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.

What I’ve Learned from Emma Claire Sweeney

Drawing inspiration from Diana Athill and Jean Rhys, this month we take up the challenge to let each other know some of the things we’ve learned from the experience of regularly reading our friend’s writing.

The first time Emma Claire and I swapped pieces of work, we each printed out a short story we’d written, tucked it into an envelope fixed with airmail stamps and then waited with considerable trepidation for a postal reply.

I was living on the Japanese island of Shikoku at the time. Emma Claire, whose home had previously been a ninety-minute drive away, was now back in Britain, at her parents’ house in Birkenhead. A year had passed since we’d each confessed our secret ambitions to write, but it had taken us all this time to get up the nerve to show the other what we were working on.

View from Matsuyama Castle (the town where I used to live) by Jyo81 (Creative Commons licence)

View from Matsuyama Castle (the town where I used to live) by Jyo81 (Creative Commons licence)

Today, when Em and I exchange writing so frequently, this seems, on the one hand, extremely timid. But on the other, we probably did have some cause to worry – not just that our own efforts wouldn’t be good enough – but about how our friendship would be affected if we didn’t like each other’s prose styles.

Thankfully, the opposite turned out to be true, which is not to say that those early stories were much good. We were still grappling with the basics: how to pace a story, when to show and when to tell, and (in my case) how to write in grammatical sentences.

Nonetheless, Emma Claire’s use of language, infused with sensory detail, immediately pulled me in. In those early years, the stories she sent me were most often inspired by her experiences of living in Japan and her backpacking travels around South East Asia. I still easily recall a scene aboard a cramped Mekong river barge, ‘a garland of white jasmine petals and pink carnations’ swinging ‘hypnotically’ at the boat’s bow.

More recently, her fiction has centred on places closer to her roots. Like the novel she’s close to finishing, my favourite short story of hers is set in the seaside town of Morecambe. ‘The Taj Mahal of the North’, exemplifies so much that I admire about Em’s writing: the warmth of her voice on the page; her compassion for her characters; her ability to make the ‘ordinary’ seem suddenly startling and new.

Morecambe by Immanuel Giel (Creative Commons licence)

Morecambe by Immanuel Giel (Creative Commons licence)

I love her descriptions of the thriving resort of yesteryear – ‘the thick scent of the sea… the honky-tonk noises of the amusement arcades, and the couples sharing sundaes in the ice-cream parlour’. There’s a melancholy beauty to the Morecambe of today too, as seen through the eyes of the elderly male narrator who laments the demise of ‘the bath-houses and theatres’ where he spent his youth, ‘all standing derelict and converted into discotheques’.

This is writing that flows with ease. A reader would never know how many revisions it’s been through, how boldly its author has reshaped her story, removing characters, reordering scenes and, as Athill once recalled Rhys saying, being ready to ‘cut, cut, cut’.

Emma Claire’s example has encouraged me to stick with many a project that isn’t working yet and to take brave decisions when it comes to rewriting, completely replotting a novel for instance, or ditching a once-loved narrator: decisions that are made that bit easier when you know you’re guaranteed to have a writer friend beside you, every step of the way.

Diana Athill and Jean Rhys

Prostitution, abortion, failed marriages and alcoholism: accounts of Jean Rhys’s story tend to paint her as a tragic femme fatale. But these facets make up only part of the colourful life that she’d weave so hauntingly into her fiction.

Of white Creole heritage, Ella Gwendoline Rees Williams was born in 1890 on the Caribbean island of Dominica. After emigrating to Europe in her late teens, she attended a girls’ boarding school in Britain, and later spent years living a financially precarious existence in bohemian Paris and London. This included periods as a chorus girl and artist’s model –experiences she’d later draw on in her lyrical early novels.

But works like Voyage in the Dark and Good Morning, Midnight – which takes its title from a poem by Emily Dickinson – initially met with only limited success.

In middle age, Rhys retreated from the gritty glamour of her earlier existence. Now living in a remote country cottage, she upped her alcohol intake to a bottle of whisky a day and all but disappeared from the public’s consciousness.

Literature lovers owe a great debt to the editor Diana Athill for the part she played in putting Rhys back on the literary map. When Athill’s publishing house, André Deutsch, committed itself to Wide Sargasso Sea, Rhys’s daring prequel to Jane Eyre, the author let the firm know that they could have the completed manuscript within six to nine months.

