In Praise of the Spinster

When we decided on this month’s challenge, I knew straight away which of our profiled authors I would like to raise from the dead.

Even Jane Austen couldn’t sway me from beyond the grave, although it was a Wordsworth £1 classic edition of Emma that, as a young teenager, initiated me into the world of female authorship. I don’t need to conjure up Austen’s ghost to enjoy her dry humour, and her face – with which everyone in Britain will become intimately acquainted once the new £10 banknote is issued – was recorded for posterity by her sister Cassandra.

Although Austen’s family destroyed much of her correspondence, the writer with whom I would love to make contact is far more of an enigma: all her literary works have been lost and her portrait was likely never painted.

Anne Sharp, the amateur playwright so valued by Austen, has been silenced for centuries. The intelligent, spirited voice of this governess in the employment of the Austen family has survived only in snippets. But when she does speak up across the ages, for example in Austen’s records of Sharp’s feedback, her astute critical faculties make us sit up and take note: here was someone who read with sensitivity and, despite the mighty class divide, felt at liberty to express her thoughts.

Perhaps it was this outspokenness that led Austen’s nephew to describe Sharp as ‘horridly affected but rather amusing’ – a phrase that brings to mind a neighbour’s portrayal of Austen as the ‘silliest, most affected husband-hunting butterfly’.

Like Austen, Sharp never did wed although marriage would have been the surest path to financial security. Unsurprisingly, little was recorded of Sharp’s romantic history. But we do know that her famous friend turned down a proposal from a wealthy man, and engaged in at least two other romantic liaisons. Yet the pernicious myth persists that Austen was too plain to attract suitors.

I once dragged a new squeeze to see the original portrait of Austen during a first date at the National Portrait Gallery. We failed to find anything unattractive in her appearance and I couldn’t help but feel that her alleged plainness would never have caught on had she not remained single. Cassandra actually described Austen as ‘triumphing over the married women of her acquaintance, and rejoicing in her own freedom’ – an image that complicates the prevailing notion of her romantic suffering.

Talking about Jane Austen and Anne Sharp at this year's Ilkley Literature Festival

We talked about Jane Austen and Anne Sharp at this year’s Ilkley Literature Festival

While Sharp’s single lifestyle would also have afforded her certain freedoms, it must have been a hard slog too – much more so than for Austen, whose only household responsibility was the preparation of tea and toast. After years of earning her crust as a governess for various wealthy families, she managed to set up her own boarding school in Everton. She spent the rest of her days in this area, living in York Terrace – a relatively prosperous street with views across the River Mersey to my hometown of Birkenhead.

I would love to learn from this working woman how she managed to do so well from such humble beginnings, and whether she ever considered giving up her independence and her toil for the perhaps easier option of marriage.

Perhaps my subconscious had been trying to tell me something when I dragged that poor date to view the painting of Austen: it was, in part, her independence that allowed her to pen those much-loved novels warning against ill-judged marriages. And it is her friend Anne Sharp – whose portrait I will never see – whose example reminds me that it was possible, even then, for a woman to make her way, ‘rejoicing in her own freedom’.

 

 

The Ghost of Charlotte Brontë

In our first post of October, we mentioned that George Eliot once received a letter from her friend Harriet Beecher Stowe in which she recounted a ghostly visit she’d received from the late Charlotte Brontë. Although Eliot brushed off this tale, telling Stowe that, ‘rightly or not’, she found it ‘enormously improbable’, the strange episode intrigued us. From which of the historic writers we’ve profiled on our website, we wondered, would we most welcome the chance of a visit?

The hardest thing about this month’s activity was making that choice. Katherine Mansfield, for instance, with her Bohemian ways, has always fascinated me. Having spent several months of this year immersed in Eliot’s letters to Stowe, I’ve become more and more interested in the life of the author of Middlemarch, and so I seriously considered writing about Eliot in this post, even though – given her reaction to Stowe – I’m not sure she’d have approved of the exercise.

