Vita Sackville-West and Violet Trefusis

Especially in such challenging times, Emma and I want to wish all our readers well. We are so thankful for the online community that has grown with this blog since its beginning six years ago, and hope that posts like the one you are about to read will offer some inspiration and interest over the difficult months ahead.

In our co-authored book A Secret Sisterhood: The hidden friendships of Austen, Brontë, Eliot and Woolf, the two of us suggest that physical intimacy between female writers has tended to receive greater attention than their intellectual bonds. Here on Something Rhymed, we’ve therefore focused on the platonic friendships of female writers. Yet archaeologist and historian Rebecca Batley piqued our interest when she pitched a piece on famed lovers Vita Sackville-West and Violet Trefusis. Rebecca explained to us that the relationship between these two aristocratic women was also founded on a mutual literary influence, which endured for a lifetime.

Violet Trefusis – This image is in the public domain.

Violet Trefusis is mostly known today for a slim volume of her published love letters addressed to Vita Sackville-West, aristocratic author of novels such as All Passion Spent (1931) and creator of the famed gardens at her ancestral home of Sissinghurst.

But this wild, lyrical and deeply passionate correspondence is as much a record of a longstanding literary alliance as a chronicle of a love affair. For like Sackville-West, Trefusis was an accomplished author – although her seven novels and two memoirs are now largely forgotten and out of print.

Trefusis and Sackville-West met as children in 1903 at a social gathering, their families moving in royal circles. Sackville-West was brought up in a home bestowed on her family by Elizabeth I. Trefusis’s mother – incidentally, the great grandmother of Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall – was mistress to King Edward VII.

Their schoolgirl attachment was both passionate and literary from the start. Both had creative aspirations from a young age and bonded over their love of books. In their correspondence they frequently quote contemporary works of literature, and recommend authors to each other. To them beauty was God, and the pursuit and creation of it drove all their work.

It is utterly impossible to separate the women’s personal connection from their literary one. The two women were deeply in love and sustained a passionate affair for many years, culminating in an infamous elopement to France. Equally important, though, during this period both women began to write in earnest.

Sackville-West would publish poetry as early as 1909, words that Trefusis alternately inspired and advised upon. The letters between her and Sackville-West during this time are littered with advice, and writing tips are swapped back and forth with great frequency. In August 1918, Trefusis wrote that she discussed ‘these things only with you, my views on religion, Epicureanism, writing, ethics and so forth’. Sadly, her husband would later burn many of the letters from Sackville-West to her, so the extant correspondence does not present a complete picture.

By the 1920’s, however, Sackville-West  was working on her autobiography, which her son Nigel Nicolson would incorporate into his infamous Portrait of a Marriage after both his mother and Trefusis were dead. Here, Sackville-West’s words  chronicle her love affair with Trefusis and her decision to remain married to her husband, Harold Nicolson. In the words of Sackville-West’s son, the book is a remarkable recording of ‘the violence of her passion’ for Trefusis.

Vita Sackville-West – This image is in the public domain.

Trefusis’s most well remembered work is Broderie Anglaise which was written alongside and in response to Sackville-West’s Challenge, a novel that chronicles their love affair in fictional form. While the publication of Challenge was blocked, to Sackville-West’s frustration, by her mother, Trefusis’s Broderie Anglaise was well received at the time, but is today regrettably remembered only for its complex relationship with Sackville-West’s Challenge and Virginia Woolf’s Orlando – a novel that completed their real life ménage à trois.

In Orlando, Trefusis  is portrayed as Sasha, Sackville-West as Orlando. Trefusis had encouraged Sackville-West to explore her perceived androgyny and Woolf transferred this brilliantly into fiction at a time when she was embarking on her own love affair with Sackville-West and feeling cripplingly jealous of her lover’s longstanding passion for Trefusis.

Despite Woolf’s concerns, Sackville-West would not sacrifice her correspondence with Trefusis, with whom she continued to exchange affectionate letters long after their romantic affair had ended – both women using their correspondence as the touchstone of their lives and careers.

This ‘literary encounter’ undeniably developed around the singular relationship sustained by these two remarkable authors, who would time and again explore and dissect their personal relationship in their work.

These two women were, are and became far more than the sum of their romantic relationship, their lifelong literary alliance at turns inspiring and frustrating – both for them and for those who read them today.

 

Rebecca Batley is an archaeologist and historian.  She has been fascinated by the life and works of Violet Sackville-West and Violet Trefusis since stumbling across a book of their letters as a teenager. You can find out more about Rebecca at her blog TheTravellingHistorian. She is also on Twitter @TheTravellingH2.

A final note: Emily is now back from her period of maternity leave and will be taking over the running of Something Rhymed for the next few months while Emma concentrates on some personal writing projects. Emily is extremely grateful to Emma for holding the fort during her absence. As ever, if any of our readers has an idea for a post they’d like to write on female literary friendship, please get in touch via the Contact Us form. Do read the submission guidelines first, which are available here.

Joolz Sparkes and Hilaire

This month Something Rhymed eavesdrops on a conversation between poets Joolz Sparkes and Hilaire, who let us in on the friendship behind their jointly published poetry collection with Holland Park Press. The culmination of five years’ research and development, part-funded by Arts Council England, London Undercurrents explores the hidden histories of London’s unsung heroines north and south of the river.
Joolz Sparkes (left) and Hilaire (right) during a guerrilla poetry reading on the 19 bus route as part of International Women’s Day

Joolz: I remember when we met at the Spread the Word workshop, (which focussed on building confidence to read poetry to an audience), that I was impressed with the stillness of your stance when you read and the economy of your words. In comparison, I found it difficult to stay still and my poems seemed more wordy. I wish I’d known then that our differing styles, on and off the page, would complement each other so well. I would’ve got in touch with you sooner!

Hilaire: …I wondered why it took you so long to email me!

Joolz: I had imposter syndrome – you were a real writer, with books out, and I hadn’t been published yet.

Hilaire: But you’d been shortlisted for the Bridport Prize!  The poem you read at the workshop, about Uluru, really struck me. The percussive quality, the rhythm… but most impressively, it dared to address the racism at Australia’s heart. Something I, as a white Australian, had never had the courage to tackle in my writing. I really admire this about you – you don’t shy away from difficult issues.

Joolz: The political nature of your poem impressed me too, tackling the subject of refugees from the perspective of schoolgirls learning French.

