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

by Judith Flanders
4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (7 customer reviews)

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Book Description

February 11, 2005 9780393343106 978-0393343106 1

“Judith Flanders has driven a four horse chariot through the nineteenth century. In telling the story of the four Macdonald sisters she has brilliantly illuminated the world of Victorian England. I have enjoyed this book more than I can say.” —John Julius Norwich

The Macdonalds were both of their own time and yet our contemporaries. In the personal and social journeys they made they were creatures of an exceptional moment in history, a social drama set in a privileged time and place, while in the ordinary dynamics of their relationships with each other they were us. The dynamism of family life mirrored the times. From the birth of Alice soon after Queen Victoria came to the throne, to their dispersal at the end of a long Edwardian summer, the Macdonalds were a prime example of the fluidity and social mobility that characterized the age.

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Although born to a humble Methodist minister, the clever and artistically inclined Macdonald sisters married "up," into the Victorian bourgeoisie. Georgiana married the rising pre-Raphaelite painter Edward Burne-Jones, whose affair with Greek sculptress Mary Zambaco would later test Georgiana's love for him. The family beauty, Agnes, also married an artist, the president of the Royal Academy Edward Poynter. Alice, known for her wit and flirtatiousness, married John Lockwood Kipling, the head of an art school in Bombay; Rudyard Kipling was their son. Louisa suffered from a mysterious debilitating illness, yet managed to write and publish several novels and married the industrialist Alfred Baldwin. Her son, Stanley Baldwin, was a three-time prime minister of Britain. Did the sisters "make" their husbands and their sons? Flanders (Inside the Victorian Home) ponders this question as she teases out, with novelistic insights, the domestic dramas, career paths and affinities of the sisters and their talented families. With her characteristic flair for absorbing detail and analysis, Flanders also explores more general aspects of Victorian social history: from the gender values underlying attitudes toward nervous illness to philosophies of child-rearing (particularly pertinent when discussing Rudyard Kipling's notoriously unhappy childhood). Shortlisted in England for the Guardian First Book Award, this is a treat for lovers of feminist Victorian history. 16 pages of b&w illus. not seen by PW. (Mar.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From Booklist

They were not to the manor born; blue blood did not flow in their veins, yet sisters Alice, Agnes, Georgiana, and Louisa MacDonald grew up to become the wives and mothers of some of Victorian England's most celebrated and influential men. Georgie would marry renowned pre-Raphaelite artist Edward Burne-Jones; Agnes, Edward Poynter, administrator of the Royal Academy of Art and the National and Tate galleries. Louisa's son, Stanley Baldwin, would be a three-term prime minister, and Alice Kipling's son, Rudyard, would give the world classic literature. Although the MacDonald women were not without intellect and talent, theirs would be a reflected glory, and Flanders ponders how each affected her husband's or son's achievements and what effect their work had, in turn, upon the women. Offering perceptive commentary on the prescribed role of women in Victorian society to be mere helpmeets, Flanders' attentive, scholarly accuracy is enhanced by piquant observations that demonstrate both her professional talent and personal take on the lives of these remarkable, but unremarked upon, women. Carol Haggas
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

Product Details

  • Paperback: 432 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company; 1 edition (February 11, 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 9780393343106
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393343106
  • ASIN: 0393343103
  • Product Dimensions: 9 x 6 x 1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (7 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #879,886 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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 2004, Inside the Victorian Home 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. Her home on he web can be found at

Customer Reviews

4.1 out of 5 stars
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
13 of 14 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A good book for a somewhat specialized audience May 10, 2006
This isn't something that I would recommend to every reader. The title sounds a lot more warm and fuzzy than the sisters were. If you are expecting a heart-warming tale of the days when all families were close and unfailingly took care of one another, this isn't it. One recommendation I would make is to look up the Rudyard Kipling, Stanley Baldwin, Edward Burne-Jones and Edward Poynter in an encyclopedia, the Dictionary of National Biography or on the internet if they are not familiar. I say this not by way of faulting the book, there are too many characters to give each a full treatment, but it helps to have some idea of who these people were.

The book focuses on the daughters of a Methodist minister. Four either married men who became famous or had sons who became famous. Unfortunately, these are generally not terribly charming personalities, so it is no great delight getting to know them unless one is interested in the period or these particular people. But for those with a special interest, I think it will probably be quite interesting. There were also two brothers, one who was rather unsuccessful and one who was quite successful as a Methodist clergyman, but they take a back seat to their sisters both in the book and in the sisters' lives.

The one thing that I would have liked to have seen developed better is successful relations within the extended family. Georgiana Burne-Jones was very close to her nephew Rudyard, but I'm not really certain why. This may be a problem with a lack of sources on this particular point - Flanders can infer from guest books which relatives saw little of each other but more positive information would be necessary for this.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The four MacDonald sisters April 29, 2008
By Angie2
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
I read Ms. Flanders' previous work, "Inside the Victorian Home",(loved it) and therefore I was familiar with Ms. Flanders' writing style. Knowing the author's style helped me to enjoy CIRCLE OF SISTERS much more than if I had not first read Ms. Flanders previous book.

I guess what I'm eluding to is: Ms. Flander's "interesting" writing style. Her style is almost Edwardian,for lack of a better word. Her style can get rather dull in some parts of this book, but luckily, the various intertwining life-stories help the reader to pick up the pace.

If you want to read an intersting book about what life must have been like during the Victorian Era, and especially for four rather "unusual" sisters (ie: unusual for their time), then a reader may find this book quite fascinating, as I did.

The book starts off with a Geneology Tree showing where each sister, and how their respected mates and relatives, fit into the picture.

Then the book takes you back to grandfather MacDonald's life and how he and his wife rose to the challenges they encountered (eg: loneliness of a minister's wife, low pay, many moves).

Soon, the reader is taken to a description of each of the sisters. By the way, there were actually FIVE MacDonald sisters, but Edith, the youngest, never married and therefore she was only slightly talked about. The main plot actually evolves around the four older sisters,(Georgie, Agnes, Alice and Louisa) because these four "main" sisters ended-up marrying famous men (such as Rudyard Kipling's father) and had more exciting lives than poor Edith , who ended-up being the parents' caretaker and stayed home most of the time.
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2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars the sister chronicles April 28, 2009
By reader
very well written, deeply researched, the author inserts her own judgements of the sisters' behavior as we follow the timeline. not only do we see them grow up and older, but their lives mirror english society in the 19th century and they fortell our own 'aristocrats' of talent and celebrity. i like some sisters more than others, and the rudyard kipling portion especially was fascinating.
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4.0 out of 5 stars A family Laid Bare December 21, 2012
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Not a great biography in these days of innovative gems in that genre, but interesting especially as I am fascinated by the ambiguities in Rudyard Kipling's values.
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