But in the end I realised that, of all the authors we’ve profiled, it is the same writer that Stowe wrote of so excitedly to her British friend who has most haunted my own imagination over the years.

Title page of an early edition of Jane Eyre, showing Charlotte Bronte's pseudonym Currer Bell. Creative Commons licence.

Title page of an early edition of Jane Eyre, showing Charlotte Bronte’s pseudonym Currer Bell. Creative Commons licence.

Unlike Eliot or Stowe, Austen or Woolf, I can’t remember a time when I didn’t have some sense of who the Brontë sisters were. My mother had named me Emily, after her favourite of the three, and, once she thought her daughters were old enough to appreciate the atmospheric setting – but some time, I think, before Erica or I had actually read any of the Brontës’ books – she took us to visit the Parsonage Museum at Haworth. This was a place famously popular with Japanese tourists, and somewhere Mum had got to know well herself through her related work for the regional tourist board.

There was a gift shop at the Parsonage, selling brooches bearing the sisters’ images. I, of course, bought an Emily Brontë brooch – thinking that, given my name – this was pretty much a requirement. I also remember feeling momentarily envious that Erica was able to make the choice for herself, by holding the Charlotte and Anne brooches up to the light and trying to decide whose picture she liked the most.

After much chivvying from our parents, who were no doubt keen to get us all outside for our lunchtime sandwiches, Erica finally selected the Charlotte brooch. Later, on the drive home in the car, we sat side-by-side in the back comparing our Brontë sisters. Unlike the dark colours of my miniature portrait of Emily, the Charlotte brooch was all cream and taupe with the merest blush of rose on her cheeks and lips.

There was something not-quite-there about the image, something that hinted at all the elements missing from the artist’s representation of his subject. You couldn’t guess, not from looking at the woman of that picture, that this was someone whose most famous novel had once made her a scandalous figure, because of the way its plot was believed to mount a dangerous challenge to contemporary patriarchal traditions.

Image used with the kind permission of Oxford University Press.

Image used with the kind permission of Oxford University Press.

Even in the biography written by Elizabeth Gaskell, there are many elements missing in her account of Charlotte’s life because, in order to try and resurrect her friend’s reputation she suppressed evidence, for instance, of her love of the married Constantin Héger, and tended to ignore details that might work against her aims of honouring Charlotte ‘as a woman, separate from her character as an authoress’.

Although later biographies have filled in many of these details, there is something about all three Brontë sisters, in fact, that remains enticingly enigmatic. It explains to me why my mother, a life-long lover of mysteries, should have been so drawn to their stories, and even perhaps why Stowe sat down in the dark well over a century ago now and tried to make contact with Charlotte Brontë.

From an Author and Editor Relationship to Something Bigger: Sheila Hancock and Kate Mosse

Today’s guest blog features our interviews with one of Britain’s most-loved actresses Sheila Hancock, also a bestselling author, and her friend, the bestselling author Kate Mosse. The two met in the 1980s, when Kate, then working in publishing, was given the task of editing Sheila’s first book – an experience both women recall with fondness.

‘I was a young editor’, Kate tells us, ‘sent to work with the great and legendary Sheila Hancock and I couldn’t really believe my luck. I was only twenty-five or something, out of university… I felt like I’d been thrust into the world of the stars’.

Kate Mosse Copyright: Mark Rusher. Picture used with the kind permission of Orion.

Kate Mosse
Copyright: Mark Rusher. Picture used with the kind permission of Orion.

Soon she was travelling to Sheila’s house every week to work with her on her memoir Ramblings of an Actress. Kate’s first impressions were that, in addition to being very witty and funny, Sheila was ‘an incredibly clever woman’ and ‘a person of great principle’, with a clear vision for her book – something that made working with her ‘a completely joyous job’.

