Mabel Dodge and Gertrude Stein (and Alice B. Toklas)

Regular readers of this blog will perhaps remember Alice Fitzgerald’s post on the friendship between Pratibha Parmar and Alice Walker, edited by Kathleen Dixon Donnelly. Today, Kathleen writes a post of her own for us, edited this time by Clêr Lewis. We hope you’ll enjoy it as much as we did.

If this inspires you to get more involved with Something Rhymed, please find further details here.

Gertrude Stein by Carl Van Vechten, 1934. (This image is in the public domain.)

Think of ground-breaking writer Gertrude Stein (1874-1946) — a native of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, like me — and you automatically think of her life partner, Alice B. Toklas (1877-1967).

From the moment Stein and Toklas met, in Paris in 1906, their joint biographer, Diana Souhami, writes that they ‘never travelled without each other or entertained separately, or worked on independent projects’.

Very romantic—but, didn’t they have any woman friends?

Both were great friends with many writers—mostly male—who admired Stein’s work, including Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Female acquaintances would come to their salons on the Left Bank in the 1920s, but most were the wives of the writers.

Another American who became well known for her 1920s Greenwich Village salons was Mabel Ganson Evans Dodge Sterne Luhan (1879-1962), daughter of a wealthy Buffalo businessman, widowed and married again before she was 26. Dodge’s first husband was killed in a hunting accident, leaving her with a young son. To pry her away from an affair with a Buffalo gynaecologist, her family sent her to Paris. On board ship she met a rich Boston architect, Edwin Dodge, and they married two years later, establishing a fabulous home, Villa Curonia, in Florence.

MAbel Dodge
Mabel Dodge Luhan by Carl Van Vechten, 1934. (This image is in the public domain.)

In 1911, Dodge visited rue de Fleurus, in Paris, to meet Stein and Toklas. The Dodges in turn invited their new friends to their ornate Italian home, and there Stein began writing A Portrait of Mabel Dodge at the Villa Curonia. She developed an essay technique by adapting what Cezanne and other painters had done in the portraits that she had bought to adorn the walls of her salon. Stein wrote, ‘Pablo (Picasso) is doing abstract portraits in painting. I am trying to do abstract portraits in my medium, words.’

Stein wrote late at night, in her room next to Dodge’s. As Mr Dodge was away, his wife invited her children’s 22-year-old tutor into her bedroom. Stein incorporated overheard sounds into her portrait: ‘So much breathing has not the same place where there is that much beginning. So much breathing has not the same place when the ending is lessening. So much breathing …’ Dodge was thrilled.

Toklas was not.

Dodge had felt Stein warm to her and became a bit flirtatious. As she described in her memoir: ‘Gertrude sitting opposite me in Edwin’s chair, sent me such a strong look over the table that it seemed to cut across the air to me in a band of electrified steel—a smile traveling across on it—powerful—Heaven! I remember it now so keenly! (Alice walked out.) Gertrude gave a surprised, noticing glance … and followed.’ Stein came back to say that Toklas wouldn’t come to lunch as, ‘She feels the heat today.’

Alice B. Toklas by Carl Van Vechten, 1949. (This image is in the public domain.)

From that moment, Dodge felt that Toklas kept them apart. But for the next twenty years Dodge and Stein wrote to each other.

Back in New York, divorced from her husband, holding political salons and having an affair with radical, communist journalist John Reed, Dodge became involved with the organizers of the 1913 Armory Show, the first major exhibition of European and American modern art in the States. Dodge had had a few essays in Alfred Stieglitz’s intellectual photographic journal Camera Work, so the Armory Show’s publicist asked her to write a piece about Gertrude Stein’s avant-garde style for a special issue of Arts and Decoration magazine.

Dodge obliged with ‘Speculations, or Post-Impressionists in Prose’, comparing Matisse and Picasso’s work in paint with Stein’s in print. Stein reacted with delight: ‘Hurrah for gloire! Do send me half a dozen copies … I want to show it to everybody.’

From then on, Stein’s name was associated, both seriously and satirically, with the cubists.

When Reed went off on his communist adventures, Dodge married a painter, Maurice Sterne, following him to Taos, New Mexico, where they established an artists’ colony. By the mid-1920s, Dodge had dumped him and married a Native American, Tony Luhan. They hosted many of the decade’s leading artists and writers, including D. H. Lawrence and his wife Frieda.

Meanwhile, in Paris, Stein and Toklas were welcoming a new generation of Americans who were taking advantage of a cheap franc, cheap food and cheap wine.

Dodge helped Stein get her work published in the States, but Stein didn’t hit it big until, in six weeks in 1932, she wrote The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas because Toklas wouldn’t. American friends encouraged them to come on a US lecture tour, starting at the Algonquin Hotel in Manhattan. When they arrived, newspaper headlines proclaimed: ‘Gerty Gerty Stein Stein Is Back Home Home Back.’

Dodge urged the pair to come to her in Taos. Or they could visit her home in Carmel on the California leg of their trip.

Toklas said no.

