Who Cares?

Someone recently told me that she considered my sister’s life to have no value.

My sister has severe autism and cerebral palsy, so she requires constant support from family, friends and paid carers. I stayed with Lou recently and, during this time, it was me who cut up her food into bite-size pieces, bathed and dressed her, held her hand to help her safely cross the road.

It would seem unthinkable now to dismiss Helen Keller’s life as valueless. And yet, many people must have written off this deaf-blind girl and pitied those who looked after this hot-tempered child.

In fact, Keller’s disabilities enabled her to look at our world from a distinctive vantage point – one that came to be valued by prestigious literary journals, world leaders and the general public alike.

As with many of the literary women we’ve featured on this site, it is difficult to prise apart Keller’s dazzling abilities from her apparent disabilities. Could Emily Dickinson have written such wildly challenging verse if she had conformed to the demands of the outside world? Could Jean Rhys have penned Wide Sargasso Sea without her own feelings of imprisonment? Could Virginia Woolf have rendered Septimus Smith’s shell shock had she not experienced the loosening grip of her own sanity?

The courage, determination and soaring talent of these writers were supported by the care and commitment of their family, friends and employees. Infamously reclusive, Dickinson underwent surgery on her eyes and a recent biographer claims that she may also have had epilepsy. Her writing life was facilitated by her siblings, and she received invaluable support from fellow writer Helen Hunt Jackson during a time when few others recognised the genius of her work – a subject we’ve written about for Shooter Literary Magazine.

Shooter Literary Magazine available from Foyles

Shooter Literary Magazine available from Foyles

During our interview with Diana Athill, she told us that Rhys relied in her youth on ‘helpful men’ to guide her through the trials of everyday life, while in later years ‘she was rescued by nice women like me’. Leonard Woolf – his wife’s most prized reader – helped to nurse her through dark times, never doubting her brilliance.

Throughout her long and dignified life, Keller relied on others night and day. Those who helped her were privileged to glean insights on how to value and be valued by a fellow human being. The support, of course, went both ways. Indeed, when Keller turned down offers from world-famous filmmakers in favour of the inexperienced Nancy Hamilton, she acted out of deep care for her friend.

During the past weeks, while I was helping my sister to bathe and dress and eat, she was looking after me in ways that were subtle but just as significant. Before travelling up to stay with her, I had been feeling uncharacteristically low. By welcoming me into her daily routine, Lou reminded me that joy can be found in all sorts of places: her face would light up when she selected an outfit from the clothes I’d laid out on her bed; in the cinema, she sang along to ‘Tomorrow’ with Annie, clapping her hands above her head; one evening, she dragged me around the marine lake at sunset, forcing me to run against the wind and laughing all the way.

Lou bringing a smile to my face

Lou bringing a smile to my face

Later that night we went to a gig and Lou shook hands with all and sundry, repeating her favourite phrases: ‘What’s your name? You’re a ratbag! I like college.’ In this way, we got chatting to a young man, who – full of despair – had just dropped out of university. Lou reached across me to take hold of the young man, and they sat hand in hand for a long time. I like to think that she was helping him that night just as she was helping me: that her zest for life was rubbing off on him; that he would value – as I did – her reminder that there can be dignity and kindness in seeking and accepting care.

The Ship has set sail

We are delighted to announce that yet another of our guest bloggers has a book out this month. What’s more, Antonia Honeywell’s The Ship asks wise and searching questions about the value of life and what it really means to care.

 

Taking a Closer Look

Inspired by profiled writers Nancy Hamilton and Helen Keller, this month we each decided to introduce our friend to something new…

I must admit that when Emma Claire first suggested we visit a snowdrop trail together, I had my doubts that this was quite in the spirit of the challenge we’d set ourselves.

True, we’d be going to a new location for me, London’s Chelsea Physic Garden. But as for the snowdrops themselves, well, I thought I was already well-acquainted with those white-petaled flowers that emerge each year out of the coldest winter chill.

