impoverished Methodist minister and his wife, whose stifled anger at divine and human dispositions manifested itself in depressive resignation.

All four "married well" in the sense of finding husbands who were industrious, successful and (with one exception) faithful; and, by the same token, two at least mothered well, so they are today known respectively as the mother of Rudyard Kipling, wife of Edward Burne–Jones, wife of Edward Poynter and mother of Stanley Baldwin.

Of the four, Alice Kipling and Georgie Burne–Jones continue to receive the most attention, while Agnes Poynter and Louie Baldwin remain in the shadows, due to dullness in the first case and invalidism in the second. Taken together, their lives exemplify middle-class Victorian England, spanning the art world, heavy industry in the west Midlands and professional service in the Indian empire (through Lockwood Kipling's leading role as an art educator in Bombay and Lahore).

Georgie's position at the heart of the Pre-Raphaelite circle and her friendship with Ruskin, Morris, George Eliot and Rosalind Howard naturally arouse most interest, as do her marital troubles, when she defeated her husband's intended elopement. The renowned Macdonald refusal to talk about "unpleasant" matters proved an effective weapon here, enabling Georgie to conceal her woes.

The sisters' best days were the courtship years, when prospects blossomed. Their collective life story has been told twice before, as Judith Flanders notes before casting the biographical net wider to follow the "cousinage" selectively down the years. She goes as far as the sexless marriage of Elsie Kipling Bambridge, who bequeathed Wimpole Hall to the National Trust, and Angela Thirkell, Georgie's grandchild, here dubbed the Joanna Trollope of the 1930s, whose offspring included Colin MacInnes, the author of Absolute Beginners.

Of the large and fairly lively dramatis personae, Lockwood Kipling comes out best, for his steadiness and his promotion of Indian art. Being original and copious, Rudyard's contributions to family history eclipse most others. Overall, however, it is a melancholy tale of disappointment, failure, and nervous debility, though I feel Flanders is sometimes hypercritical of her subjects. In the end, she seems not to like any of them, closing with a judgement from Edith (the unmarried fifth sister) that the Macdonald nature was flawed by being "incontinently swift to chide".

One would like more examples, for such candour is astringently enjoyable. Here the funniest anecdote concerns William Morris's first encounter with a rubber hot-water bottle: "I plunged my feet down the bed to something soft and warm and thought, good God, have I had a baby?"

Stylistically, the footnotes that pepper the pages should be either dropped or incorporated in the text, and there are a number of misjudgements ("coolies" is not today an acceptable term for the inhabitants of Lahore). The main story is punctuated with excursions into social history – public sanitation, Victorian cookery, the rules of cricket – that presage the author's next project, on domestic life.

After that, one would warmly wish her to follow up the Macdonalds with the equally influential Pattle sisters and their descendants. As Flanders says, families are a fascinating and neglected field of study.