We first met Harry Rose, head of the Rose Corporation, in Wife after Wife, a great re-telling of the ‘romantic’ career of Henry VIII. Harry has now taken early retirement with his fifth wife, Clare. His eldest daughter, the devout Catholic Maria, is running the business, while his favourite daughter, Eliza, is finishing her studies at Oxford. Eliza is getting concerned about Maria’s moves to push the Rose brand into increasingly conservative directions, and she is keen to enter the world of big business, “I want to change the world.” The stage is set for Eliza’s rise to power, but there is an ambitious Scottish cousin waiting in the wings …
Sister to Sister is another delightful romp taking 16th century events and plopping them in the world of big business, privilege and the lives of modern women. Eliza is the heir to Harry’s empire, and is beautiful and desirable. But from the experiences of the women around her, she knows that love can be as much about avarice as affection. She has a staunch group of supporters in her Oxford friends: Will Bardington, a gifted wordsmith, Frankie Mallard, a keen sailor, Leigh Walters, good with figures, and the mysterious Kit Marley. Kit is beautiful, androgynous, prescient and Eliza’s closest friend and ally. Rob Studley is Eliza’s main love interest, a charmer she has known since childhood. Rob is devoted, and willing to put up with Eliza’s scruples regarding relationships with married men. But is Eliza ever going to be ready for marriage, when “Marriage meant compromise; it meant adapting, putting your partner first”?
As with Wife after Wife, Sister to Sister is full of references to Tudor life: An ice cream van plays Greensleeves; an ex-girlfriend “looked like Anne Hathaway”; Eliza’s pet project is a new production company, RoseGold, that will launch “A new golden age of British drama” onto transatlantic TV screens; an unsavoury man, Philip Seville, who inveigles himself into Maria’s affection is head of Hapsburg Inc., and has a holding company called Armada; when the Scottish cousin buddies up with another unexpected character, Eliza is worried “It felt like . . . an alliance”, etc, etc. It is very funny, but underneath is the cut and thrust of big business – the sneaky trading of shares to get control, the use of spies, the use of women in strategic places, the convenient deaths.
The ‘problems’ of privilege are aired, always being in the public eye, the dangers of the paparazzi, the risks of letting your true feelings show when it could be used as ammunition. And the scandals aren’t all trumped up by the media – there are lots of secrets lurking about, many concerning unexpected family relations, all of which have an impact on Eliza, Harry and Rose Corp. There’s even an unpleasant surprise from the colonies!
The story is told from the points of view of Eliza and Harry, but the focus is on Eliza – “Write your name across the sky, my darling girl,” says Harry. We feel her insecurities, her confusion, her ambition, her passion, the moments when “She was overtaken by an awareness of her solitude”, and the moments she finds herself: “I expect absolute loyalty. I work only with people I can trust.” And there is a lovely sense of security in her relationship with Kit. Based on Christopher Marlowe, Kit is a vivid character, who has a fiery relationship with Will, with whom he ends up working in the RoseGold arm of the company. And it is through Kit that we get a taste of real magic and moonlight, “some of us exist outside of time.”
Sister to Sister is a great read, it is quite poignant to think what some people will give up for power and prestige, and those they are willing to lose along the way. I think it is preferable to read Wife after Wife first, but Sister to Sister could be read as a stand-alone, after all the back story is very familiar!