Medieval Murderers… and Friends: Susanna Gregory and Karen Maitland

Our guest interview this month comes from two bestselling authors. Susanna Gregory is the author of numerous medieval murder mysteries, Restoration whodunits and other historical crime fiction – something that drew her together with Karen Maitland, the writer of medieval thrillers. They are the sole female members of the Medieval Murderers, a group of popular authors who write historical crime novels together.

Authors with Edwin and Sharon Gregg

Susanna Gregory (left) and Karen Maitland, on a visit to Northern Ireland in 2014, as part of Libraries NI’s Crime Week.

SR: How did the two of you meet? Can you tell us about your first impressions of each other?

Karen: Our first official meeting was when I joined the Medieval Murderers, but in fact I’d first seen Susanna about two years earlier when I was an audience member at a talk she gave about The Tarnished Chalice, the year before my first historical novel was published. I was awe-struck by her knowledge of the medieval period, but also how gentle and self-effacing she was, even though she was such a successful novelist. I couldn’t believe she’d once been in the police-force. Her description of medieval Lincoln in the novel was so well-written and researched, that even though I’d already lived in that city for eight years, it was another six years before I dared set one of my novels in medieval Lincoln.

Susanna: Our first meeting was at an event we did together in Margham Country Park, near Neath, and I remember feeling an instant liking for Karen as we strolled slowly around the shell of the old house there. We chatted nineteen to the dozen to each other, while the others were more interested in finding somewhere to get some lunch! I suppose we should have been talking about the ‘performance’ we were about to give, but what I remember is being rather stressed about having an orthodox Jewish friend to stay, and making sure I got everything right for him diet-wise – I’m not Jewish, and didn’t want to make a stupid mistake. Karen gave me a lot of helpful advice and encouragement – which I’m sure she wasn’t expecting to have to do just before an event! I was very grateful.

SR: From our research into writer friends Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers, who collaborated on works by the Detection Club, we know that writing as part of a collective of authors can present both joys and challenges. How do the Medieval Murderers manage to make things work?

Karen: The six Medieval Murderers authors are scattered all over the UK and most of us live in rural areas. So as most writers based outside London will know, you can feel cut off from the literary scene. You can’t just pop along to launch party for an hour after work. But the advantage modern writers have, which Dorothy L. Sayers and Agatha Christie didn’t, is email. One of the MMs, Ian Morson, has kept copies of all the emails the MM’s members have exchanged over the years, which reveals every step in the process of our writing collaboration throughout the ten MM novels, which should make fascinating reading for researchers in the future, if only to reveal the dark and twisted imaginations of six crime writers.

Susanna: When we collaborate, we probably generate hundreds of emails – someone has a concept, and the rest of us respond with answers and opinions. Usually, one of us comes up with some central theme that will hold all our stories together – such as a dangerous book, a curse or a weapon – and then we toss ideas around between us for a while, until we have something that works. Naturally, there’s a fair amount of tweaking along the way, but it’s a lot of fun.

SR: Can you tell us about something you particularly admire in your friend’s approach to writing?

Karen: I hugely admire Susanna’s ability to plot historical crime, whether it’s in a long novel or novella. It seems effortless, though I know it isn’t. She can judge exactly how many murder suspects, clues and twists there needs to be in different lengths of stories and that’s something I tried to learn from her when I began to write the MM novellas. She also has the skill to make the reader feel they know the characters in depth as living people, regardless of whether she has an entire novel to develop them in or just a novella.

Susanna: Karen’s research into her era is meticulous, and she knows far more about some aspects of life in medieval times than I do, particularly about women and fringe religions. My research tends to be manuscript-based, and as most scribes were monks, I tend to have their view of events, but Karen’s research is much more wide-ranging. As I have male protagonists, the Latin sources are usually fine, but I’ve learned a lot about 14th century attitudes to women from Karen, which has helped me greatly with my stories.

SR: Writing seems to be central to your friendship. Do you ever see each other in other contexts?

