The Pain of Parting from Friends

Half a year of social distancing has lent us a new perspective on our writing, our friendship and the future of both…

Emily and I enjoyed an alfresco Vietnamese lunch recently – the first time we’d seen each other in person for over six months. Even during those periods when we lived in different countries or continents, we’d never let more time lapse between meetings than this.

Emily and Emma reunited in London on an unseasonably warm autumn day

Back in December 2019, Jonathan and I moved to a new house, closer to Emily and her family. Early in the new year, Emily came over to this new house, and here we workshopped a draft of her new book, and later had dinner with another writer friend. Not long afterwards, I babysat eight-month-old Lola so that Emily and Jack could go out for dinner on their wedding anniversary.

On each occasion, we marvelled at the newfound ease of train travel between our homes, and we were looking forward to spending even more time together. Never could we have predicted that the short distance between us would become so difficult to bridge.

When we did eventually manage to meet again, we talked for hours over bowls of pho and duck curry, and it felt almost possible to forget the pandemic. But socially distancing across our outdoor dining table was a far cry from the desks behind which we so frequently squeezed as we looked at the same age-faded letter or shared the same screen while working on A Secret Sisterhood

Much as we both miss those days when we occupied ‘a room of one’s own to share’, as we once called it, the past months of enforced separation have also given us the space to look at our writing lives with a new sense of perspective.

We’ve come to appreciate just how much our joint work on female literary friendship has shaped the separate projects that engage each of us now.

Emily will soon be turning in the final edits of her new non-fiction book, Out of the Shadows: Six Visionary Victorian Women in Search of a Public Voice, which will come out in May 2021. She caught a first glimpse of this transatlantic network of female spiritualists when reading unpublished letters from Harriet Beecher Stowe to George Eliot for A Secret Sisterhood.

Similarly, my new novel took shape as I researched the life of Virginia Woolf. And my longstanding belief in the value of mentoring has only been reinforced by the number of writers we’ve featured here who have benefited from such arrangements: Elizabeth Bishop and Marianne Moore, for instance, Katherine Anne Porter and Eudora Welty, Zora Neale Hurston and Dorothy West.

The Ruppin Agency Writers’ Studio

Much as our current literary ventures may have sprung from the same source, they are taking us in new directions, separately and together, as writers and as friends. And so, during these months of sequestering ourselves away in our individual studies, we’ve immersed ourselves too in different psychological spaces.

Something still rhymes, of course: between the writer friends featured on this site; between its community of editors, contributors and readers; between Emily and me. But during that meal we shared, between sips of green tea, we agreed that we needed to give this new stage of our writing lives greater space to grow. Just as important, we both want to nurture this next phase of our friendship – and we want to do this offline. And, so, after much consideration and with not a little regret, we have decided to bid this site farewell.

As we say goodbye, we’ll leave you with the words of Jane Austen – one of the first authors we featured on Something Rhymed:

“But remember that the pain of parting from friends will be felt by everybody at times, whatever be their education or state. Know your own happiness. You want nothing but patience; or give it a more fascinating name: call it hope.”

We’d like to take this opportunity to thank all the writers who have contributed to Something Rhymed, all its readers who’ve created such a vibrant community, and, especially to our editors Kathleen Dixon Donnelly and Clêr Lewis, without whom we could not have kept Something Rhymed going for so long. You can join Kathleen’s own literary community over on her site, Such Friends. And do watch out for Clêr’s first novel All the Captured Shadows, which she is in the midst of drafting.  

We’ll be keeping this site online to maintain an archive of female literary friendship, and you’ll still be able to post comments.  

Do keep in touch. You’ll still find Emily on Twitter, Instagram and her writing website, and Emma is on Twitter, Facebook and has her own website too.  

Maya Angelou and Jessica Mitford

Way back in 2014, we wrote a post about Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison, making it the second of close to eighty literary friendships that we have featured on Something Rhymed. Some time afterwards, our friend Sarah Moore suggested that we write a piece that focused on another of Angelou’s fascinating relationships with a fellow writer …

By the time Maya Angelou and Jessica Mitford met in the late 1960s, both had come a long way from the very different worlds of their childhoods.

Jessica Mitford, appearing on After Dark in 1988 (Wikimedia Commons)

Mitford, the fifth of the six legendary Mitford sisters, was born into an English aristocratic family during the First World War. She spent her early years living a life of material privilege in what she would later refer to as a ‘time-proofed corner of the world’.

Angelou’s youth, in contrast, in the American South, introduced her early to racial prejudice and physical trauma. At the age of eight, in the mid-1930s, she was raped by her mother’s boyfriend. In the aftermath of the attack, Angelou became mute – except with her brother – for close to five years.

