Taking Stock

Seven months into our yearlong quest to discover the friendships enjoyed by famous female authors, it seems a good time to take stock.

We had the chance to do just that when we were asked to write a double page spread for the Independent on Sunday and a guest post for Writers and Artists.

When we first mooted the idea of Something Rhymed, we couldn’t have named twelve sets of famous female writer pals of old. We had no idea that Jane Austen risked her family’s disapproval by forging a radical relationship with a playwright who was one of the family’s servants. Who’d have thought that the mythically reclusive Emily Dickinson was a lifelong friend of the bestselling novelist Helen Hunt Jackson? As for Katherine Mansfield and Virginia Woolf, we’d heard that they were enemies.

But once we set up this blog, so many of you gave us such great tip-offs about women’s partnerships that it’s become tough to choose who to profile. We’ve become increasingly curious, therefore, about why such fascinating relationships have been misrepresented or written out of literary lore.

In our guest post for Writers and Artists, we put forward some of our theories on this.

We initially wondered whether these female alliances got overlooked because they were most often carried out within private domestic spheres. Unlike Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins, Jane Austen and Anne Sharp never visited risqué music halls together; unlike F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, Charlotte Brontë and Elizabeth Gaskell never chronicled joint drinking binges in their published writings.

Even more significant, perhaps, is that whilst most of these men’s writing partnerships suffered spectacular bust-ups, many of the friendships we’ve featured were relatively harmonious. So it could also be that their frequent lack of drama has cost them newspaper column inches and lengthy entries in literary biographies.

Potentially most insidious, however, it that, unlike the camaraderie of Byron and Shelley, frequently recalled as robustly combative, the professional rivalry of Katherine Mansfield and Virginia Woolf was seen as entirely incompatible with female friendship.

As the year progresses, we’ve increasingly been led to wonder whether the lack of a level playing field lies at the root of it all. Although society has traditionally allowed men to accommodate healthy competition within their relationships, the same has been looked on much less favourably when it occurs between women.

We were able to explore this theory further in our feature for the Independent on Sunday.

In A Room of One’s Own, Woolf claimed that collaborative, intellectual friendship between women was considered taboo. The new feminists who we interviewed, however, were happy to celebrate such relationships. Laura Bates, author of Everyday Sexism, was keen to credit novelist and No More Page 3 campaigner Lucy-Anne Holmes for fuelling her own success. And co-writers of The Vagenda, Holly Baxter and Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett, friends since their student days, have relied on each other during periods when they’ve had to face down misogynistic attacks.

The sheer level of aggression faced by these friends suggests that although such relationships are no longer taboo, female solidarity is considered subversive even today.

The Kind of Friendship that Shores You Up: Susan Barker and Zakia Uddin

A work connection brought Ruth Rendell and Jeanette Winterson together. In this month’s guest blog, novelist Susan Barker and journalist Zakia Uddin tell us about the lucky circumstances that led to their friendship.

Susan

SusanBarker Beijing Photo 3I first met Zakia when we had summer jobs at the Statue of Liberty in 1999. Zakia was working in the gift shop, and I was outdoors in a kiosk selling hot dogs to the tourists. She was 19, I was 20, and we were both wearing unflattering green uniforms.

My first impression of Zakia was that she was pretty (my then boyfriend used to call Zakia ‘the elfin girl’), and very sharp, with a dry sense of humour that unsettled our co-workers at times.

That summer we took cigarette breaks together, and in the evenings we’d hang out at dive bars in the East Village where we weren’t ID-ed. It didn’t take long to establish we had a lot in common. We’d both grown up in Essex, as the children of Asian immigrants, and both had a similar sense of being caught between two cultures, and not fully belonging to either.

But mostly we had books in common. Zakia was a consummate reader, and would lend me her eclectic second-hand book shop finds. Fifteen years later, I still have one of those ‘borrowed’ paperbacks, in my bookcase at home.

