The True & Splendid History of the Harristown Sisters by Michelle Lovric

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Reviewed by Helen Parry

We Swineys were the hairiest girls in Harristown, Kildare, and the hairiest you’d find anywhere in Ireland from Priesthaggard to Sluggery. That is, our limbs were as hairless as marble, but on our heads, well, you’d not believe the torrents that shot from our industrious follicles like endless Irish rain.

Born to poverty during the Great Famine, the seven Swiney sisters are brought up in a hovel by their laundress mother, Annora, surrounded by thin geese, slow crows, damp sheets and knobbly grey potatoes. The twins, Enda and Berenice, hate each other, and the four younger sisters divide into ‘tribes’: Manticory and Oona siding with Enda in the endless quarrelling and Pertilly and Ida taking Berenice’s part. Across them all falls the menacing shadow and slapping hand of Darcy, the eldest of the sisters, feared for her spiteful tongue and goose-strangling sadism. When not terrorising her sisters she is waging a ferocious war with the Eileen O’Reilly, an only child who professes to loathe all Swineys yet cannot keep away from them:

 ‘Your heart wouldn’t even make a sausage, so small and shrivelled it is, Darcy Swinehead, with seven drops of the Devil’s blood inside it. Soup made of Jesus’s dead bones wouldn’t choke you, ye bold black torment.’
‘Is that the way of you? You are a grand mouse-sucker and a rat-friend and a knock-knee thing besides.’
‘No need for them poor sisters on yours to go hungry when ye could haunt houses for a living, great unnatural-lookin’ baste that ye are.’
Darcy replied loftily, ‘When I look at your face, I am proud of my rear end.’

While their beginnings are inauspicious, the sisters’ mysterious father(s) – who may or may not be Phelan Swiney, mariner – has endowed the girls with one gift, other than their fanciful names – long, thick, luxuriant hair. In the age of the Pre-Raphaelites, women’s locks have an erotic power, and as soon as Darcy realises that there is money to be made she drags her sisters onstage to sing, dance and – the real point of the show – unleash their hair to swirl down to their ankles. Battling nits, ringworm and the Eileen O’Reilly, the Swiney Godivas (‘seven beauteous flowers of Old Ireland in their first bloom’) rise to fame, fortune and a Dublin townhouse. But soon they are being exploited by oleaginous Mr Rainfleury and Tristan Stoker, and pushed by them and Darcy into compromising their morals and their identities ever further.

Michelle Lovric’s delightful novel, narrated by Manticory, follows the Swiney Godivas from Harristown to Dublin to Venice. I loved the descriptions of the Swiney Godivas’ shows, in which they re-enact fairy-tales, myths and biblical tales, form tableaux of famous works of art like Botticelli’s Venus and plunder the works of Dickens, Thackeray and even Shakespeare for ‘hairy’ scenes and heroines for ‘tribute’ acts. The theatrical scenes are spiced by the sisters’ animosity towards each other, the surreptitious pinching and shoving, the whispers of ‘brown bitch heifer’ through the staged smiles. The shows are devised by Manticory:

The lights would dim and [Tristan] would whisper offstage, ‘Hair! Women’s hair! It lies against their throats like a lover. A dying lover. Hair lives beyond death … Is it not the lure of the grave itself that gives raven-winged hair its irresistible supernatural lustre?’

The lights rose to show Darcy glowering over a pomegranate as Mr Rossetti’s Proserpine, the shades of Hell darkening her eyes and the serpentine gyre of her neck and hair showing all her power. She was Mr Sandys’ Medea, clutching a blood-red necklace, and also his Rosamund, her murderous hair as black and tumultuous as her soul. In a shadowy background, a prone Tristan played the husband she had just slain, while I, in the wings, sent a skull spilling wine spinning across the stage. Darcy’s most celebrated role was as Medusa, using an ingenious device adapted from an egg-beater to raise wiggling snakes in her hair.

But the exuberance and comedy are the sunny side of a story which dissects degrees of moral culpability. The sisters are uneasily aware that their success depends on appealing to the more lurid side of masculine lust: ‘The men gaped greedily at my hair as if they longed to stuff it into their open mouths.’ Nice nineteenth-century girls do not parade themselves on the stage in pink bodystockings pretending to be Lady Godiva or the exhumed Lizzy Siddal, nor do they permit dodgy hair tonics and creepy dolls to be sold in their name. Why do the Swiney Godivas collude with this? Are they passive through powerlessness or moral cowardice? They are bound to each other not only by a fear of poverty but also, beneath the surface bickering, a sense of solidarity they do not always understand. They retain a modicum of self-respect by delegating, consciously and otherwise, any unpleasantness to deliciously wicked Darcy.

The sisters unwisely leave the telling of their stories to others. Rainfleury and Stoker turn them into brands. John Millwillis, the gutter journalist, rootles out ‘facts’ he distorts into scurrilous articles. The True & Splendid History of the Harristown Sisters is Manticory’s sympathetic record (albeit a private one: she will publish a different, more acceptable version for the public). Yet it too is tainted because Manticory feels responsible for much that happens. She relishes the chance to write she is afforded by the Swiney Godiva Corporation while recognising that her works are crimes against art, playing to every murky Victorian stereotype of virginal, voracious or murderous femininity to squeeze out profit. She scripts quarrels for the sisters’ acts, but fears that these intensify their rivalries to a dangerous pitch. And she is deeply implicated in a crime which occurs near the end of the novel: if I have a quibble, it’s that its exploration of guilt and writing doesn’t quite go far enough here. It’s a small quibble, however: I’m already ordering Lovric’s backlist…

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Helen Parry blogs at A Gallimaufry

Michelle Lovric, The True & Splendid History of the Harristown Sisters (Bloomsbury, 2014),468pp.

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