From the royals to the Roys, why do siblings fall out so seriously?

·7-min read

In the opening episode of the third series of Succession, the much-acclaimed TV series about power struggles within a fictional media family, Roman Roy calls his sister Shiv to gloat over the news that she is not going to succeed their father as CEO of the multi-billion dollar family business.

Roman has learned that he hasn’t got the job either. But that’s not the point. His personal disappointment is superseded by the satisfaction he takes in his sister losing out. In that scene is distilled the essence of sibling rivalry, the notion that almost any setback can be ameliorated by the failure of a brother or sister, just as no success is big enough if a sibling’s is bigger.

Succession is said to have been inspired in part by the Murdoch family, the ferociously competitive brood that have spent decades vying for the attention and favour of the family head, Rupert. But according to a study that was commissioned by Now TV to promote the new Succession series, there’s a little bit of the Roys or Murdochs in many of us.

More than a quarter of 2,000 adults who took part in a poll said that they had a competitive relationship with their siblings about careers, housing, and who is the favoured child. Striking as that statistic is – only a quarter? – the sentiments it points to are hardly a revelation.

One of the founding myths of the three great Abrahamic religions is the story of Cain and Abel, the sons of Adam and Eve. Angered by God’s preference for Abel’s gift, Cain killed his brother and was condemned to a life of wandering. The moral of the story has been largely forgotten, but the suspicion that a rival sibling enjoys preferential treatment has never really gone away.

Nor are some parents above fostering that suspicion, by setting their children to compete for their love. That, after all, is the premise of arguably Shakespeare’s greatest play, King Lear, in which three daughters are tasked with indulging their father in his dotage as he prepares to divide his kingdom among them. Without spoiling the plot, it does not end happily.

In reality British royal history – like all other royal histories – is littered with vicious disputes between siblings. For centuries brothers – and sisters too – were viewed as the main threat to a sovereign’s position.

The current froideur between Prince William and his brother Harry barely qualifies as a tiff when compared, for example, with the feud between Mary I and her sister Elizabeth, whom she imprisoned in the Tower. Harry, by contrast, has to somehow endure a £11m house in California with a swimming pool, wine cellar and spa.

Whatever the internal truths of the Windsor discord, at least for a while it remained within the family – aside, that is, from the traditional flood of off-the-record briefings given by their respective staff and “friends”. Then Harry broke the facade of discretion by going public with his grievances in a televised interview with Oprah Winfrey. In so doing he contravened the unwritten law of family life: never reveal its animosities and grudges to the outside world. Or as Michael Corleone puts it when he upbraids Fredo in that definitive text on family life, The Godfather: “You’re my older brother and I love you, but don’t ever take sides with anyone against the family again. Ever.” Again, while trying to avoid spoilers, that story doesn’t end happily either.

Of course, if all sibling rivalries remained within families we would never hear about them. Fortunately, there are people in the public spotlight who are willing to allow some of the glare in on their dark sibling relationships. Margaret Drabble and her sister, A.S Byatt, both wrote novels early in their careers about rivalrous sisters. And for more than four decades they avoided reading each other’s books.

“It is just an incomprehensible relationship to me,” Drabble once said, the younger sister who got a starred first at Cambridge, outshining Byatt’s mere first, and who was the first to publish a novel. “I was the little sister who thought she [Byatt] was clever and wonderful, and she thought I was in the way all the time. I think it is so normal for an elder sister to resent the younger one.” With the Hollywood actresses Olivia de Havilland (older) and Joan Fontaine (younger), that rule certainly held true, as did the one about the younger also resenting the elder. Things came to a head when they were both nominated for an Oscar in 1942, which, against expectation, Joan won. As she later observed: “I got married first, got an Academy Award first, had a child first. If I die, she’ll be furious, because again I’ll have got there first!”

Noel and Liam Gallagher don’t really get on.
Noel and Liam Gallagher don’t really get on. Photograph: Dave Hogan/Getty Images

Some parenting experts argue that struggle for dominance over siblings can be a spur for development, and that rivalry is a natural means of building social resilience. But then parenting experts probably haven’t spent much time in the company of the Gallagher brothers, Liam and Noel. Indeed no one has spent much time recently in the company of the former Oasis bandmates, at least, not since the group split up. The brothers tend to avoid one another nowadays, having learned through bruising experience that close proximity is liable to lead to them hitting each other.

Liam has compared his brother to a potato and, perhaps more hurtfully, Leo Sayer. Noel, for his part, identifies with Prince William. “He’s got a fucking younger brother shooting his fucking mouth off with shit that is just so unnecessary,” he noted with characteristic restraint earlier this year. What the Gallaghers really demonstrate is just how far fraternal bonds can stretch before they break. Most people would not suffer for very long a relationship based on insults, oneupmanship and anger, unless it was a marriage. But that’s the difference with siblings – the pain threshold is radically increased. According to the Now survey, one in five of us feels a rivalry with a sibling that lasts through all stages of our lives.

A classic example is the relationship between Charles and Maurice Saatchi, the founders of the advertising agency that bore their name. Charles, the elder brother, brought in Maurice because, in his own words, he “could trust him”.

Yet he would also bully his younger brother, asking Maurice in front of others: “How could you have come from the same womb as me?” a line that recalls Roman’s suggestion to his brother, Kendall, that their mother would have been better off giving birth to a can-opener, “because at least then it would be useful”. But slowly Maurice took control off the company, even as he remained in thrall to his more creative brother, and eventually cut him out of his life. It’s likely that Maurice would never have achieved his extraordinary level of success without Charles, but it is also likely that he would never have withstood Charles’s tyrannical ways had he not been his brother.

However, in the business world the Saatchis don’t come anywhere close to being the most embittered siblings. That title is surely earned by the Dassler brothers, Rudi and Adi, who set up the Dassler Brothers Sports Shoe Company in Germany in the 1920s. By the second world war they had both joined the Nazi party and were grappling for control of the business.

After the war each tried to portray the other as the more extreme Nazi, and eventually went their separate ways, Adi forming Adidas and Rudi setting up Puma – two giants of the training shoe world. They barely spoke to each other again, though on his deathbed Rudi requested to see his brother. Adi declined.

That’s too dysfunctional even for Succession. For all the savage put-downs and ruthless gambits, there does seem to be some, albeit compromised, form of love that exists between the siblings. In their different ways, they are all victims of a father, Logan Roy, who views his children rather as a bookmaker sees cocks in a cockfight. “You wanna do good things?” he asks tersely in the first series. “Be a fucking nurse.”

Somehow they need one another to give meaning to their corrosively competitive drives. That’s the thing about the Roys’ brand of sibling rivalry, which may be wider spread than we like to think – if the relationships are mutually toxic, they are also powerfully intoxicating. Spoiler alert: that kind of dynamic can be addictive, but it often doesn’t end happily.

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