Zakia and I reunited in London after that summer, and though I have been living in Asia half the time since then, we have kept in touch. She’s the first person I look up when I am back in the UK, and my favourite person to go to the pub and talk literature with.

For the past decade or so we have also had in common the ritual of locking ourselves away to write fiction (and in Zakia’s case, journalism) and the highs and lows of our vocation to share and commiserate over too.

Zakia is relentlessly interesting, funny and subversive company. A blog post is not nearly enough to describe how fortunate I am to have her in my life.

Zakia

Zakia photoI wanted to be friends with Susan based on her recalcitrant attitude towards customer service. I didn’t know what we had in common until much later, but I thought her tattoo and predilection for vodka and Marlboro Reds was cool.

Our exchange of books happened early. In New York, I read a combination of half-understood theory and old novels. Susan introduced me to contemporary writing that I might have reached by a more winding route, but I’m glad I didn’t.

She lent me Sam Lipsyte’s Venus Drive, and Gwendoline Riley’s Cold Water, which both blew me away stylistically. We don’t always agree on the novels we like (which I love), but she continues to introduce me to technically fascinating writers.

Her genuine, sometimes gruff, encouragement with my writing was a factor in making me come back to fiction periodically, and then finally apply to a creative writing course. I also still think of her description, on a packed night-bus home to North London, of the novel as a ‘will-to-power’ exercise – seeing writing well as a challenge to yourself above anything else. The idea helps me to focus when I get neurotic or needy about ‘success’ or the lack of it.

Our backgrounds played a huge part in why we got along but there was also a shared love of similar music and film, and a tendency to see the comical in most things. We spent a lot of time in clubs, bars, and the kitchens of my various rented houses when she moved to London.

We’ve lived in different countries for a long while now, but the discussions when we sporadically see each other in England feel so much richer with time. What I value equally are the heartfelt, revelatory, honest conversations about work, relationships and the future, which usually make me feel realistic, tough and more hopeful afterwards.

This is the kind of friendship that shores you up.

 

Susan Barker’s third novel The Incarnations was published by Transworld this month.

A selection of Zakia Uddin’s journalism can be read at http://zaktivities.net/

 

Knowing When to Insist

Tea for Two in the Orchard at Grantchester (Creative Commons License)

Tea for Two in the Orchard at Grantchester (Creative Commons License)

In Emily’s moving post about the weeks after the death of her mother, she mentions that I was forthright in my opinion that she should stay off work until after the funeral. Her post reminded me of a time when she had made all the difference to me by refusing to go along with my plans.

I called Emily from Cambridge, where I was teaching on a summer school, to tell her that my boyfriend had left me. After seven years of on-again off-again, it was final this time.

Although this all happened some years ago now, I remember insisting that we should stick to our longstanding arrangement: Em and her partner should still come to visit the following weekend even though it would just be the three of us, rather than the two sets of couples as planned.

The man who had just left me had been my first real love, our tempestuous relationship dating back to my student days. I’d foolishly nurtured high hopes that he and I could make it work this time although deep down I knew that I had dived back in. It had not been our sensible conversations that had convinced me, nor the love he’d so eloquently expressed.

When we’d met up again, after our latest spell apart, it was his smell that got me – soapy, somehow, even after a long day, as if he’d climbed straight out of the bath. Then there had been the familiarity of his hands on mine, as he reached to me across the table. And his candour, which I’d half-forgotten: the way he mentioned about searching for me online, without realising that he was making a confession. I had also looked him up, of course, but I would never have admitted it with such ease.

With Emily, I could admit all this and more. I could be honest about just how much I’d wanted it to work; about having ignored the warning feeling in the pit of my stomach; about my humiliation that, after all these years, he’d ended the relationship via text message.

Em expressed her opinions on all this openly – something I particularly appreciated since she is never one to make rash judgments. But it was something else that made all the difference.