When the first volume of Dodge’s memoirs, Intimate Memories, was published in 1927, reviewing it in The New Yorker, Dorothy Parker was underwhelmed: ‘It may be in her forthcoming volume, when she gets into her stride of marrying people, things will liven up a bit.’

In later volumes, Dodge treated her friend Stein well, but described Toklas as sinister, and concluded ‘I missed my jolly fat friend very much.’

 

Written by Kathleen Dixon Donnelly, who runs the blog Such Friends, and is working on a book ‘Such Friends’: A Scrapbook Almanac of Writers’ Salons, 1897-1930. You can follow her on Twitter @SuchFriends.

 

Edited by Clêr Lewis. Clêr has an MA in creative writing from Goldsmiths, University of London, and is  working on her first novel.

Hannah Croft and Fiona Pearce: Still Friends Above All

Comedians Hannah Croft and Fiona Pearce became friends at school, followed each other to Oxford and then on to drama school before starting to write and perform sketch comedy together as  Croft & Pearce. Their synchronicity didn’t end here – they even became pregnant in the same week!

We asked Hannah and Fiona about their experiences of writing and female friendship.

Hannah Croft (front) and Fiona Pearce (back)

What were your first impressions of each other?

Hannah: We first met in sixth form when Fi joined my school. I remember seeing a geeky-looking new girl sitting alone in the common room and thinking ‘look at that friendless loser…I think I’ve found a kindred spirit!’

Fiona: Hannah didn’t seem to have many friends despite having been at the school for five years, which was ideal for me. I remember she was very colour co-ordinated – her top matched her necklace which matched her belt which matched her eye shadow – so my first impression of her was ‘purple’.

How did you come to write and perform comedy together?

Hannah: Having discovered this new friendship we clung to it with all our might and followed each other to Oxford and then on to drama school. It was when we were trying and failing to forge our careers as the greatest classical actresses of our generation that we took a step back and began to laugh at ourselves and at the world.

Fiona: I had some friends who were running a sketch comedy night in a basement below a pub on London’s Great Portland Street and they offered us a three-minute set, which we thought would be too short and ended up being around two and a half minutes too long.

Describe your co-writing process?

Hannah: It has chopped and changed over the years as we’ve found our feet, but on the whole we each allow ourselves to be inspired by the everyday and we each make notes separately of things that have made us laugh. Then we put our heads (and lists) together and start to develop the ideas.

Fiona: We tend to come to each other with what we think are completely amazing ideas, and then work them up together and gradually realise they’re flawed, and then very slowly make them better. We improve ideas and start writing from there, either in a room together (normally with tea, coffee and cake that Hannah has made) or over Skype.

Hannah: Our benchmark for a good idea is whether it makes us laugh or not. If it passes that test we deem it worthy of being tested out in front of an audience. You get very direct feedback in comedy, so we tend to let the audience be our script editors.

How do you manage the personal and professional aspects of your relationship?

Hannah: We’ve discovered over the years that our friendship is a very powerful procrastination tool and we tend to kick off each writing session chatting away as friends until we finally give into the inevitable and begin to work, work, work, usually hurrying to make up for lost time. We never learn. But I find it such a joy to have this great excuse to spend so much time hanging out with my best friend and I prize our relationship above all else.

Fiona: Yes, we are still friends above all, which makes it all so much more fun when things are going well, and so much more manageable when we encounter setbacks.

What have been the most significant changes in your writing friendship?

Hannah: We have gradually eased into becoming much more direct with each other as time has passed. In the early years we’d try to be very tactful with each other and humour (no pun intended) each other’s less promising ideas, whereas now, with evermore projects to juggle at the same time, we’ve become less pussyfooty.

Fiona: Yes, less pussy, more footy. At the same time we’ve become more relaxed and playful with our ideas and willing to try things out that we’re not sure will work, which comes from having lots of experience with different audiences on tour.

What are your hopes for your writing and performing careers, together and separately?

Hannah: We’d love to get ourselves on more comedy writing teams – even some in LA where they have comedy writers’ rooms…hell, why not put that out there! – and the big dream is to have our own show on TV.

Fiona: Everyone says it’s hard to get a show commissioned but we are still naive enough to believe in our dreams. It was a great experience to write our own series for BBC Radio 4 and we’d love to make something for TV. We’ve been lucky to be taken under the wing of some great comedy writers already and we’d love to work with other experienced comedy greats like Armando Iannucci and Tina Fey…Hell, why not put that out there!

Croft & Pearce won a 2014 Edinburgh Spirit of the Fringe Award and in 2015 they were a BBC Next Big Thing Act. Their episode of BBC Radio 4’s Sketchorama was nominated for Best Scripted Comedy at the BBC Audio Drama Awards and this led to the commission of their first solo sketch show for BBC Radio 4, The Croft & Pearce Show, which was broadcast in March 2016. Following a Total Sell-Out run at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2016, they launched a podcast with their hit characters June & Jean, and embarked on their second UK tour.

Croft and Pearce will be taking their new show, Double Take, up to the Edinburgh Fringe this year. You can find out more about their show here.