Hilaire: Merci! When you got in touch and suggested we go to an open mic poetry event I was peri-menopausal. Too old, I thought, to make new friends. Thankfully I was wrong. Our friendship blossomed as we egged each other on to put into practice what we’d learnt at the workshop. You seemed a natural performer, dynamic and totally at ease with a microphone – unlike me. It was ages before I realised that, like me, you feel sick to the stomach before a reading.

Joolz: I used to be the front woman for a band, but there’s something more exposed about reading poetry – and I often want to run away beforehand! Performing together has been a wonderful way to combat nerves. Once we’re in the spotlight we fly! I think that’s because we feel passionately that we have something to say, and love to feel the human connection.

Hilaire: After about a year of giving each other writing prompts, it seemed a natural progression to do a project together. I’ve got fond memories of meeting on Saturdays to thrash out ideas over coffee and cake. It soon became clear that we share a passion for London and Feminism. Deciding to write about women in our different local areas suddenly clicked into place. Back then, I was already writing with my partner under a joint pseudonym, so I knew I wanted to write as ‘me’ for our book, rather than co-author poems.

Joolz: Which felt right to me too. I think we would have found it hard to co-author poems at the beginning of our writing friendship. We were so polite giving feedback in case we hurt each other’s feelings! It wasn’t until our mentor Jacqueline Saphra encouraged us to give proper feedback, that we started editing each other’s work in the way we would our own. Final approval stays firmly with the author of the poem though. Working on a collection together has taught me lots. I feel my writing has matured, and my critical eye has sharpened.

Mary Kinglsey Arrives Without a Husband’ (left), is by Joolz Sparkes, who says: It’s now commonplace for women in many parts of the world to travel alone, wheelie case in hand. But for explorer Mary Kingsley the act of solo travel was an effrontery to society. I was drawn to her complex and lively character – independent, humanitarian, and driven to move freely, unhampered.

‘Lady Cyclist’ (right), is by Hilaire, who says: As someone who’s found confidence and a sense of freedom through cycling, I was fascinated to discover that more than a century ago Victorian ladies had flocked to Battersea Park to practice what was then regarded as a rather risqué activity for women.

Hilaire: Me too. We’ve learnt so much about each other as people too, including who’s best at dealing with spreadsheets, and who has enough nerve to start conversations with event organisers and booksellers! Our working relationship is truly an equal partnership. I realised early on how important fairness is to you.

Joolz: …I really struggle with the unfairness of life! So I try to bring fairness into everything I do. You do too – in a quieter way. I’m definitely the louder one! The universe did the right thing when it pushed us together on that workshop.

Joolz Sparkes, a member of the collective Malika’s Poetry Kitchen, has featured at Ledbury Poetry Festival and was a TFL Poet in Residence at Leicester Square tube station. She has been shortlisted for the Bridport Poetry Prize, Cinnamon Press and Live Cannon pamphlet competitions. 

Hilaire grew up in Melbourne but has lived in London most of her adult life. Her novel Hearts on Ice was published by Serpent’s Tail in 2000, and in 2010 a selection of her poems featured in Triptych Poets: Issue One (Blemish Books, Australia).

Joolz Sparkes and Hilaire are co-authors of London Undercurrents published by Holland Park Press.

Betweenity, Friendship Across Miles and the Making of Mary Taylor’s Graphic Biography

Rae Joyce got in touch to tell us that she shared our fascination with Mary Taylor, the radical classmate who pushed Charlotte Brontë to earn her living by the pen. We were keen to learn more – not least since, like Taylor, Joyce is a Yorkshire woman living in New Zealand.

I drew Mary Taylor – in truth, she drew me to her.

109 port nicholson image ref As if a great planet fell out of the sky

In early 2016, I was sitting at the kitchen table with my partner batting around ideas for a project in which I could reconcile both of my hemispheres: Yorkshire and Aotearoa. As an English woman in New Zealand, I occupy a position of privilege that doesn’t sit comfortably with my working-class roots. I had always considered myself an underdog in the UK. But I’d recently finished co-editing Three Words, An Anthology of Aotearoa Women’s Comics (Beatnik), a book that sought to redress the erasure of women’s comics history in New Zealand, which forced me to acknowledge the link between comics and colonialism in Aotearoa. The book, and my essay included in it, was something of a stick to the wasps’ nest of the dominant culture of New Zealand comics. My partner, Māori poet Robert Sullivan, a former librarian, knew better than most what I was trying to achieve when he said, “Didn’t Charlotte Brontë have a friend who lived in New Zealand?”

I had read Jane Eyre in my teens and still had my copy. I put it in the laundry room where I had a small school desk and opened my laptop. Although I had a copy of Shirley, I hadn’t read it, so hadn’t yet encountered Rose and her family whose depictions Charlotte drew from Taylor and her family. But as I accumulated Brontë biographies and articles, an outline emerged of a woman I felt a strong pull to make out. Only one academic biography of Taylor had been published, and while I waited for a copy to arrive in the post, I began to draw.

For as long as I can remember, as well as writing, I have drawn and painted. I grew up in a small South Yorkshire mining town, until I didn’t. Which is to say, when the pits were closed, the pit head gear demolished and slag heaps overplanted the way kids scribble to hide their mistakes, I grew up on the edge of a ground-down town, cut off from all but a few houses by the new by-pass road that meant nobody had to drive through the place. At night, I would look out over the whips of birch at the brown-orange haze of streetlights above and the terraces silhouetted against them and wonder why the terrace I lived in was all on its own. Stories were my imaginative escape in lieu of the real thing.

It was a shift in circumstances that drove Taylor to Te Whanganui-a-Tara, as Wellington was known to Māori before Pākehā/Europeans arrived. After the death of her father, the family woollen mill passed to her eldest brother, and with it, her home. Taylor’s father had taught her never to marry for money, encouraging her in the belief that would underpin her writing: women must work. She differed from her best friend Charlotte in that she did not pay heed to social mores that considered work for women to be degrading – she referred to the working-classes as an example for the equality that could exist between the sexes. And by working and living independent of men, Taylor lived by her words. She set sail alone. But she maintained her friendship by letter.

Like Taylor, I travelled to New Zealand to improve my circumstances and to write. I have lived in Auckland almost as long as Taylor lived in Wellington, during which time I have corresponded with my best friend via letter. When my research for Taylor’s biography took me to New York in February 2017, I met my own Brontë in person for the first time.

