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A Circle of Sisters: Alice Kipling, Georgiana Burne-Jones, Agnes Poynter, and Louisa Baldwin

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  • Posted June 16, 2011

    more from this reviewer

    I Also Recommend:

    Rudyard Kipling's mother Alice Macdonald and her one unmarried and three married sisters

    Who can read with profit Judith Flanders's 2001 (and later) A CIRCLE OF SISTERS: ALICE KIPLING, GEORGIANA BURNE-JONES, AGNES POYNTER AND LOUISA BALDWIN? If these four "Macdonald" sisters' names mean nothing to you, know that Alice's son Rudyard Kipling won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1907. Louisa birthed Stanley Baldwin, who became Prime Minister and an Earl. Georgiana and Agnes married men who made themselves leading painters and artistic bonzes of the Victorian Age. Is that still not enough to tempt you to read A CIRCLE OF SISTERS? Well, here are some more points of entry. *** - (1) Judith Flanders attempts what she says is an entirely new kind of BIOGRAPHY. Focus is on entire families rather than supposedly stand-alone geniuses or achievers. And of nearly equal importance are the households, houses, kitchens, bathrooms, approaches to healing, modes of transport and such like which supported or sapped the energies of the families being described. *** - (2) If you have a particular interest in one or more members of the extended, interlocking Macdonald family -- as I do for Rudyard Kipling -- you may be surprised to find explanations here that have eluded other biographers. Why, for instance, did the parents of very young Rudyard and Trix Kipling send them back from India to live for years in a hell of an English boarding house instead of lodging them with their already affluent inlaws or parents? Note also the parents' decision to send Rudyard, after his nerve-shattering ordeal in the boarding house, to the United Services School, a new prep school at Westward Ho! run by Cormell Price. From biographies of Rudyard Kipling, I knew vaguely that Price was an old "friend of the Macdonald family." But Judith Flanders takes us back to the school days of Alice Macdonald Kipling's brother Henry when Henry brought home to his family's home in Birmingham school chums such as Cormell Price. Price was to play a seminal role in turning Kipling into a professional writer and landing his first job with a newspaper in Lahore, India. This biography links together a lot of scattered biographical data picked up elsewhere. *** - (3) Alice Macdonald Kipling's great grandfather left Skye, Scotland after the 1745 rising for Bonnie Prince Charlie, for Ireland. The author gives a feeling for the personal impact of Methodism's founder John Wesley on the Macdonalds of Ireland and later England. The sisters were products of strong Methodist households. So read A CIRCLE OF SISTERS both for the Clan Macdonald and for evangelical Methodism. *** My first reading of this complex narrative left me a bit confused: too many generations of too many interlocking families for anything like tight narrative unity. But I liked the book enough to know that I had to read A CIRCLE OF SISTERS a second time. I was then struck by the author's asserted importance of families in forming individuals. Also sticking in my memory are the forty or fifty passages about life in Victorian England, e.g., the scourge of constipation based on too much use of opiates as medicine combined with too much meat eating; the thousands dying every year in London of tuberculosis or cholera; the drudgery of cooking over an open fire and under a soot-choked chimney; the ton of coal a middle-class family burnt every six weeks and the resultant dirt all over the house. All in all, A CIRCLE OF SISTERS is a worthy, ambitious work, nearly carried off. -OOO-

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