IMG_1186I could understand why Emma Claire was keen to go to this event. Snowdrops play a part in her novel, The Waifs and Strays of Seaview Lodge, but, recalling that I’d been able to identify one of these plants since the age of three or four, I wondered whether our planned morning would really provide me with enough new material on which to base this post.

Of course, as Emma Claire must have anticipated thanks to her research for her novel, the snowdrop varieties on show at the garden extended far beyond the Common and Double types with which I was familiar.

IMG_1183Some grew taller than any I’d previously seen; some had distinctive green markings; or uneven surfaces; or petals that extended outwards like wings. And without the accompanying signage, I’m not sure I would have recognised some of them as snowdrops at all.

Thinking about the morning afterwards, I remembered that when Emma Claire first suggested we consider profiling Helen Keller on Something Rhymed I’d had a similar reaction.

Although I was vaguely aware that this legendary deafblind woman had written an autobiography, I wasn’t sure whether that was enough to place her in the same category of ‘literary heroine’ as the other women whose friendships we’d been considering on this website.

But it turned out that the rather sugar-coated impression I’d had of Keller was formed almost entirely from a single book that I’d treasured as a child. Encouraged by its author, I can recall closing my eyes and blocking up my ears with my fingers to try and gain an inkling of how Keller experienced the world. From these pages, I’d learned of her amazing achievements, personally, and as a campaigner for others with disabilities.

But I had gleaned next to nothing about Keller’s wider political activism, as a socialist and supporter of women’s suffrage for instance. I didn’t know about her style of writing, or the spirited voice that shines through in essays like this one. Other than her student-teacher relationship with Anne Sullivan, who famously spelled out the word ‘water’ on the young Keller’s hand – I was in the dark about Keller’s other female friendships.

IMG_1197Over the years, Emma Claire’s influence has encouraged me to take a closer look at many things I’d once thought I understood. I have returned to books I disliked purely on the strength of her enthusiasm. I’ve adjusted my views on all sorts of subjects thanks to the back-and-forth of our conversations.

But until we went to see those snowdrops together, I don’t think I had truly noticed that this was one of the aspects I most value about our friendship. So, perhaps in the end, this was the real ‘something new’ I experienced as a result of this month’s challenge.

Work and Play

Inspired by Helen Keller – who encouraged her friend Nancy Hamilton to turn her hand to something new – this month Emily shared an aspect of her life that was, until now, foreign to me.

Visiting the Gallery for Russian Arts and Design

Visiting the Gallery for Russian Arts and Design

Emily and I exchange long-treasured books, swap outfits and befriend many of each other’s pals. We trade critiques of early drafts, seek support during painful times and feel at ease in each other’s homes.

But there’s a central aspect of my friend’s life about which I know very little.

When Emily embarked on a story set in a remote children’s dance school, she reconnected with her own history of ballet by enrolling in a weekly class. Through my friend’s writing, I have become familiar with the intricacies of a dancer’s kit: the toe pads and foot tape, the pink stitches darned across a pointe shoe’s hard-blocked end. But I have never seen Emily’s own ballet kit. I feel as if I have met my friend’s fictional dance school principal – the eccentric Miss Violet who inspires distrust and adoration in equal measure. And yet, I have never asked Emily about the women who first encouraged her to take up ballet. I may have watched my friend’s characters warm up at the barre, but I have never seen Emily perform.

Last week, Emily took me to the Gallery for Russian Arts and Design to see an exhibition about a ballet that I had never even heard of before: The Bolt by Dmitri Shostakovich. It turns out that I may not be alone in my ignorance since the ballet was banned by Stalin back in 1931 after only one performance.

It was at first difficult for us to discern what the authorities found so troubling. After all, The Bolt celebrated the lives of Soviet factory workers and the communist league came up trumps.

As Emily and I explored the exhibition further, however, it became clear that the production’s playfulness had likely proved controversial. Perhaps, like us, audiences would have been more drawn to the bold colours and extravagant designs of the bourgeois baddies’ costumes than the sackcloth uniforms of the party faithful. These vaudeville designs were matched by the score, which Soviet critics condemned as flippant satire.