Angelou and Mitford would come face to face for the first time some three decades later, at the London home of editor and archivist Sonia Orwell, the widow of George Orwell. Angelou, who was around forty, had just completed the manuscript for I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings – the first of her celebrated autobiographies. As such, she was keen to seek the advice of Mitford, a writer herself by then and author of the memoir, Hons and Rebels. First published in 1960, Mitford’s book explored the upper-class upbringing she had fled, the evolution of her left-wing politics and her later life in the United States, where she became a prominent campaigner and journalist.

When Mitford began reading Angelou’s manuscript at the breakfast table one morning, she found it ‘so fascinating’ that she ‘kept reading it all night’. In the years to come, Angelou would be equally effusive about her new friend’s writing, declaring that while reading The Trial of Dr. Spock – about the famous paediatrician’s trial for anti-war activities – she ‘couldn’t put it down’.

Maya Angelou reciting ‘On the Pulse of the Morning’ at Bill Clinton’s inauguration in 1993 (Wikimedia Commons).

In addition to their literary bond, the pair grew close thanks to a shared dedication to challenging social injustices through their writings – a preoccupation, too, of their letters to each other. Such missives also explore their thoughts on political and cultural figures, past and present, and touch on key moments in twentieth century history. In 1992, when Angelou was ‘agonizing’ over the poem she’d committed to write for Bill Clinton’s inauguration and struggling to find her flow, Mitford sent some encouraging advice on possible ways in which her friend might find her ‘unique Maya rhythm’ once again.

By this stage, the pair had grown so attached that, when asked in a 1983 interview for Essence magazine  whether black women could consider white women their sisters, it was this particular friendship that came to Angelou’s mind. In answer to writer Stephanie Stokes Oliver’s question, Angelou replied: ‘Jessica Mitford is a sister of mine. If I had to go into a room with a leopard, I wouldn’t hesitate to ask for her.’

In addition to this fierce shared loyalty, there was a lighter side to their relationship. Music was a mutual passion, and one that would lead to an unlikely episode in their later years when Angelou and Mitford recorded a duet of the comic song ‘Right Said Fred’. It would subsequently  be included in the charity album Stranger than Fiction, which featured vocal recordings by well-known writers, with proceeds going to organisations promoting literature and literacy.

Singing with Angelou would also play a poignant part in the final stage of Mitford’s life. After being diagnosed with lung cancer in 1996, Mitford’s health deteriorated rapidly. Although she had at first expressed a determination to undergo intensive treatment to prolong her life, in order to keep working on the current book she was writing, the seventy-eight-year-old eventually changed her mind and asked to come home from hospital to die in the company of her family and closest friends.

Angelou visited Mitford on each one of those four precious last days. As Mitford’s husband, the civil rights lawyer Robert Treuhaft would remember it, she was, in some ways, ‘the real doctor’ his wife needed at the end of her life.

He would look back on the sight of Angelou standing beside her friend’s bed and singing songs to her. Mitford was so weak by then that at first she didn’t react. But as Angelou persisted, Mitford would at last recognise who it was and even open her mouth to try to join in. A witness to this long goodbye between two old friends, Treuhaft would fondly recall that his wife’s final words ‘were really songs that Maya started her singing’.

Later, he would say that experience was one of the most profound of his life – a moment when he learned ‘what true sisterhood is all about’ .

What we’ve been up to this month:

Emily has been reviewing edits for her forthcoming book, Out of the Shadows: Six Visionary Victorian Women in Search of a Public Voice, which will be published by Counterpoint Press in North America in May 2021.

In addition to focusing on her own writing, in her role as Director of the Ruppin Agency Writers’ Studio, Emma has been preparing for this upcoming deadline (more information here):

 

 

A ballast in turbulent times: Soniah Kamal and Shikha Malaviya

During these unsettled and unsettling times, we’ve been finding solace in the novels we’ve long loved, returning to some of those we wrote about in A Secret Sisterhood: The hidden friendships of Austen, Brontë, Eliot and Woolf. Who better to chat to this month, then, than fellow fan of Jane Austen, Soniah Kamal, whose latest novel Unmarriageable is a retelling of Pride and Prejudice set in Pakistan. Soniah introduced us to poet, Shikha Malaviya, who is currently working on a novel. The candour of their conversation made us to feel, for a moment, as if we’d all gathered in one room.

Sonia Kamal and Shikha Malaviya – long-distance friends

How did the two of you meet, and what were your first impressions?