Unlike the real Charlotte Brontë, Loredana Tiron-Pandit migrated, from Romania to Massachusetts. She is no coward. She is also the best supporter and encouragement a woman could have, and she never baulks from telling me what she thinks (Taylor would have loved her). She also helped me draft the copy of my graphic biography with text boxes that resemble torn fragments of Taylor and Brontë’s letters, because she is brilliant at all things ‘computer’ and I am a Luddite. (Taylor had a lot of sympathy for the Luddites. What an amiable bunch we four lasses would have made!).

As I pored over Taylor’s correspondence with Brontë I could not help but reflect on the letters – proper old fashioned paper letters – I had shared with Lori, how she was my first reader; how much I valued her honest opinion; how much I had come to rely on her and looked forward to her letters the way Taylor did – my driveway is no Mount Victoria, but I climb it with no less enthusiasm to check the mail box! My friendship with Lori was my first port of call for answering my questions of ‘How would Mary feel?’ Always at a distance, always waiting for a reply. And the satisfaction of handling the paper and reading the words in my friend’s own hand – Lori was never far from my thoughts as I shaped my book.144 gomersal brier hall image ref I can hardly explain to you the queer feeling of living...

And this is how my thoughts ran throughout the whole process of researching and drawing then inking the book; it wasn’t me finding out about Taylor, it was me and Lori talking to Charlotte and Mary. Sometimes I confused us. Sometimes I wanted to shake Taylor for her part in colonising Aotearoa. And once, in the Brontë Parsonage Library, I called Brontë a bitch. Taylor found the process messed with her head. Concerned for her health, she wrote to Brontë afraid she would slip into a state of “betweenity”. Body in New Zealand, head in Yorkshire.

I empathised.

Writing as Rae Joyce, Rachel J Fenton co-edited Three Words, An Anthology of Aotearoa Women’s Comics(Beatnik, 2016) and her participation in the NZ Book Council Graphic Novelist Exchange Residency in Association with the Publishers Association of NZ and the Taipei International Book Exhibition resulted in Island to Island, a Graphic Exchange between Taiwan and New Zealand(Dala/Upstart Press). Winner of the Auckland University of Technology Graphic Fiction Prize, Rachel is currently looking for a publisher for her graphic biography of Mary Taylor, Charlotte Brontë’s best friend, which she researched and drew with arts grant funding from Creative New Zealand.

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

If you too have an idea for a future Something Rhymed post, please do get in touch. You can find out more about what we are looking for here.

Margery Kempe and Julian of Norwich

Regular readers may remember the piece on early twentieth century poets Charlotte Mew and May Sinclair written by our youngest contributor, Cambridge University student Jess Molyneux. We were thrilled when her course-mate Cecily Fasham got in touch to propose a piece on two authors whose work we first fell in love with during our own university years. What’s more, this pair lived centuries earlier than any of the writers we’ve yet to profile on Something Rhymed.    

Margery Kempe and Julian of Norwich may have been illiterate, but these two medieval Christian mystics are a strikingly early example of literary female friendship.

With the help of scribes, both women wrote books which play crucial parts in literary history. Julian of Norwich’s Revelations of Divine Love is the earliest surviving book by a woman written in English, and Margery Kempe’s untitled manuscript (known today simply as The Book of Margery Kempe) is considered the first English autobiography.

Fascinatingly, Kempe chronicles a meeting between the two – she stopped by in Norwich to see ‘Dame Jelyan’, and they spent ‘many days’ together in conversation.

Kempe and Julian shared some basic characteristics: both were female English writers; both Christian mystics who believed that they received visions directly from God; both from roughly the same late medieval epoch – they even both came to their spiritual awakenings following periods of serious illness.

They were, however, quite different.

Kempe was a wife and woman about town, mother to at least fourteen children before convincing her husband to become celibate, and decidedly public in her devotional brand, making long pilgrimages around England and all the way to Jerusalem; Julian was an anchoress – a type of religious hermit, living a reclusive spiritual life, walled-up with her cat in a cell attached to a church, with only a small window through which to receive food and speak to visitors. Julian’s renown was posthumous, her book unlikely to have been circulated during her life; Kempe was a medieval celebrity, drawing crowds and attention (sometimes negative – she was tried for heresy several times). Julian has always been known to scholars; Kempe’s autobiography is a recent discovery, contained in a single manuscript discovered in the cupboard of a Derbyshire mansion and identified in 1934 by American scholar of medieval history, Hope Emily Allen.

Julian’s Revelations records the visions she received from Christ following an illness in 1373, and is a highly regarded work of Christian mysticism, notable for its feminine perspective and delicate, evocative analogies, particularly the image of Christ as mother. Kempe’s Book is an account of her life and conversations with Christ. The two have long been associated; in the 1500s, someone wrote ‘Dame Ielyan’ (Julian) in the margin of the only extant manuscript of Kempe’s Book.

While Julian’s writing belongs to an accepted mystical tradition prevalent in the 14th century, Kempe’s style of devotion was counter-cultural. She was brash, loud and unapologetic; she shared with everyone the things God told her, however inflammatory, and frequently broke out into fits of crying, prompted by the Holy Spirit. This spectacular style of devotion won her popularity, but her audaciousness was divisive: she was often rebuked by male authority figures, called ‘a false strumpet’ and a liar by a priest in Leicester, several times accused of being possessed by the devil (rather than, as she claimed, the Holy Spirit), and put on trial for heresy. (She was acquitted.)

An accusation of diabolic inspiration brought Kempe to Julian of Norwich. She was looking for advice and Julian was skilled in ‘discernment’, divining between good and bad spirits. In Chapter 18 of her autobiography, Kempe writes, ‘sche was bodyn be owyr Lord for to gon to an ankres in the same cyte whych hyte Dame Jelyan’ (‘she was bidden by Our Lord to go to an Anchoress in the same city [Norwich], who was called Dame Julian’).

Julian had only encouragement to offer. She counselled Kempe to continue in what she was doing: being obedient to the will of God. Kempe’s tears, Julian said, were signs of God’s spirit working in her soul. ‘The mor despyte, schame, and repref that ye have in the world, the mor is yowr meryte in the sygth of God’ (‘The more despite, shame and reproof that you have in the world, the greater is your merit in the sight of God.’), Julian told her. This wisdom became central to Kempe’s devotion: each insult only increased her belief in her calling and determination to share the Gospel.

Julian and Kempe apparently spent some time together and formed a bond. ‘Mych was the dalyawns that the ankres and this creatur haddyn be comownyng in the lofe of owyr Lord Jhesu Crist many days that thei were togedyr’ (‘Much was the dalliance that the anchoress [Julian] and this creature [Kempe] had by commoning [conversing] in the love of our Lord Jesus Christ [during] the many days that they were together’), as Kempe put it. Talking to one another, in faithful sisterhood (Kempe records them calling one another ‘sister’), brought the two writers closer to God, to ‘dalliance’ (Kempe’s word for direct conversation with Christ).