Tatiana Bruni, Kozelkov's Girlfriend, Costume Design for The Bolt, 1931, Courtesy GRAD and St Petersburg Museum of Theatre and Music

Tatiana Bruni, Kozelkov’s Girlfriend, Costume Design for The Bolt, 1931, Courtesy GRAD and St Petersburg Museum of Theatre and Music

I had expected that our outing would reinforce my sense of Emily’s self-discipline: her finely-tuned writing schedule matched by her rigorous ballet training. But I came out of the exhibition reminded that this aspect of my friend’s character is matched by her playfulness: the way she laughs uncontrollably when something tickles her, the uninhibited way she’ll get up on a stage or pose for a photograph, her willingness to take risks in her writing.

I may never be able to join my friend at the barre, but our daytrip showed me that there’s so much about exuberance and joie de vivre that I stand to learn from showing more of an interest in this part of Emily’s world.

Hot Off the Press!

We are delighted to announce that two of our guest bloggers have books out this month, and both of them promise to take us to new and unexpected places.

Beautiful and brutal, Emily Bullock’s novel The Longest Fight recreates the gritty boxing world of 1950s London. And her writer friend Ann Morgan has just launched her non-fiction debut Reading the World: Confessions of a Literary Explorer, which invites us to join her on a quest to read a book from every nation.

Having stood by each other through their fair share of knocks, it is cheering to see this pair of writer friends experience knockout success together too.

Nancy Hamilton and Helen Keller

Helen Keller was propelled to fame at a young age when she became the first ever deafblind person to be awarded a university degree, and she remains a household name to this day: a saintly figure canonized in Sunday school lessons and picture books.

As well as being a disability rights activist, however, she was also an author and outspoken speaker, whose subjects ranged from woman’s suffrage and the necessity of birth control to a brand of socialism considered so radical that she was monitored by the FBI.

Helen Keller. Image used with kind permission of the Perkins Museum.

Helen Keller. Image used with kind permission from the Perkins Museum.

Her best known relationships are those with her family and paid carers. The story of Anne Sullivan holding the young Keller’s hand beneath a water pump and spelling ‘w-a-t-e-r’ onto her palm has truly become the stuff of legend. But the adult Keller enjoyed the company of a wide circle of friends. While she was studying at Harvard, large numbers of fellow intellectuals flocked to her home, keen to engage in political debate, and she later struck up friendships with the likes of Charlie Chaplin, Martha Graham, Eleanor Roosevelt and Mark Twain.

More subversively, she grew close to her neighbour: the actress and scriptwriter Nancy Hamilton, a ‘gay and chatty bachelor girl’, who boasted of drinking beer for breakfast and described herself as ‘the feminine Noël Coward’.

Hamilton was a writer and performer in the thirties and forties New York musical theatre world. Although she spent her professional life very much in the limelight, she had to keep her personal life shrouded in secrecy.

As a lesbian, she infiltrated the underground ‘sewing circle’ scene so that she could forge romances behind the veil of ‘respectability’. After a fling with the screen icon Katharine Hepburn, she later formed a relationship with the first lady of the American stage, Katharine Cornell. Although they would be lifelong partners, they felt forced to hide behind Cornell’s ‘lavender marriage’ with the gay director Gurthrie McClintic.

Nancy Hamilton (Creative Commons License)

Nancy Hamilton (Creative Commons License)

Keller too was no stranger to sexual taboo and clandestine romance. Decidedly heterosexual, she displayed strong preferences for men from an early age and was eager to be found attractive by the opposite sex.

For her family and carers, though, it was unthinkable that a woman with profound disabilities should desire an erotic life. Sullivan was so disapproving of her charge’s love of romantic novels that Keller had to read her Braille copies in secret. And, when Keller’s mother discovered that a handsome young man was due to invigilate one of her daughter’s university exams, she insisted on a female replacement.