Image used with the kind permission of Penguin Books.

Image used with the kind permission of Penguin Books.

Six to nine months turned into a year. A year turned into five, six, and then seven… Throughout this period, Athill, along with her fellow editor Francis Wyndham, encouraged Rhys by letter, and neither of them ever lost their belief in her phenomenal talent.

Athill was already a published writer herself, of short stories and a first volume of memoir by that stage. Born close to two decades after Rhys, Athill, who’d grown up on a thousand-acre estate in the British county of Norfolk, came from a very different social background. But she too flouted convention: by going to Oxford University and then into a career in publishing, rather than settling down to married life as so many of her female friends had done.

The two, who’d been corresponding for seven years, had still never met when Rhys agreed to bring her almost-finished manuscript to London. They’d arranged to have lunch together, but, the day before, Athill received a panicked phone call from the manager of the hotel where the author was staying. Rhys had suffered a heart attack.

Instead of the planned champagne celebrations, she was rushed into hospital, and so the pair first really got to know each other during the following weeks of Rhys’s convalescence. Later, Athill would recall that the experience ‘with all the usual intimacies of nightdress washing, toothpaste buying and so on, plunged us into the deepest end of friendship’.

Although there had only been a few lines missing from Rhys’s manuscript at the time of her heart attack, it took her a further two years to complete it. But nine years after taking on the book as an editor, Athill travelled from London to Devon to collect Wide Sargasso Sea in person.

Its great success would bring Rhys the celebrated literary status that had always eluded her in her youth.

Athill, too, would go on to enjoy a hugely successful old age, with the release of several more books, including Stet, the memoir of her days as an editor, and the award-winning Somewhere Towards the End.

Image used with the kind permission of Granta Books.

Image used with the kind permission of Granta Books.

Activity

Diana Athill has said that she learned much about concision and clarity from Jean Rhys – lessons that she was able to draw on in her own writing. This month, we’ll let each other know the lessons we’ve learned from many years spent reading and commenting on each other’s work.

 

So Many Unexpected Connections

As we mentioned in our first post of the month, it was one of our blog readers, Sarah Emsley, who told us about the friendship of L.M. Montgomery and Nora Lefurgey.

We’d got to know Sarah through her website and her support of Something Rhymed. Forming this kind of unexpected connection, often across the seas, has been one of the real pleasures we’ve encountered as a direct result of setting up our project.

Since beginning Something Rhymed at the start of this year, we’ve profiled the friendships of eleven pairs of female authors. But, of course, these women’s relationships with other writers didn’t stop with a single friend. Through our research we’ve learned about other important connections between different authors we’ve featured on this site.

Winifred Holtby, lovingly memorialised by Vera Brittain in Testament of Friendship, had earlier written a biography of her own: a book about Virginia Woolf. George Eliot, often believed to have been scornful of Jane Austen’s work, in fact studied the novels of her forebear in preparation for beginning to write her own fiction.

One of this month’s authors, L.M. Montgomery, felt a sense of affinity with Eliot. Mathilde Blind’s early biography of Eliot had such an impact on the then young and aspiring Montgomery that several of its words and phrases found their way into her own journals.

Elizabeth Gaskell was friends, not just with Charlotte Brontë, but also with Harriet Beecher Stowe. Stowe, as we wrote in October, was such an admirer of Charlotte Brontë that she once asked a medium to help her try to make contact with the late author’s ghost.

A planchette - the kind of device once used by Harriet Beecher Stowe, to try and make contact with the ghost of Charlotte Bronte. (Creative Commons licence)

A planchette – the kind of device once used by Harriet Beecher Stowe, to try and make contact with the ghost of Charlotte Bronte. (Creative Commons licence)

One half of next month’s pair of writers was also greatly influenced by Brontë, but she adopted a less other-worldly approach. Jean Rhys’s most famous book Wide Sargasso Sea resurrects the story of Antoinette Cosway, her reimagined version of the character of Bertha Mason, the ‘madwoman’ who’d previously languished in the attic of Brontë’s novel Jane Eyre.

We look forward to sharing more of Rhys’s own story with you in our first post of December, next week, and also continuing to discover many more important links between the great female authors – connections that often transcended their historical eras.