After our initial conversation, she called back and told me that her partner would not join her on her visit. I wanted to see him, I insisted, we’d have a fun weekend just as we’d planned. They’d decided, she said, that it would be too difficult for me, that the absence of my boyfriend would be too hard. What I needed, was time alone with her. I shouldn’t have to put a brave face on things.

That weekend in Cambridge has now merged with the many trips Emily made to see me during the summers when I used to work there: tea in the orchard in Grantchester; drives to Ely; mounds of Cypriot food at the Varsity Restaurant.

But I do remember quite clearly the conversation that preceded her trip, when she told me she would be coming alone. In an act of true friendship, Emily stood up to me. And, in doing so, she told me what I didn’t know I needed to hear.

A Telephone Call that Made All the Difference

The camellia, Mum's favourite flower

The camellia, Mum’s favourite flower (Creative Commons licence)

It is a Sunday in March 2012. I have had only a few hours’ sleep. My mother died in the early hours of the morning, and now I am sitting on the bamboo frame sofa in her old conservatory with a paper list divided into two before me, the cordless phone in my lap.

My sister and I have been through Mum’s address book and written down the numbers of everyone to call. Some names are familiar to us, those of people we’ve often seen at her house in the years since she fell ill. Others are now-misted figures from our childhoods, who, nevertheless, we think we ought to let know.

I have added Emma Claire to my half of the list. She is the first person I call.

By the time I end the last of those conversations, perhaps an hour-and-a-half later, I will feel as if part of me has been sapped away through the earpiece of the phone. I’ll have heard everyone say how sorry they are. Some will have cried, with such emotion in a few cases that I’ve found myself saying things I don’t mean, trying to show them a supposed bright side to what’s really just a sad, sad situation.

Talking with Em is nothing like that. She’s sincere but brief in her condolences, sensing without me having to tell her that I can’t linger over this call. She tells me that we will talk again later, and that she will help in any way she can.

Emma Claire is not the only person who makes this kind offer. Over the next few days, many people will tell my sister and me that they want to help. But the thing is, usually they can’t. No one else can make the arrangements for our mother’s funeral, organise her death certificate, deal with the coroner or the hospital. No one else can decide at which hotel she’d have wanted us to arrange her funeral tea, or the words to be carved on her grave.

Of course, Em can’t help with any of this either. Where she swoops in and makes all the difference is with my work. In my grief-muddled state on that first Sunday, I am convinced I only need three days off in order to get on with arrangements. I plan to go back to London to teach a university class on the Thursday before returning to my mother’s home again.

The next time we speak, Em tells me at once that I am being ridiculous. She will teach this class for me. She knows the subject matter already. No, she doesn’t need a detailed lesson plan, thank you; this is not what I should be concentrating on right now.

For several years, we have laughed at the similarity of our CVs – how we’ve ended up teaching at the same institutions – but now everything falls into place. Emma Claire works out all the details with the university management. I barely have to get involved. She ends up covering for me the next week too when she discovers that, once again, I’m planning to rush down to London and back, this time the day before the funeral.

And although she’s insistent that I mustn’t do this, she makes the same journey in reverse the day afterwards. I spot her at the ceremony when I stand up to give my reading, sitting beside another close writer friend of mine in a row just off to the left.

And as so often is the way, the very presence of Emma Claire brings me reassurance.

Ruth Rendell and Jeanette Winterson

Ruth Rendell and Jeanette Winterson at the Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival 2013 (Copyright Fenris Oswin)

Ruth Rendell and Jeanette Winterson at the Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival 2013 (Copyright Fenris Oswin)

At first glance, the friendship between two of Britain’s best-loved writers, Ruth Rendell and Jeanette Winterson, might seem a tad unlikely. For starters, their fiction is radically different. And then there’s the obvious difference in age.

Now in her eighties, Rendell is almost thirty years Winterson’s senior and, certainly in the friendship’s earliest days, she took on the role of nurturer. Winterson, whose relationship with the woman who adopted her as a baby was famously troubled, writes of Rendell with great affection in her memoir, describing her as ‘the Good Mother – never judging, quietly supporting’.

