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A Circle of Sisters: Alice Kipling, Georgiana Burne-Jones, Agnes Poynter and Louisa Baldwin [Kindle Edition]

Judith Flanders
4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (21 customer reviews)

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Book Description

The Macdonald sisters -- Alice, Georgiana, Agnes and Louisa -- started life among the ranks of the lower-middle classes, with little prospect of social advancement. But as wives and mothers they made a single family of the poet Rudyard Kipling, the Pre-Raphaelite painter Edward Burne-Jones, Edward Poynter, President of the Royal Academy, and the Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin. In telling their remarkable story, Judith Flanders displays the fluidity of Victorian society, and explores the life of the family in the 19th century.

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Amazon Review

Circle of Sisters is a new collective biography of the four Macdonald sisters, two of whom married the famous painters Edward Burne-Jones and Edward Poynter, while the other two married Lockwood Kipling and Alfred Baldwin and produced between them a poet laureate and a prime minister. The daughters of a Methodist preacher, the four sisters led diverse and cosmopolitan lifestyles by Victorian standards, even if they remained throughout the subordinate siblings and partners of their menfolk. The story of the Macdonald family has been told before--notably in Ina Taylor's Victorian Sisters (1987--and although Flanders' account is better written, with more colour and detail, and with a finer appreciation of both the Macdonald forebears and the upbringing of the four girls, the book does not really live up to its billing. The author promises a book about private women, domestic life and the rhythms of family, subjects on which some of the best Victorian historians around have been working for a generation--for example, Leonore Davidoff and Catherine Hall in their influential Family Fortunes (1986). But we do not really get this. Circle of Sisters becomes too easily a conventional account of famous fathers and sons (Rudyard Kipling gets more space than Alice his mother). It is readable and undemanding biography, but hardly amounts to challenging history. We simply never learn enough about what made the sisters tick as daughters, wives or mothers. --Miles Taylor


"Drive[s] a four-horse chariot through the nineteenth century.... I have enjoyed this book more than I can say."

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More About the Author

Judith Flanders was born in London, England, in 1959. She moved to Montreal, Canada, when she was two, and spent her childhood there, apart from a year in Israel in 1972, where she signally failed to master Hebrew.

After university, Judith returned to London and began working as an editor for various publishing houses. After this 17-year misstep, she began to write and in 2001 her first book, A Circle of Sisters, the biography of four Victorian sisters, was published to great acclaim, and nominated for the Guardian First Book Award. In 2003, The Victorian House received widespread praise, and was shortlisted for the British Book Awards History Book of the Year. In 2006, Consuming Passions was published. Her book, The Invention of Murder, was shortlisted for the 2011 CWA Non-Fiction Dagger. Her most recent book, The Victorian City: Everyday Life in Dickens' London, was published in 2012.

Judith also contributes articles, features and reviews for a number of newspapers and magazines. He home on the web can be found at

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Customer Reviews

4.4 out of 5 stars
4.4 out of 5 stars
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
25 of 25 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Circle of Sisters 20 July 2002
By ko
I was compelled from the start: a lower middle-class Methodist family 4 of whose daughters were protagonists in the lives of 4 influential and eminent Victorian men. This book skillfully sets up and contextualises the atmosphere of a mid 19th century England, in which women were defined by their roles as daughters, wives and mothers, and whose lives were effectively over once childbearing was complete.
The first half of the book elegantly opens up the world of the sisters, giving us both insight into their perceptions of their lives and the perceptions that society maintained about the lives of women.
As the book progresses a transition occurs - the lives of the sisters play second fiddle to those of their husbands and sons, as fascination about the men's lives become overpowering in their detail. The book, inadvertently, is an illustration of the invisibility of the Victorian woman who has fulfilled her function of bringing her men to the fore.
By two thirds of the way into the book the sisters are mentioned only in passing. There is no longer any sense of depth in their perceptions of those exerting influence around them, and little discourse of their attitudes and behaviours in relation to the way that Victorian values and mores were changing throughout the century. This despite the fact that each sister produced prolific correspondence, and 3 of whom were published authors.
There is strong evidence of the thorough research and work that the author has undertaken, and it is a shame that the sisters fade out of the book rather. Although they may have faded in the minds of those around them, the very fact that we now have a book dedicated to them suggests that they deserve a well rounded finish.
The 4 star rating reflects my unfulfilled expectations of the book.
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13 of 13 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Did not live up to its promise 10 May 2010
By hiljean VINE VOICE
This book was chosen for my book group and, as I usually enjoy biography and am interested in this period, I was greatly looking forward to reading it. Unfortunately I was not alone in being disappointed. Only one member out of nine of us really enjoyed this book and several gave up on it. The problems were various:

The title of the book is "A Circle of Sisters" and it is subtitled with their names, but actually once you get beyond their childhoods it is much more about their husbands and/or children. In fact two of the sisters take to their beds quite early on (one making a miraculous recovery once her children leave home!) and do absolutely nothing with their lives. So there is a large amount of information about Edward Burne-Jones, William Morris (his friend), Stanley Baldwin's father, Rudyard Kipling's father, and Rudyard Kipling himself. The women often feature only in passing.

