The Half Sisters (1848) is this puzzling thing: it peels off the layers of Victorian convention and throws a sharp light over their underlying lack of moral or rational basis; however, it never really illuminates the layers themselves, and leaves intact their questionable notions of womanhood, propriety, and respectability.
When the story starts, 16-year-old Italian Bianca and her mother, Theresa, have arrived in England to fulfil the latter’s dying wish and look for Bianca’s father, Philip Helmsby. Philip and Theresa had had a passionate love affair in their youth, but, under family pressure, he abandoned her without knowing she was pregnant. Unbeknown to Theresa, he later married a girl from a ‘proper background’, and they had a daughter, Alice.
When Theresa and Bianca arrive in England, however, he is long dead. With her mother getting increasingly ill and feeble-minded, our Bianca is forced to take matters into her own hands: with the help of a Cambridge student, Conrad Percy, she starts earning a living as a performer in a traveling circus. Bianca is a talented and disciplined girl, and soon learns her trade and develops her acting skills. Through Conrad’s patronage, she leaves the circus and joins a provincial theatre company.
Cut to her half-sister’s life: when Helmsby died, Alice was twelve. After his death, her mother, Mrs. Helmsby, moved house and sold most of his books and paintings. For Mrs. Helmsby, reading and studying are not respectable pastimes for a girl: to Alice’s chagrin, the girl’s time must be filled with meaningless, more ‘feminine’ tasks. Dreaming of pursuing any type of career is considered scandalous for a girl of her class, and Alice’s only acceptable fate is to get married – which she soon accomplishes, when she meets a rich businessman, Bryant, 20+ years her senior.
We follow the two half-sisters as they struggle with the roads taken and not taken, and as their paths cross and separate, at several points in the novel, through an improbable (but nonetheless entertaining) set of circumstances. One of the sisters will find out about their family connection, the other will never guess anything about it. Conrad Percy will fall in and out of love with both sisters. A righteous Lord will enter the scene and save a bunch of people (including a disreputable Italian actress, La Fornasari, who may or may not have had an illegitimate child with Conrad). Someone will suffer an accident and lose a hand, and someone will leave on a missionary quest to expiate their guilt. Alice will be tempted to elope; Bianca will triumph on the London stage and will be rewarded with marriage (only to eventually quit her career…). We will have at least one illegitimate child, a handful of doubles, a hysterical fit, and a pair of fallen women.
As the title itself suggests, the book is structured on a play of doubles: Alice is the traditional, housebound, legitimate half; while her double, Bianca, is the transgressive, career-oriented, illegitimate (other) half. La Fornasari, on the other hand, as the self-centred performer, is the double of Bianca, who sees the stage as a kind of social duty rather than a form of personal reward.
We also have a pair of male doubles. Conrad argues that all women should remain homebound: “I have a horror of all professional women. There ought to be a law to keep women from getting their own living: There are men enough in the world to work. Women ought to be taken care of, and kept in retirement; they have no qualities which fit them to struggle with the world”. Lord Melton, his double, rejects this view, and argues that work is a ‘necessary evil’ for women: “If a woman has not a family, or a profession, to occupy her time, she either takes to drinking, or intriguing, or to playing the deuce in some way, and all to deaden and distract the ennui that eats into her vitality – vitality which she has never been taught, adequately, to employ; and to which, in the end, Acteon-like, she falls prey”.
You engage with the Victorian debate on whether a career could be suitable for a woman, but you do it in a rather shy, puzzling way: while it is true that you make a point that work is an essential outlet for a woman’s creative and intellectual needs; you also stress the fact that such an outlet is necessary not for the women themselves (to make them better or equal to men), but for their men (to make women better ‘wives and daughters’ for them).
While Bianca is made stronger, more assertive and more self-reliant through her dedication to a career, you also emphasize the fact thar she did not take up acting out of professional ambition or the desire to display herself, but rather to support her ailing mother. Later, Bianca continues to pursue her career, not for the money nor for fame, but to become ‘worthy of a man’ – and to elevate theatre to her ideal of what it should be as a form of art. “I have had work to do and I have done it. I have had a purpose, and have endeavoured to work it out; and I say that if you could furnish women with a definite object, or address motives in them fit to animate rational beings, you would have a race of wives and daughters far different from those which now flourish in your drawing rooms; the quality of their nature would be elevated; they would be able to aid men in any noble object by any thoughts, by self-denial, by real sympathy and fellowship of heart.”
