Two Lives, Lived in Different Ways: Polly Coles and Liz Jensen

Like Mary Lamb and Dorothy Wordsworth before them, writers Polly Coles and Liz Jensen have enjoyed many years of friendship. In our first guest interview of 2015, they give us some insights into what makes their relationship work.

SR: How did you become friends?

Liz: Where else but in the Ladies? It was at the wedding of two mutual friends twenty years ago. Polly had already made an impression on me at the ceremony, where she wore a lovely chocolate-brown outfit with a lace collar, and read a poem aloud. Beautifully.

She seemed so serene and poised, which is the exact opposite of how I felt in those days. In the Ladies I overheard her talking to someone – very eloquently and cool-headedly – about the fact that she was writing, and finding it hard. I was writing at the time too, and also finding it hard. So I accosted her.

Liz Jensen, photograph by Jacob Ehrbahn.

 

SR: Can you tell us about some of the ways in which you have you supported each other over the years?

Polly: Soon after we first met we began meeting every few weeks and exchanging chapters of the novels we were then writing. Liz’s work became her first novel, Egg Dancing. Mine was called Utopia Station. I sent it to a couple of agents and then, although I felt it was an honourable first try, I decided that I’d see it as a kind of apprentice piece and go on to a second one. I went through the same process with the next novel and in 2013 I had a non-fiction work published.

After I stopped writing with the same focus as Liz (some time around when my twins were born and I had three kids under three), I went on editing her novels. I hugely enjoy editing and in fact my work as an abridger for Radio 4 is the mother of all edits – massive cuts are needed, whilst one must also retain the continuity of prose style and narrative.

So – it always came easily and pleasurably to me, the more so because Liz is always very generous and appreciative of any help. I think this matters. It’s not that you expect to be acknowledged, but it’d be disingenuous to say it isn’t nice to be appreciated.

Polly Coles, photograph by Laurie Lewis.

Polly Coles, photograph by Laurie Lewis.

SR: Would you say that writing lies at the heart of your friendship?

Liz: As I remember it began as quite a formal writing/editing partnership but it quickly developed, not just because we complement one another so well (she is the wise one, I am the hysteric) but because after a few months of exchanging chapters and editing one another’s first novels, we both fell pregnant. It was a very happy surprise.

Our boys were born just a couple of weeks apart. Quite independently of one another we hit on archangel names: Gabriel and Raphael. Raphael was my second child, and I stopped at two. But Polly went on to have three more babies in quick succession.

So inevitably, our writing careers diverged. Because it happened in such an organic way, it didn’t feel like a problem. That said, with Polly’s writing mostly on hold, and my novels now being published at two-year intervals, there was an imbalance: she was helping me as much as ever, but I wasn’t reciprocating.

I knew one day she’d write something astonishing, and that it would be published: it was something I never, ever doubted. And sure enough, she has: her astute, philosophical, sharp-eyed memoir, The Politics of Washing: Real Life in Venice.

SR: Have you ever experienced any feelings of literary rivalry or envy?

Polly: None whatsoever, which might sound strange, given that she was a rising and active literary star and I, despite my literary aspirations, had taken a very different path. I did do some freelance work over the years, but I was mostly at home with my children and although I never stopped writing, I just never quite got round to pushing myself forward in any significant way.

I suppose success or the absence of it can spawn envy, but as I said, I chose to be a full time mother and I always believed that my time could come, so even there, it just was never an issue. I’m afraid this all sounds rather goody two-shoes. It’s not. It’s just two lives, lived in different ways. And a friendship.

 

The Politics of Washing: Real Life in Venice by Polly Coles is published by Robert Hale. The Essay – Venice Unravelled, her five programmes on life in modern Venice, was recently broadcast on BBC Radio 3.

Liz Jensen’s latest novel is The Uninvited. She is also the author of The Ninth Life of Louis Drax, which will be released as a film this year. Both books are published by Bloomsbury.

At the Risk of Disapproval

Since the beginning of our friendship in the early 2000s, Emma Claire and I have chalked up many dozens of hours of late-night conversation. Like her, I have happy memories from the period when we were in our early twenties and working as English teachers in Japan: of chatting, just the two of us, at parties.

