Till Death Us Do Part: the strangeness of sibling relationships

My brother and I 'getting on well' as children

My brother and I ‘getting on well’ as children

My mum tells this delightful story about how when I was a baby my older brother – then a toddler – used to climb into my pram and pinch me.

‘He was so resourceful,’ my mother says.

Actually, she doesn’t say this, but I can tell she’s thinking it, oblivious to the fact that she’s reared a sociopath.

Case in point: just after I learnt to crawl, my brother – clearly resentful of my latest triumph – ‘accidentally’ opened the baby gate at the top of the stairs. Down I went – bump bump bump – and landed on my face.

My mum claims he was too young to know what he was doing. He claims he doesn’t remember. All I know is, I’ve never quite lived up to my early promise, and it may have something to do with that original head injury.

I’ve been thinking a lot about sibling relationships over the past year or so. My first novel, The View on the Way Down, was published earlier this month, and it focuses, among other things, on the relationship between three siblings: Kit, Jamie and Emma. It is perhaps the relationship between the two brothers which takes centre stage, given that an extraordinary act of loyalty from one to the other is the book’s cornerstone, but the bond between all three siblings provides much of the emotional impetus of the story.

It’s impossible to characterise sibling relationships in general terms. I know some people who genuinely dislike their brother or sister, and others who have found in them a soul-mate (I know – nauseating). Probably most people fall somewhere between these two extremes, settling for mildly exasperated affection.

But either way, it’s an odd relationship. We grow up in incredibly close proximity with our siblings. We share more than genes; as children, we often share bedrooms, we share clothes, we share experiences and memories and hang-ups passed down from our parents. We share bad haircuts, if our mothers are that way inclined. We share the terror of being kissed wetly by our great-aunts, and we sag with mutual disappointment when presented with yet another craft set for Christmas.

When else would you ever choose to live this closely alongside another human being unless they’ve been painstakingly selected and carefully screened as your life-partner? And even then, you can get rid of a boyfriend or girlfriend, even a spouse, if they irritate you. But you can never erase a family connection, even if you choose never to see them. They’ll still be there, lurking in the background, remembering your starring turn as a badger in the school musical.

This unsolicited proximity is, of course, part of the reason we find our siblings so irritating. There’s also the fact that they may resemble us a bit too much for comfort; I can’t be the only person who finds my own traits reflected back at me in others the most annoying of all. Finally, of course, there’s the age-old problem of sibling rivalry. Cain gave us an excellent illustration of how not to deal with feelings of inadequacy, but we’ve all been trundling along regardless ever since, beadily watching our parents for the slightest sign of preferential treatment, simmering away with jealousy and resentment. (Except me – I know I’ve adopted a confiding tone, but I’m extremely well-adjusted.)

A final word about my own brother, who I’m sure will be delighted when he sees he’s the subject of this post. He’s virtually the polar opposite of me – a scientist, forever taking things apart, rational and competent; a doctor these days, and a bloody good one, I suspect. I was always the more emotional child, creative and thoughtful, easily hurt. But I wonder if we’d have adopted such clear-cut roles if we hadn’t, to some extent, been playing off each other, struggling to carve out separate identities in our own and our parents’ eyes? And even now, of course, I’m simplifying things. The truth is, I was OK at science too. And my brother was far more thoughtful and introspective than me at times. It’s easier now to draw a line down the middle of it all: you can have this, and I’ll have that. You can have Maths, and I’ll have Art. You can be clever, I’ll be imaginative. How much of our personalities are shaped by our relationships with our siblings?

With all this in mind, I’ve been compiling a list of my top five sibling relationships in literature. Feel free to add your own suggestions.

1. Cain and Abel, Genesis

How could they not make the list? Truthfully I think the relationship between Jacob and Esau is just as fascinating, as is the relationship between Joseph and his brothers. In fact, the Bible is an excellent source of sibling rivalry. But it all begins with Cain and Abel. What has thou done? The voice of thy brother’s blood crieth unto me from the ground.

2. Maggie and Tom Tulliver, The Mill on the Floss

It’s unusual for a sibling bond to be so much the heart of the novel. George Eliot does it superbly: Maggie and Tom’s relationship is complex, painful and tense, but the love is there too. The ending of the novel divides people, but there is a certain satisfaction in seeing Maggie and Tom united, even as they meet their end.

3. Viola and Sebastian, Twelfth Night

Like the writers of the Bible, Shakespeare is interested in sibling relationships, and he does them well. Many of these relationships are of the bitter and hostile variety (Edgar/ Edmund and Goneril/ Regan in King Lear, Prospero/ Antonio in The Tempest, Orlando/ Oliver in As You Like It), whilst others are more ambiguous (Claudio/ Isabella in Measure for Measure). But in the end I chose Viola and Sebastian for the poignancy and tenderness of their relationship. I’ve always found their reunion at the end of the play hugely moving, and I suspect it also influenced my novel.

4. Sigmund and Signy, Völsunga saga

Yes, I know including this makes me look mildly pretentious but I’ve put it in anyway because it’s just that good. In the legendary Icelandic saga, Signy’s evil husband King Siggeir has all her family killed except for her twin brother Sigmund, whom Signy manages to save. Together, the twins plot revenge. Things get violent.

5. Antigone and Polyneices, Greek legend/ Sophocles’ Antigone

I remember my mum telling me this story when I was little and unwittingly traumatising me. Antigone’s brother Polyneices is killed in battle, but because he has been declared a traitor against Thebes, he is not allowed a proper burial. In Sophocles’ version, King Creon decrees that Polyneices’ body must be left out in the open for the animals to devour as punishment for his treachery. Antigone defies her uncle Creon to bury her brother, and as punishment is walled up alive.

 Honourable mentions

A few I like, but which didn’t make the final cut:

ŸWilliam, Ethel and Robert Brown in Richmal Crompton’s William books – William’s disdain for them, their exasperation with him…so funny, and so plausible.

ŸHolden and Phoebe Caulfield in J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye – Holden’s love for his sister is truly touching, and might be seen as his salvation.

ŸThe Hegarty siblings in Anne Enright’s The Gathering – such a superbly written novel, and excellent on the push and pull of sibling bonds.

Ÿ Scout and Jem Finch in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird – because it reminds me of my relationship with my brother when we were children. Kind of. Though maybe with a bit less actual fighting.

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About Rebecca Wait

27-year-old writer based in London. Author of 'The View on the Way Down'.
This entry was posted in Lists, Literature, The View on the Way Down and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Till Death Us Do Part: the strangeness of sibling relationships

  1. Chance finds me here and I’m very pleased to have found such a well-considered and beautifully-crafted piece. A post which makes me think and challenges my perceptions is always welcome reading; when it is erudite and literary, too, I’m completely and rewardingly engaged. The proverbial icing is the command of English, sadly quite a rare treat! I found myself considering what a raw deal Ophelia gets by comparison with Laertes, off with his father’s (granted much-qualified) blessing, whilst she remains to play the pawn. I, too, am moved by Viola and Sebastian. I wonder how many siblings achieve their equality?
    Thank you.

    • rebeccawait says:

      Do you know, I didn’t even consider Ophelia and Laertes. What a great point! And the gender angle is pretty interesting in itself. Thanks so much for your comment, and especially for your kind words!

  2. aziaami says:

    I enjoyed reading this and it made me think about my own sibling relationship.

    Check out this Ted talk on the sibling bond

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