As for Sheila, she says that Kate ‘was young and probably a bit nervy, but she certainly didn’t show it’. In fact, she remembers her as ‘a real little bossy knickers’, someone who gave her enormous encouragement ‘to keep at it and not lose my confidence and give up’.

Talking of Kate’s regular visits to her home, she tells us about an occasion when the then-editor sat down and informed her ‘I’m not leaving until you’ve finished that chapter’. Sheila says that she predicted even then that Kate ‘would eventually do something amazing’, although she wasn’t sure what. ‘I just knew that this girl was very, very special’.

Kate recalls a memory from around that time when the pair went to one of the famous women’s peace protests at the Greenham Common nuclear base. She describes ‘one terrible picture’ taken of the two of them there ‘although we could be anywhere!’ The day was an ‘extraordinary’ occasion and one that took them away ‘from the author and editor relationship to something bigger’ that was ‘more part of the women we were rather than the workers we were’.

Sheila Hancock We sought permission from Bloomsbury to use this image.

Sheila Hancock
We sought permission from Bloomsbury to use this image.

In the years that have passed since those early experiences, the two have continued to actively support each other. Kate recounts how her friend rang her up for some advice when, after the death of Sheila’s husband the actor John Thaw, she was preparing to write the memoir that would become The Two of Us. And when Kate’s novel Labyrinth  won a prize at the British Book Awards 2006, it was Sheila who presented the award to her.

More recently, Sheila, who has watched Kate’s career develop with ‘awe and pleasure’, attended the launch of Kate’s latest book The Taxidermist’s Daughter. On the 23rd of this month, Kate will be interviewing Sheila on stage at an event at London’s Bloomsbury Institute to mark the publication of Sheila’s novel Miss Carter’s War.

Though both women acknowledge the importance of solitude to the life of a writer, they also talk about the need for friendship. As Sheila says, ‘It’s nice to meet up with a friend to find out what they’re doing and what the life outside is like’. These relationships prevent her from getting into the world of her book ‘to the exclusion of all else’.

Kate tells us that she values friendships with other writers. Amongst her peers, she sees people ‘who have the same creative emotions that I do. We have the same mixture of success and failure… the same mixture of ambition and wanting to be invisible, and that’s how we sustain one another’.

Kate Mosse’s most recent novel The Taxidermist’s Daughter is published by Orion.

Sheila Hancock’s novel Miss Carter’s War will be published by Bloomsbury on 9 October.

George Eliot and Harriet Beecher Stowe

Mary Ann Evans, as she was born, did not easily inspire friendship amongst her fellow nineteenth century female novelists. Even before she found fame as an author, George Eliot was firmly entrenched in a London social circle that was unconventional, intellectual and predominantly male.

George Eliot, painted by Aged 30 by the Swiss artist Alexandre Louis François d'Albert Durade (Creative Commons Licence)

George Eliot, painted by Alexandre Louis François d’Albert Durade (Creative Commons Licence)

There was also the matter of her living ‘in sin’ with critic and philosopher George Henry Lewes – a state that kept many ‘respectable ladies’ away from her door. Elizabeth Gaskell, for instance, though she wrote to Eliot to praise her novels Adam Bede and Scenes of Clerical Life, couldn’t help lamenting that ‘I wish you were Mrs Lewes’.

But perhaps the greatest obstacle to friendship was her formidable, and intimidating, reputation. Eliot had previously written to Gaskell to congratulate her on Mary Barton and Cranford, but she was often less generous to other female authors of the era.

Withering public pronouncements, for instance in her essay ‘Silly Novels by Lady Novelists’ (1856), can have offered little encouragement to the majority of writing women who might have wanted to get to know her better.

Some, though, were undeterred, including the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe, who first wrote to her in 1869. Though this was their first direct contact, Stowe greeted Eliot as ‘my dear friend’, then quickly moved from opening pleasantries to praise but also bold suggestions about the British writer’s books, which she said she had recently re-read ‘carefully pencil in hand’.