On these frequent occasions when we slipped away from the crowd, I’m not sure if anyone cared, or even noticed, but I doubt it would have bothered me if they did. In my mind, this was where the real fun was happening: in us sharing revelations and laughter out in someone’s shadowed garden, or gossiping in a corner by the piled-up coats.

Bar in Lisbon - the scene of one of our late-night chats (in 2013).

Bar in Lisbon – the scene of one of our late-night chats (in 2013).

Over the decade and more that has passed since then, we’ve sat up talking well into the night in pubs and cocktail bars in many parts of Britain, and on holidays and writers’ retreats in various European cities.

But the vast majority of our after-dark talk over the years has taken place within the walls of our own homes.

In the days when we lived far away from each other, we would often arrange ‘writing weekends’ at either one of our houses. During these stays – and to the sheer bemusement of some we told about them – we’d spend much of our time, not in conversation at all, but writing in separate rooms. But we’d get together to discuss work-in-progress, and for meals and glasses of wine at the end of the day – times when our talk would meander through countless topics, but invariably keep circling back to writing, as the hours ticked by unnoticed.

Since moving to London a few years back, I now see Em most weeks, so whole weekends spent like this have become less common. But as she is still a frequent guest at the flat I share with my partner, our late-night chats at my place haven’t entirely come to an end.

Amongst the writers we’ve profiled on Something Rhymed, several had spouses or close relatives who seemed to view the time the woman in their life spent with her female friend as a negative thing.

L.M. Montgomery’s husband, for instance, once ‘jokingly’ pointed a gun at her writer pal Nora Lefurgey, and it’s hard to imagine that resentment of some kind wasn’t the cause. Dorothy Wordsworth, one half of this month’s featured pair, was temporarily banned from visiting Mary Lamb by her protective brother Charles (with whom she lived), because he feared that the two’s night-time conversations were depriving his sister from sleep and putting a strain on her fragile mental health. Poets Maxine Kumin and Anne Sexton, too, were so concerned that their friendship could provoke criticism from their husbands that they went as far as installing a secret phone line, so that they could chat to each other without the risk of being discovered.

It is a testament to the bonds of friendship between these pairs of women that they all continued with their literary relationships despite the possibility of more disapproval, and a reminder that it can be done. But I’m thankful that my partner has never voiced any annoyance at my closeness with Em –  even on those occasions when we’ve tied up the (non-secret) home phone line for several hours.

It helps, of course, that he likes Emma Claire too. But he also knows what a support she’s been to me over the years, and that my life would be much the poorer without her as my friend.

Conversations Spoken and Unspoken

Creative Commons License

Creative Commons License

I would like to say that our love of literature drew Emily and I together, or perhaps our mutual feminist ideals. But, if my memory serves me correctly, our very earliest conversations revolved around men.

Before boarding our flight to Tokyo to take up posts as English teachers, I’d spotted Emily and a bloke making their goodbyes. Since I was leaving my boyfriend behind in the UK, I suspected that Emily and I might share the experience of attempting to sustain long-distance relationships.

During many late-night conversations in the months that followed, I discovered that we had, in fact, made the opposite decisions: my boyfriend and I planned to keep going whereas Emily’s relationship had already come to an end.

In an attempt to move on, Emily was generally rather reticent about the man she’d left behind. Having seen him from afar at the airport, however, and sensing that her feelings still ran deep, I was curious and so tended to ask about him. As we gradually opened up about these men back home, our own friendship began to grow.

Many of these early conversations occurred towards the end of parties when most of our English teacher friends would embark on games like truth-or-dare and spin-the-bottle. When drunken nights began to get raucous, Emily and I often ended up drifting outside. I was loyal to my boyfriend back home and uninterested in hooking up with someone new. And, although Emily was officially single, I suspect that this was partially true of her too. Indeed, the goodbye I witnessed at Heathrow turned out only to mark a brief pause: after she completed her two years in Japan, they took up where they left off and have remained together ever since.

But the more I’ve got to know Emily, the more I’ve realised that there was also another reason why she preferred to absent herself when talk turned dirty: Emily is incredibly discreet. Over the years, this is one of the traits I have grown to admire most in my friend.

In truth-or-dare type scenarios, I have been known to reveal things about my life that should have remained private. The next day, I’ve invariably woken up regretting it. I can’t think of a single occasion when I’ve ever seen Emily make such a mistake.

