Margaret Oliphant and Anne Thackeray Ritchie

The literary legacies of Margaret Oliphant and Anne Thackeray Ritchie have been overshadowed by those of their female forebears and descendants.

Yet the legendary women who came before and after recognised these author’s talents. Charlotte Brontë singled out Oliphant’s first novel for praise and George Eliot claimed that, with the partial exception of Trollope, Ritchie was the only modern novelist she cared to read. Virginia Woolf, related to Ritchie through her father’s first marriage, described her step-aunt as ‘a writer of genius’.

Margaret Oliphant. This image is in the public domain.

Margaret Oliphant. This image is in the public domain.

Oliphant and Ritchie recognised each other’s gifts too, communing on the page long before they met in person. Indeed, the twenty-three-year-old Ritchie, who had published The Story of Elizabeth anonymously in 1863, received her first ever review from Oliphant. The praise caused Ritchie’s father, the famous novelist William Makepeace Thackeray, to beam with pride. The endorsement meant a great deal to Ritchie too. She had considered the older author a torchbearer ever since her governess introduced her to Christian Melville, which Oliphant had penned at the tender age of seventeen.

When their paths eventually crossed, during a holiday in the Swiss Alps in the summer of 1875, Oliphant was a widow in her mid-forties and Ritchie a thirty-something singleton. Their literary reputations were already well-established but their personal lives were in disarray. As much as their shared vocation, it was a sense of mutual sympathy that drew the women together.

Richie found herself the brunt of snubs from fellow guests, who regarded her as an eccentric spinster. Oliphant – indignant that Ritchie’s sister laughed along at this casual cruelty – decided there and then to take the younger author under her wing. During the rest of their stay at The Bear Hotel in Grindelwald, Oliphant singled out Ritchie for her own brand of sisterly attention, abrasively taking her aside on the terrace each evening for rambunctious conversations beneath a bough of clematis in full flower.

Oliphant also had worries of her own. Following the death of her husband and the bankruptcy of her brother, she’d become the sole breadwinner for both families. Ritchie, who’d received a generous inheritance from her father – the wealthiest self-made author of his day – felt especially aware of her own privilege when she witnessed just how hard Oliphant had to work in order to make ends meet. Oliphant’s output was prodigious by any estimation: 98 novels, and over 50 short stories, 25 books of non-fiction and 300 articles.

Ritchie saw at close quarters the discipline required to write for a living – quite at odds with her own haphazard approach to creativity. Keen to alleviate the financial pressures on her new friend, Ritchie persuaded her brother-in-law, a magazine editor, to purchase two stories – each one generating the bulk of a year’s income. Oliphant later returned the favour: when she was appointed editor of a series, she immediately commissioned Ritchie to write one of the biographies.

Anne Thackeray Ritchie. This image is in the public domain.

Anne Thackeray Ritchie. This image is in the public domain.

But personal tragedies cemented their friendship even more than professional triumphs. The first of these occurred just a few months after their Alpine holiday, when Oliphant had invited Ritchie to Windsor for an overnight visit. While there, Ritchie received a telegram summoning her back to London. Her sister had died, suffering a massive eclampsia seizure, and the unborn baby had also failed to survive.

These female authors stuck together for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, and for decades they remained the closest of friends.

Ritchie visited regularly during Oliphant’s final illness, sitting at the bedside of her lifelong friend and making her last goodbye in June 1897 to the woman in whom she had found ‘one of those people who make life’.


Margaret Oliphant and Anne Thackeray Ritchie shared an intrepid approach to travel. They were also both keenly aware of their indebtedness to the female authors of the past who had laid the way for their own literary and literal adventures. Inspired by both these qualities, we’ve decided to take pilgrimages to the homes of some of the authors we’ve featured on this site.

Till Death Us Do Part: Sarah LeFanu and Michèle Roberts

The bond between this month’s profiled writers was forged when Mary Russell Mitford took the younger Elizabeth Barrett Browning under her wing. It’s a great privilege therefore to feature a guest post with the novelist Michèle Roberts, who has been a mentor to both of us. Here she talks with fellow author Sarah LeFanu about their longstanding friendship.


Sarah: I met Michèle in London in the summer of 1972. I saw her as a warm-hearted woman warrior, a bold feminist, a dragon-slayer. I was a student, with a holiday job as a waitress at a rather dodgy restaurant called Borscht’n’Tears. Michèle, two or three years older than me, had a proper grown-up job at the British Library. Whereas I had timidly attended a couple of student meetings about women’s liberation, held safely inside college doors, Michèle belonged to a group of women who braved ridicule and abuse to perform feminist street theatre.

Michèle: I remember arriving home late one night to find Sarah returned from work, sitting outside on the little balcony eating sausages and drinking cider. She seemed dashing, merry, insouciant, completely able to enjoy herself in the present moment. Very pretty, too, with her delicate face and curly auburn hair.