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Susanna and Karen, appearing together at Libraries NI’s Crime Week.

Karen: We share a love of rescue chickens. I used to keep them and Susanna does now, so we’ve exchanged tips such as coaxing them into a hen-house at night with tinned sweet corn and we’ve sympathised with each other when we’ve lost birds we adore. Hens, especially those who suddenly experience freedom after a life in a cage, radiate such joy. It’s contagious.

Susanna: I would certainly ask Karen for help if I was stuck with some aspect of my research, but I also confide in her as you do with any friend. We talk about our families, our work, our publishers, our likes and dislikes – just like any two people with a lot in common and a respect for each other’s opinions. Karen helped my husband and me a lot with advice and moral support when we got our beloved chickens – having birds as pets isn’t always easy, and Karen is always sympathetic and understanding when things go wrong. And she listens so patiently when I blather on about their antics, and is always ready with a smile!

SR: We set up Something Rhymed because we’d noticed that literary bonds between famous female authors are generally less well-known than the great male writing friendships. Do you have any thoughts on why this might be?

Karen: If women begin a professional literary friendship, in most cases it seems to rapidly become a personal friendship. In the past, male to male friendships appeared to be more task-based and operate in public through work, sports or hobbies. So, I wonder if the reason female friendships are less well-known is because the famous female authors themselves talked and wrote publically much less often about their friendships than men did, perhaps regarding these friendships as private, if what they discussed was more deeply personal.

Susanna: The first thought that springs into my mind is that there have been more ‘famed’ male writers than female, historically speaking, which means it isn’t really a fair comparison. Give us a few years …

Karen: I’ve noticed in the email writing circles that I belong to that many of the male authors join in discussions when it’s about writing/publishing/promotion, whereas female authors also talk about family life and problems in these groups. The women often temporarily cut the men out of the group email address list when the discussion turns deeply personal or is about emotional issues. Are male authors doing the same and cutting female authors out of group emails when discussing certain topics? I’d love to know!

Susanna Gregory’s most recent novel is A Poisonous Plot: The Twenty-First Chronicle of Matthew Bartholomew, published by Sphere. She also writes with her husband Beau Riffenburgh, under the name Simon Beaufort.

Karen Maitland’s most recent novel is The Raven’s Head, published by Headline Review.

Successes and Surprises

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We sought permission from Jacaranda Books to use this image.

Last week, I had the pleasure of attending the book launch of one of our former guest blogger’s debut novels. Butterfly Fish by Irenosen Okojie has just been published by Jacaranda Books.

I first got to know Irenosen through her work as a Prize Advocate for the SI Leeds Literary Prize, an award that celebrates the writing of Black and Asian female writers, and for which I was delighted to be a runner-up in 2012. I am grateful to Irenosen for the support she’s given me with my writing, and so it was great to be able to go along last Wednesday to give my support to her.

It is this kind of reciprocity that takes a relationship away from a purely work-based arrangement and into the realms of friendship. Of the writer pairs we’ve profiled on Something Rhymed, some – like Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison, or George Eliot and Harriet Beecher Stowe – enjoyed similar phenomenal levels of literary success. Others – such as Jane Austen and Anne Sharp, or Emily Dickinson and Helen Hunt Jackson in their day (Dickinson being the unknown one) – were poles apart professionally. But what they all had in common was a high regard for their friend’s opinions and talents, and, in almost all cases, a desire to celebrate their successes with them.

Prior to beginning Something Rhymed, Emma Claire and I were not at all sure that we’d be able to find so many heartening examples of female solidarity – not necessarily because we doubted these kinds of relationships existed through history, but because we feared that the evidence might no longer be there.

So it was good to learn about Jane Austen and Anne Sharp. While Austen’s books enjoyed great popularity during her lifetime, the plays of her friend Sharp remained unperformed outside the home. Nonetheless, a level playing field always remained between the two when it came to discussions of their work. After the publication of her novel, Emma, Austen sought out Sharp’s critical opinions. Sharp expressed admiration for the book, but she wasn’t afraid to let Austen know that she found the character of Jane Fairfax – inspired in part by Sharp herself – insufficiently complex.

