What sisters really think about each other
After Pippa Middleton’s antics in Paris, Lucy Cavendish explains the fascinating good girl/bad girl mix in many families
Sisters. Sisters. There were never such devoted sisters. That's how the Irving Berlin song goes and, when I was little, I remember sitting on the sofa, watching White Christmas, and gazing up adoringly at my older sister, Nicola, and thinking that that song was written about us.
Weren't we devoted? Of course we were! Didn't we share everything? Absolutely. Only three years apart in age and as close as close could be until ... well, until I cajoled her into letting me have her favourite dolly, Michelle, for the night and one of the doll's eyes fell out. Nicola didn't speak to me for weeks after that.
Or maybe our relationship began to crumble when she was allowed a pony and I wasn't and I harboured such a grudge that, years later, I took her favourite lipstick and smeared it all over the walls of her bedroom.
Or did the problems begin when she had a boyfriend and I didn't and I used to kind of flirt with him (poor bloke) in my own childish way?
Oh, sisters! What a tangled web we weave. Forget mothers and sons, fathers and daughters, it's the relationship between sisters that is fascinating. Sisters can change the world. When we are good, united, pulling together, we are an unstoppable force. Look at the Middleton sisters. Would they, on their own, have made the Time Top 100 most influential women in the world? Probably not. It's the combination of them, with their conjoined serious/flirty double-act thing, and their irrepressible rise to the top of society's echelons, that makes them quite so powerful. They weren't bred for it. They have willed it.
And yet, and yet ... anyone who has a sister will tell you how fraught the relationship is. When we are in opposition to each other, we can bring houses down with the venom of our dislike. For it is just so complicated.
Sister relationships are bound by two utterly opposing factors; you love them and you hate them. I have felt more passion, more fear, loathing, love, loyalty for my sister than just about anyone else on the planet. She can drive me utterly insane — why does she do the crazy things she does? Then melt my heart with the warmth of her human kindness.
On the one hand, sisters are usually, on some level, utterly devoted. This is the expectation of sisterhood — you are both women! You have to pull together! On the other hand, we are all too close to each other for comfort.
Sisters share a very strong bond — they belong to the same family and are of the female gender. This, in itself, provokes a very strong glue. How can brothers truly understand their sisters and vice versa? Sisters go through the same things together — adolescence, first boyfriends, choosing bras, sharing experiences of pretty much everything. Some sisters seem almost programmed to react to a similar set of circumstances in exactly the same way.
My sister and I appear to be like chalk and cheese. She hasn't had a career. I have. She is an “earth mother”, I'm not. She's really nice to sad, lonely hangers-on. I am impatient and dismissive. She gives time to everyone, saves lame ladybirds, rears tiny chicks by hand. I march onwards and upwards, inadvertently crushing everything in my path.
But, when you look at our lives more closely, it is incredible how similar we are. We have both had lots of children. We both love the country. Our love lives have virtually mirrored each other's. This means that, regardless of all our ups and downs — and there have been many — we have a real, true, innate understanding of each other. And yet we have crashed and burnt so many times. We spent years not talking to each other — my mother stuck between the two of us, desperately trying to keep the peace as my sister and I have lobbed hurtful, painful insults over a metaphorical wall.
Sometimes I have been stratospherically insulting to her. She has bitten my head off at any given opportunity and yet, if anyone is rude about my sister, I'll leap to her defence. I will bristle on her behalf, defend her to the hilt, take up my cudgel and wade on in. I have shouted at her, sworn at her, and yet I've cried on her, wept on her like a baby, asked her to look after me, listen to me, help me. When the chips are down, we are there for each other.
We are the best of friends, the worst of enemies. There is no one on this planet who drives me quite as mad as she does, and yet ... she's the first person I ring when I am in trouble.
“Of course the sister relationship is fraught,” says family therapist Susan Swire. “Look at all that competition! There's the whole problem of ‘who's the prettiest' and ‘who's the most talented'.
“Then there is the inevitable tension around boyfriends. When girls are younger, they are very competitive about boyfriends and then, as they get older, they get competitive about everything. We think of our sisters as mirrors, and, sometimes, they don't show us at our best, and then that all gets turned into an intense form of rivalry.''
She's right — there are countless examples of sisters who indulge in a bit of healthy sibling rivalry, especially when it comes to the attractiveness stakes; Paris and Nicky Hilton are always posing together and yet, by their very natures, Paris is known more than Nicky because she is the most flamboyant. Vogue fashionista and author Plum Sykes is more widely known than her twin, Lucy, even though they both worked in the fashion business for years. Kim Kardashian is more famous than her sisters, Kourtney and Khloe.
This always seems to be the way. One sister rises higher than the other, the more flamboyant garnering more attention than the sober-suited one, the good versus the bad, each sister being the flipside of the other one, a female version of Jacob and Esau.
Take Santa and Tara Palmer-Tomkinson. Blonde, beautiful, honey-skinned Santa is a long-time married (to historical writer Simon Sebag Montefiore) mother and novelist. Tara is naughty, outspoken, formerly wild, vulnerable, and much loved by the nation.
Look at the Minogues. What do you do if you are Dannii? It's impossible to outdo Kylie who is deemed to be a total sweetheart by everyone. She was Charlene in Neighbours! Dannii didn't stand a chance. But maybe it's not that simple. Some sisters just don't get on. Novelists and sisters A S Byatt and Margaret Drabble haven't spoken in years, and refuse to read each other's books.
It also doesn't help when one sister is far more successful in their field than the other. Kristin Scott Thomas is renowned for being a great actress. Her sister Serena Scott Thomas, a former Bond girl, is almost forgotten. Jackie Kennedy Onassis outshone her sister Lee Radziwill, even though the latter was a princess.