This dalliance was the basis of their writing, suggesting a devotional, medieval version of female writers bouncing ideas off each other, finding inspiration in conversation. Their bond shows that literary friendship between women is nothing new; it’s a legacy that has been handed down to us through the centuries.

Cecily Fasham
Cecily Fasham

Cecily Fasham is an English student at Cambridge, and is perpetually excited about writing by women, from the 12th to the 21st century. She writes about whatever interesting stuff she meets on her blog, four walls & a pot of jam.

 

Edited 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.

 

If you have an idea for a future Something Rhymed post, please do get in touch. We’re interested in everything about female literary friendship from tenth-century Japanese diarists to contemporary graphic novelists. You can find out more details about submissions here.

 

 

 

 

Sheer Good Fortune

As regular readers of Something Rhymed may have guessed, Emily and I have been busy these past months working on other projects.

I’ve become Director of The Ruppin Agency Writers’ Studio, which offers mentoring by authors and agents to writers of fiction, narrative non-fiction and YA.

Emily has been holed away in the rare books rooms of various libraries, researching a transatlantic group of Victorian clairvoyants for her new book Out of the Shadows, which will be published by Counterpoint Press.

And we’ve both made significant changes in our personal lives too…

When Emily and I launched Something Rhymed back in 2014, we published a post on Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison – writers whose friendship combined from its inception the personal and professional, the celebratory and consolatory.

These legends of American letters grew close when they shared a bill at the Hay Festival in Wales during a time when both women were concerned about their mothers who were ill back home. In the decades since then, these ‘sister friends’ moved seamlessly between the public and private aspects of their friendship, paying tribute to each other’s literary accomplishments at huge official gatherings but also talking about family over dishes of Angelou’s fried chicken or wedges of Morrison’s carrot cake.

It was just such a combination of intimacy and admiration, celebration and consolation that prompted Angelou to help put on an event to honour her fellow author during a period when she knew that Morrison needed to be shown love and comfort following the death of her son.

The event was poignantly titled Sheer Good Fortune after the dedication Morrison had made to her boys at the beginning of her novel Sula: ‘It is sheer good fortune to miss somebody long before they leave you’. And now, in the wake of Morrison’s recent death, such a sentiment feels particularly resonant.

Back at the Hay Festival in 2014, Morrison announced from the stage they’d once shared the sad news that Angelou had died. Emily and I, sitting in the audience side by side, promised each other to follow their example by not only continuing to offer each other solace during dark times but also to celebrate each other privately and publicly, professionally and personally.

Over the years, Emily and I have been there for each other during bereavements and breakups as well as periods of professional and financial uncertainty. This only heightens the pleasure we’ve taken in the sheer good fortune each of us has experienced of late.

I will never forget the excitement in Emily’s voice when she called to let me know that she was expecting a baby. And then, not long afterwards, when we were in a tiny French restaurant in Earl’s Court marking both her pregnancy and her birthday, she shared her news that she and her long-term partner Jack had got engaged on the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral.

A few months later, when I was delivering bourguignons, curries and Spanish stews to Emily’s flat in preparation for the weeks following the approaching birth, I told her about my partner Jonathan’s proposal to me and mine to him on a hillside overlooking a market town in Shropshire. Once I’d stocked up Emily’s freezer, we headed back to Earl’s Court, this time to one of our favourite coffee houses. There, we celebrated my engagement to Jonathan and Emily’s marriage to Jack and her pregnancy alongside a female friend we’ve  known since our days as young English teachers in rural Japan.

Wedding shoes – Emily & Jack getting married
The spot where Jonathan and Emma proposed to each other.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Emily and I had dedicated our co-written book A Secret Sisterhood to Jack and Jonathan – a strange choice, perhaps, for a book on female literary friendship, but it felt fitting to us since our partners had always appreciated the importance of our own writing friendship, and had supported it at every turn. In our Acknowledgements, we thanked Jack and Jonathan for ‘keeping us well fed during long stints in our studies, and, most of all, never failing to be there when we emerged’.

No sooner did Emily and I emerge, however, than we each went back into hibernation – separately this time. Although we are no longer editing at a shared desk, sustained by Jack’s late-night dashes to the local kebab house or breakfasts with Jonathan at the greasy spoon, the four of us have found new ways to offer each other personal sustenance and professional support.

Emily and I have gone back to reading each other’s drafts, for instance, with a freshness and curiosity that was impossible when we’d already pored over the research materials side by side and laboured together over chapter plans.

And, when Jonathan and I set up The Ruppin Agency Writers’ Studio – a development scheme for writers of fiction and narrative non-fiction – Emily was one of the first people I asked to join our nationwide line-up of mentors. I know first-hand, of course, the quality of her feedback and the dedication she shows to other writers. Like me, Emily is originally from the north of England and we’ve both supported friends and family with access needs, so Emily shares our belief in making mentoring accessible across the country in person and via videocall, and she understands why we are committed to offering a free spot to someone of limited means. Like me, back when Emily was unpublished, she benefited from a period of mentoring by a more established author. Now that she is bringing out books on both sides of the Atlantic, she’s as keen as I am to offer other writers similar opportunities.

During a summer spent largely setting up The Ruppin Agency Writers’ Studio and continuing to work on my new novel, my friendship with Emily has offered me the most joyful of excuses to escape from my writing shed. During my first meetings with baby Lola, I have enjoyed rocking her to sleep in the nursery, pushing her pram through the park and chatting with Emily about everything from marriage to mentoring, motherhood to manuscripts. And, over the years to come, I’ll look forward to helping Emily teach her daughter what creative women have always known – that together we are greater than the sum of our parts.

Emily and Lola

Emily will be on maternity leave for the rest of this year, but I will continue to run Something Rhymed after its summer hiatus.  

We are looking for female writing friendships to feature on the site from October onwards. Please do take a look at our submission guidelines and get in touch if you’d like to pitch an idea.

It would also be lovely to hear from any of you who might be interested in the following literary projects I’ll be involved in over the coming months:

You can apply for all the mentoring and editing packages offered by The Ruppin Agency Writers’ Studio via its website, or direct any queries to studio@ruppinagency.com. The deadline for the selective scheme (including the free spot) is 5pm on Monday September 2nd but we accept ongoing applications for all other packages.  