Soniah:  Shikha founded and edited Monsoon Magazine, a literary journal dedicated to showcasing South Asian writers. I was impressed with the quality of work and submitted a short story. Shikha accepted it and gave me an editorial call in which we discovered that we had a lot in common. Even though Shikha is from India and I’m from Pakistan, we’ve both spent formative childhood years in those countries as well as in England. We’d both married young and moved to the US, and we have children, our sons the same age. We’d both grown up on similar authors and books. We bonded instantly. Because of Monsoon Magazine, I already knew that Shikha cared about literature and new voices, but she also turned out to be smart, warm and gentle, funny, no-nonsense, and honest. We laughed a lot and really connected over literature and life both on and off the page. I remember hanging up and feeling like I’d known Shikha forever. Fifteen years later, I know I was blessed to have met Shikha. I always wonder what might have happened had she rejected my story!

Shikha: I first met Soniah through her story, ‘Call Me Mango’, which she had submitted to Monsoon Magazine. In it, Soniah had subverted many of the common themes in South Asian immigrant literature and I wanted to find out more about the person behind the story. It didn’t matter that Soniah was Muslim and I was Hindu or that our countries were always at war with each other in one way or another. We talked on the phone as if long lost sisters. The week after, she came over with her kids and since then, we’ve been a part of each other’s lives through every good and bad moment, every good and bad word written. In Soniah, I found a best friend and colleague who is blunt, courageous, brutally honest, funny, talented, hard working, sensitive, and always there, despite my numerous moves. I’ll never forget how she called every single day after my father passed away, despite her being in Atlanta and my being in India, and her youngest child barely a few months old.

What do you particularly admire about each other’s writing?

Shikha: Soniah is a brilliant writer who takes no shortcuts when it comes to writing about difficult things and I really admire that about her. She often writes about things that people like to avoid or are too scared to write about. There’s a raw honesty in her work that is rare to find these days, especially so in Soniah’s essays. Also, Soniah’s psychological insight into her characters is amazing along with her ability to make connections that are unique yet very insightful. If you read Soniah’s short stories and novels, you’ll see how she is able to balance all the elements that make a good story – plot, pacing, setting, narrative arc, and above all voice. All her characters are heard.

Soniah: I was drawn to Shikha’s poetry because of her stunning imagery and her subject matter – hyphenated identities and homelands, displacement, the ability to sensitively layer women’s experiences and emotions. Shikha is working on a novel right now and what I’ve read so far is breathtaking. She’s really able to take her poetic language to write stellar character descriptions and even do some awesome things with pacing through images. She can capture an entire universe in one image; I really don’t know how she does it, but the result is magical.

Do you share each other’s unpublished writing?

Soniah: We absolutely do critique each other’s work and also offer suggestions, run ideas past one another and give encouragement on days when we get the writer blues. I have great respect for Shikha’s craft skills and tastes so trust her judgment implicitly. It’s a huge relief when I send her something and she says she likes it. We’re very upfront if something not working for us and we end up laughing about our duds. At one point, I planned to set part of my novel An Isolated Incident in a pet shop. I told Shikha, who’d already read myriad drafts, my brilliant idea, and her groan alone and ‘please don’t do that’ was enough to deter me but also I realized how absurd the idea was and it’s till a running joke.

Shikha: It’s amazing we aren’t sick of each other’s writing yet! We share things for feedback almost every week. We’ll send each other stuff and then text each other to follow up and then a phone call, which often leads into other tangential conversations. Soniah’s advice is often about me having to expand on things, and mine usually involves her cutting down. We complement each other by coming to the table with different literary/editorial strengths. We’ve learnt together and learnt from each other, and I hope that continues for many years to come.

Which female author from history or female literary character would you have liked to have as a friend? 

Soniah: Any author who sees through pretense and speaks up about it. Jane Austen of course would be very entertaining with her wit as would Ismat Chughtai. As for literary character, it’s a toss up between the speaker in Dorothy Parker’s poem ‘One Perfect Rose’ and Melia in Thomas Hardy’s poem ‘The Ruined Maid’. They’d be droll and perceptive and great fun.

Shikha: To meet an author is one thing, to have one as a friend…There are many who I would have loved to have had as a mentor: poets Eavan Boland, Adrienne Rich, Gwendolyn Brooks. But perhaps the 16th-century Hindu mystic poet Mirabai would have been a great friend – to see her world of devotion and revel in it. She lived life on her own terms in a world that was deeply patriarchal.

How have the unprecedented times we are living through in 2020 impacted your lives as writers and friends?

