Unconditional love and support, sibling rivalry, and family secrets pepper the world of literary sisters. One half of a famous pair of real-life sisterly scribes has a birthday today: Emily Brontë. The Wuthering Heights author spent a lifetime penning poems and other tales with siblings Charlotte and Anne (using masculine pseudonyms), all devoted to their craft and each other — especially during the troubled times of their youth. Since the Brontës often used material from their lives to inform their stories — including their tight-knit relationship — we felt inspired to take a look at fictional sisters who also shared powerful bonds full of passionate and complex emotions unique amongst women and girls. Add to our list below.
The Dashwood sisters
Like many writers, Jane Austen drew on facets of her own personality and experiences to inform her lively characters. Her practicality and sense of responsibility to her family were just a few traits she imbued the prudent Elinor with in her 1811 novel Sense and Sensibility. Elinor’s sister Marianne is the younger and more impulsive of the two siblings, and some say she represented the woman Austen wanted to be. The sisters clearly embody the “sense” and “sensibility” of the book title as their experiences of love and heartbreak follow them to a relative’s cottage after their father’s death. Although Elinor is her family’s sounding board, and Marianne lacks in self-control, the two learn very important lessons about themselves and come to value each other’s differences all the more.
Beezus and Ramona
Beverly Cleary’s Ramona series depicted the ups and downs of sisterhood with a rarely seen and refreshing realism in her humorous and honest account of nine-year-old Beezus (aka Beatrice) and four-year-old Ramona. The situations and dialogue were genuine, natural, and represented the ambivalence siblings often feel for each other, while honoring the complexities of childhood and the uniqueness of sisters.
The Wakefield sisters
Sweet Valley, California’s Wakefield twins were blond, beautiful, and always seemed to have it all, but Francine Pascal’s long-running series revealed a myriad of complications and dramas that shaped the girls’ lives and relationship with each other. Jessica wasn’t above taking advantage of her good looks and popularity to win friends, boys, and influence people. Elizabeth was the practical twin with a steady boyfriend and writing ambitions who often saved her wild sister from trouble — something Jessica took advantage of. The girls struggled with finding their individuality at times and overcoming jealousy, but they always found a way to forgive and forge ahead.
The March sisters
Since its publication in 1868, Louisa May Alcott’s novel Little Women has broken the boundaries of class, nationality, and women’s fiction with its atypical, spirited characters that were a departure from traditional depictions of womanhood (particularly the rebellious and opinionated tomboy, Joe). Sisters Meg, Joe, Beth, and Amy March were loosely based on Alcott’s own siblings, but the family tale’s universal messages of love, virtue, and gratitude transcend its autobiographical qualities. The family struggles through poverty and loss with grace and humility. Each sister is vastly different from the other, but they embrace their flaws and love with equal measure.
The Bennet sisters
Characters Elizabeth and Jane Bennet are two of five sisters, and author Jane Austen was one of two girls amongst six boys in her family. It’s sometimes suggested that she created the family she wished for herself in her 1813 novel Pride and Prejudice, but she was very close to sister Cassandra. The Bennet sisters couldn’t be more opposite in personality, but the deep bonds of sisterhood have created a sincere closeness and incomparable friendship — some of which was prompted by their own family’s failings. Mr. Bennet’s apathy and Mrs. Bennet’s overbearing need to marry her daughters off left the two girls to confide in each other rather than their parents. The spirited and quick-witted Elizabeth is the more intuitive of the two, but as her evolving romance with the aloof and seemingly bad mannered Mr. Darcy proves, she can be too judgmental at times. Jane is the quieter and more trusting sister, cautious to reveal her true feelings — something that Elizabeth picks up on throughout the novel, especially when Mr. Bingley leaves. Through the ebb and flow of their romantic relationships, their loyalty and affection for each other outlasts everything.
Cinderella and her wicked stepsisters
The mythical tale of an oppressed and abused young woman working as a maid who overcomes her trials and tribulations and falls in love has been published in many forms across different cultures. Most audiences are familiar with Charles Perrault’s version of the folk tale, first published in 1697, where Cinderella’s pumpkin carriage, glass slippers, and fairy godmother were introduced. The sweet Cinderella’s father remarries into a miserable family, and she is forced into servitude by her wicked stepmother and vain stepsisters. The tale, of course, ends on a happier note, with Cinderella showing her family the grace and kindness they never afforded her.
Image credit: Brandon Zimmerman
Elly and Iphy Binewski
Far from your typical American family, the deformed and deranged Binewski clan in Katherine Dunn’s Geek Love constructs their own family ideology and faces all the same power struggles, sibling rivalries, and clashes. Conjoined twin beauties Iphigenia (Iphy) and Electra (Elly) — whose story and names reflect the bloody Greek mythological tale — are assigned the task of drawing crowds to their family’s sideshow act. They play piano, sing, and dance in the show, which inspires the jealousy of twisted cult leader and manipulative brother Arty. Elly hated being a twin, but craved being the center of her sister’s attentions. She was often cruel to Iphy, eating things that would make them both sick on purpose. Iphy loved being a twin, but was often oblivious to Arty and her sister’s vicious motivations. Eventually their love-hate relationship spirals out of control.
The Chance sisters
Vaudeville song-and-dance duo Dora and Nora Chance — born out of wedlock — struggle to find legitimacy within their family, especially when it comes to their father Sir Melchoir Hazard, a famous Shakespearean actor who refuses to acknowledge them. Throughout the magical realist story, which is narrated by 75-year-old twin Dora, other dichotomies are revealed: humor and tragedy, truth and artifice, and the concept of legitimacy and illegitimacy is expounded upon. Despite everything, the sisters band together through the disappointments and the “joys of dancing and singing.”
The Blackwood sisters
Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle features sisters Merricat and Constance Blackwood — ostracized from their community after a horrible family tragedy one of them is blamed for. The siblings’ murderous backstory creates a sinister undercurrent that pervades their devotion to each other. Like many of her novels, Jackson skillfully wields notions of everyday evil and the dark side of small-town America to emphasize the anxious boundaries of the internal and external — further explored in the sisters’ strange, shared psychology. While it twists the doctrine of sisterhood, there’s something darkly beautiful about their connection.
The Chase sisters
The brittle, dizzying relationship between the grounded Iris and self-destructive Laura in Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin slowly reveals a series of mysterious events spanning both World Wars. Multilayered stories within stories propel us across time and narratives, where we discover the harrowing resentment, betrayal, and complicated dramas of the sisters.