You can follow them on Twitter @croftandpearce

Pratibha Parmar and Alice Walker

In March, we announced that Something Rhymed would, for the first time, be open to submissions. It is a particular pleasure that the first profile post we received from our call for submissions came from former City University student Alice Fitzgerald. As she celebrates the publication of her debut novel, Her Mother’s Daughter, she wrote for Something Rhymed about the friendship of her literary heroines Pratibha Parmar and Alice Walker

We also spread the word that we were looking for people to help us out with the editorial and administrative side of things. It was wonderful to hear back from Kathleen Dixon Donnelly, who we knew of through her fascinating blog, Such Friends, which explores the early-twentieth century literary salons of the Irish Literary Renaissance, the Bloomsbury Group, the Americans in Paris, and the Algonquin Round Table. Our thanks to Kathleen for editing this post. 

If you would like to get more involved with Something Rhymed, please find further details here.

You might know Alice Walker as the author of groundbreaking novel, The Color Purple. This would make sense; it was off the back of this book that she made history as the first African-American woman to win a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, as well as the National Book Award, in 1983, gaining more fame when the novel was made into a film directed by Steven Spielberg in 1985. In fact, Walker is a prolific writer, having penned everything from poetry and essays to short fiction and novels.

Born in 1944, the eighth child to sharecropper parents in Georgia during a time of racial segregation, she is also an activist, best known for her work with civil rights, women’s equality and peace campaigns. She coined the term ‘womanism’ in 1979 to describe a black feminist or feminist of colour.

British filmmaker Pratibha Parmar, meanwhile, was born just over a decade later in Kenya to a family who had emigrated from India to East Africa during the period of the British Empire, and migrated again to England in a group that the British media then termed ‘East African Asians’. Hailing from a persecuted people who had travelled across three continents, Parmar’s work is embedded in political complexity, examining themes such as gender, identity, LGBT issues, race and feminism.

It was Walker’s political beliefs and prominent role as an activist that first brought her and Parmar together. Having written Possessing the Secret of Joy, a novel which touches on female genital mutilation, Walker hoped to make a film on this controversial practice of female circumcision. She wanted to put her words into something more visual and accessible, and Parmar was happy to make that a reality.

The 1994 documentary, Warrior Marks, went on to win awards, and ‘that harrowing journey both triggered and cemented our mutual respect and trust’, Parmar told E. Nina Rothe in 2013 of her relationship with Walker. The two women soon went on to co-publish the book, Warrior Marks: Female Genital Mutilation and the Sexual Blinding of Women.

Alice Walker (left) and Pratibha Parmar (right) by Shaheen Haq, the producer of Alice Walker: Beauty in Truth.

Their friendship now stretches over more than 25 years. Like most of us, they communicate over email. Parmar is now based in San Francisco and Walker has a house in Mexico. There have been more fruits of their friendship, too. In 2013, Parmar made a documentary film about Walker’s life. ‘Two exceptional women, talking about one exceptional woman’s life, with the help of a few really exceptional friends’, writes Rothe in her Huffington Post article.

Parmar’s love, respect and admiration for her friend are clear throughout the beautifully-shot documentary, called Alice Walker: Beauty in Truth, which is Parmar’scontribution to filling this gaping abyss of on screen representations of women as history makers and shapers, women as public intellectuals and visionary leaders’.

As with any friendship that spans a length of time, one has seen the other change and grow. Speaking of Walker, Parmar told Bernard Boo in a 2013 interview on Way Too IndieShe’s gone through so many different experiences over the last few decades that I’ve known her, I’ve seen her grow, I’ve seen her suffer, I’ve seen her speak out about things even when she knows it won’t make her popular with people. Through all of that, I would say that there is an essence that’s never changed. She has a very strong inner core and will that’s powered her through her life.’

There have been hard times, too; Warrior Marks earned them criticism for not being African women. But Walker had wise words for her friend. Pratibha. Teflon,’ Walker told Parmar. She said I had to develop a skin like Teflon. She’s had to have done that to survive’, explains the filmmaker.

HERMOTHERSDAUGHTERWritten by Alice Fitzgerald, whose debut novel Her Mother’s Daughter is out now with Allen & Unwin. You can follow her on Twitter @AliceFitzWrites

 

 

    Edited by Kathleen Dixon Donnelly, who posts at Such Friends, and is  currently          working on a book, ‘Such Friends’: A Scrapbook Almanac of Writers’ Salons,                 1897-1930.

Companions, mentors, fairy godmothers: Alice Fitzgerald, Margarita Gokun Silver and Nicola Prentis

When one of Emma’s former City University students, Alice Fitzgerald, shared the good news about securing a publisher for her debut novel, Her Mother’s Daughter, we asked her to write about the female writers who have influenced her own literary journey.

It is with great pride and pleasure that we celebrate today’s launch of Her Mother’s Daughter with Alice’s post on her own writer friends. And we will follow up soon with her piece on the bond between her literary heroines Alice Walker, author of The Colour Purple, and British filmmaker, Pratibha Parmar.