I am grateful to Emily for the conversations we shared in the dark of our friends’ empty backyards: the confidences we traded about love and loss, and soon enough about literature and feminism too. But I am just as grateful for the conversations she saved me from indulging in: the private moments that remained private because of her.

 

Mary Lamb and Dorothy Wordsworth

In our round-up of Something Rhymed’s first year, we promised this month to reveal a friendship between two female authors that has been neglected in favour of these women’s relationships with famous men.  

Mary Lamb and Dorothy Wordsworth, great writers themselves, are most often remembered because of their intense attachments to their brothers, essayist Charles Lamb and Romantic poet William Wordsworth. Their own fascinating friendship, preserved in their intimate correspondence, barely scrapes a mention in most literary histories.

And yet, like the men in their circle, Mary and Dorothy also hiked up the mountains around Grasmere, exchanging their thoughts on the natural world and trading ideas on each other’s poems.

When Dorothy visited London, Mary would welcome her into the small Inner Temple flat where she lived with her brother, and the two women would stay up talking late into the night.

The pair both shunned marriage in favour of devotion to their sisterly roles. The night before William’s wedding, Dorothy wore the ring that he had purchased for his betrothed and, when she gave it to him the following morning, he slipped it back onto her finger before taking it to the church. Dorothy did not attend the ceremony.

Stories of the relationship between the Lamb siblings suggest similar hints of the illicit. Mary, who suffered throughout her life from severe attacks of mental illness, had tragically stabbed their mother to death during her first breakdown. Charles promised to take care of his sister, thereby preventing her from being sent to Bedlam. They upheld their mutual pledge never to marry, instead committing themselves to each other ‘for better, for worse’ as Charles put it; writing in collaboration; and caring for their adopted child.

The women’s fraternal relationships, which had drawn them together, later threatened to split them apart. One of Mary’s breakdowns – so severe that she spent several weeks in an asylum – occurred after an overnight visit from Dorothy.

Charles, who felt that his sister’s mental health was reliant on a good night’s sleep, blamed the women’s late-night conversations for the onset of her illness. He therefore banned Dorothy from staying with them in future and declined her offer to bring Mary up to the Lakes.

But as soon as Mary recovered, she wrote a cheerful letter to Dorothy and the pair continued their friendship despite the restrictions imposed by Mary’s kindly but overbearing brother.

Dorothy Wordsworth (Creative Commons License)

Dorothy Wordsworth (Creative Commons License)

Both of them eventually outlived their beloved siblings. In her dotage, Dorothy also suffered a loss of mental health – although different in nature from Mary’s lifelong illness.

As Dorothy’s grip on the present loosened she became immersed in memories of her youth. She took to reciting poems from the early Grasmere days: poems by the men we’ve come to think of as the great Romantics, but also her poems and those of her friend – the female Romantics whose lives and works have for too long been consigned to the shadows.

Activity

Inspired by Mary Lamb and Dorothy Wordsworth, this month we will write about some of our own late-night conversations.

A Year of Hidden Friendships

When we first launched Something Rhymed, a year ago now, concerned well-wishers expressed scepticism about whether we’d discover twelve pairs of historic female writer friends to profile each month over the course of 2014.

Thanks to our close-knit community of readers from around the globe, the reverse has in fact been true. You’ve helped us to unearth many more female collaborations than we could possibly have envisaged at the beginning of the year. With such a treasure trove of hidden friendships still to explore, we intend to keep sharing our findings here in 2015.

Old treasure chest

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The collaborations we’ve explored so far were sometimes illicit, scandalous and volatile; sometimes supportive, radical or inspiring. And so, we’ve increasingly found ourselves asking why they have been consigned to the shadows.