Booking is now open for my one-day novel writing courses at the gorgeous Cambridge Writing Retreat. On Saturday October 19th, we’ll be asking what ‘Show Don’t Tell’ really means. And on Saturday November 23rd, Jonathan will join me in his role as literary agent to help writers work out what steps to take once the crucial first draft is complete.

And do save Saturday October 26th for the University of East Anglia’s Doris Lessing centenary celebration. I’m looking forward to sharing more stories about Lessing’s friendship with Muriel Spark during my conversation on stage with Rachel Cusk and Lara Feigel. This event also includes access to UEA’s Doris Lessing 100 exhibition, which contains archival material on display for the very first time.

 

 

For me she is not dead: playwright Julia Pascal on war correspondent Martha Gellhorn

In the lead-up to Julia Pascal’s new play Blueprint Medea, running at London’s Finborough Theatre from 21 May to 8 June, she lets us into the secret influence of Martha Gellhorn on its most powerful scene.

Some of you might remember that Pascal reviewed our book A Secret Sisterhood: The hidden friendships of Austen, Brontë, Eliot and Woolf for The Financial Times, calling it ‘an exceptional act of literary espionage’. We were delighted to receive this endorsement from a writer whose stage plays we had long admired for their daring representations of female friendship.

It is a particular pleasure, therefore, to welcome Pascal to Something Rhymed.

Who has been my most important female literary friend?

Martha Gellhorn, in later life.

Martha Gellhorn.

It was 1990. I was writing a drama about the Nuremberg Trials. Someone told me Martha Gellhorn had attended them. I knew of her fame as the most important female war journalist of her time but I had no idea that she had seen the architects and perpetrators of the ‘Final Solution’.

I called her, introduced myself and asked her to lunch. I don’t lunch, she told me, I drink.

She invited me to her Eton Square apartment. Everything was white. The sofa, the carpet, her sleek hairstyle.  She immediately harangued me about my wild curls. Can’t you do something with your hair?  We drank whisky. She smoked. She spoke about war, travelling, writing. And, of course, the man she hated being associated with, Ernest Hemingway. After a few meetings, she told me that Hemingway was a lousy lover.  She talked about marriage as a terrible idea. Don’t. You end up quarrelling about the gas bills.

Gellhorn would send me postcards in those days when letters were written and stamps were bought, and I saw her intermittently as I was conducting my own difficult love affair with a man in France.  Yes, we did marry. No, we did not quarrel about the gas bills.

But in other ways I followed her lead. What did she teach me? There were forty years between us. I saw a woman who was unafraid of offending. I saw a woman in her eighties still madly in love with the craft of writing even though her sight was limited by macular degeneration. I learned from others who knew her that she was both feared and admired, and I liked her say-it-as-it-is attitude.

Julia Pascal in the early 1990s, around the time when she first met Martha Gellhorn.

In my new play Blueprint Medea, there is an unexpected female friendship. Set today, Medea, a Kurdish soldier flees imprisonment in Turkey and arrives in Heathrow on a forged passport. She works illegally as a cleaner in a gym where she meets Jason-Mohammed, the son of an Iraqi taxi-driver.  They have a similar Muslim background but their cultures and philosophies are different.  Medea, a Kurdish Muslim, has become politicised by the PKK.  She is an atheist and a feminist. Jason believes himself to be a secular Londoner but, during the action of the play, is sucked back into conservative Middle Eastern values.

When his father forces him to marry his cousin Glauke, Jason is made to believe that Medea, as a Kurd, is the ‘wrong tribe’.  Euripides’ play Medea kills Glauke by sending her a poisoned wedding dress. In my version, Medea deflowers Glauke and, in doing so, suggests that she is freeing her from the strictures of Islamic patriarchy. By placing her finger in Glauke’s vagina is Medea committing violence or freeing Glauke from the Islamic marriage market?

Did meeting Gellhorn provoke me to write this unusual scene?

Gellhorn and I did once connect in the most visceral of ways. I was at her apartment once when I felt menstrual blood seeping through my skirt. I excused myself. But before I could finish cleaning myself up, Gellhorn was forcing me out of her bathroom. Making straight for the toilet, she fished out the tiny offending tampon. As I looked on from the hall, it struck me as extraordinary that the great war correspondent was touching the tampon that had just been inside me, that she was plunging her hand into the essence of my womb.

Her aggressive yet liberating act did not mark the end of our friendship. The last of her communiqués was Come over and tell me how your career is going.

I was busy with a production and did not reply. I did not realise this was her last postcard to me. I did not know that she had been diagnosed with ovarian cancer. It was years after her death that I learned this command was her way of organising goodbyes to friends before her carefully planned suicide.

No longer would I go over to her white flat, taking with me packets of smoked salmon – there was never food in her apartment. No longer would I see her watch television and shout at the injustices of the world or hear about her snorkelling in Eilat with her brother. Until long after her death, I didn’t even know that, like me, she was Jewish. Why did she never mention that?

I was brave when I met Gellhorn: her influence has made me braver. This has led to a kind of wildness in my writing of female friendships. I like to think that Gellhorn would have enjoyed Blueprint Medea and the two huge female characters I have created. I wish she were still alive to be there on the first night.

She would tell me that women don’t behave that way. She was no feminist and female solidarity was not her world. And yet, because of our friendship, my impulse to write strong female characters has intensified.

For me she is not dead.

Julia Pascal is a playwright and theatre director. She was the first woman director at the National Theatre with her adaptation of Dorothy Parker’s prose and poems in the Platform Performance Men Seldom Make Passes. She has been produced in the UK and internationally and is published by Oberon Books. In 2016 she completed her PhD at the University of York. She is a Research Fellow at King’s College, London University. Currently she is researching a new play on a meeting between American philosopher Hannah Arendt and German-Jewish artist Charlotte Salomon in France 1940.

You can book tickets for Blueprint Medea via London’s Finborough Theatre, where it will be running from 21 May to 8 June. We’ve already got our tickets, so do say hello if you spot us there.

If you too have an idea for a future Something Rhymed post, please do get in touch. You can find out more about what we are looking for here.

 

 

 

The Authors’ Club of Louisville, Kentucky

Back in January, we published Jennifer Montgomery’s fascinating post on the friendship between Jean Webster, author of children’s classic Daddy-Long-Legs, and fellow New Woman, the poet Adelaide Crapsey. We mentioned then that Jennifer’s research into books for American girls had uncovered further literary friendships. Today we’re delighted to share her account of a female writing group founded in the late nineteenth-century.