Emily Dickinson’s extrovert friend, Helen Hunt Jackson, author of the novel Ramona, made several attempts to even things out professionally between the two of them by raving about Dickinson’s writing in her own literary circles and encouraging her reclusive friend to publish her poems. Although Dickinson largely resisted these efforts, such an endorsement must surely have done wonders for her confidence and perhaps even had an impact on her prolific output, which totalled nearly 1800 poems.

As Emma Claire mentioned in last week’s post, over the many months during which we have been researching female literary friendships, we have been surprised by the historical sources that do indeed exist, and how often they have been overlooked or misinterpreted.

Just as unpublished material in the Austen family’s papers revealed new insights into her friendship with Sharp, the close transatlantic bond  between George Eliot and Harriet Beecher Stowe was illuminated for us by the letters between them – letters that have too often been dismissed as a correspondence between mere acquaintances. Going back to the diaries of Virginia Woolf allowed us to see that Katherine Mansfield was her greatest literary confidante rather than her bitterest foe.

These last two were not always willing to share in the joy of each other’s achievements, and occasionally even revelled in their friend’s disappointments. But they were ready to lavish praise when they felt it was due, and even collaborated together on Mansfield’s Prelude, published by Woolf through her Hogarth Press.

Setting every single letter of her friend’s story with the wooden blocks of her hand-press was a drawn-out and laborious process. For me, this image stands as a strong symbol, not just of the value Woolf accorded to Mansfield’s work, but also of one woman helping another – as a friend and a fellow writer.

Nothing New Under the Sun

When Emily and I set up Something Rhymed, we were keen to find out whether Jane Austen enjoyed the support of a fellow writer. Perhaps she got to know Frances Burney or Maria Edgeworth, older authors whom we knew she admired. Sadly, we found no evidence of her meeting either of these novelists. But, in the pages of Claire Tomalin’s biography of Austen, we came across a fleeting reference to a rather more surprising literary friend: Anne Sharp, a governess employed by Austen’s brother, who penned plays in between teaching lessons.

Among the thousands of books about Britain’s favourite author, we felt sure that another biographer or academic would have delved deeper into the history of this unexpected relationship. After ploughing through every single book on Austen in Senate House Library, however, we discovered only a little more. Ever optimistic, we cast around for monographs, journal articles and papers delivered at the annual Austen society conferences. Again, we came across only a few more morsels of knowledge.

Finally, we consulted the surviving letters and diaries of Austen, her family and friends. We didn’t honestly expect to find much in these papers since most of them have already been scoured over by Austen experts. There surely couldn’t be anything new to say about a novelist on whom millions of pages had already been written.

But, much to our surprise, we found a cache of unpublished material that contains plenty of references to Sharp. And even the well-consulted documents reveal far more about this transgressive friendship than we could have predicted: a story full of rebellion and subterfuge.

Shining a light on the hidden web of female literary friendship. Creative Commons License.

Playing the part of literary detectives, we worked out that Austen’s family disapproved of the friendship between employer and employee. What’s more, we began to suspect that Austen had gone behind the backs of her relatives – putting her friend’s needs above their wishes.

We plan in the future to write in greater detail about this defining moment in their friendship, and our quest to uncover it. But here’s a potted history of our version of events:

Two years into her employment at Godmersham Park, Sharp began to receive unwanted advances from Austen’s brother. The governess risked divulging this information to her friend in the hope that Austen might put their bond above her sisterly loyalty.

Together, the women hatched a plan. Austen secretly wrote a reference for Sharp to help her get a job elsewhere. The governess told her employer that ill-health prevented her from continuing to work – a story that no one overtly questioned despite Sharp immediately taking up an equivalent post elsewhere. But Austen’s sister-in-law must have smelt something fishy since she later recruited an elderly widow to replace the young, attractive Sharp.

