Air-raids are a game for two or more players.(Balchin 1942/2002: 35)
Dorothy Whipple's They Were Sisters, published in 1943 and filmed in 1945, extolls the virtues of companionate marriage through its disturbing depiction of desire. While Lucy, the sister at the story's heart, marries late to a man who offers her ‘companionable silence’ within which to repair herself after an early life blighted by burdensome responsibility (1943/2004: 25), her sisters make radically different choices. Charlotte, the youngest, becomes obsessed with the bullying Geoffrey, abandoning her sisters, her children and eventually herself in a masochistic submission to conventional patriarchal power. Vera, the most beautiful sister, presents a case study of the other side of destructive heteronormative desire. With the power to attract every man, she cares ultimately for none – degenerating into a vulnerable narcissist exposed by the inevitable fading of her looks. Sexual desire, implies Whipple, is not to be trusted, and certainly does not represent a secure foundation for human relationships in peace or war.
Whipple's cautionary tale, while not a lone voice was, nonetheless, nostalgic. As with the later production of Noël Coward's Brief Encounter (1945), it acknowledged the force of physical desire while simultaneously rejecting it in favour of stable, rational conventionality. Whipple's fiction is emblematic of the ‘conservative modernity’ that characterises the interwar period.