When children’s book writer Annie Fellows Johnston wrote her autobiography, she looked back with special fondness on the writing group that she had helped found over twenty years earlier, in the 1890s:  the Louisville Authors’ Club. ‘The tie that bound us was a very strong one’, Johnston remembered, ‘and our friendship was deeply rooted’.

Annie_Fellows_Johnston,_head-and-shoulders_portrait,_facing_right_LCCN94510665
Annie Fellows Johnston [Public domain]
Indeed, Johnston’s autobiography offers evidence of that strong tie beyond her own memories:  Alice Hegan Rice, another member of the Authors’ Club, wrote a eulogistic introductory essay to the volume. ‘Behind the charming story-teller’, she wrote of Johnston, ‘is a woman of rare character and exalted vision’. And Rice’s own output testifies to the strength of the Authors’ Club bonds, as well. She dedicated her eighth novel ‘to the small band of Kentucky writers with whom it has been my happy fortune to make the literary pilgrimage’.

 

Alice_Hegan_Rice
Alice Hegan Rice [Pubic domain]
It was indeed a small club: ‘never more than seven or eight’, remembered Johnston. But over the two decades of the club’s existence, its fluctuating membership included some of the most popular authors of the early twentieth century.  Johnston’s Little Colonel series, later adapted into a Shirley Temple movie, drew favorable comparisons to Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. After Alcott’s death, Rice noted that girls across America ‘acclaimed Annie Fellows Johnston their new and cherished leader’. Rice herself wrote the bestselling Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch, which paid for a journey around the world in the company of fellow Authors’ Club members Fannie Caldwell (who was Rice’s aunt and became a best-selling author in her own right) and Ellen Semple. Rice was only sorry that she couldn’t bring more of the Authors’ Club with her: ‘the poignant part of pleasure is that we can’t share it with all those we love’, she wrote to one of the members left behind.

This success arose in part from the club’s serious approach to both the craft of writing and the business side of professional authorship. The members exchanged manuscripts for criticism in classic writers’ group fashion, but also discussed the literary markets and compared letters they received from editors and publishers. Pooling their knowledge offered them a unique grasp on the business side of literary success.

Ellen-Churchill-Semple
Ellen Semple [Public domain]
Sometimes the Authors’ Club collaborated even further. Rice once invited the whole club to her family’s cabin in the woods, where the members shared their stories on the prompt ‘The Well-Bred Young Lady in a Barber Shop at Midnight’. These stories later filled an entire issue of the magazine The Black Cat. Rice and Caldwell co-authored Caldwell’s first book, The Lady of the Decoration, an epistolary novel adapted from the letters she wrote home from her work at a kindergarten in Japan. Rice edited the letters to add a love story, indispensable for marketing purposes, and they published the book under a single pseudonym ‘Frances Little’. The book became a bestseller even though Rice’s involvement was secret.

When Caldwell later used the same pseudonym to write a sequel on her own, she dedicated the book to ‘My Fellow Wanderers through the Orient’, because the book drew on her adventures with Rice and Semple during their journey around the world. ‘The Century Co. writes that the advance orders for her [Caldwell’s] new book have been enormous. Aren’t you delighted for her?’ Semple wrote to yet another member.

Like Caldwell, Semple drew on her trip with Rice to write a book, but hers was a nonfiction book on geography. Although the Authors’ Club members united in their serious approach to their work, it spanned a variety of genres. The Club found room for Johnston’s children’s literature, Semple’s academic nonfiction, Rice’s romances, and Margaret Vandercook’s hastily written series books:  she churned out three or more novels a year like The Camp Fire Girls, The Ranch Girls, and The Red Cross Girls. Some libraries wouldn’t carry such books, but in the Authors’ Club they fit alongside Johnston’s critically acclaimed Little Colonel series. In her autobiography, Johnston proudly included Vandercook in a list of Authors’ Club members.

The Authors’ Club lasted over twenty years, but by the late 1910s it began to disperse. Johnston, one of the Club’s founding members, published her final novel in 1918, aged 55.  Caldwell, was also in her mid-fifties when she brought out her last book, and Vandercook followed suit in the early 1920s. While Semple, whose gender made it difficult for her to find a university post, finally found a permanent academic position at the age of 59 in 1922 – at Clark University in Massachusetts, far from Louisville.

The friendships between the members remained strong, but with fewer and fewer working writers among its members, the Authors’ Club drifted out of existence. By the time Annie wrote her autobiography in the late 1920s, the Authors’ Club was only a memory. But that memory, Annie wrote, ‘is one of my most cherished possessions’.

 

Jennifer Montgomery

By day, Jennifer Montgomery works in a library; by night, she writes novels and reads about nineteenth-century novelists.

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.

If you too have an idea for a future Something Rhymed post, please do get in touch. You can find out more about what we are looking for here.

Honouring My Friend: Rebecca Mascull remembers Vanessa Lafaye

Today we’re delighted to bring you an interview with Rebecca Mascull, talking about her friendship with the late Vanessa Lafaye. Writers Rebecca and Vanessa first became acquainted by reading each other’s novels. They then connected via social media and soon became firm friends. When Vanessa passed away in 2018, her final book Miss Marley – a prequel to the Dickens classic A Christmas Carol – remained unfinished, and so Rebecca completed it for her friend.

Authors and friends – Vanessa Lafaye (left) and Rebecca Mascull

Both you and Vanessa Lafaye were members of The Prime Writers, a group set up by novelist Antonia Honeywell for writers who published their first book after the age of 40. How did this shared experience affect your friendship and your approach to the publishing industry?

This writers’ collective has become incredibly important to me, as I know it did to Vanessa too. It was the first time in my career (and perhaps even my life?!) when I felt I had finally found my tribe. Here was a group of writers, all around the same age as me or older, all around the same points in our careers, who had started out starry-eyed and naïve and were very quickly learning that the writing business was pretty damn hard on writers, particularly financially. We were there to celebrate each other’s triumphs and commiserate when things didn’t go so well.

We chat everyday via a Facebook group and there is implicit trust there, that we can have a rant and it won’t go further, that we can crow about each other’s good fortune and won’t be seen as being smug! It’s invaluable to a writer, I feel, because so much of what we do is done alone in a room. I have met some of my greatest friends through this group and I’ll always be grateful to it. Also, we make each other laugh a lot, which is always good!

We read that when you were approached to finish Vanessa’s book, you said yes straight away. When you actually sat down to work, how did you find the writing? Were there any particular joys, or challenges? And what did the process of finishing entail? Writing extra chapters? Editing the rest of the draft?