Despite the Austen family’s resistance, the friendship between the two writers endured. And Austen even managed to persuade her mother and sister to welcome Sharp into their home for extended visits. We were particularly taken by the community of women that Austen battled to create, because ever since setting up Something Rhymed we too have felt grateful to belong to a sisterhood of readers and writers – albeit online.

I must admit that, back when we set up this site, I was rather sceptical about whether friendships could really be forged in cyberspace. The warm sense of support and lively exchange we’ve enjoyed with so many of you from around the globe – people who were strangers just eighteen months ago – has caused me to rethink this assumption.

When Emily won the Lucy Cavendish Prize, for instance, one of the unexpected joys of her success was getting to share it with all of you. Neither of us could have realised just how much the online celebrations would deepen the joy we’d both felt at the awards ceremony. But perhaps it shouldn’t have come as such a surprise that our site dedicated to friendship should have extended our own circle of friends.

Frances Burney and Hester Thrale

When Emily met John Mullan at the Bloomsbury Institute, he suggested that we investigate the friendship between Frances Burney and Hester Thrale. We soon discovered a story full of intrigue and betrayal.

On a summer’s evening in 1778, Frances Burney’s father took her to Hester Thrale’s literary salon at Streatham Park. The grand occasion would have been intimidating indeed for the shy twenty-six-year-old writer, whose identity had only recently been revealed.

Burney had penned her novel, Evelina, at the dead of night and then audaciously published it anonymously without her parents’ consent. When her music-teacher father finally discovered its authorship, however, he astounded his daughter by not only giving his blessing but fizzing with such pride that he divulged the secret to his friend and employer, Hester Thrale.

A painting of Hester Thrale in 1771 by John Singleton Copley [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

A painting of Hester Thrale in 1771 by John Singleton Copley [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

London’s literati flocked to Thrale’s gatherings, attracted by the thirty-nine-year-old hostess’s wealth, ebullience, arrogance and wit. Thrale was delighted to introduce her friends to the mysterious author of the novel that was causing such a stir.

Thrale had literary ambitions of her own. She would go on to write a popular history book that failed to win over critics of the day but is now considered a radical pre-cursor to feminism, and she was a consummate memoirist, letter-writer and diarist. Perhaps envy soured Thrale’s pen that summer’s night in 1778 when she jotted in her journal that Burney’s ‘Conversation would be more pleasing if She thought less of herself’. Or perhaps fame really had gone to the young author’s head for a while. Either way, Thrale did admit that Burney’s ‘Merit cannot as a Writer be controverted’.

Despite Thrale’s mixed first impressions, she nonetheless welcomed Burney into her home, inviting her first for a weeklong visit and later for several months on end. Over the next six years, the pair forged an intense bond cemented by their shared wit and storytelling flair.

‘Irresistible Burney!’ Thrale wrote in one of her daily letters: ‘and who was ever like you for warm affection, cool Prudence, and steady Friendship!’ But this same ‘cool Prudence’, which Thrale once so admired, ended up causing a great rift between the two authors.

During her husband’s final illness, Thrale confessed to Burney her growing tenderness towards one of the musicians she employed: an impoverished Italian singer called Gabriel Mario Piozzi. Thrale felt determined that, after the death of her spouse, she would finally secure a love match.

Although Burney’s own father was a music teacher from a similar social milieu to Piozzi, she was horrified by the thought of her friend marrying a Catholic foreigner of lower social rank, and by what she saw as the emotional and financial abandonment of Thrale’s children. ‘Think a little’, Burney pleaded. ‘The mother of 5 children, 3 of them as Tall as herself, will never be forgiven for shewing so great an ascendance of passion over Reason’.

Thrale married Piozzi in 1784. From then on, Burney’s letters went unanswered and she was no longer welcome at the home of her former friend.

