It took me three tries to read this 1904 novel, because the first chapter got the story off to such an ominous start. It introduces us to Guthrie Carey, a young sailor who "married Lily Harrison, simply because she was a poor, pretty, homeless little girl, who had to earn her living as a nondescript lady-help in hard situations, and never had a holiday." Two weeks after their marriage, he shipped out for a long voyage. When he returned almost a year later, he had a son. He prepares a cozy home for his family, and to give his wife a treat he arranges to travel there by boat, across the bay outside Melbourne. The couple are sitting happily cuddled together in the bow of the ship when a rogue wave hits, washing them overboard. Lily, who cannot swim, sinks and drowns, leaving Guthrie with their infant son.
All this happens in the first chapter. Now, Ada Cambridge began A Humble Enterprise with a tragic accident, and a much gorier one at that. But I had a feeling that this story was going to be a darker one, more like A Marked Man or Fidelis. This time, I made up my mind I was going to get past Lily and see where the story took me.
It is through his son Harry that Guthrie meets the sisters of the title, four daughters of Mr Pennycuick of Redford, a sheep station in the Western District. The second daughter, Deborah, is the belle of the district, and Guthrie promptly falls in love with her. Her older sister Mary, afflicted with a skin condition, has run the household since the death of their mother. She takes charge of Harry, making much of him - as women with an eye on the widower father tend to do. The third sister, Rose, is a quiet homebody, while the youngest, Francie, is a budding minx and hobbledehoya. The story shifts from Guthrie to follow the sisters through the next twenty years, particularly after their father's death leaves them almost penniless. (Guthrie turns up occasionally, between voyages.) I think Cambridge was using their stories to explore the limited choices available to women of their class. Each marries, but the only happy one shocks the other three, because that sister marries "beneath her." She has to keep apologizing that her husband is "only a draper," despite the fact that she lives in great comfort and on the best terms with her handsome husband (and their eleven children). Another sister is forced at a moment of great emotional crisis to marry a clergyman in full Mr Collins mode. Cambridge's comment on this marriage shocked me: it "meant a footing for her somewhere, and at the same time a means to commit suicide without violating the law." No wonder that on their wedding night she "shrank back from [the bedroom door] with a shriek." Cambridge wrote in A Humble Enterprise that a
good marriage is "the nearest approach to happiness that has been
discovered at present," while an "unlucky" marriage is a "living martyrdom." She certainly echoes that here.
I was drawn into the sisters' stories, curious to see how they would turn out. I was pretty sure that the "mésalliance" would be a success, but I had my doubts about choices the others made. I couldn't help comparing these sisters to those in The Three Miss Kings. The Pennycuicks are much richer and grander, at least while their father is alive. They don't have the closeness of the King sisters, nor their cheerful ingenuity. Both stories have an element of a fairy tale, with a generous godparent, but the Pennycuicks don't get as much joy out of theirs. In the end, I thought this book was interesting, but it didn't draw me like The Three Miss Kings or A Humble Enterprise.
One last note: another reason I struggled with this book is the weird formatting of the copy I read. It is a modern reprint by Kessinger Publishing, in an odd size (9x7 inches, which feels almost square). It is very poorly edited, with different characters' speeches running together in paragraphs, and it has LOTS of ODD capitalization (perhaps italics in the original). If I am tempted to re-read this book, I think I'll look for an e-version.
N.B. This fills another year in my Mid-Century of Books.