If you would like to write for Something Rhymed, or help in other ways, please find further details here.

Alice’s debut novel, launched today by Allen & Unwin.

You have school friends, university friends, work friends, going-out friends, and then you have writer friends. There is something particularly nourishing about writer friends. They get you in a way others don’t. They understand the loneliness, the lows – which feel so low and so all-encompassing when they come – and the highs – just as high and all-encompassing when they (allbeit more rarely) come.

They dedicate time to reading your work, whether it be an essay, or an article, or the first draft of your novel, or the second, third or tenth draft… They are by your side, even if you don’t live in the same city any more, and are at the end of the WhatsApp group on your phone. When you get nervous and disillusioned because the writing process is so hard, and then the publishing process is equally as hard, and brings with it its very own anxiety show, they are there with an ear, and with wise words that make you feel instantly better.

I met Margarita and Nicola at a writer’s group in Madrid six years ago. I didn’t know then that our friendship would become among the most important, and most fruitful, to me. It has happened slowly and gradually. They have been my companions, accompanying me through writing and editing my first novel, then pitching to agents, then through the quest of finding a publisher. They have both encouraged me and pushed my writing in equal measure.

Margarita, particularly, has played a bit of a fairy godmother when it comes to the publication of my novel. She found my agent and pointed me in her direction, because she liked ‘dark’ writing. Later, she had a helping hand in the manuscript getting into the hands of the publisher that picked it up.

For their part, they have both continued to carve out careers as freelance writers/journalists, with enviable bylines and accomplishments. Nicola published her novel and is currently working between journalism, ELT, and copywriting (lots of strings…). Margarita’s own novel came out in the US in 2015. Since, she has written a memoir in essays and is currently burrowing away at a new project. We’ve also seen her branch out into journalism, at which she is a dab hand.

From the left: Margarita, Alice, Nicola, and another writer friend, Julia, in Madrid.

There is the personal side, too, of course. Since I’ve known her, Nicola has had her first and then second child. When I had mine, we traded stories and knowledge on breastfeeding and baby weight gain. Margarita, whose daughter is on the cusp of going to university, serves as a reminder that we must enjoy every minute. While we’re in the midst of nesting and the beauty and madness of raising young children, she finds her nest is free of its fledgling.

They have both moved cities – one now lives in Girona, and the other in Athens. But our mobile chat group keeps the line open, and our weekly call, when we talk through ideas, projects, goals, and anything else happening in our lives, is great encouragement and really eggs me on to edge forward.

And forward we go, coming together every now and then when our paths cross, for some pizza and face-to-face discussions when one may ask the other what it’s all about?, or for a glass of wine and a bout of banter – light and literary-free.

Alice Fitzgerald’s debut novel Her Mother’s Daughter is published today by Allen & Unwin. She’s on Twitter as @AliceFitzWrites.

Nicola Prentis is a double award-winning fiction writer with books for English language learners. She also writes about parenting, travel, food and the English language for various places including Quartz, Cosmo and WSJ.

Margarita Gokun Silver is a writer and artist living in Athens, Greece. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, BBC, The Guardian, Oprah, and The Atlantic, among others. You can find her on twitter @MGokunSilver.

 

No Surer Foundation for Friendship: Sophie Butler and Miranda Mills

We first got to know the writer Miranda Mills when she asked us if she could interview us about our book for Tea & Tattle, the podcast she runs with her best friend, academic and writer Sophie Butler. We’ve since enjoyed catching up on their other episodes, and found ourselves particularly fascinated by one discussion in which they talk about the literary beginnings of their long-lasting bond. This week, they explore this subject further in a new piece for Something Rhymed.

Sophie Butler (left) and Miranda Mills

Miranda: 
Whenever I think about my friendship with Sophie, I think of one of my favourite quotes by P.G. Wodehouse: ‘There is no surer foundation for a beautiful friendship than a mutual taste in literature.’ I have certainly found this to be true.

Nowadays, the fact that we began our acquaintance as thirteen-year-old pen-pals, scribbling letters to each other that flew weekly across the Atlantic Ocean, is hard to imagine. No Whatsapp, no Facebook – we didn’t even email! But from the very first letter that I exchanged with Sophie, where we described our mutual love for the Chalet School  books by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer, I knew I’d found what I’d been searching for since reading Anne of Green Gables – a kindred spirit.

It never fails to come as a small shock to me to realise that Sophie and I have always been
long-distance friends; perhaps because it feels as though, from those first hastily torn open envelopes, we’ve never stopped talking. Books have always been a common theme in our friendship. As undergraduates, we’d plan out trips to our favourite book shops: when Sophie visited me in London, we made the rounds of Persephone Books, Daunt and Foyles. Weekend jaunts of mine to Oxford would culminate in blueberry muffins and gossip at Blackwells. Many of our favourite authors were read in sync: Jane Austen, Nancy Mitford, P.G. Wodehouse, Dorothy L. Sayers

Today, our conversations about life and the books we’re reading are broadcast to thousands of listeners around the world, through our podcast, Tea & Tattle. I can only imagine how thrilled our thirteen-year-old selves would be if they knew.