Harriet Beecher Stowe by Gurney & Sons (Bowdoin College Museum of Art) (Creative Commons Licence)

Harriet Beecher Stowe by Gurney & Sons (Bowdoin College Museum of Art) (Creative Commons Licence)

Perhaps surprisingly, given Eliot’s well-known reserve, her response was enthusiastic. It marked the start of an eleven-year friendship that would continue until her death.

At first, it’s difficult to understand what could have drawn these two together. They must have quickly realised they’d never have an opportunity to meet. Although in that first letter, Stowe implored Eliot to visit America, the ill health of Lewes and Calvin Ellis Stowe meant neither felt able to travel far from home.

Their personalities were markedly different too, as were their views on religion. Stowe was a staunch Christian, whereas Eliot had stopped attending church as a young woman when her critical reading had convinced her to abandon her earlier evangelical fervour.

What seems to have cemented the relationship is a willingness to concentrate on areas in which their lives did converge: their status as hugely successful female authors, ‘marriages’ to eccentric intellectuals, and their interest in literature.

Communicating long-distance naturally meant enforced pauses in conversation, allowing Eliot to skirt away from trickier subjects, such as Stowe’s ardent enthusiasm for spiritualism, although she did take her more firmly to task on the occasion when Stowe wrote of being visited by the ghost of Charlotte Brontë, telling her that ‘whether rightly or not’ the account struck her as ‘enormously improbable’.

Their physical separation must also have made it easier than if they’d lived in the same country for Stowe to regard Lewes and Eliot simply as husband and wife. And it turned Eliot into an ideal confidante when on two occasions – Stowe’s notorious essay alleging incest between Byron and his sister, and later, her clergyman brother’s alleged adultery – the American author found herself the subject of explosive social scandal.

Sometimes there were significant gaps in their correspondence, but in each case the pair seems to have picked up the conversation again with little trouble, and the endurance of this unexpected friendship certainly throws a fascinating new light on the intellectual and private lives of these two nineteenth century literary giants.

Activity

George Eliot was far from convinced by Harriet Beecher Stowe’s assertion that she’d been visited by the ghost of Charlotte Brontë. Although we share her scepticism, something about this episode in their letters intrigued us. And so this month we’ll each be asking ourselves from which of the deceased authors we’ve featured on Something Rhymed we’d most welcome the chance of a visit.

Sisters Under the Skin

One of the unexpected pleasures afforded by running this site is the chance to speak about female literary friendship on stage as well as write about it on screen, so Emily and I are particularly looking forward to our October 15th Festival Fringe event at the Ilkley Playhouse.

Ilkley Literature Fringe Festival

On account of their skin colours, author friends Zora Neale Hurston and Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings could not have appeared together in their local theatre: an injustice that we find particularly resonant since we too are from different ethnic backgrounds.

Gainesville Theatre, Florida, was not desegregated until the late 1960s, decades after Hurston and Rawlings became friends. When these authors met in 1942, in many parts of the United States the pair could not have sat in the same railroad waiting room, ridden the same bus, sunbathed on the same beach, eaten at the same restaurant table or drunk from the same water fountain.

Demonstration in front of a segregated theatre in Florida in 1962.  State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory, http://floridamemory.com/items/show/4528

Demonstration in front of a segregated theatre in Florida in 1962.
State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory, http://floridamemory.com/items/show/4528

What’s more, Florida was a Ku Klux Klan stronghold. The state’s barbarous white supremacists lynched more people per capita than anywhere else in the country. Just two years into Hurston’s friendship with Rawlings, a fifteen year old black boy was brutally murdered in the city of Live Oak in Florida for having dared to pen a love note to a white girl. Willie Howard wrote in his Christmas card to Cynthia Goff: ‘I love your name. I love your voice. For a S.H. [sweetheart] you are my choice’. For this, he was kidnapped along with his father, driven to the banks of the Suwanee River, his hands and feet bound, and instructed either to jump or be shot. His father was forced to watch at gunpoint while his son drowned.