This side of their friendship, reminded us of the maternal element to the relationship between Charlotte Brontë and Elizabeth Gaskell, despite there only being a six-year age difference in their case.

Rendell took Winterson under her wing from the beginning. Hearing that the younger writer was looking for a place to stay, she invited her to move into her own home while she was abroad. She had no qualms about handing over the keys to someone she’d only just met, claiming to have known ‘at once that she was absolutely trustworthy and honest and honourable’.

Rendell’s nurturing was professional as well as personal, leading Winterson to describe the older author – to whom she has sometimes even turned for writerly advice – as her ‘role model’. When Hammer commissioned Winterson to write a horror novel, she sought out Rendell’s guidance on how to maintain a page-turning plot.

Winterson is keen to reciprocate the generosity in different ways, often for instance, buying Rendell gifts of earrings. But other attempts to treat her friend haven’t always quite gone to plan, thanks to Rendell’s more private nature. Winterson recalls how on the occasion of her pal’s birthday one year she’d thought of taking her out for dinner and champagne. But she says Rendell responded with ‘oh, do I have to?’ and so she ‘went round to her house and cooked scrambled eggs instead’.

This incident, narrated with good humour by Winterson, seems to encapsulate both the differences and the closeness between these two women. It’s a simple memory, but, to us at least, it speaks volumes about an outwardly unusual literary pairing that transcends differences in creative output, age and personality.

Activity

When Ruth Rendell offered Jeanette Winterson a place to stay, it made all the difference to the young author, who was then struggling to find somewhere to write.

This month, we’ll be letting each other know about a time of our own when the help of our friend made all the difference.

Do keep those recommendations for other pairs of writing friends coming in.

Thinking Back Through Our Mothers

By coincidence, this month Emily and I both recommended authors who were deeply influenced by Charlotte Brontë.

Portrait of Charlotte Brontë by J. H. Thompson  (Creative Commons License)

Portrait of Charlotte Brontë by J. H. Thompson
(Creative Commons License)

I will now treasure the copy of Jean Rhys’s After Leaving Mr MacKenzie, which Emily gave to me. Of course, Rhys’s most famous novel, Wide Sargasso Sea, which was inspired by Jane Eyre, imagines the first Mrs Rochester before she became consumed with madness and locked in the attic.

Rhys’s work, in turn, inspired Emily. She dedicated After Leaving Mr MacKenzie to me with the words: ‘When I first read this book, it changed the way I thought about writing forever’.

Just as Rhys’s descriptions of dingy hotel rooms and low-lit streets have lingered long in Emily’s imagination, I feel as if I have sat at the cocktail bar in A Tiny Speck of Black and then Nothing, Emily’s novel, chatting with the blind barman. There’s a scene in which the heroine searches for her missing friend in the labyrinthine alleyways of Osaka that has become so lodged in my own mind that I could almost mistake it for a memory. Moreover, the melodic quality of Emily’s novel sets up in duet with Rhys’s melancholic song.

 

Jean Rhys in the 1970s (Creative Commons License)

Jean Rhys in the 1970s
(Creative Commons License)

I also chose for Emily a writer whose work I engage with in my own writing. Virginia Woolf, although she famously overturned taboos of madness and sexuality, claimed that ‘one could hardly describe’ the life of her half-sister who was diagnosed with ‘imbecility’.

When I began my novel, The Waifs and Strays of Sea View Lodge, I set out to prove Woolf wrong by writing from the perspective of twin sisters, one of whom has profound learning disabilities. However, I ended up turning back to Woolf’s novels for inspiration on how to write about our flawed yet valiant attempts to read each other’s minds.

Woolf had an ambivalent relationship with Charlotte Brontë, whose genius she felt was hindered by her attempts to ape a male type of writing rather than creating a voice of her own. However, like Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea, it seems to me that Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway also owes a debt of gratitude to Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre.  