Sophie:

Throughout my teenage years, suffering from M.E. and being home-schooled, much of my interaction with the world came through the written word. Confined to the house for long periods, my bookshelves became increasingly important, allowing me to travel anywhere from the Austrian classrooms of the Chalet School series to the country-houses of Bertie Wooster and his friends. If only I had someone with whom to discuss my discoveries!

I remember my excitement when I read the first letters Miranda sent me from America, responding to my appeal for pen-pals in a Chalet School appreciation society newsletter. Not only did she like and dislike the same Chalet School characters as I did (vitally important for a thirteen-year-old school story fan), but (what amazement!) she had read The Tenant of Wildfell Hall and preferred it to Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights. With such markers of good taste, how could we fail to become firm friends?

Together, we explored the works of our mutual favourite, Jane Austen, recommending biographies to one another and delving into collections of Austen’s letters to discuss them in our own. I’ve no doubt that it was through these discussions, taking place across hundreds of sheets of paper and thousands of miles, that I began my journey towards becoming a University Lecturer in English Literature.

Through these epistolary conversations, I discovered my interest in exploring a literary subject in its historical context, the fun of following up literary leads, and, most of all, the joy of analyzing literature – and so much else – with a like-minded friend. But much as I treasure my collection of old letters, I’m rather glad that Miranda and I now don’t need to put pen to paper whenever we want a chat!

Miranda Mills and Sophie Butler co-host the Tea & Tattle podcast, which celebrates female friendship and creativity. This incorporates Tea Reads, for which they discuss some of their favourite short reads (none of which should take longer than the time it takes to drink a cup of tea).

Miranda blogs at Mirandasnotebook.com. You can also follow her on Instagram: @mirandasnotebook and @mirandasbookcase.

In her work as an English Literature academic, Sophie’s writing focuses on the Renaissance period. You can follow her on Instagram:  @sophie_perdita

A New Paperback… and a new direction for Something Rhymed

We’re very excited to let you know that, here in the UK at least (as well as various other Commonwealth countries) the paperback of A Secret Sisterhood is out in shops today.

As regular Something Rhymed readers will know, it tells the stories of the literary friendships of Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, George Eliot and Virginia Woolf. To celebrate, we’ve arranged a blog tour, which will take place over the next couple of weeks and feature reviews of our book. The first stop on the tour is A View from the Balcony. The full tour schedule is below:

 

Also look out for upcoming reviews on Lonesome Reader, Cornflower Booksthe Literary SofaNorthern ReaderJess Writes and Crocus Connect Books.

If you or anyone you know would be interested in reviewing the paperback on their blog, please do get in touch via the ‘Contact Us’ page and we will arrange for a copy to be sent out by return of post. Of course, we are also hugely appreciative of any feedback on Amazon (regardless of where the book was purchased).

We hope you’ll enjoy following the tour, especially since we could never have written A Secret Sisterhood without the support and encouragement of all of you. When we began this blog in January 2014, we imagined that it would be a year-long web project. We never anticipated where it would take us. Writing for Something Rhymed has been a wonderful experience, and we have been delighted to forge so many new friendships of our own with readers all over the world.

It’s always been important to us that Something Rhymed remains an advert-free, not-for-profit blog. We run this site in our spare time and it has become increasingly tricky to find enough hours in the day to keep generating new content, in addition to writing our books, teaching, journalism and doing events.

Now that we are both embarking on new writing projects, we have begun to turn our minds to the future of Something Rhymed. And, as such, we’d love to hear from you.

Open call for submissions

Would you like to write for Something Rhymed? If so, please send a short pitch via our Contact Us page, letting us know who you are and what you would like to write about.

In the past, articles on Something Rhymed have included:

  • Posts that profile the friendship of a well-known or unjustly forgotten, usually historical, female literary pair – 500 to 800 words. (For examples of former profile posts, please click on the links on this page and scroll down to the earliest post listed under each link.)
  • Posts that deal more generally with the theme of female literary friendship – 500 to 800 words. (See this, this and this example but we’d also be open to all sorts of new approaches.)
  • ‘Guest posts’ that profile a writer’s own literary friendship – 500 to 650 words. (For examples of former guest posts, please click on the links on this page.)

Please note that if you would like to send us a pitch for a guest post, we ask that you do this as part of a pitch for two articles – one of which should not be about your own literary friendship.

We are open to other ideas too, as long as they fall within the general theme of female literary friendship.

Editorial / administrative volunteers

We’re also looking for people who might be interested in volunteering to help out with the editorial and administrative side of things. Over the years we’ve been running Something Rhymed, as well as writing blog posts ourselves we have solicited and edited guest posts from other writers, organised site logistics (such as timings of posts, image rights, design issues), publicised posts on social media, managed contact lists etc.

Doing these kinds of things has helped us to develop valuable skills while also building our profiles and expanding our literary contacts. We’d love now to give some of these opportunities to others who might find them similarly helpful. If you are interested in helping out with editorial and admin, please do get in touch with us via our Contact Us page.