Shikha:  Our friendship is a constant in this turbulent time. Just before the shelter-in-place orders kicked in, Soniah and I attended the Association of Writers and Writing Programs‘ conference in San Antonio. For the past few years we had been meeting and rooming together for this conference, and with the threat of COVID-19, we knew that it might be a while before we met up again. We showed up for each other in a way.

Soniah: Except when we first met and lived within driving distance of each other for six months or so, Shikha and I have never lived in the same place, so we’re used to talking over the phone. I think what has become even clearer is the realization that life can be cut short and that brings with it an urgency to focus on the things that are important. In these precarious times, Shikha is my ballast – but then she always has been.

Soniah Kamal is the author of novels Unmarriageable and An Isolated Incident. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram: @SoniaKamal. Her website is: soniahkamal.com

 

 

Shikha Malaviya is the author of poetry collection Geography of Tongues, and publisher & co-founder of literary press The (Great) Indian Poetry Collective. You can follow her on Twitter: @ShikhaMalaviya. Her website is: shikhamalaviya.com

Jane Oliver and Ann Stafford

As writer-friends who have worked together for many years – on feature articles, literary events, a book and, of course, this blog – we’re always interested to hear about other authors who’ve enjoyed a sustained period of collaboration. Earlier this year, we heard that British publisher Handheld Press were about to republish an out-of-print novel authored by two such women. Of course we were immediately intrigued, not just by the story of Business as Usual, but also that of its authors Jane Oliver and Ann Stafford.

Courtesy of Handheld Press

Like many popular authors of the past, the literary reputations of Ann Stafford and Jane Oliver have faded since their mid-twentieth century heyday – a particularly productive period in the lives of these staggeringly prolific writers. Between them, they brought out close to 30 books in the 1950s alone! Although their names are not particularly well-known today, for several decades from the 1930s onwards the pair enjoyed steady success, both with the works they authored together and in their solo writing careers, covering genres ranging from children’s literature to historical fiction to stories for radio broadcast.

The pair met in the period between the two World Wars, when they were both working at The Times Book Club – a London venue affiliated with The Times newspaper, which functioned as a reading rooms, lending library and bookshop. Anne Pedler, who’d take the pen-name Ann Stafford, was then running the bookshop’s export department. A talented writer and artist, it was ‘the gaiety of her line drawings’, sketched absentmindedly as she sat at her desk dictating letters, that first caught the eye of her colleague Helen Evans (later Rees), who’d use the pseudonym Jane Oliver.

They became friends and, as Oliver would later put it, began to collaborate on ‘light-hearted satires’, including Business as Usual (1933) and its sequel Cook Wanted (1934). Business as Usual tells the story of Hilary Fane, a young woman who brushes aside the disapproval of her fiancé and decides to spend a year living independently and earning her own money prior to settling down to marriage. Hilary ends up working at the fictional Everyman’s department store on Oxford Street, which bears more than a passing resemblance to the famous Selfridges. Stafford and Oliver clearly drew on their own experiences as female employees of the period to bring the 1930s world of work and shopping to life.

‘Jane Oliver (Helen Christina Easson Rees); Ann Stafford’ by Howard Coster (Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, London). Oliver is seated on the cushion on the right.

The novel attracted praise from the press on both sides of the Atlantic, in newspapers large and small. The St Andrews Citizen – based in the Scottish county of Fife, where Oliver had been educated – trumpeted the success of this new book by a ‘former ST LEONARD’ S SCHOOL GIRL’. In an enthusiastic review, the New York Times described Business as Usual as a ‘lively little book’ with ‘an admirable restrained sense of humor’ and remarked on the ‘witty’ drawings supplied by Stafford, which accompany the text. It’s nice to think that these illustrations offer readers glimpses of the kind of office doodles that had so charmed Oliver during the friends’ days working at The Times Book Club.

The New York Times had speculated about which writer had supplied specific elements of the novel’s story and it’s also interesting to wonder how the pair divided the labour of writing. The epistolary form of Business as Usual – including fictional letters, telegrams, office memos and the like – perhaps lends itself particularly well to joint authorship. But in the years to come, Oliver and Stafford would collaborate on other kinds of books too, including a series of romance novels for Mills & Boon, published this time under a single shared pseudonym, Joan Blair.

During the Second World War, both women contributed to the national effort by volunteering as ambulance drivers, while still continuing with their tireless publishing output. In 1940, tragedy struck when Oliver’s husband, the writer John Llewellyn Rhys, was killed while serving as a Royal Air Force pilot.