Frances Burney circa. 1784 painted by Edward Francisco Burney (1760-1848) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Frances Burney circa. 1784 painted by Edward Francisco Burney (1760-1848) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

During the next thirty years and more, Burney ‘made every possible overture’ of friendship but Thrale, now Signora Piozzi, could no longer trust the woman she referred to as ‘l’aimable Traitesse’. But her name did continue to appear on the subscription list for Burney’s novels, as, indeed, did that of the young Jane Austen – an ardent fan.

Burney’s persistence may well have been motivated by an increased empathy with her former friend’s predicament. At the age of forty-one, Burney defied her father by marrying a penniless French Catholic and becoming known as Madame D’Arblay.

In 1817, Burney, now sixty-six, dared to call in on the seventy-five-year-old Thrale. ‘At the sound of my name’, Burney wrote immediately afterwards, ‘she came hastily from her Boudoir to receive me in the grand sallon’. But Thrale, suffering from asthma, was so embarrassed and agitated that she could not utter a single word.

Once she recovered, they sat together on a sofa and entered into a political debate. Though spirited, their conversation lacked the affection of old. And yet, they talked on as night fell, quite forgetting about dinner. When Burney finally realised the time and made to leave, Thrale affectionately thanked her for calling in. ‘Much surprised, & instantly touched,’ wrote Burney, ‘I turned back, & held out my hand. She gave me hers, & each hand again pressed the other’. And this late-life reconciliation endured.

Activity

Burney and Thrale often surprised each other. This month, we’ll take the opportunity to reflect on the unexpected things we have learnt while working together on Something Rhymed.

All Things Horror and Fantastic

We were intrigued by Oriel Malet’s account of how she met Daphne du Maurier. In this month’s guest blog, two modern-day writers, Yen Ooi and Denise Saul, share their story of how they first became friends.

Yen: I spotted Denise at a writing masterclass nearly three years ago. There, we talked about characters, plot, tricks and tropes. I thought she was a fiction writer like myself, and only found out about her love and skill at poetry a little while later. On our first meeting, she seemed so serious and unassuming with her flask of tea and packed lunch. She still is, though I’m getting more of a glimpse of what drives her passion, and what riles her.

Our friendship grew slowly but surely with occasional coffee meet-ups and more writing classes. We talked mostly of our (surprising) shared interest in all things horror and fantastic. Though Denise definitely has a stronger stomach than I do, we are both intrigued by the horror stories that cultures present: today, in the past, at home in London and from our heritage. This side of Denise makes me smile, as it feels so different from her serious side: the poet.

I watched Denise at a poetry event earlier this year at The Poetry Cafe. The evening was pleasant and the people really warm. The basement, filled with poets, audience, family and friends, made it seem like a welcoming house party, where the entertainment was artistic, cultural and distinctive. Denise came on after the interval, and she read with grace and control. Her poetry painted vivid pictures of people and places that brought comforting smiles to our faces, yet they touched us with a sense of reality that demanded attention.

Many of us hide behind our writing, conjuring a new self from the words we make up, but Denise shows me through her work that it is possible to be true to yourself in your writing. And most importantly, that it is ok to do that.

Yen Ooi (left) and Denise Saul (right)

Yen Ooi (left) and Denise Saul (right).

Denise: Yen and I first met at a fiction masterclass about three years ago. I remember her as the most serious writer in the group as she was focused on typing up her notes in the session. We had a chat afterwards about speculative fiction. It was evident that Yen was a natural storyteller. She has the ability to shift her stories from London to other places such as Malaysia or Japan.

We’re both fans of science fiction and horror. A year ago, Yen invited me to the science fiction convention, Worldcon, where she launched her novella, Sun: Queens of Earth, and also acted as a panellist in the same afternoon.

She is a multi-tasker who can work on several writing projects at the same time. It’s a quality that I admire because she always finds time to start her own projects and also help other writers with their writing strategies. Yen always has a number of projects on the go and yet always completes them successfully. It’s easy to see why she has such drive and passion for whatever she does. I recently found out that Yen is an accomplished musician who started playing the piano from the age of three.

