Cynthia Marshall Rich (1933 -)
American writer and lesbian activist, teacher of writing at Harvard University, author of anti-ageism and anti-homophobia books.
My Sister’s Marriage, first published in Mademoiselle magazine, in 1955 (winner of the Mademoiselle Fiction Prize)
Available to read online here
This is the third of five stories in the volume Points of View to be given the style classification by Moffett and McElheny of Subjective Narration. Here’s how their introduction continues: “Of course all first-person stories, even third-person stories, are somewhat subjective; any storyteller is, after all, mortal and fallible. But there is a difference between the narrator who does not seem to be aware of his prejudices and therefore is telling a story somewhat different from the one he intends to tell, and the narrator who consciously makes his bias so obvious that we consider it merely “personal flavor.””
Spoiler alert – if you haven’t read the story yet and want to before you read the summary of it below, stop now!
My Sister’s Marriage
Sarah Ann and Olive were the closest of sisters; people thought they were twins, although Olive was the elder. They lived with their father, Dr Landis, a most respected gentleman who taught them right from wrong, how to be a lady and to live a decent and caring life. With their mother dead, Olive took on the role of mother to Sarah Ann and to care for her father. He never had to raise his voice, but calmly and with maturity, steered his daughters in the direction of a good life.
But Dr Landis could go too far. When Olive meets Mr Dixon, a young gentleman who takes an interest in her, she quickly falls in love. Far too quickly for Sarah Ann’s liking; surely that’s not the behaviour of a decent young woman. Father insists it’s an infatuation and requires Olive to see the young man no more. He’s only a travelling salesman for Miracle-wear soles. Dr Landis knows, without meeting him, that he’s a scoundrel who’s not to be trusted.
Refusing to allow him in the house, and refusing to give his blessing on their relationship, Olive steals away and marries him. Her name is rarely mentioned in the house again, and her letters home are ignored by Landis, although Sarah Ann has been furtively replying. Landis insists that her letters be burned – he takes them away for that purpose. Sarah Ann tells herself that her father knows best, when he tells her that it should be just the two of them in the house for the rest of their lives. She still loves Olive – but Olive can never know.
A riveting piece of storytelling that captures you right from the beginning and never lets up. Sarah Ann is our narrator, and she is clearly bitter and unhappy – and probably lying to herself. She tells us quite aggressively that we are strangers and therefore won’t understand the feelings of herself and her father, but if we weren’t strangers, she wouldn’t be telling us anyway.
Somehow Landis has brainwashed Sarah Ann into fan-worshiping him, to the extent that all other relationships are insignificant. She points out that he went to Harvard and is a better quality man than all the others in their hometown of Conkling. He has made Sarah Ann a brooding, prudish young woman, disapproving of anyone having fun or trying to make a separate life for themselves.
In the end she accedes to his wishes to stop writing back to her sister and to devote her life to only him. Using powerful, clever writing Rich shows how Sarah Ann has been manipulated into giving up her own identity; something that Olive was simply not prepared to do. You feel sad for Sarah Ann and expect that one day she will wake up to her surroundings and discover it’s too late to break free. But Landis has done too good a job at controlling her.
The next story in the anthology is the fourth of the subjective narration stories, On Saturday Afternoon by Alan Sillitoe. I’ve never read any Sillitoe, so I’m looking forward to getting stuck into this one!