My own sister and I have actually flipped roles. As a child, she was more serious, more controlling, more disapproving than she is now. I was probably more rebellious, cheeky, naughty, fun, and now, while I still have a touch of the rebel, my sister has become positively carefree. That serious little girl with the pursed lips has disappeared, to be replaced with something far more joyous and vibrant.
I'm the disapproving one now, always furrowing my brow, shaking my head, thinking “Oh no!” every time she rings me up to tell me a tale she finds hilarious and I find terrifying. When she told me she was pregnant with her seventh child, I almost dropped the phone in horror. We didn't speak for ages after that. But once she had her beautiful baby Jack, I felt truly mean for being so disapproving of something, someone, who is such a big bundle of joy.
Who was I to judge? Well, I am her sister. That's the point of me, her, both of us. Sisters, sisters. There were never such devoted sisters.
So what makes that bond so special? Two writers on the fun ... and the fall-outs
‘She gave me the nickname Podge’
By Jane Hardy
Sisters are in the news, with the highest profile being the Duchess of Cambridge and her younger sister Pippa Middleton, who resembles a Jilly Cooper heroine in that she’s wooed by ducal heirs and known for her party business, her japes in Paris (involving vicomtes who should know better and a fake gun) — oh, and that bottom shot.
But how does Kate feel about this? It’s hard to know as discretion is the better part of this sibling relationship.
As we approach the tenth anniversary of my sister’s death in August 2002, I find she is, like Georgia, rather on my mind.
Vlasta was 15 years older than me, in other words I was the afterthought, and in some ways, she was a second mum. She bought me lovely clothes in sophisticated colours like turquoise, to set off my ginger hair.
Acting was her first career and she ensured I got my cultural fix, taking me to the theatre in London and also to the movies. We saw the French film Claire’s Knee when I was about 13 and chatted about life, love and the emotional universe on the back of Rohmer’s film. When I had boyfriend trouble, she gave me good advice.
But she also had an unflattering
nickname for me, Podge, and we were first and foremost siblings, sisters, locked into that wonderful yet testing relationship.
Arguments, we had a few, and as we got older and followed different trajectories, they expanded to include how she was rearing her (marvellous) kids, how I was having to look after my (marvellous but increasingly gaga) mother, and even politics.
And there was always that uncut affection that you see between Kate and Pippa too, the smiles and near-giggles they exchanged in the Abbey, the shared stories. For we were the family historians, knowing the inside story of our tribe, as siblings always do, and I miss that a lot. There was, of course, competition too although it didn’t centre around the global enthusiasm for a certain shapely posterior.
It was when Vee and I were dating best friends that the sparks really flew. My sister had taught for a year at a finishing school and when my mother and I went out to see her on holiday in Switzerland, we met the obligatory ski instructor boyfriend.
After a night out, I got together with Robbie, the friend and obligatory banker, and I could read my sister’s thought bubble (we were pretty telepathic) which said ‘Ouch!’ That is, maybe I need to move on a stage if my baby sister is joining my set.
Ultimately, though, we were on the same team like the Middletons. Whenever anybody else criticised Vee (and nobody else was allowed to call her by that nickname, only me), my hackles rose. I could criticise her, disagree with things, take issue with other things, but you couldn’t.
But when we were planning her funeral, and I foolishly suggested saying something about her getting the great looks (she had about 11 proposals of marriage to my two, we counted one day), me the brains, although it obviously wasn’t as simple as that, a look told me I was wrong. No, Jane, she said.
So I didn’t. You didn’t mess with my sister, and of course, I’d give anything for her to be around to set me right today.
Underneath, I’m sure Pippa — and indeed Kate — know how lucky they are.
‘We’re both on Team Carson’
By Helen Carson
Being born just 13-months after my sister meant we were always going to be close. There was never any need to jostle with any other siblings for our parents’ attention, as there were just the two of us.
My mum used to tell me, as she dabbed at my tear-stained face after a silly squabble with a playmate, ‘you and Dawn have each other’. And she was right.
We were sisters and best friends too, with an unbreakable bond that has lasted all our lives.
As very small children there were a few minor skirmishes, fighting over a toy or the last uneaten cream bun on the plate when visitors came to call.
On Christmas Day we would read our books and instantly swap them later, the same with comics and later magazines — we do it to this day.
Even in those troublesome teen years, we put up a united front against all manner of curfews and bans our parents attempted to impose.
My long-suffering folks got all the angst of an adolescent girl times two! But that’s what happens when you have children so close together, they have their
growing pains simultaneously.
As the youngest of us two, I have always had the security of my older sister, who has always protected me. Being the baby, it’s in my DNA to complain incessantly to the extent my great uncle Tommy, a Somme veteran, nicknamed me ‘gurny gub’. Having survived the First World War trenches of France, he wasn’t in the habit of suffering fools, even very young, little ones.
Dawn has always been the more stylish of the two of us, mastering make-up long before any other girls of our age. And I have reaped the rewards of that, picking her brain for tips and raiding her jewellery box for bling.
In my late teens and early 20s she was the equivalent of Rachel Zoe to her pet project — me!
She devoured Vogue in her early teens and always knows who the hot new designers are, yet isn’t afraid to experiment a bit with colour.
She is comfortable in her own skin and rolls her eyes heavenward at hopeless fashion victims.
We are different in some ways, yet almost identical in others. Like the Middleton girls, people try to make comparisons, but trying to divide and conquer is a hopeless mission when it comes to Dawn and I.
We’re both on Team Carson and there is nothing anyone can do to pull us apart. We have our difficulties, disagreements and issues ... but it’s between us, and you can be sure before the sun goes down, any grievances will quickly evaporate as though they never existed.