You’re quite right, I did say yes straight away. I knew I would do it, that it was my honour to do it for my friend. When I sat down to write, I had already read through Vanessa’s section and scribbled a few ideas on how I thought the story should end. These were discussed with HarperCollins and agreed upon. So, I did a chapter plan first and then started writing the final chapters.

I wrote the whole lot in a few days. It really did pour out. I didn’t need to think about it too much while writing, as I’d already done the thinking in the planning. It was almost stream of consciousness. I do usually write quite speedily but this was particularly quick for me. I think, looking back, I was in just the right head-space for it at that particular moment. Our editor at HarperCollins, Kate Mills, was quite clear from the beginning that she felt nothing should be changed in Vanessa’s section and I totally agreed. All we did was tweak a couple of very minor details that needed amending, but other than that, it remained largely untouched.

When we were writing our own book A Secret Sisterhood, we were conscious of the need to ensure a single writer’s voice throughout the text. If we had read Miss Marley knowing nothing of its publication history, we would never have guessed that the author’s pen had changed hands part way through. What did you do as a writer to achieve this level of consistency?

Ah, that’s wonderful to hear! I know I’ve done my job if a reader feels that way. Thank you. When I first read through Vanessa’s section, I made lots of notes on her style of writing: imagery she used, sentence structure she preferred, key words and phrases that needed to come up again in the final section. I noticed something she and I had talked about in the past – our styles were actually quite similar already. That’s probably one of the reasons I was asked to do this.

I decided early on not to obsess over the style and analyse as I was going along, as that would be detrimental to the flow. I wanted to simply write it and worry about style later. As it happened, once I’d finished and read back through it, I felt that very little needed to change. And my editor agreed. I’ve never had so little editing done on something I’ve written in my whole career. Extraordinary really. But it was, in every way, an extraordinary thing to be asked to do.

How did your relationship with the memory of Vanessa, and also perhaps your feelings about Charles Dickens, change as a result of working on Miss Marley?

It was a lovely experience but it was bittersweet, of course. I felt very close to her during the writing and then when I’d finished, I had the usual writer’s grief of leaving that world behind, but I also felt the loss of having to leave Vanessa behind too and that was very sad. It was a privilege, though, to have lived inside her head for a few weeks while writing those chapters, as well as to walk through Dickens’s world, one of our favourite authors. So, all in all, it really was a joy to do, as I’m sure it was for Vanessa too.

The moment I finished writing Miss Marley, I felt closer to Vanessa than ever and yet, in that same moment, felt her absence more than ever. I’ll never forget doing it and I’ll always be grateful to have been asked. I’ve no idea if she’d have liked my ending or not, but the key thing was to do what I felt was right and also to allow her final work to be completed. It really was a team effort; HarperCollins did a beautiful job of the design, and the illustrations – based on Vanessa’s own – were super too. Now it’s done, it’s just wonderful to see the finished book out there in the world, Vanessa’s story charming readers everywhere.

In addition to Miss Marley, Vanessa Lafaye is the author of At First Light and Summertime, which was a Richard and Judy Book Club choice in 2015 and was shortlisted for the Historical Writers Award. Vanessa passed away in 2018.

Rebecca Mascull is the author of three novels, including The Wild Air, which made the Not the Booker longlist in 2017. She also writes historical sagas under the name Mollie Walton, and is the author of The Daughters of Ironbridge, forthcoming in 2019. You can follow Rebecca on Instagram @beccamascull and on Twitter @rebeccamascull.

Jean Webster and Adelaide Crapsey

Late last year, we received an intriguing message from novelist Jennifer Montgomery, who had recently read our book A Secret Sisterhood: The hidden friendships of Austen, Brontë, Eliot and Woolf and then discovered Something Rhymed.

Jennifer told us about a thesis project she’d completed at university about nineteenth and early twentieth-century books for American girls. As she researched, she told us, she kept stumbling upon literary friendships between the women who wrote these books. But since this was tangential to her thesis, she had to set these notes aside – until now.

Jean Webster. This image is in the public domain.

Few writers owe as much to their university experiences as Jean Webster. Not only is her most famous novel, Daddy-Long-Legs, set at a woman’s college much like Jean’s beloved alma mater Vassar, but the main character draws heavily on Jean’s adventures with her best friend at university: her fellow writer Adelaide Crapsey.

Although Jean wrote stories while Adelaide focused on poetry, the two lively, rambunctious young women had much in common. When they weren’t collaborating on plays – in their sophomore year, their gleefully melodramatic comedy won a college drama competition – they careened around the countryside on their bicycles, debated vociferously in favor of women’s rights and socialism, and dreamed of spectacular literary careers.

But their paths diverged after they graduated in 1901. Jean swiftly met success. Her literary reputation built steadily novel by novel, until her seventh book Daddy-Long-Legs catapulted her to literary stardom in 1912. The novel, which is still in print today, is told through a series of letters written by a young woman much like Jean or Adelaide: a sprightly aspiring writer with feminist and socialist sympathies and a well-developed sense of fun.

Meanwhile, Adelaide’s career stalled. Although she continued to write poetry, family troubles and then ill health made it impossible for her to give single-minded attention to her work. Finally she received a devastating diagnosis: tuberculosis.

At the time, tuberculosis was considered a poet’s disease: a sign that the creative fires within were burning away the poet’s physical frame. But Adelaide had wanted to be a new kind of poet, just as she and Jean were New Women: robust and hearty, precise and scientific, not at all like the stereotype of the languishing early Victorian maiden or the sickly, emotionally overwrought Romantic poet. The diagnosis flew in the face of the identity she and Jean had built together.

Adelaide Crapsey. This image is in the public domain.

Perhaps for this reason, Adelaide told neither Jean nor her family of her diagnosis. Instead, she joined in the celebrations of Jean’s meteorically successful new book. Their friendship remained strong despite their different life paths: the two friends decided to spend the summer of 1913 together.

They made ice cream, stayed out late (‘Adelaide and I nearly slept out-of-doors the night of the 4th,’ Jean wrote exuberantly), and worked together on a play, just as they had at Vassar. But this time, rather than writing a college drama, they were transforming Jean’s book for Broadway.

But the pace proved too much for Adelaide: she collapsed. Jean rushed her to the hospital, but at first she remained optimistic.‘I think at last – after 4 years of silly tonics and rest & fresh air & everything else that didn’t work – we are going to cure her up!’ she wrote.