We’ll look forward to hearing from anyone with ideas for submissions and / or interested in volunteering with editorial and admin.

We’re really hoping that in this way we can keep building the Something Rhymed community, and expand the site as a resource for anyone who values female literary friendship.

 

Doris Lessing and Muriel Spark

Since this month marks the centenary of Muriel Spark’s birth, we were keen to investigate whether the famed author of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie turned to another female writer for support. We instinctively felt that she might have found something in common with fellow grande dame of post-war British literature, the Nobel Prize-winning author of The Golden Notebook, Doris Lessing.

A recent memoir by a male friend of Spark confirmed our hunch, but mentioned the friendship only in passing. Other biographies miss out the relationship altogether. Turning instead to the words of Lessing and Spark themselves, we were delighted to find that they mention each other in print. What’s more, we discovered a cache of their unpublished correspondence. The Doris Lessing collection is held in the British Archive for Contemporary Writing at the University of East Anglia, and a letter and telegram to her friend are currently on show at the National Library of Scotland, home to the Muriel Spark Archive.

Both diminutive women with immense intellects, Doris Lessing and Muriel Spark seem destined to have crossed paths. Born just a year apart into a world ravaged by the First World War, they would each grow into outspoken women who dared to question convention.

Such a destiny could hardly have been predicted when, at nineteen, both girls married older men and immediately fell pregnant. However, while each of these young wives cradled their new-borns with one arm, they attempted to write with the other. Lessing – who grew up in Southern Africa – had already published stories in local magazines, and Edinburgh-born Spark was now winning local prizes for poetry. During this period, unbeknown to each other, these two future literary stars were both living in Zimbabwe, then known as Rhodesia.

Muriel Spark in 1940. Photo by G H Addecott. Every effort has been made to obtain permission to reproduce this photograph

Looking back on this time, they’d each feel that their lives would have been easier if they had met during these inter-war years. The newly married Spark had felt horrified by the casual racism she encountered in Southern Africa, and her husband proved an unstable, violent man, prone to shooting his revolver indoors. The Second World War had broken out by this stage, trapping a frightened, lonely Spark thousands of miles from her Scottish home. ‘How I would have loved to have someone like Doris to talk to’, she later recalled.

By the early 1940s, Lessing, too, had begun to feel disturbed by Rhodesia’s race relations, and disappointed by her marriage. She threw herself into literature and politics, joining a communist book club, ordering novels from London and getting her hands on New Writing magazine, which championed working-class writers alongside their middle-class contemporaries. When Lessing later discovered that Spark had also treasured this wartime publication, she found herself wishing she had known of this other female writer on her doorstep. Long conversations about their shared reading, she felt, could have offered much solace during that difficult time.

But their paths were not fated to cross until they had divorced their husbands and relocated to London. Each woman would remain forever dogged by her choice to forge a new life for herself: Lessing had left her two eldest children with their father in Southern Africa, and Spark had placed her son in a Rhodesian boarding school for a year before he was brought to Scotland to be raised by her parents.

Doris Lessing with her cat, Black Madonna. Every effort has been made to obtain permission to reproduce this photograph

These women, who had so much in common, finally met in the mid-1950s. But, by then, Lessing was known as the celebrated author of The Grass is Singing, which had come out when she was in her early thirties, whereas Spark was a few years off publishing her first novel at the age of thirty-nine. Describing their early years of friendship in an essay, Lessing – who had been part of a cash-strapped crowd of bohemians and communists – recalled her surprise at her new friend’s traditional furniture and tasteful clothes.

Their unpublished correspondence reveals, however, that their similarities far outweighed their differences. During their enduring friendship, the pair reminisced about Rhodesia; celebrated literary successes and commiserated about professional frustrations; and shared the glare of the media spotlight – trained so often throughout their long years of fame on their controversial decisions to leave the upbringing of their children to other relatives.

The surface-level differences in their novels – Spark’s much-praised acerbic wit versus Lessing’s radical politics – bely deeper similarities. Like that of their mutual friend Iris Murdoch, both women’s work was shaped by an interest in philosophy and religion – subjects they discussed. While Spark credited her development as a novelist to her conversion in 1954 to Roman Catholicism, Lessing turned her back on communism and in the mid-1960s immersed herself in Sufism, a mystical strand of Islam. Yet they both remained anti-establishment at heart – two fiercely forthright authors who dared to point out hypocrisy and absurdity whenever and wherever they found it.

We are looking forward to the UK paperback publication on March 1st  of our co-written book, A Secret Sisterhood: The hidden friendships of Austen, Brontë, Eliot and Woolf, which is available for pre-order now.      

 

Judy Brown and Katrina Naomi: ‘Loyal to the letter’

When poet Katrina Naomi wrote to let us know about the role that the regular exchange of poems by letter plays in her friendship with fellow poet Judy Brown, we felt sure that Something Rhymed readers would be interested to hear about it too. Here, they share their thoughts in our last guest post of 2017…

If the stamp escapes franking, an increasingly shabby envelope can travel between us for months, ferrying cargoes of new poems, images and a letter.