I can understand why she sees herself as “a creator, thinker and do-er” and my first impression of Yen was that she embraces refreshingly new ways of literary thinking.

Yen Ooi’s second book, A Suspicious Collection of Short Stories, Poetry and Drawings will be published in July 2015. More information on Yen’s writings can be found on yenooi.com.

Denise Saul is a poet and academic. Her work can be found at www.denisesaul.co.uk

Reading Between the Lines: what we’ve learned from the letters of George Eliot and Harriet Beecher Stowe

Inspired by our reading of Daphne du Maurier’s letters, this month Emma Claire and I have been thinking about what we know and can’t know about the various writer friends we’ve profiled on Something Rhymed.

Last week, Emma mulled over the aftermath of the friendship between Jane Austen and Anne Sharp .This week, I write about the beginnings of the friendship between George Eliot and Harriet Beecher Stowe

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This image is in the public domain.

Something that has always interested me about these two is that they could so easily not have become close friends.

Despite their shared status as the most celebrated female authors either side of the Atlantic, and the level of common understanding this brought with it, the great geographical gulf between Eliot and Stowe meant that they were only ever able to communicate by letter.

It would have been challenging enough to maintain relations, even if they’d previously enjoyed a face-to-face friendship. Doubly so, you would think, since, unlike the other pairs we’ve profiled, Stowe and Eliot’s bond began by letter and was sustained entirely on paper.

Most scholars date the friendship’s beginning from the spring of 1869: the point at which Stowe sat down in her sunny orange grove in Florida to pen the first of their letters. It’s often claimed that when these pages reached Eliot at her north London villa, their arrival was entirely unexpected.

However, their opening line has led Emma and me to wonder whether it was all really quite this simple.

Stowe began her letter by saying that, the previous year, a mutual friend had called on her and passed on ‘a kind word of message’ from Eliot. Unsurprisingly, Stowe didn’t bother to repeat the message, so Eliot’s exact words remain tantalisingly out of reach of readers other than the original recipient.

But this hasn’t stopped Emma and me from wondering what she’d said that encouraged Stowe’s overtures of friendship.

Thinking about Eliot’s earlier admiring review of Stowe’s anti-slavery novel Dred, it’s possible that she might have mentioned that she was a long-time admirer of the American author’s work. But Eliot had found herself drawn to Stowe’s personality too, ever since she’d been shown a letter addressed to the abolitionist Eliza Cabot Follen in which Stowe had caricatured herself as ‘a little bit of a woman, rather more than forty, as withered as dry as a pinch of snuff – never very well worth looking at in my best days, and now a decidedly used up article’.

Eliot, who had always been made to feel painfully self-conscious about her own lack of conventional beauty, was so moved by this passage that she transcribed it to keep. She would remark afterwards that the whole letter by Stowe was ‘most fascinating and makes one love her’.

Stowe would be closer to sixty than forty by the time she reached out to Eliot directly, and perhaps even more interesting than Eliot’s tacit encouragement of an approach is Stowe’s motivation for picking this moment to seek a new literary friendship.

Homing in on the first line of Stowe’s correspondence led us to question the received wisdom that she’d contacted Eliot out of the blue. But stepping back to survey all the correspondence between them allowed us to appreciate the significance of the letter’s date. 1869 was also the year when, five months later in September, Stowe would publish her notorious article in the Atlantic. The piece made public the once only whispered rumour that the now deceased Lord Byron had indulged in incestuous relations with his half-sister.

Byron’s wife, who had also died by this time, had been a friend of Stowe’s. Recent criticisms of Lady Byron by one of her husband’s former mistresses had so incensed Stowe that she was moved to write this spirited defence of the trials her friend had suffered.

Even before the article’s publication, Stowe had privately expressed fears that making such a scandal public would attract widespread criticism – a prediction that would prove right. Therefore, given the timing, it seems feasible that Stowe might have had another more self-serving motivation for getting in touch at this time.