Sarah: We were thrown together by the spectacular disintegration of the relationship between a couple who lived in the flat that we were both staying in; to get away from the rows and recriminations we would creep out onto the balcony above the front door of the terraced house, and in the warm summer evenings we would sit and talk: about women’s liberation, socialism, books, boyfriends and all points in between. What began as an escape from what was going on behind us, soon acquired its own life.

Michèle: I remember watching Sarah pack her bag for her summer holiday. She wanted to travel light, but on the other hand she wanted to take plenty of books. I was impressed that she threw out clothes to make room for books. As I got to know her better, my sense was confirmed that she really enjoyed a good time: physical and intellectual pleasures both. For example, we would don our 1950s frocks then bicycle back and forth across London, going to parties and dancing most of the night. At the same time we took part in a Marxist study group with other friends, and we founded our own group of two to read Freud.

Sarah: We carried on these discussions by correspondence when I went off to work in Mozambique for two years. We shared a desire to understand the world and, of course, to change it.

In the early 80s, while Michèle was making a name for herself as a novelist and poet, I was working in publishing, at The Women’s Press. We published her first two novels, A Piece of the Night and The Visitation. In the 90s we began teaching together for Ty Newydd and Arvon. And for nearly fifteen years now we’ve worked together in a writers’ group, along with novelist Jenny Newman (we call ourselves the Group of Three).

All of which is to say that our friendship is centrally concerned with work and writing and reading.

Or perhaps I should say the work of writing and reading.

Or perhaps I should say: the pleasure of it. Right from the early days we’ve done the reading and talking and writing alongside eating, drinking and partying.

Michèle Roberts (left) and Sarah LeFanu (right) at Sissinghurst in 1981.

Michèle Roberts (left) and Sarah LeFanu (right) at Sissinghurst in 1981.

Michèle: Sarah and I grew up in an era still overshadowed by Victorian notions of the respectable: teenage girls could go out and have fun but adult women, even if they had jobs, were supposed to make staying at home serving husbands and children their priority. It was radical in those days to assert openly that you were linked to other women, across the bonds of families and marriages, and that when you wanted or needed to you put women first.

Men had higher status. They valued each other highly and us far less. They did not believe we could be true friends with each other, if they even bothered to think about it, as they thought all women competed for male sexual favours.

Men dominated the literary scene, edited the journals, wrote memoirs about each other, created the literary canon, went out to meet each other at night in clubs and pubs, wanted ‘their’ women safely at home giving the children their tea.

Sketch by Michele Roberts. Many of Michele's sketches 'of women having a nice time' are pinned up in Sarah's study. They enrich her life 'during good times, bad times and challenging times'.

Sketch by Michele Roberts. Many of Michele’s sketches ‘of women having a nice time’ are pinned up in Sarah’s study. They enrich her life ‘during good times, bad times and challenging times’.

Sarah: While I was struggling to write my first book, In the Chinks of the World Machine: Feminism and Science Fiction, Michèle gave me a whole afternoon a week of childcare – a blessed stretch of time – and later, on occasions when I was overwhelmed by domestic drudgery, she would think up ways and means of providing me with periods of release.

Michèle: I remember when Sarah got married vowing to myself that I would do my best not to be jealous or possessive, which would have been easy for me to do given how much I loved her. I got to know her husband and got to be fond of him. I was her witness at her wedding (as she was at mine) and she invited me to be godmother to her children. I love and feel close to them. So she helped me go on feeling close to her, feeling I still had a place with her, even though her life had changed so much, having three children and caring for them. She invited me to become involved.

Sarah: Male literary friendships have always been more visible. Men have always felt more entitled to inhabit public spaces – from the 18th century coffee shop to the Soho bars of the 1950s. The romantic idea of a literary friendship is that of two lonely (male) geniuses recognising each other as geniuses and then performing their friendship in front of a star-struck public. But male domination of public space has been, and is being challenged (by feminists then and now), so things are changing.

Michèle: The women’s movement helped to change that. Nowadays the male writers I know and am fond of acknowledge the power of women’s friendships. We know more than we used to about women’s friendships because for the last thirty or so years women have been writing about them, asserting their value and importance and exploring their meaning.

Those books got published because feminist women were working as editors and publishers, commissioning books, championing women writers. So my friendship with Sarah is connected to that history, those politics.

Feminists thought of each other as sisters, we valued each other, tried to listen to each other, tried hard not to obey the patriarchal rule which said that men always had to come first, we lived a public life of going out with each other, not confined to the home.