I first read Mrs Dalloway when I was in my late teens, and I still remember the passage that seduced me: ‘Like a nun withdrawing, or a child exploring a tower, she went upstairs, paused at the window, came to the bathroom. There was the green linoleum and a tap dripping. There was an emptiness about the heart of life; an attic room’.

How odd that this depiction of sexual grief so captured my adolescent imagination. I now wonder whether I subconsciously related it back to Bertha, Charlotte Brontë’s ‘mad woman in the attic’, whose story I found even more fascinating than that of Jane Eyre.

‘We think back through our mothers if we are women,’ Woolf claimed in A Room of One’s Own. In Mrs Dalloway and Wide Sargasso Sea we catch a glimpse of two authors doing just that: befriending and confronting their predecessor on the page. This, in turn, has been the founding philosophy of our quest on Something Rhymed. Together, Emily and I are gleaning tips about how to sustain our valuable friendship by thinking back through the successes and mistakes of our literary mothers – a lineage that runs from Brontë to Woolf and Rhys.

Sharing the Knocks and Knockouts: Emily Bullock & Ann Morgan

Emily Bullock & Ann Morgan

Emily Bullock & Ann Morgan

In this month’s guest blog, long-time writer friends Emily Bullock and Ann Morgan take up the June challenge to send each other a book with a dedication inside.

Emily Bullock

Ann and I first met on the interview day for UEA’s Creative Writing MA… So she tells me, and over the years I’ve come to think of her memory as my own. We were then lucky enough to be in the same writing workshop. Was I first drawn to the person or the pen? I no longer recall that either. But I do know that I liked both a great deal. Ann spent some nights on my airbed, which sealed the new friendship, and all these years later we are still friends.

The book I have chosen for Ann was inspired by her Year of Reading the World. Through this project, she came across a writer who didn’t get to read a novel until she was a teenager. The anecdote stayed in my mind because Ann is such a good storyteller. The first novel this writer got to read also seems the right selection for Ann because of her adventures in reading a book from every country, and the writing journey we have both been on, which will finally result in our debut books coming out next year.

In the words of all the best DJs – Ann Morgan, this one’s for you: Around the World in Eighty Days by Jules Verne.

Around the World in Eighty Days

Image used with the kind permission of Penguin Pocket Classics

And my dedication:

‘What had he brought back from this long and weary journey?’

The airbed has deflated but we go on: friends and writers. I feel fortunate to have you as a travelling companion.

Ann Morgan

Emily’s right: we did meet at the interview day for our master’s. I can even remember the book she was reading – Salt: A World History by Mark Kulansky.

If it seems a bit freaky that I can recall so much, it’s no doubt testament to how well we got on. Almost from the word go, we were chatting easily and seemed to understand each other’s take on books and writing. The friendship was particularly important for me as I was commuting from London to study on the course in Norwich – hence the airbed (in case you were wondering).

Ten years on, we remain great friends. We’ve seen each other change, grow, struggle and succeed, and it’s lovely that our debut books, The Longest Fight and Reading the World: Postcards from my Bookshelf, will be coming out at roughly the same time in 2015.

In recognition of this, I’ve chosen a novel that links together our projects: Seconds Out by Martín Kohan.

Seconds-Out

Image used with the kind permission of Serpent’s Tail

It’s the book I read from Argentina during my Year of Reading the World and centres on boxing, which is the subject of Emily’s novel. The story also seems appropriate because I think both of us would agree that the journey to publication has been a bit like a battle on occasions. As a result, my dedication reads:

‘It has felt like the longest fight at times, but it’s been great to share the knocks and knockouts with you. Here’s to the next bout.’

 

Emily Bullock’s novel The Longest Fight will be published by Myriad Editions in spring 2015.

Ann Morgan’s non-fiction book Reading the World: Postcards from my Bookshelf will be published by Harvill Secker, also in spring 2015.