From Literary Protégée to Competition Rival

We were drawn to the friendship between Nora Lefurgey and L. M. Montgomery because it endured despite marked differences in their literary standings: while Anne of Green Gables propelled Montgomery to international fame, Lefurgey’s novel gathered dust in the proverbial drawer.

Of course, the prospect of rivalry does not end when both friends are published. Then there are questions of sales and reviews and awards. We’d been intrigued, therefore, when it was announced that both debut novelist, Madeline Miller, and multi award-winning author, Ann Patchett, had been shortlisted for the 2012 Orange Prize since Madeline had previously been one of a Ann’s protégées.

 

We met Madeline to ask her about the transition from literary mentorship to competition rivals.

Madeline explains that she had always been a great fan of the established author’s work, and that she counts Truth and Beauty, Ann’s memoir about her friendship with fellow writer Lucy Grealy, as one of her favourite books of all time.

Early in her career, Madeline had been thrilled to receive a glowing blurb from Ann for the publisher’s proof copy of her debut novel, The Song of Achilles. At this stage, Madeline had never met Ann, this novelist who had unexpectedly done her such a good turn. Evidently still touched by the older author’s generosity, she tells us about how they finally came face-to-face.

Fortuitously, Ann had been due to give a reading at Madeline’s local book store, and so Miller bought tickets, intending to introduce herself after the event. When, on the night, an audience member asked for a reading recommendation, Madeline was delighted to hear the celebrated author single out the forthcoming Song of Achilles for praise. She was even more surprised when Ann suddenly looked up, right into Madeline’s eyes, and introduced her to the crowd.

Ann proceeded to share the limelight with the younger author, who couldn’t fathom how she had been recognised. She jokes that she had been ready to put it down to Ann’s magical powers until her fiancé later confessed that he was the one to have pointed her out. ‘But she does have magical powers,’ Madeline laughs, ‘I stand by that!’

Ann’s kindness didn’t stop there. The pair struck up an email correspondence, and Ann generously shared the benefits of her own longer experience as a published author. Madeline is particularly grateful for Ann’s advice to steer clear of reviews, which give an exaggerated sense of both the positive and the negative, encouraging the writer to focus on the outward expressions of literary “success” rather than drawing on internal inspiration. Ann also shared her secret to a fulfilled writing life: There are times for writing and times for living, Madeline remembers Ann once saying, and one feeds the other.

The next time the pair met in person, it was on Ann’s instigation: she invited Madeline to read at Parnassus Books – the independent store that she co-owns in Nashville, Tennessee. It was there the two novelists discovered that they’d both made it onto the short list for the 2012 Orange Prize (now the Baileys Women’s Prize) – an award that recognises the work of female novelists.

It could have been a situation fraught with stress: although a game-changer for the debut author, Madeline now found herself pitted against her mentor.

But, instead, Ann, who had already won the prize back in 2002, took great pleasure in the opportunity this time to share the limelight with her protégée. When the date of the prize ceremony was announced, Ann realised that she couldn’t make it over to Britain at that time. She was glad that Madeline would be able to attend, and she even loaned her competitor one of her own outfits that she felt might be particularly suitable for the Orange Prize do: a beautiful dress of tangerine silk.

Madeline Miller wearing the dress she loaned from Ann Patchett.

Madeline Miller wearing the dress she loaned from Ann Patchett.

When the judges revealed that they were awarding the prize to Madeline Miller for The Song of Achilles, the young writer keenly acknowledged her indebtedness to her mentor in her acceptance speech. ‘I got to go and help represent her book as well,’ she says.

The competition seems to have actually strengthened their relationship. In fact, Madeline tells us that Ann was not the only one eager to congratulate her. The award, she says, ‘fostered a sense of collegiality’ amongst all its female nominees.

The friendship of Lefurgey and Montgomery taught us that creative rivalry can be endured, while the example of Miller and Patchett shows that it can even be enjoyed.

A shorter version of this interview was originally included in our feature in Mslexia Issue 57. 

Diaries, Diversions and Double Beds

As a young woman, L.M. Montgomery, the woman who would later publish the famous Anne of Green Gables series, kept a giddy collaborative journal with her writer friend and housemate, Nora Lefurgey. Inspired by them, we have written a joint diary post about a trip we made together to Ilkley.