If someone as intellectually respected as Eliot had been willing to support her this would surely have added weight to Stowe’s arguments. But, sadly for Stowe, even in their personal letters, Eliot refused to endorse her, telling Stowe that she ‘should have preferred that the “Byron question” should not have been brought before the public’.

But by this stage, the two had cemented their friendship through their warm and surprisingly candid epistolary conversations. Though the eleven-year correspondence has never been published altogether and in full, were it ever to be gathered into a single volume it would make for a great gift to fans of both of authors.

What we have learned through our studies of Eliot and Stowe’s letters is that, in order to gain the truest picture of their friendship, you sometimes have to get up close to the words, sometimes stand back from them, and sometimes look hardest at the blank surrounding spaces to try to make sense of important things unspoken.

The Rivalry between Jane Austen’s Sister and Sister-Friend

This pendant is set with what is supposed to have been Jane Austen’s hair. A lock of which was set for Fanny Austen, and another sent to Jane’s dear friend, Anne Sharp.

This pendant is set with what is supposed to have been Jane Austen’s hair. A lock of which was set for Fanny Austen, and another sent to Jane’s dear friend, Anne Sharp.

Cassandra Austen took the time, just four days after her sister’s funeral, to pen a letter and send some treasured mementoes to Jane’s friend, the governess and amateur playwright Anne Sharp. It was the second letter she is known to have written after Jane’s death. The first was to Fanny Knight: the niece whom Anne once taught.

When I first learnt that Anne was the only person outside of the Austen family and household to receive such poignant trinkets, I assumed that the note accompanying Jane’s lock of hair, pair of belt clasps and silver needle would have been infused with a sense of shared love and grief for Jane.

But, when I tracked down Cassandra’s letter, I detected instead a barbed quality that hints at a deep conflict between Jane’s sister by birth and the sister-friend she singled out.

Letter from Cassandra to Anne (2)

I long to read the letter Anne sent to Cassandra, to measure for myself the friend’s ‘ardent feelings’ against the sister’s stoicism. But Anne’s voice has been largely silenced – like that of so many working women of the past.

In her dotage, Cassandra re-read all of Jane’s correspondence one last time. Secretly, she then removed from her cache all those letters she felt might compromise the mythology her family had constructed of Jane as a meek, conservative maiden aunt, who dabbled with storytelling in between chores. And finally Cassandra built up a fire and, one by one, fed her sister’s most personal words to the flames.

But surviving letters, like the one above, and several volumes of unpublished diaries have allowed us to reconstruct something of Jane’s incendiary relationship with a woman of lower social standing – a sister-friend who shared her fieriness, whose ‘ardent feelings’ provided a welcome contrast to her sister’s ‘tranquil’ restraint.

Cassandra’s envy of Anne’s intimacy with Jane emerges in her insistence that ‘What I have lost, no one but myself can know, you are not ignorant of her merits, but who can judge how I estimated them?’ Cassandra could have become close to Anne through their shared bereavement. After all, Jane had drawn both intelligent spinsters into her inner circle. But the sister found the sister-friend’s spirited personality a source of pain during this desolate time.

The letter is freighted with Cassandra’s conflicting emotions: her desire to honour her sister’s highly-valued relationship competing against the dual demands of snobbery and envy. She feels compelled to offer the hand of friendship to the woman her sister so loved: ‘If any thing should ever bring you into attainable distance from me we must meet my dear Miss Sharp’. But she will not go out of her way to visit the woman her sister called ‘my dearest Anne’, nor will she offer any specific hospitality.

So, imagine my surprise when I discovered that Anne stayed in Chawton Cottage with Cassandra for several weeks in 1820 – three years after Jane’s death. We know then that the fraught relationship between sister and sister-friend endured against the odds. But from this answer more questions arise: How did the pair move from competition to compassion? What took them from half-hearted invitations to residing under the same roof? How did their relationship develop and change during this time?

These questions send me back to the diaries, back to the letters that survived the flames, back into the realms of my own imagination where Anne sits beside Cassandra, reminiscing about their beloved Jane, a fire roaring in the grate.