The eponymous three sisters, Mary, Gwenda, and Alice Carteret, live with unbearable father at the vicarage in a tiny rural village in Yorkshire. Their life stretches on endlessly and bleakly before them - their entire day is spent waiting for prayer time, as it is the only event that happens all day long.
Enter Dr. Rowcliffe, a young country doctor who similarly has difficulty finding any companionship amongst the hayseeds of Garthdale. Dr. Rowcliffe is immediately drawn to the intelligent and independent Gwenda, whom he initially sees roaming around the moors, but both Alice and Mary have designs on the young doctor, since he is basically the only eligible man around. Gwenda is interested in Dr. Rowcliffe as well, but decides to move to London, even though she is the only sister who truly adores Garthdale, when she learns her younger sister Alice has made herself sick over Dr. Rowcliffe. She leaves, annoyingly not telling Rowcliffe the true reason behind her departure. HOWEVER, Mary turns out to be the worst person ever (but self-deluded into believing she is all sweetness and light) and marries Dr. Rowcliffe herself. Alice - who though young and a bit stupid, turns out to be the most decent person in the family after Gwenda - is terrified of staying behind with her father, and also thinks Mary is the worst because she knows what Gwenda did. In her loneliness, Alice turns to kind but drunk Jim Greatorex, a local farmer, and ends up pregnant. The outrage causes the Vicar to have a literal stroke and Gwenda ends up at home, caring for him, since both of her sisters are now married with families of their own.
This book was difficult to read in that Thomas Hardy-life-is-pain type of way. Happy endings there are not. Poor Gwenda ends up bleak and unhappy, with no relief in sight, through a series of unfortunate circumstances. Just as when I read Tess, I wanted to shake Gwenda - stop being so annoyingly noble and self-sacrificing! - but at the same time, Dr. Rowcliffe proves his utter unworthiness, so she was really too good for a loser like him.
"Gwenda had no feeling in her as she left Rowcliffe's house. Her heart hid in her breast. It was so mortally wounded as to be unaware it was hurt.
She came to the drop of the road under karva where she had seen Rowcliffe for the first time. She thought, "I shall never get away from it."