Sarah: At the same time, I’m going to make a claim for privacy, and the intimacy it allows. It’s more than forty years since Michèle and I met and talked on a balcony in Pimlico, when we cast ourselves off from the noisy goings-on behind us and floated high above the dusty summer streets of London. The intimacy of sailing with Michèle in that stone boat has remained for me an important and nurturing aspect of our long friendship.

Michèle: The Italian expression is: ti voglio bene. I feel Sarah and I wish each other well, at a profound level. Till death us do part.

Sarah LeFanu’s latest books are: Dreaming of Rose: A Biographer’s Journal, published by SilverWood and S is for Samora: A Lexical Biography of Samora Machel and the Mozambican Dream, published by Hurst & Co.

Michèle Robert’s latest novel, Ignorance, was published by Bloomsbury. You can read more about her friendships and her feminism in her memoir, Paper Houses, published by Virago.

Cruelty and Consolation – Katherine Mansfield and Virginia Woolf

Last week, Emily posted a video in which she spoke about the role of consolation (and neglect) in the friendship of George Eliot and Harriet Beecher Stowe.

In my video, I’ve chosen to reflect on the dynamic between kindness and cruelty in the relationship between Katherine Mansfield and Virginia Woolf.

These are topics we’ll be returning to in greater detail during our lunchtime lecture on December 3rd at New York University – London. We’ll provide more details nearer the time but we do hope that some of you can make it.

Through the Good Times and the Bad – George Eliot and Harriet Beecher Stowe

In last week’s post on Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Mary Russell Mitford, Emma and I set ourselves the challenge to reflect on the role of consolation in other literary friendships that we have profiled on Something Rhymed.

We’ve decided to do something a bit different this month and post our responses by video instead. This week, I talk about consolation – and an instance of the lack of it – in the friendship of George Eliot and Harriet Beecher Stowe.


Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Mary Russell Mitford

After our summer hiatus, we are back this month with the story of a friendship between two much-loved nineteenth century writers. We are grateful to Lydia at Persephone Books for recommending we profile this literary pair.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning - this image is in the public domain.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806-1861) – this image is in the public domain.

Elizabeth Barrett Moulton Barrett was always fiercely ambitious. Growing up, her juvenile literary output was so great that her father nicknamed her the ‘Poet Laureate of Hope End’ – this being the name of the family’s picturesque Herefordshire estate.

Her mother showed support for the girl’s talent by transcribing many of her poems for household ‘publication’. Later in life, eight years after Mrs Barrett’s death, another influential maternal figure would take the author, then aged thirty, under her wing.

Mary Russell Mitford was almost fifty when she and, a decidedly nervous, Browning were introduced in 1836. Unlike Browning, Mitford, had, from a young age, often needed to write to make ends meet – thanks to her father’s spending of his wife’s inheritance on political campaigns, entertaining and gambling. By the time the two women became friends, Mitford was the highly successful author of poetry, plays and prose – including, most famously, Our Village: Sketches of Rural Life and Scenery.

Browning, who had yet to meet her fellow-poet husband Robert, greatly appreciated the encouragement of a well-established figure like ‘ever dearest Miss Mitford’ as she was soon calling the writer in her letters. Such support had arrived at just the right moment: Browning’s book, Seraphim, and other Poems, would come out the following month and the early years of their friendship coincided with a time when the literary establishment was beginning to take notice of her work.

But this was also a turbulent period. Browning’s personal life was blighted by serious bouts of illness and family tragedy, culminating in the deaths of two of her brothers in swift succession.


Mary Mitford Russell (1787-1855) by Benjamin Robert Haydon – this image is in the public domain.

The accidental drowning of ‘Bro’, her favourite brother, hit Browning particularly hard, and she confided in Mitford that the experience was ‘a very near escape from madness, absolute hopeless madness’.

In addition to their frequent correspondence, Mitford consoled her friend through these darkest times by sending her gifts. As well as the regular delivery of flowers, in 1841 she gave her the spaniel Flush, the offspring of her own dog, (and later to be immortalised by Virginia Woolf in her imaginative biography of the same name).

A decade on, the friendship hit shakier ground when Mitford published her Recollections of a Literary Life. In a section intended as a warm tribute to Browning, she related the sad tale of Bro’s death, deeply upsetting her friend who believed that such personal details should have remained private.

The pair had experienced tensions before – not least in Mitford’s initial disapproval of Robert Browning. Thankfully, on this occasion too, they ultimately managed to negotiate this bump in the road and their relationship survived until the end of Mitford’s life.

Although today, she is the less well-known of the two, she is remembered, not just for her most popular work Our Village, but also the witty and engaging correspondence she maintained with many famous nineteenth century figures – most importantly, her closest literary friend, Elizabeth Barrett Browning.


Mitford went to great lengths to console her friend after the loss of her brother. This month, we will reflect on the role consolation played in other literary friendships that we have profiled on Something Rhymed.

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?


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


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.