Played out against such a vicious backdrop of racism, the friendship between Hurston and Rawlings was radical indeed. Rawlings’s love and admiration for Hurston caused her to confront her own deeply entrenched prejudices, and both women ended up lending their support to racial equality campaigns. However, their efforts did not meet with a huge level of success during their lifetimes. The racism that their friendship defied hounded them even in death: both women’s bodies were buried in segregated cemeteries.

Thankfully, we have never faced racially motivated opposition to our friendship. Some people actually consider us so alike that they have even mistaken us for sisters. And yet, our own society is far from colour blind. The UK’s literary scene is a case in point. Just 4% of people in the publishing industry in England and Wales are Black/Asian/Minority/Ethnic (BAME), while 14% of the population of England and Wales are BAME (UK 2011 census). Such lack of diversity among the gatekeepers has resulted in a woeful lack of publishing opportunities for BAME authors.

We are particularly proud that our Ilkley Festival Fringe event follows the SI Leeds Literary Prize ceremony, since this award ‘aims to act as a loudspeaker for Black and Asian women’s voices, and a platform to discover exciting new talent, from a group largely under-represented on our bookshelves’.

Emily was a runner-up in 2012, so we also have personal reasons for feeling delighted to continue our relationship with Soroptimist International. And yet we cannot help but wish for a world in which their prize would be unnecessary – a world in which all our sisters’ voices would stand an equal chance of getting heard.

It Began with a Mouse: Tania Hershman and Vanessa Gebbie

Zora Neale Hurston once invited her friend Marjory Kinnan Rawlings to give a lecture to her university students. For a time, they shared a publisher too. Like this month’s profiled pair, the bond between authors Tania Hershman and Vanessa Gebbie is both personal and professional. In September’s guest blog, they tell us about the public and private faces of their friendship.

Science Museum café, London, and a mouse scoots across the floor. T and V have just met face to face for the first time, having emailed for a while. How to react? There are a few seconds of silence, then two sets of giggles. A serious meeting (on our way to an event about writing short stories with science at the Dana Centre) plus laughter. That sets the tone for a friendship that is now in its eighth year.

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(L-R) Vanessa Gebbie and Tania Hershman at Gladfest at Gladstone’s Library

It began with generosity across continents – V, in the UK, emails to congratulate T, in Israel, for winning first prize in a flash fiction competition in which V wins second prize. It progressed to sharing the writer’s journey, ups and downs alike.

We were both at the start of our publication careers and decided to deal with it all with honesty, not hiding how many rejections our short stories were getting, even going so far as to set up a joint blog in 2007 documenting all our submissions statistics – acceptances, rejections, earnings.

This underpins our connection – honesty in sharing work, in giving feedback. Our writing styles are, of course, different, as are our approaches to teaching, but we believe in the No-Rules Rule – we apply it to each other and to everyone else we come into contact with.

We give each other permission to try anything, to take risks, to be a different kind of writer from the one we were yesterday, or last year. We are always trying something new, challenging each other – T inspires V with science, V has lured T into joining her WW1 obsessions through her annual writing group trip to The Somme.

We are both currently experimenting with poetry, sending each other poems-in-progress, wanting not just ‘Oh this is wonderful’ but ‘I think you don’t need this word/line/stanza’ too. We also share teaching techniques – and have taught workshops together.

We’d be firm friends whether or not we were writers, but writing definitely provides some great highs. We’ve both had the joy of being there when the other has received fantastic news – T’s first short story collection, V’s first novel. Each other’s successes lift us both.

We have been fortunate enough to win some prizes, get some awards and residencies, and we make sure that we allow ourselves to celebrate – which is not always easy for writers with a tendency towards introversion – but we both hate complacency and won’t go there, ever!

