Top 10 brothers and sisters in fiction

These deep-rooted childhood bonds are rather neglected by novelists. From Jane Austen to Sarah Waters, here are some of the best books that do pay attention

Siblings have featured in some of my favourite novels, but I’m always struck by how little the brother-sister dynamic is explored. My guess is that, while youthful relationships are marked by competition for parental attention, petty feuds and shared secrets, the bond between a brother and sister in childhood can dissipate as gender differences arise during adolescence. The scarcity of older siblings of the opposite sex in fiction is simply a reflection of the smaller importance this relationship plays in our adult lives.

In my latest crime novel, A Patient Fury, the interdependence between my protagonist Julia and her brother George has its roots in their traumatic past and drives the investigation into their father’s death. I wanted to explore jealousy, suspicion and brutality between siblings, but also the ever-present sense of familiarity and belonging.

The following books represent the best portrayals I know of these distinctive relationships. They focus not only on the blood ties between the characters but also throw a spotlight on how children are regarded by their society. The novels show that habits formed in our early years can shape all subsequent relationships – and how powerful a childhood bond is when viewed from an adult perspective.

1. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
This was my O-level set text and I still love it. Four years older than Scout, Jem is the archetypal older brother, taking charge of the games focused on their reclusive neighbour Boo Radley and taunting Scout with the name “Miss Priss”. The relationship changes as the children grow up, typified by Jem’s adolescent moodiness and instruction to Scout that she isn’t to bother him at school but “stick to the first grade”. By the end of the novel the two are reconciled, and echoes of their old familiarity emerge.

2. The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot
Another relationship that changes over time is Maggie Tulliver’s adoration of her brother, Tom. She broods jealously over his other friendships and pushes their docile cousin Lucy into the mud, an act that earns her “two smart slaps” from her brother. Tom’s criticisms of Maggie estrange the pair and their reconciliation in the final pages, against the background of the flood of the Floss river, is both tragic and incredibly moving. I can remember reading the book aghast as a teenager, desperate for a different ending.

3. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
Mr Darcy is his younger sister Georgiana’s guardian and has already had to see off her attempted seduction by the feckless George Wickham. Georgiana is a faint character at first, introduced to Elizabeth Bennet in conversations that praise her musical ability but suggest she shares her brother’s weakness, pride. It is not until Elizabeth witnesses firsthand the fond relationship between the siblings in the inn at Lambton that she sees their true affection.

To Kill a Mockingbird … Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch, Mary Badham as Jean Louise ‘Scout’ Finch and Phillip Alford as Jeremy ‘Jem’ Finch in a publicity still for the film version of To Kill a Mockingbird.
Family matters … Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch, Mary Badham as Jean Louise ‘Scout’ Finch and Phillip Alford as Jeremy ‘Jem’ Finch in the film version of To Kill a Mockingbird. Photograph: Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images

4. Sleeping Murder by Agatha Christie
This is one of my favourite Christie novels, although it divides opinion amongst fans. The missing Helen was raised by her half-brother, Dr Kennedy, who appears still heartbroken over her disappearance 20 years later. This is another book where the reader needs to choose between two differing accounts of the same person. Are we to believe her brother’s assertion that Helen was “man mad” or a former boyfriend’s revelation that she was desperate to escape Kennedy’s claustrophobic attentions?

5. The Child’s Child by Barbara Vine
Grace and Andrew Easton’s close relationship enables them to happily coexist in a large, inherited Hampstead house. Their equilibrium is strained by the arrival of Andrew’s lover, James, and his scorn of Grace’s study of illegitimacy in literature. A newly discovered manuscript depicting siblings John and Maud has echoes of the present-day predicament of Grace and Andrew. Vine is always excellent at showing the dark undertones of familial relationships that falter at the arrival of people from outside the circle.

6. The Black Path by Asa Larsson (translated by Marlaine Delargy)
Siblings are less common in crime novels, readers perhaps preferring lone protagonists contending with inner demons than drawn-out family squabbles. Larsson is one of the best Swedish writers and the Arctic setting gives an almost supernatural feel to the relationship between mining boss Mauri Kallis and his Sami half-sister, Ester. A talented artist who lives in the attic of Mauri’s mansion, her eccentricities and strange talents contrast with her brother’s ruthless criminality.

7. A Room With a View by EM Forster
Devoted to his elder sister, Lucy Honeychurch, the uncomplicated Freddy has a keen eye for the failings of her suitors, disliking the prudish Cecil but befriending the passionate but troubled George Emmerson. Freddy is too young to be fettered by polite society, and his kindhearted and carefree character contrasts with his sister’s restraint. Lucy is prepared to put convention before happiness, until the scales finally fall from her eyes.

8. The Ghosts by Antonia Barber
This is a childhood favourite and I love returning to the time-slip ghost story featuring two sets of brother-sister siblings. Of the contemporary pair, it is Jamie, the younger of the two who is the more courageous while his sister, Lucy, is initially fearful of the siblings who appear from the past. This contrasts with the youngest ghost child, Georgie, protected from the knowledge of his grave in the churchyard by his sister, Sara. The revelation of their interlinked histories is a lovely touch.

9. The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters
Another ghost story set in a dilapidated mansion, Caroline Ayres lives in the family home, Hundreds Hall, with her mother and brother, Roderick, who is mentally and physically scarred in the Second World War. In this unsettling story, brother and sister are emotionally distanced from each other by their divergent experiences, financial worries and the restless spirit which appears to inhabit the house. The siblings represent an England that is disappearing fast in post-war Britain and neither appear equipped to cope with the changing times.

10. Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively
The longevity of an intense bond between a brother and sister is beautifully depicted in Lively’s Booker Prize winning novel. The dying Claudia contemplates the extent to which her relationship with Gordon influenced the course of both their lives. The narcissism with which they interact with each other induces both exhilaration and misery and Gordon remains the male presence which all her subsequent lovers, bar one, fail to live up to.

Sarah Ward

The GuardianTramp

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