We met a dozen years ago in London, bonding over confessions of how much we wanted our poems to be good – and to publish. For years we met monthly to share vegan cakes, new work and discuss what we were reading. When Katrina moved to Cornwall in 2014 we reluctantly gave up the cakes but added the Post Office into the familiar mix – along with an agreement to write a brand-new poem each month in response to one written by the other.

Judy Brown – image by Colin Francis

We quickly became addicted to the process. We found it so fruitful that we added a second, more visual, conversation in which we exchange images to write from, again on a monthly cycle. We also critique a batch of each other’s poems each month. The envelopes keep getting fatter, and tattier.

We’re loyal to the letter, only using email when we’re abroad. Plotting the trajectories of our poem exchanges would require a moderately complex SkyMap: Japan (Katrina has just returned from an Arts Council-funded project); Grasmere (Judy spent a year as Poet-in-Residence at Dove Cottage); Hong Kong (Judy’s old home); Katrina’s residency at the Arnolfini (Bristol) and the Brontë Parsonage (Haworth); and our residences at Gladstone’s Library and Hawthornden Castle (but at different times) – plus London, Derbyshire and Cornwall.

Katrina Naomi -image by Tim Ridley

We were both committed letter writers before we met, but our poems and our processes differed considerably. They still do, despite the transference of ideas such a long-term collaboration catalyses. Yet if something gets skimped from the envelope, it’s the letter not the poems.

This is partly because the poem exchange is also an exchange of information. And it’s exciting – not just because of time pressure and the surprising (and often uncomfortable) triggers, but also because of anticipation about what the other will come up with. Sometimes what our poems have to say is pure trickery or excitement about technique. They may spin off of current preoccupations or whatever we’re trying to hit in our own process.

It’s great to have a trusted recipient for this, but even better to have one who lobs back something fresh and alive in answer to our own puzzles, poetic and personal. It can be a refutation or refusal of a technique, a subject or a pronoun – you never know what’s coming! But you know you have to respond to the other’s poem and visual image, whatever you’ve made of it, mostly because of our shared urgency to write but also because we promised.

Both our recent second books contain many poems which have emerged from this deadly serious game.

Deep familiarity with each other’s process and the differing ways we transform material has increased our respect for each other’s work but our critiques aren’t soft. As friends, we may know a little too much about the underlying raw material, but that too helps us see what’s a real poem and what’s just diarising.

Sometimes the line blurs for us – is this two women talking or something more impersonal, two poems talking to each other? Do we care? Not really, as long as we get a proper meet-up once in a while and can go to the pub or on a walk, have a dance or a curry, leaving the poems behind for – well, at least for a couple of hours.

Crowd SensationsJudy Brown’s most recent poetry collection, was published by Seren in 2016.

Katrina Naomi’s most recent collection, The Way the Crocodile Taught Me,  was also published by Seren in 2016.

Travelling Together: Our Secret Sisterhood book tour of the USA

Regular readers of Something Rhymed will perhaps recall that we’ve sometimes likened our friendship to that of Vera Brittain, author of Testament of Youth, and Winifred Holtby, who penned South Riding.

We find ourselves particularly drawn to this pair because, like us, they met when they were at the very start of their writing journeys and each soon committed to becoming the ‘travelling companion’ of the other.

When Holtby spoke of this, she meant it in a metaphorical sense. But, as young friends in the 1920s, the two also enjoyed more literal travels when they spent a summer holidaying together in Cornwall and another in France and Italy.

The Kiyomizu temple in Kyoto, which we visited together during our early twenties (Image by Martin Falbisoner – Wikipedia Creative Commons licence)

When we were first getting to know each other, while working as English language teachers in Japan, we did a lot of travelling. We look back on our joint-trips with great fondness – not just because they gave us the opportunity to explore new places together, but also because the conversations we had, walking the streets of ancient cities or the rough paths of mountainous regions, really cemented our fledgling friendship.

Although the years we spent working intensively on A Secret Sisterhood have been – all in all – a wonderful experience, we have sometimes lamented the fact that, during this period, it sometimes felt that work had taken over all other aspects of our relationship, and that important events in each of our lives had passed by without much opportunity for sharing them with our friend.

The two-and-a-half weeks we’ve just spent touring the USA together, to mark the American publication of our book, turned out to be just the chance to put all this right.

We began our tour in New York City, with an interview with Kory French for Book Talk on Breakthru Radio, which has recently gone live. This gave us the chance to reflect – as we would many times over – on the highs and lows of writing a book together, including the joys of joint discoveries, and the frustrations of late-night quarrels about turns of phrase and the points we each felt our book ought to be making. All of these, we’re relieved to be able to say, ultimately brought us closer.

Image by Ravi Sunnak

Our first event was at the NYU bookstore, with Kate Bolick, author of Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own.

Next up was a talk at Shakespeare & Co. with Miranda Beverly-Whittemore (writer of novels including Bittersweet and June). This event was organised by the Brontë Society’s American chapter and the Jane Austen Society of North America – NY Metropolitan Region.