Eight years later, we live in the same country, though several hours apart, and we see each other more regularly. Wherever we are, the phrase that always gets uttered (mostly by V) is: ‘Shall we write?’ And we always do, not just at home, but in cafés (where cake somehow manages to make an appearance), parks, railway stations.

The Science Museum café might have altered its menu. The mouse might not be with us any more. But some things don’t change.

Tania Hershman’s latest short story collection My Mother Was an Upright Piano is published by Tangent Books.

Vanessa Gebbie’s novel The Coward’s Tale is published by Bloomsbury.

 

The Something Rhymed party

From the mad tea party in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland to The Great Gatsby’s  glamorous shindigs to the almost unbearable occasion to mark Blanche’s birthday in A Streetcar Named Desire, literature is full of social occasions that linger on in the minds of its audiences.

In the hands of a writer, the bringing together of a sizable cast of characters can lead to moments of revelation, conflict or panic. In Larry’s Party by Carol Shields, the whole plot builds towards the titular gathering. A devastating mistake made at a party by the timid protagonist of Rebecca signals an important shift in Daphne du Maurier’s novel. A mysterious soirée in A Murder is Announced marks the shocking point at which Agatha Christie’s village mystery truly begins.

Emma Claire and I were hoping for considerably less drama at our party – the first we’d ever organised together – and yet, we wanted it to be an occasion that would remain as a memory, in a good way, for all those who were there.

We decided to make an occasion of it with a traditional British afternoon tea.

We were inspired by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, who once organised a get-together for Zora Neale Hurston, and also a feeling that we wanted to provide an opportunity for female writers we knew to make new writer friends. Owing to the size of my London flat, we were forced to keep things small-scale, so we invited just four writing women and asked each of them to bring along a female writer friend.

Our guests were Susan Barker, Emily Bullock, Ann Morgan, Irenosen Okojie, Yen Ooi, Denise Saul and Zakia Uddin – some of whom will be known to Something Rhymed readers through their guest posts on our blog.

IMG_1153In a written story, it is often the things that go wrong at a party that cement it in the reader’s imagination. We thought we might have a situation like that on our hands when, only five minutes before our first guest turned up, I opened the freezer door to get some ice and suddenly discovered two forgotten bottles of fizz – one smashed to pieces and one that promptly exploded everywhere when Emma Claire eased out the cork.

It’s the sort of incident that, if you’re hosting on your own (or feel that sole responsibility for a party’s success lies with you), can become magnified out of all proportion. In The Garden Party by Katherine Mansfield, though the majority of family members are remarkably untroubled by the genuinely terrible news that arrives halfway through the tale, there is much concern earlier on about the feared disappearance of the little flags for the sandwiches.

But as the two of us struggled to leap out of the way of the flying foam, we found we were unable to stop laughing: a reminder that, having the right friend at your side at moments like these swiftly transforms them from catastrophe to comedy.

Zakia Uddin, Denise Saul and Susan Barker listening to Emily Bullock reading an extract from her forthcoming novel, The Longest Fight.

Zakia Uddin, Denise Saul, Susan Barker and Emily Bullock (reading from her forthcoming novel, The Longest Fight).

Amazingly, too, the sparkling wine down Em’s dress seemed to dry out in record time and had virtually disappeared by the time everyone arrived. We’d wondered earlier – completely unnecessarily as it turned out – if, with a group of people who didn’t really know each other, conversation would be initially stilted. So we’d asked each writer to bring along a sample of her work as a way of introducing herself. In between the sandwiches, cakes and replenishing of glasses, we were treated to extracts from novels and short stories, and some of Denise’s poetry.

We talked about professional issues too. Questions about book launches, ways of spreading the word about our work, and university programmes were just some of the things we discussed. If I had to sum up the occasion in a few words, I’d say it was five hours of warmth and good conversation, and lots of laughter: not the conflict of great literature perhaps, but – for Emma Claire and me, and we hope for all our guests – the stuff of a great party for writers.