Emily: We get off to a slower-than-expected start when, on arriving at King’s Cross railway station, the board tells us our train has been cancelled. But it doesn’t maGregPhoto.comtter: our Something Rhymed event at the Ilkley Literature Festival isn’t until tomorrow – we’ve allowed ourselves an extra day for lots of rehearsing – and even though we’ve arranged to meet our friends at the town’s Playhouse bar later, we still have plenty of time.

Plus, with the two of us together, these things are always all right; they would be even if we were cutting it fine. 

An hour or so later, we are on the train making our journey north. I plan to work on a blog post that’s set to go live tomorrow, while Emma Claire puts the final touches to an article we’ve written for Shooter Lit Mag. But we keep talking, and so we don’t get as much done as we’d have liked.

Emma Claire: The article is about Emily Dickinson, and so I have been reading her letters and am itching to share my findings with Em: the only friend who I know for sure will find Dickinson’s love life as fascinating as I do. DespitGregPhoto.come at least one proposal of marriage; a darkly mysterious correspondence with someone she called ‘Master’; and a late-life erotic liaison with a man eighteen years her senior, Dickinson famously never married. And yet, as an adolescent, she had harboured such high hopes of romance. I can’t help disturbing Em from her blog post to share this snippet from one of Dickinson’s letters: ‘I am growing handsome very fast indeed! I expect I shall be the belle of Amherst when I reach my 17th year. I don’t doubt that I will have perfect crowds of admirers at that age. Then how shall I delight to make them await my bidding and with what delight shall I witness their suspense while I make my final decision’. Who would have thought that such a sociable creature would have become mythologised as a crazed recluse?GregPhoto.com

Emily: When the man with the refreshments trolley reaches us he says ‘What can I get you, girls?’ We wonder for how long people will keep calling us that. We are almost thirty-five.

Emma Claire: Now that Emily has pointed it out, I keep noticing people’s tendency to refer to us as ‘girls’. We got to have a brief chat with Edna O’Brien at tGregPhoto.comhe Small Wonder Festival recently and, although we were there in our role as lecturers accompanying our New York University students, she greeted us affectionately with the words: ‘Two girls!’ Both with Edna O’Brien and with the man on the train, I found myself quite enjoying the image of us as young friends – perhaps because, in both cases, their tones seemed wistful rather than patronising. Life’s thrown quite a lot at Emily and me during the dozen or so years since we first met, beating much of our youthful naivety out of us. And yet, now that we’re far closer to forty than twenty, I feel as if my friendship with Emily has helped me not only to mature but also to prolong my girlhood.   

GregPhoto.comEmily: Through the window, we pick out places that bring back lots of memories: towns I remember from days that seem distant, when I used to commute to London from my old flat in Leeds every week. As we pull into Grantham, Emma Claire says she always recalls switching trains here, stepping down to take the much slower service to the village in Lincolnshire where I lived in my mid-twenties. Ever since I first got to know her, Em has been a regular house guest.

Emma Claire: During the years when I was living in central London and Emily and her partner were moving between various towns and villages, my visits to them always felt like mini-holidays. By the time I reached Grantham, I would already have begun to unwind. My memories of those weekends are full of small pleasures: picking rocket from tGregPhoto.comheir back garden; mixing gin with triple sec and a squeeze of lemon; shopping for sushi-fresh fish in their local market.

Since they moved to London and we started SomethingRhymed.com, I have become a far more frequent overnight guest – something that particularly struck me this weekend when Emily and her partner came over to my place for breakfast on their way to other friends. It had been five years since Emily’s partner had visited my house, and yet these days he welcomes me into theirs on an almost weekly basis.  

GregPhoto.com

Emily: When we arrive in Ilkley at last, we find our hotel with minimal trouble. Phone maps have made everything easier than it used to be, but it’s still far from unusual for us to get lost, particularly when we are chatting as we wander.

Through the front door, in the narrow corridor, Emma Claire, who’s made theGregPhoto.com two-night booking, gives her name to the man on reception. He nods, but seems strangely reluctant to show us to our room, and so we wait with our bags while he disappears out the back. We can hear the hum of his voice. He seems to be trying to find someone, anyone, else to show us to where we will be sleeping.

