Could the word "sister" mean "wife" in British English of the 19th century?

Here's a quote from "The Greek Interpreter" by Arthur Conan Doyle.

"To some extent," he answered, thoughtfully. "My ancestors were country squires, who appear to have led much the same life as is natural to their class. But, none the less, my turn that way is in my veins, and may have come with my grandmother, who was the sister of Vernet, the French artist. Art in the blood is liable to take the strangest forms."

It looks rather strange to me that Holmes would mean to say that his grandmother was a flesh sister of a French artist. Why then not just say that one of the great-grandparents was French? Or why not simply say that the grandmother was half-French? However, if the sister here means wife, than everything seems to be logical.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – tchrist Jun 4 '17 at 13:47

The source of confusion here, I think, is Doyle's having Holmes say "My ancestors were country squires," as though to assert that his entire lineage consists of country squires. But Holmes may be indulging in the very common human practice of selectively acknowledging his ancestors.

Particularly in a society that weighs patrilineal heritage over matrilineal heritage (because, for example, that is how property—and surnames—tend to be passed down to succeeding generations), it would be natural to think of the line of male predecessors as somehow one's most relevant ancestors—unless someone in the various lines of female antecedents was particularly illustrious.

Holmes seems to have adopted this way of thinking here: He comes from a line of country squires—that is, of men of consequence in the countryside, who presumably (but not necessarily) married women of their own class and rural milieu. Of course, as long as the men remained country squires, it didn't matter much where the women came from, because property normally passed from generation to generation along the male line of succession.

Intruding into this focus on the line of male ancestors comes Holmes's paternal grandmother, a woman who is not only French but the sister of an artist. Obviously, he knows that she is as much a forebear of his as his paternal grandfather is. But in thinking of his line of ancestry, he doesn't seem inclined to credit her, as logic would recommend, with one-fourth of his "blood" (a sort of anticipatory notion to genetic makeup). Instead, she is a kind of foreign complication that alters his inclinations and sensibilities without changing the basic English squireness of his lineage.

That at any rate is my reading of the situation. As many commenters have noted above, there is no question that Doyle intended sister to mean sister, not wife.

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The term sister was certainly used in the eighteenth century and possibly later, in Britain, to describe the mother-in-law of one's child.

OED sense 1c of sister is:

c. Used to designate the mother-in-law of one's daughter. Obs.

1701 J. Evelyn Diary (1955) V. 451, I went to the funerall of my sister .

It could therefore be that one of the children of the grandmother or the artist, in the Conan Doyle example, had a child who had married the son or daughter of the other.

Such use of sister, I feel sure, continued in Ireland, even into the twentieth century, so it would not be at all surprising were it found to have been the case in Britain in the nineteenth century - the time of Conan Doyle.

(This matter has been raised on the site before, and an interesting discussion ensued, but I cannot now find the post in question.)

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  • Thank you for the interesting OED definition. The mother-in-law of one's offspring becomes one's 'sister' by marriage in many cultures including in some parts of India by the close kinship ties that bind the parents of the husband and the parents of the wife together. However this useful information does not seem to answer OP's question "whether 'sister' could be used to mean 'wife' in 19th century British English." – English Student Jun 3 '17 at 23:24
  • The only memorable discussion we've had about sister here that I am aware of is was the one about sister for a nurse. That's not the one you mean, is it? – Dan Bron Jun 4 '17 at 11:51
  • @Dan Bron that was a very different discussion. – English Student Jun 4 '17 at 15:23
  • @DanBron In some context or other we definitely discussed the question of one's child's mother-in-law being called one's "sister". I feel sure I didn't dream it. – WS2 Jun 5 '17 at 7:48

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