To mark the end of Something Rhymed’s first year, here are our top ten ideas on why the friendships between some of our most famous female writers still have a cloak of secrecy about them:

  1. Women writing in the past had more opportunities to converse in the parlour than in the pages of literary magazines.
  • For reasons of propriety, for example, Harriet Beecher Stowe felt that she could not write an obituary in the Atlantic for her long-time friend and confidante, George Eliot.
  1. The marked harmony and lifelong endurance of many of these writing partnerships cost them copy.
  • Charlotte Brontë and Elizabeth Gaskell bonded over their shared experience of infamy since they had both become mired in scandal for daring to pen biting social criticism. However, this enduring friendship often gets written off as a mere acquaintanceship. Could marked harmony also account for why so few of us have heard about the unlikely friendship between Ruth Rendell and Jeanette Winterson?
  1. Friendships between women are often neglected in favour of a female author’s intense or turbulent relationships with men.
  • On January 1st we will reveal an intimate friendship that fits into this category…
  1. The literary status of some of our writer heroines has suffered because their genre, style or subject matter was particularly associated with women.
  1. Some of the pairs shared an alliance so radical that others refused to believe that it could possibly have thrived.
  1. Other collaborations challenged core mythologies about female authors: the well-bred lady; the solitary eccentric; and the suffering genius.
  1. Popular perceptions of female friendship still struggle to allow for the kind of rivalry embraced by some of our writer forebears.
  1. Rumours of lesbian affairs sometimes actually seem easier for commentators to accommodate than the possibility of an intellectual partnership between women.
  1. Close friendships between girls might be all well and good but, after marriage, women have traditionally been expected to devote themselves primarily to their husband and offspring.
  1. Historically, female collaboration was considered subversive and therefore taboo.
  • And yet, the subversive nature of these friendships between women makes them powerful sources of transformation: Maya Angelou’s Nobel party for Toni Morrison, for instance, both celebrated the achievements of a fellow African American author and challenged their government’s failure to do so itself.

Working together on Something Rhymed this year, we have experienced some of the most jubilant moments in our own friendship (as well as some of the most fraught!). But, from Eliot and Stowe – who taught us the importance of candour – to Mansfield and Woolf – who showed us that rivalry can be a positive force – we are learning how to keep our own collaboration on course. And, with your support, we will continue to celebrate the secret sisterhood between our trailblazing forebears, finally bringing it centre stage.

Memories of Jean Rhys: our interview with Diana Athill

We recently wrote to one of this month’s profiled authors to ask if she would be willing to answer some questions about the late Jean Rhys. We were delighted when Diana Athill responded with a charming picture postcard and an invitation to come and visit her. December’s guest blog is the result of our conversation.

Jean Rhys in older age (1970s). Creative Commons licence

Jean Rhys in older age (1970s). Creative Commons licence

Diana Athill, now in her mid-nineties, has often spoken about how much she likes living at this residential home in north London. The greatest wrench she experienced when she moved out of her old flat in Primrose Hill was the need to give up a lifetime’s worth of books.

There is a single tall bookcase to the left of the chair where she is now sitting. Although it holds a great many more volumes than my similarly-aged grandparents had in their entire house, Athill’s collection previously ran into the thousands. In fact, the mammoth task of being forced to reduce it caused her such stress that she ended up spending a night in hospital.

From the chairs she’s instructed us to pull up – warning me apologetically that mine won’t be very comfortable – we count several titles by Jean Rhys, the author whose career Athill helped to resurrect through her work as an editor at André Deutsch.

Readers of our first December post will know what a long wait Athill had in store for her when Rhys told her she could have the final draft of Wide Sargasso Sea in ‘six or nine months’, and of her support and encouragement over the nine years it took for Rhys to finally deliver her manuscript.

Did Athill ever feel frustrated with her, we wonder. ‘I quite often felt frustrated’, she says, ‘but on the hand it became sort of a habit… She was fun to be with, you see, when she was being happy. And she was great as a writer.’

In relation to her writing, Athill remarks that Rhys was ‘steely’. ‘She knew exactly what she wanted and she was always dead right. In relation to ordinary life, I think she got stuck at about the age of eight.’

But because she could be charming, people wanted to come to her aid: ‘When she was young and a very, very pretty woman, she was rescued over and over again by helpful men. When she became older, she was rescued by nice women like me.’

When we ask Athill about her happiest memories of Rhys, she responds with laughter. She recalls the times when she stayed at Rhys’s cottage in Devon, saying that they were ‘hardly happy… but fun’.

Rhys once described the village she lived in as ‘a dull spot which even drink can’t enliven much’. Athill reserves comment on the geographical location, but she was clearly horrified by the small house itself: ‘When I first saw it I thought, how could anybody live here?’

But although she and others spent hours trying to find the author an alternative home, Athill tells us that Rhys would always say, in the end, ‘I think not. Better the devil I know.’

