The Bunner Sisters

I’ve been reading this Edith Wharton novella in my idle hours. It has some really lovely evocations of loneliness, solitude, the pitiable smallness of the lives of these unmarried sisters, but the story seems to unspool and wind away as it grows more elaborate and emotive. While the events become more dramatic, more like the indulgent melodramas of their neighbour Miss Mellins, the subtle pathos of the early scenes is never recovered. The elder, Ann Eliza, is accustomed to give way to her younger, prettier, more petulant sister, Evelina, but when an intriguing German clockmaker intrudes on her emotional constitution, she feels for the first time some claims of her own. “Ann Eliza, in those days, had never dreamed of allowing herself the luxury of self-pity: it seemed as much a personal right of Evelina’s as her elaborately crinkled hair. But now she began to transfer to herself a portion of the sympathy she had so long bestowed on Evelina. She had at last recognised her right to set up some lost opportunities of her own; and once that dangerous precedent established, they began to crowd upon her memory.” However, she yields to her sister in this as in everything, and Evelina wins the hand of the clockmaker.

But the marriage is disastrous, and Evelina returns to her sister in an advanced state of consumption. As the passions of both sisters magnify, the pathos of their littleness is lost.  In tending her sister’s ruinous end, Ann Eliza experiences a realisation akin to the one just quoted. “For the first time in her life she dimly faced the awful problem of the inutility of self-sacrifice […] Self-effacement for the good of others had always seemed to her both natural and necessary […] Now she perceived that to refuse the gifts of life does not ensure their transmission to those for whom they have been surrendered; and her familiar heaven was unpeopled.”  This loss of self is more profound than her first, but it didn’t move me as much. Her sister’s loss in the marriage didn’t move me as much as Ann Eliza’s loss of the prospect of it. In this instance, as in many, less is more.