The second problem is the sheer size of the cast of characters which makes for a lot of confusion. On two pages (114-115) the following names are mentioned: Janey, May, Rosetti,William Morris, Louie, Georgie, Burne-Jones, Swinburne, Simeon Solomon, Poynter, Richard Burton, Kate Vaughan, Alice, Rudyard Kipling, Hannah, Rosalind Howard, Ford Madox-Brown, and Phil! This makes it almost impossible for the reader to keep track.

These problems are not helped by the fact that Flanders writes rather woodenly. I couldn't help but compare this novel to Mary Lovell's marvellous biography of the Mitford Sisters which seems a fair comparison given that both books are a portrait of a set of sisters. But there the similarity ends. Whereas Mary Lovell writes with wit, verve and clarity, I found Judith Flanders' style dull and muddled.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A Circle of Sisters by Judith Flanders 25 Mar. 2010
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Judith Flanders had clearly done a huge amount of research for this potentially fascinating subject BUT she was determined to put in every last bit and this made the book turgid to read. Almost every page had footnotes and, if you broke off to read them, the flow of the narrative was lost. Admittedly, I do find biography more difficult to read than fiction, but a novel based on her research would have been far more readable for me. Our book group all read this paperback and 2 of the 8 thoroughly enjoyed it. The other 6, me included, made the adverse comments above.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
It's almost a pub quiz question - who or what connects pre-Raphaelite painter Edward Burne-Jones, the arts administrator Edward Poynter, prime minister Stanley Baldwin and writer Rudyard Kipling? The answer and the subject of this book is the four MacDonald sisters: Georgiana and Agnes being wife to the first two, and Louisa and Alice mother to the latter two.

I'm in two minds in reviewing this book - on the one hand I enjoyed it, on the other I can clearly see where it falls down, where it could have been improved. Few of the sisters emerge from these pages with any clear sense of personality, in particularly Edie and Agnes, and by the time Flanders is recounting the lives of the children and grandchildren I often became quite lost. I'm still not clear who Denis or Margaret belonged to!

Part of the problem is that none of the MacDonald sisters themselves led especially interesting or exceptional lives - whatever fame they have bequeathed to posterity is a result of the menfolk they were attached to, not for anything they themselves did. So you're left with a biography of four women who were only remarkable in the sense that they connected four well-known male personalities, none of whom are the focus of this book or who emerge with any kind of clear presence either. It's sort of a case of 'damned if you do and damned if you don't' - the sisters are what unites the men who led the interesting public lives, but you can't write a joint biography of them because their ties are only tenuous 'via marriage' relationships, and what's left isn't all that interesting.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
4.0 out of 5 stars A Circle of Sisters
I read this book years ago but lent my copy to someone and it wasn't returned. I wanted to retread it because it involves real people who had a significant impact on the wider... Read more
Published 28 days ago by Kate
4.0 out of 5 stars Debut so would read another...
I preferred Lord Birkenhead's Rudyard Kipling but this book about the Macdonald sisters & the marriages they made padded out that particular circle. Read more
Published 1 month ago by Lindsey Clare Gee-Turner
5.0 out of 5 stars Loved it.
Loved it.. Full of information .. From Methodist upbringings in the North to Victorian 'bohemian ' atmospheres in the South.
Published 2 months ago by T.C.
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars
Fascinating book
Published 4 months ago by Mrs L. L. Noel
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars
Published 4 months ago by MR MICHAEL SMITH
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars
Absolutely fascinating and extremely well written.
Published 6 months ago by Suey H
5.0 out of 5 stars A period in history
I was fascinated with the women related to in the book who were of interest especially because of the men they married. I am still waiting to finish the book
Published 17 months ago by Monica
4.0 out of 5 stars Excellent
Bought for a friends Christmas present - I read it a few years ago a very good and comprehensive story of four very impressive sisters - who married well but were very competent... Read more
Published 19 months ago by Pal
4.0 out of 5 stars Victorian Lives
.I bought this book after visiting Bateman's, Kiplings house. It is a fascinating story of the four MacDonald sisters who became famous because they were the mothers or wives of... Read more
Published 21 months ago by Mrs. M. Jane Barton
4.0 out of 5 stars A circle of Sisters and how they found fame.
I haven't yet finished this book but so far I am captivated by learning about 19 century social history as seen through the eyes of the four sisters. Read more
Published 23 months ago by Rosalind Burnett
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