Our sell-out event with Miranda Beverly-Whittemore (image by Shakespeare & Co)

We had known Kate and Miranda only through their books before, and so it was a real pleasure to meet them in person. But at our event at Book Passage in San Francisco, it was lovely to collaborate again with Mary Volmer (Reliance, Illinois), who had also chaired the conversation at our northern book launch in the UK, back in June.

At Vroman’s in Pasadena, another dear friend of ours Elizabeth L. Silver (The Execution of Noa P. Singleton and The Tincture of Time) ran a discussion between us and another pair of author-friends Julia Fierro (Cutting Teeth and The Gypsy Moth Summer) and Caeli Wolfson Widger (Real Happy Family).

And finally, it was wonderful to be interviewed at UCLA by Professor Michelle Liu Carriger, an old friend from our Japan days.

With our book on the Houghton Mifflin Harcourt shelves behind us

In between our events, we went to meetings together, saw an interview we’d given to Alexis Coe for Lenny Letter go live, and visited the headquarters of our American publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, in Boston and New York City.

We caught up with mutual friends living in the USA, and worked on book-related feature articles, including this one, recently published in The Millions, and this one just out in TIME – Motto. In the gaps between all these things, we enjoyed a bit of sightseeing, and, perhaps most of all, caught up on all that personal news we’d managed to miss, and just enjoyed each other’s company as friends.

 

 

Sophie Mayer and Preti Taneja: She knew we could be who we are now

Thank you to everyone who has contacted us to send congratulations on the US publication of A Secret Sisterhood. We are enormously grateful for the support of our readers, who did so much to convince us that historical female literary friendship was a subject worth exploring in a book.

Today, we are delighted to bring you a guest post from two more modern-day writer friends, debut novelist Preti Taneja and poet and film critic Sophie Mayer.

Preti

Preti Taneja © Rory O’Bryen

We met twenty years ago. I was applying to be editor of the student newspaper, Sophie was, and still is a poet, activist, the best arts critic in the game. We shared a love of Quark Xpress.

When I got the top job, she became my theatre editor, but was already on her way to publishing her first collection of poems, winning an Eric Gregory award – showing me that becoming ‘a writer’ was possible – something I had never believed for myself until I met her.

She went to Toronto to do her PhD and I moved to London to train in journalism. I sent her my first fiction pages – she sent me Ursula Le Guin’s ‘Steering the craft’. We began to write letters to each other, and send each other things. There were kama sutra pillowcases. And many blank notebooks – especially important was the one I received after my mother died. Sophie thought I would need it.

The care packages and mix tapes (later, playlists) have continued through years of job applications, journalism, human rights reports, PhD proposal, publishing successes (her) rejections (me) and the drafts of the book that became We That Are Young.

Sophie’s poetic and critical language, the formal risks she instinctively undertakes, teach me about the kind of writer I want to be. Inventive. Fearless. The changing conversation we have been having over many, many years about what constitutes experimental writing, about race, gender, and representation, about who gets published, when and how, has kept my hopes in balance and my determination high. At my book launch, Sophie made sure I had a fresh glass of water next to me before I read.

I think when we first met, she knew we could be who we are now – I just believed her and pushed myself in line with it. The daily practice of our friendship – the texts and talking, tea, book sharing – that are not seen as part of being ‘literary’ – are indelible to our writing lives.

Sophie

From that nervous first interview, Preti struck me as someone who knew how to take the measure of the world and shape it – through hard work, aided by late-night Kit Kats and pun-based hilarity. It was the first time I had seen someone (not on TV) committed to making change through words: it was Press Gang come true, and I still thrill that I got to be part of it.

Sophie Mayer © SF Said

I remember being in the office late on 13 October 1998, when I got an email via an American LGBT listserv, reporting the murder of Matthew Shepard. I pitched a piece to Preti and (overlooking my total inexperience as an op-ed writer), she said, Do it, then took my rage and grief and showed me how to turn it into something others could read.

As a writer, you’re advised to develop an inner editor, the voice that calls bullshit on you; that pulls you back to what matters. If I have one, it has been shaped by Preti, who can give me a look (though she generally waits until dessert), and my whole specious defence of a sloppy argument collapses, and suddenly I’m agreeing that yes, I have to write about God and other traumas if I want to explain what the cinema of Sally Potter risks, and why it matters to me. Because I have learned so much from how much Preti’s writing risks, always.

Her fierce refusal to leave any stone unturned, to confront every injustice and taboo, to witness what others turn away from, enlarges the (and my) world. And she does it in prose that moves with the same amazing grace with which she dances to the beats we’ve shared over the years; I can’t help but (clumsily) join in.

Preti Taneja is a writer, human rights activist and editor of Visual Verse. Her debut novel We That Are Young is out now from Galley Beggar Press.

Sophie Mayer is a poet and feminist film activist; her most recent books are Political Animals: The New Feminist Cinema, published by I.B. Tauris and (O), by Arc Publications.