But when Keller was in her mid-thirties, Sullivan fell ill and an emergency ensued. Keller’s mother had to agree to a temporary male replacement, and so the socialist Peter Fagan, a twenty-nine year-old journalist, entered Keller’s household as her private secretary – his job to finger-spell the contents of letters, articles and books onto his employer’s open palm.

The pair soon fell in love and embarked on an intimate romance. Aware of the level of prejudice they faced, they got engaged in secret, filed for a marriage license and planned to elope.

But the newspapers got wind of this and Helen’s mother confronted the couple, her distress so great and her threats so strong that the lovers reluctantly parted ways.

Later in life, Keller had offers from filmmakers as famous as Truffaut all eager to make a documentary based on her autobiographical work. But she chose Hamilton, with her shared experience of illicit love, to write, direct and produce the biopic for which Eleanor Roosevelt would stump up much of the funds. Despite never having made a film before, The Unconquered – which wrote out Keller’s romantic history and contributed to the mythology of her as a saint – won Hamilton an academy award.

The nature of Keller’s disability meant that all her writing projects required her to work with others, making her expert in knowing when to step back and when to take the lead. Far from excluding her from intimacy, therefore, Keller’s disability provided her with some of the vital resources for collaboration, romance, friendship, and mutual support.

Activity

Helen Keller gave Nancy Hamilton the chance to try her hand at filmmaking. Inspired by them, this month we will encourage each other to try something new.

 

In the Hands of Chance?

Image by Angela Monika Arnold (Creative Commons licence)

Image by Angela Monika Arnold (Creative Commons licence)

A chance meeting in the ladies’ lavatory at a wedding marked the start of the friendship between last week’s guest interviewees, Polly Coles and Liz Jensen.

This got us thinking about some of the other unplanned first encounters of writers we’ve featured on Something Rhymed.

Susan Barker and Zakia Uddin, for instance – saw their paths collide back in 1999 at the Statue of Liberty, where they both had summer jobs. Rachel Connor and Antonia Honeywell formed an immediate connection when they happened to be paired as students in advance of their first MA Novel Writing workshop at Manchester University.

Of the monthly profiled writers, some like Charlotte Brontë and Elizabeth Gaskell and Harriet Beecher Stowe and George Eliot knew of each other by reputation before they met. Diana Athill formed a connection with Jean Rhys through her job as an editor at André Deutsch, and the friendship between Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison really blossomed when they both found themselves appearing at the Hay Festival in Wales.

But others, especially those who met early on in their literary careers, got to know each other under circumstances largely governed by happy twists of coincidence.

What would have happened if Vera Brittain and Winifred Holtby hadn’t each passed their university entrance exams and found themselves at the same Oxford college? Or if the teacher’s job in L.M. Montgomery’s hometown on Prince Edward Island had been given to someone other than Nora Lefurgey? Or Anne Sharp hadn’t gone to work as a governess with Jane Austen’s family?

Some might say that, with such similar political views and overlapping fields of work, Brittain and Holtby would likely have met eventually, but one can more easily imagine a life in which Austen had to manage without Sharp’s friendship, and Montgomery never found a kindred spirit in Lefurgey.

And since both Brittain and Holtby were always keen to credit the other for the role they had played in shaping their own success, this raises the question as to whether each woman’s life might have run a quite different course without the help of her valued friend.

Unlike the vast majority of our monthly guest bloggers and featured authors, who were already well on their way with their writing careers by the time they became acquainted, regular readers of Something Rhymed will know that when Emma Claire and I met neither of us had published a single article or story.

In fact, we had been scribbling in secret up until then, and hadn’t had the courage to share our ambitions to write with anyone else.

It’s nice to think that, having so many things in common, we would have found each other, perhaps on-line, eventually – an advantage female writers of today have over those in Montgomery or Austen’s times.

But it’s far nicer to be able to recall the fact that we’ve been there for each other through all the ups and downs of our writing journeys, and to think that, as Brittain once said about Holtby: ‘although we didn’t exactly grow up together, we grew mature together, and that is the next best thing’.

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.