After the publication of Wide Sargasso Sea and republication of her earlier novels brought her greater financial stability, Rhys’s friends arranged for improvements to be made to the house, which resulted in it becoming warmer. The shed beside the building was converted into a spare room.

‘The funniest time really’, Athill laughs, was ‘when I went there and I was staying in this awful little shed’. It was a windy night and the surrounding bushes were banging against its outer walls. She woke up thinking: ‘Oh goodness, it’s making even more of a noise, and so I opened my eyes and what did I see? My handbag flying through the air out of the window!’

It would turn out that a thief with a hook on a long wooden rod had whisked her bag away. Athill leapt out of bed, but the boy vanished immediately.

First page of the introduction to Smile Please by Diana Athill, Jean Rhys's unfinished autobiography.

First page of Diana Athill’s introduction to  Smile Please, Jean Rhys’s unfinished autobiography.

When she told Rhys about the incident the next morning, the author’s reaction was: ‘“Oh good!” Because she’d been telling people that she’d heard suspicious people creeping about outside at night and they’d all told her she was imagining it.’

Rhys was famously paranoid – something she herself admitted. ‘Victim’ is another term readily associated with her, although this was something that used to make her angry. ‘There was a lot of violence in Jean’, Athill says. ‘She used to get very, very cross when people said she was a victim because she knew perfectly well, in her heart of hearts, that she was pretty fierce.’

Rhys’s literary ferocity combined with her helplessness in everyday matters created the circumstances for her collaboration with Athill – one of the most important in recent literary history.

Diana Athill’s collection of short stories Midsummer Night in the Workhouse is published by Persephone Books. Her selected memoirs Life Class is published by Granta Books.

A True Story

Emily and I have vivid memories of the moment when we first admitted that we were both secretly writing: the bowls of garlicky spaghetti we were eating; the acquaintance who unexpectedly showed up at the restaurant, putting a stop to our conversation; the way we picked up where we’d left off as we wandered through a shopping mall on our way home.

That discussion revealed some differences in our main motivations. Emily was driven by a desire to tell gripping stories whereas – ridiculously, in retrospect – that didn’t much interest me. My imagination was more fired by the psychology of characters and the cadences of individual lines.

A year later, when we gathered the courage to swap drafts, Emily sent me a fully formed story, while my pages comprised a series of vignettes with no discernible narrative. I still remember the first scene I read from Emily’s pen: a girl hunched over a sink in a drab Parisian hotel room, rinsing blood from her clothes while her boyfriend looked on. I still remember the tension that mounted as I turned the pages, the male character metamorphosing into a mosquito. The story ended with two possibilities hanging in the balance: perhaps the transformation had been real or perhaps it was the product of the girl’s unhinged mind.

Emily’s fiction has become increasingly stamped with her own unique style while still containing traces of those early literary influences: Jean Rhys, Haruki Murakami and Daphne du Maurier. But even those first efforts contained the beginnings of the melodic elegance and taut precision that I have come to so admire in Emily’s work. Many of her characters have lingered long in my mind: Loll, the Western nightclub hostess in Ōsaka’s Moonglow bar, who mixes cocktails for breakfast and wears long platinum blond wigs over her dark razor-cut hair; Nigel, the nylon-suited twenty-seven year-old, who is devoted to his elderly wife ‘Mrs Brewster’; Violet Wyndham, long-time principal of the Wyndham School of Ballet and Modern Dance, who wears stage makeup, dyes her hair flame red and cuts a controversial figure in the local town.

From Emily I learned that characters and cadences can only be enhanced by a good, old-fashioned, page-turning plot. But, much as she loves a great story, in her non-fiction she never gives way to the temptation to embellish or distort. ‘Is that quite right?’ Emily often asks when we are co-writing a literary feature, ‘Do we really believe that?’

When I came to write my PhD, I could often hear Emily’s voice in my head: ‘Is that a claim you’re prepared to stand by?’ she would ask. So, although she hasn’t read a word of my thesis, her influence is imprinted on every page.

The best story, Emily has taught me, is always the true story. It is the job of the non-fiction writer to draw out its inherent intrigue, tension and significance – something we endeavour to do on this site each and every time we unearth one of the hidden friendships of the women who went before us.