Work is always presented as the fulfilment of a duty – the ‘female duty’ as a daughter, a lover, and an artist. And a career is seen as something that Bianca owes others rather than deserves for herself or for her own enjoyment; something she adopted out of necessity rather than choice. Rather than a form of self-expression or agency, work is present as an odd form of female self-effacement. Work is the ‘lesser evil’: the means by which women are saved from prostitution or moral downfall. Rather than criticizing the need for self-effacement itself, you reinforce it, by presenting the work done by women as a higher form of self-effacement. Instead of proposing an alternative to female domesticity, you situate the possibilities for women’s work within the domestic framework, so that yours is a novel whose protagonist must undergo (what is seen as) the trials of work, only to become a better wife and prove herself worthy… of a man.
In the end, the real career for which Bianca had been training throughout her life was the prospect of marrying a member of the aristocracy and becoming another version of Alice – but a version in which Bianca is bound by marriage by conscious choice, after testing her capabilities, learning how to choose a man, and proving herself worthy of him.
The book also seems to be structured on the incompatibility of other pairs of doubles – work and marriage; work and domesticity; work and aristocratic station -, which are embodied in the separation of Bianca and Alice into two halves. The only halves that seem to unite in the end are the (traditionally thought as passive) qualities of womanhood and the (transgressively seen as compatible with domesticity) idea of work: instead of criticizing the female stereotype and the Victorian idea of femininity and female duty, you seem to be arguing that such idea is compatible with the realm of work. This is such a disappointingly timid stance on the topic, that I am tempted to think that you only took it to better tame your more conservative readership.
This is all the more puzzling to me, because of the radical way you reverse some of the tropes on the subject. In your book, the fallen woman is not the one who transgresses the rule of domesticity, but the one who had obediently submitted to it. It is impossible not to be reminded of Madame de Stael’s Corinne (1807), and it is impossible not to notice the powerful reversal you apply to the story. Both novels are centred on two half-sisters; in both books, one of the sisters is also a performer (also Italian), while the other is the domestic sister (also British); and both books centre on the cultural restrictions imposed on talented woman who find no socially accepted means to employ and express their talents.
However, in your version, it is the domestic sister who engages in illicit love and suffers the moral downfall; while the artistic sister is made stronger (and virtuous) through her engagement with work. You seem to be arguing that education and employment are essential for women to develop their moral fibre; and that submitting to the stultifying Victorian social conventions had the exact opposite result: work keeps women from going off the rails.
By using the feature of the half-sisters, you juxtapose Bianca’s personal and moral growth with Alice’s lack of purpose, blighted potential, and loss of moral knowledge. In your book, in a radical reversal of the conventional view, the domestic realm is the immoral, dangerous one, while the workplace is the realm of moral safety. “I should have found no opening for my energies in the smoothly-compacted surface of female existence.”
Your view of women’s work as a means to an end (‘preparing a woman to be a better wife’) also seems contradictory to your view of women’s education as an end in itself (‘women’s self-realization’): “A woman is a rational being, with reasonable soul and human flesh subsisting, and yet she is never educated for her own sake, to enable her to lead her own life better; her qualities and talents (…) are modified, like the feet of Chinese women, to meet an arbitrary taste“.
While, in the character of Lord Melton, you seem to endorse male authority over women; in the character of Conrad, on the other hand, you seem to criticize any form of male authority based solely on convention and convenience rather than on principle: “his ideas about women became coarser and more rigid; and after the fashion of that style of men, he expected them to do all the virtue going in the world, in spite of their own individual efforts to thwart it in all the women they came near.“
The highlight of the novel for me was the way it plays with our expectations regarding domesticity, so as to reveal the Victorian contradictory demands on women. The domestic realm is shown as dangerous precisely because it is only a façade, while homebound femininity is shown to be just another form of performance: a subtle form of self-display through a performance of self-effacement.
It remains to be seen, however, whether a story about women on a quest for self-expression can end not only in marriage but in the renunciation of self-expression based on marriage, without completely invalidating the quest itself…
“Life does not end in a catastrophe like a book or a play. We may, and do feel, after some occurrence which has shaken our being to its centre, as though we had reached the end of the world, and that our next step must be out on sheer nothinguess; but it is not so. Life goes on until death receives it” ―
“What is the most stringent caution ever offered to young women to lead their life by? It is, ‘ Do not do so and so, do not say so and so, before MEN, they do not admire it.’ When it was the question about giving women education—’ Men do not like learning in women,’ was the grand argument used. Men are allowed to examine into their religious opinions, to be philosophers, to be sceptics, to be no religion at all, if they please; but has it not been said a million times, ‘No man would permit his wife to be an infidel,’ — not because it is a bad thing for her, personally, but because ‘religion in a woman looks so lovely.” ―
“Bianca experienced a sense of something almost like fear, at the aspect of so much humanity quelled down and buried beneath a concrete of inflexible obedience to an artificial authority, through which no blade of genuine spontaneity could spring. All aspirations of devotion, even the very works of mercy to which they had dedicated themselves, seemed to have been drilled to rules, till they weighed down on the soul like a nightmare.” ―