Review: Three Rival Sisters by Marie-Louise Gagneur translated by Anna Aitken and Polly Mackintosh


Much acclaimed amongst her contemporaries and yet all but forgotten today, Marie-Louise Gagneur was a defining voice in French feminism. These stories, translated into English for the first time, critique the restrictions of late nineteenth-century society and explore the ways in which both men and women are hurt by rigid attitudes towards marriage.

In ‘An Atonement’, the Count de Montbarrey awakes one morning to find his wife dead, leaving him free to marry the woman he really loves. Could the Count have accidentally killed his wife? And how can he atone for his crime?

‘Three Rival Sisters’ tells the story of the rivalry between Henriette, Renée and Gabrielle as they compete for the affections of one man. But marriage does not necessarily guarantee happiness, as the sisters are about to find out.

Steeped in wit, empathy and biting social criticism, and with echoes of Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Kate Chopin, these stories show Gagneur to be worthy of renewed attention.


I was lucky enough to win an ARC of this book, which is part of Gallic’s Revolutionary Women series, and I will definitely be checking out the other titles. I always think it is quite exciting to read an older book which has been translated for the first time: there is a sense of rediscovery, of hidden treasure coming to the surface.

This book is made up of two stories, the title ‘Three Rival Sisters’ and ‘An Atonement’. Taken together, they give a wonderful flavour of Marie-Louise Gagneur’s style and concerns. The tone is acerbic, dripping in irony, revelling in melodrama while undercutting it with sharp wit. Imagine a French Jane Austen: more stylish, darker, Galouises cigarette dangling from a painted lip as she jabs into the hypocrisies of the French upper classes with her pen.

In the first story, the sisters compete for the affections of the entirely unworthy Monsieur de Vaudrey, whose arrival provides intrigue and excitement in their mundane lives, but also tears them apart. There is an arch knowingness to the writing, as Gagneur draws attention to the conventions of novels of the day, establishing a delicious complicity with the reader in which the artifice is both exposed and scrutinised:

“Let us, then, bring our modest tale to its quiet conclusion, and put aside the conventions of storytelling with their twists, turns and entanglements.” (p.71)

Despite the acid wit, there are notes of tenderness, particularly in her descriptions of the relationship between the two younger sisters, Gabrielle and Renee. Cynicism may be the key flavour here, but there is enough heart to engage the reader and to save the story from total parody. In ‘An Atonement’, too, there are hints of real love and hope and conflict which stand out as nuggets of truth amidst the melodrama.

The translators, Anna Aitken and Polly Mackintosh, have done a great service in bringing these stories to an English readership. There is enough that will be familiar to readers of nineteenth century literature to enable them to quickly immerse themselves, while the delightfully sharp edge adds fresh bite to this style of tale. I highly recommend this book, and will be keeping my eye on future publications from this publisher.

Three Rival Sisters is published by Gallic Books and is available to purchase here.


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