But soon Adelaide could no longer hide her fatal diagnosis. Jean let go of dreams of curing her friend, and focused instead on making her last months comfortable: helping her family find a sanatorium, visiting her, and trying to find publishers for her poems. She knew, as only a fellow writer could, what comfort it would give her friend to see at least some of her work in print. When she managed to place Adelaide’s poem ‘The Witch’ in the magazine Century, Adelaide wrote to her in gratitude: ‘the thinnest blade of an opening wedge is the thing that counts now, and the times are all against us’.

The times were even more against them than Adelaide knew; barely a month after Adelaide wrote that letter, Jean rushed from the production of Daddy-Long-Legs to be at Adelaide’s deathbed. After Adelaide’s death, Jean fulfilled her final promise to her friend: she presented Adelaide’s book of poems to her parents. Adelaide had not wanted her parents to see the poems earlier because so many of them dealt with Adelaide’s suffering and approaching death.

Jean hoped to find a publisher for Adelaide’s poems, but within two years she too was dead: felled, like Charlotte Bronte, by complications of pregnancy. Instead, one of Adelaide’s former suitors shepherded the collection into print under the simple title Verse, complete with an introduction that described Adelaide as exactly the sort of sickly romantic poet she scorned.

Despite the inappropriate introduction, critics noticed the brilliant concision of the five-line cinquain form that Adelaide had invented, which she wielded to great effect in poems such as Niagara. Her poems are still reprinted in anthologies, just as Jean’s paean to their college days remains in print to this day. Despite their truncated lives, Jean and Adelaide fulfilled their most important Vassar dream: their words are still read over a century after their deaths.

By day, Jennifer Montgomery works in a library; by night, she writes novels and reads about nineteenth-century novelists.
We’re looking forward to sharing more of Jennifer’s research discoveries over the coming months.
If you too have an idea for a future Something Rhymed post, please do get in touch. You can find out more about what we are looking for here.

Dorothy Parker and Elinor Wylie

Regular Something Rhymed readers will remember Kathleen Dixon Donnelly’s post on Mabel Dodge and Gertrude Stein (and Alice B. Toklas). For our last post of 2018, Kathleen has written a follow-up piece on another absolutely fascinating literary friendship.

Dorothy Parker purportedly said, ‘The first thing I do in the morning is brush my teeth and sharpen my tongue.’ Well-known for her nasty comments about anyone who had just left the room – sometimes before – she didn’t forge many strong bonds. But she rarely said anything negative about her female friend, poet and novelist Elinor Wylie.

Both were born in New Jersey to affluent families, Wylie eight years before Parker.

In the first few years of the 20th century, Parker—then Rothschild— was struggling with guilt over her hated stepmother’s sudden death, and writing poems about dogs to her father. She left Catholic school, later claiming she was fired for insisting ‘that the Immaculate Conception was spontaneous combustion’.

Dorothy Parker.                                      This image is in the public domain.

Meanwhile, Wylie—then Hoyt—eloped with an emotionally unstable Harvard graduate, but soon found herself being followed by an older married Washington attorney, who encouraged her poetry. She abandoned her husband and son to run off to England with the lawyer, where they lived under assumed names.

By the time war broke out in 1914, Wylie’s husband had committed suicide and her new partner’s wife had agreed to a divorce. Returning to the States, the socially ostracised couple moved from city to city, and Wylie suffered two miscarriages, as Parker would later.

Now that Parker’s father had died, she was teaching dance classes on the Upper West Side and sending couplets to the most popular newspaper column in the city, ‘The Conning Tower’ penned by FPA (Franklin Pierce Adams). By 1917 she had talked herself into a job at Vanity Fair, and by the 1920s, she was writing for all the main periodicals, lunching and drinking regularly with the writers of the Algonquin Hotel’s Round Table.

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Elinor Wylie This image is in the public domain.

Wylie had dumped her second husband and moved to New York City with incoming husband number three, who, in his role as founding editor of the Saturday Review of Literature, helped her burgeoning career as a poet. When they married in 1923, she dismissed their friends’ misgivings by saying, ‘Yes, it would be a pity that a first-rate poet [Wylie] should be turned into a second-rate poet by marrying a third-rate poet.’

The women became good friends that same year, and Parker was soon going to the Wylies’ impressive apartment to write. By this time, Parker was free-lancing, and it was Wylie who had now talked herself into a job (as poetry editor) at Vanity Fair.

In May 1925, Wylie and Parker were invited to Connecticut for the wedding of Parker’s mentor and fellow Round Table member, FPA, along with other writers working on the newly established New Yorker magazine. Wylie insisted that all continue the party at her nearby country home. Passed out on the couch, Parker was devastated to wake up to the voices of Wylie and another guest whispering about the scars on Parker’s wrists left by her recent suicide attempt.

At the end of the following year, Wylie had an opportunity to come through for her friend. Parker showed up early one Sunday morning at Wylie’s Greenwich Village townhouse, talking about trying to kill herself again. Wylie calmed her down. This was one of the only times Parker talked to someone about suicide before she tried it.

Wylie’s brother and sister, in addition to her first husband, had also killed themselves. She wrote to her mother, ‘I suppose Dottie thinks we are experts on the subject!’

Fittingly, Parker’s first collection of poetry, Enough Rope, was published the next month, dedicated to Wylie and containing Parker’s most well-known poem, ‘Resumé’.

Wylie’s poetry was totally unlike Parker’s short, witty quips. Wylie favoured more traditional wording and structure, and, obsessed with romantic Percy Bysshe Shelley, she wrote two novels fantasising that he had been reincarnated.

Having suffered from high blood pressure and migraines most of her life, Wylie was staying with her by-then estranged third husband during Christmas 1928. When he brought her some water, she wryly remarked ‘Is that all it is?’ and dropped dead from a stroke at age 43.

On hearing of Wylie’s death, Parker was so distraught that she found herself rendered temporarily mute. But her late friend continued to speak to her through the words of ‘Anti-Feminist Song, For My Sister’ – her poem addressed to Parker, which was published in the New Yorker shortly after Wylie’s death. ‘I am I,’ Wylie had written, ‘and you, my darling;/Someone very like myself.’

A few years later, during Parker’s visit to Venice with friends, Wylie apparently spoke up again from beyond the grave. When the holidaymakers started playing with the latest craze, a Ouija board, a spirit identifying herself as Wylie began talking about such gruesome crimes and poisonings that the group became quite scared – an apt end to a friendship founded on death, despair, and the darkest of wits.

 

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.