When he emerges at last, unsuccessful apparently, he leads us up the stairs. In the room, we see a large bed for two. The man talks us hurriedly through the facilities, his eyes focused away.

Once Emma Claire has explained that she’d requested a twin, our host visibly relaxes. He insists on showing us to three different rooms, asking us to take our pick. On our own again, with the door closed, we laugh about what’s just happened.

Emma Claire: ButGregPhoto.com we also feel that we’ve been given an insight into what it could be like for gay couples on their travels, and the way that such situations could become far more tiresome than funny. But we keep on laughing, wondering if there’ll ever come a day – now that we’re really no longer girls – when we might feel flush enough to book separate rooms. 

Emily: It’s not long before we have to get back out to meet Gail and Irenosen, also in town for the festival. The sky is dark and brooding and we are walking along the sloping streets, neither of us entirely sure where the Playhouse is, despite having been to Ilkey before – and in my case to the theatre itself.GregPhoto.com

Over the years, Em and I have got ourselves lost in so many locations: along the country roads of Japan’s Ehime Prefecture, circling the streets of Barreiro in Portugal, and on several nights out in London. This time, though, we keep up today’s earlier form and find our way fairly quickly – not that it would have mattered if we hadn’t, not really, with the two of us together.

 

Nora Lefurgey and L.M. Montgomery

Anne-Green-Gables-fr-cover-180x295

Image used with the kind permission of ARose Books.

As girls, we were both great fans of the Anne of Green Gables series. Though we grew up in different towns on opposite sides of the Pennines, L.M. Montgomery’s fictional Canadian community of Avonlea was a haven we each knew well.

It was after we began Something Rhymed at the start of this year that we began to look back on those books. We remembered feisty Anne’s longing for a ‘kindred spirit’ and ‘bosom friend’, and wondered whether there was a real-life Diana Barry in her creator’s life.

We have one of this blog’s readers, Sarah Emsley, to thank for putting us on to this particular friend. Knowing of her interest in all things Montgomery, we asked Sarah if she had any ideas. She was kind enough to come up with a couple of possibilities, although it was Lefurgey that really captured our interest.

L.M. Montgomery (left) and Nora Lefurgey in 1903

L.M. Montgomery (left) and Nora Lefurgey in 1903. Image used with the kind permission of the Archival and Special Collections, University of Guelph Library, and Heirs of L.M. Montgomery Inc. L.M. Montgomery is a trademark of Heirs of L.M. Montgomery Inc.

She and Montgomery became pals in 1902, when Lefurgey was a young schoolteacher working in Cavendish, on Prince Edward Island, where Montgomery had spent most of her childhood and recently returned to care for her grandmother.

This was still some time before the publication of the novel that would catapult her to stardom, but her short stories were being regularly published by then and her literary earnings were beginning to grow.

Unlike Maud – as she was called by those who knew her – Lefurgey was not a professional writer. But she did produce an unpublished novel, belong to a writers’ club, and, like her new friend, keep a journal throughout her life. Most thrillingly for us, over a five-month period, when she’d left her previous lodgings to board with Montgomery and her grandmother, the two women kept a collaborative diary.

Whereas Montgomery’s personal journal entries of that time were often melancholic in tone, a very different side of her emerges in her lighthearted published writings of the era, and another side again in this joint-diary.

Here, she and Lefurgey indulge in tales of flirting with young men, and exaggerated neighbourhood gossip. They often use their separate entries to tease each other, seemingly in anticipation of how the other will react when she takes up the story. They decorated the book’s cover with interlocking hearts, perhaps a reference to their shared closeness or to the giddiness of the heightened romantic contents within.

A more naturally gregarious personality than Montgomery, Lefurgey seems to have filled a void in the life of an author who’d experienced a sometimes lonely childhood living under the strict care of her grandparents.

Her early impressions were that Lefurgey was ‘a positive godsend’. Although they were forced to part when Lefurgey left Prince Edward Island to be married, she re-emerged in Montgomery’s life twenty-four years later, and soon established herself as the main confidante of a woman who was by then one of Canada’s best-loved authors.

Activity

In their diary entries, L.M. Montgomery and Nora Lefurgey often reported on the same incidents from their differing points of view. This month, we’ll recall a day spent together and each write it up in our own style.