A grief-stricken Oliver, supported by Stafford, set up the John Llewelyn Rhys Prize in his honour – a highly respected annual literary award that would recognise the talents of other young writers for decades to come.

Stafford was the first of the two women to pass away, in 1966. Long before this date arrived, the pair had established both a strong working collaboration and a friendship of deep, enduring closeness – a fact movingly illustrated by a revelation in the introduction to the re-released Business as Usual. Such was the strength of the bond between them that it was Oliver who took care of Stafford during her final illness.

Business as Usual by Jane Oliver and Ann Stafford, illustrated by Ann Stafford and with a new introduction by Kate Mcdonald is published by Handheld Press.

Zora Neale Hurston and Dorothy West

Zora Neale Hurston is a writer we’ve long admired. We included a discussion of Hurston’s Jim Crow-era friendship with White author Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings in our book A Secret Sisterhood, and also featured a post about the pair on Something Rhymed back in 2014. Today we focus on Hurston again, to consider another of her important literary alliances. This time we take a look at her relationship with Dorothy West, a fellow member of the artistic movement known as the Harlem Renaissance …

Dorothy West (Wikipedia)

Dorothy West’s talents as a writer had brought her attention from an early age. Born into a comfortable, Black middle-class home in Boston, Massachusetts in 1907, by the time West reached her teens she was regularly publishing work in the Boston Globe and competing successfully for literary prizes. In 1926, her short story ‘The Typewriter’ came joint-second in a contest organised by Opportunity, the journal of the civil rights organisation, the National Urban League.

The entrant with whom West shared second-place would turn out to be the older, more established writer Zora Neale Hurston. West’s prize included a trip to New York and an invitation to the celebratory awards dinner, and so it wouldn’t be long before the two women would have the chance to meet in person.

Zora Neale Hurston (Wikipedia)

Although West would later recall that Hurston ‘always had a little feeling about me’ because of the gap in their ages, she remained certain of the older writer’s overriding affection. In fact, Hurston went out of her way to befriend West, inviting her to parties at Hurston’s apartment and introducing the younger woman to other leading lights of the Harlem Renaissance.

When West’s official time to leave the city was up, she opted instead to remain, boarding initially at the YWCA and then at Hurston’s own apartment while her new friend was away on a research trip. During this period, the pair – and West’s poet cousin Helene Johnson, who had come to New York with her – continued to keep in touch by post, sending letters and gifts.

As in the case of presents exchanged by Katherine Mansfield and Virginia Woolf, which provide insights into the nature of their creative alliance, so, too, the offerings passed between by Hurston and West illuminate their relationship. While Hurston was travelling the rural South, collecting African American folktales, West parcelled up copies of current popular books, allowing her friend to keep up with what was selling well in New York. Hurston, in turn, sent a box of pecans on the occasion of West’s first Thanksgiving in the metropolis and also – in a sign of the trust quickly established between them – segments of Hurston’s work-in-progress for safekeeping.

The friendship would continue into the 1930s, the decade in which Hurston would publish her most famous work, the novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, and West would establish a magazine Challenge, which championed the work of contemporary Black writers. Hurston, whose star was in the ascendant at that time, would open her home to West again on future occasions, the two even living together for a time in 1931.

Despite West’s dedication to her writing and her early successes, by the end of the 1930s she had become disillusioned with the New York literary establishment. Keen to focus on stories set within the milieu of the African American middle classes that she knew so well, she struggled to find a publisher for her novels, since they did not conform to many editors’ ideas of what ‘Black writing’ ought to be.

In 1943, she moved permanently to Martha’s Vineyard, off Cape Cod, where her parents had owned a holiday home. It was while living here, in 1948, that she would finally publish her best-known novel The Living is Easy, and then, after a gap of almost half a century, The Wedding in 1995, when West was in her eighties. Despite the long break between these two published works, West had continued to balance writing with caring commitments towards elderly relatives during her years out of the public eye. She published pieces in the Vineyard Gazette as well as working, without any particular hopes of commercial success, on her longer fiction.

After the resurrection of West’s writing in her old age, thanks in large part to the efforts of her Martha’s Vineyard neighbour, Doubleday editor and former First Lady Jackie Onassis, West received frequent invitations to be interviewed about her life. She now found herself regarded as a rare and significant surviving voice of the Harlem Renaissance. Hurston, herself, had passed away in 1960.

Recalling the part that her late friend had played in that crucial early creative period in New York, West would reminisce about the closeness the two had once shared, remembering that Hurston had called her a ‘little sister’. The Richer, The Poorer, a collection of West’s essays and fiction, published in the same year as The Wedding, includes the ‘The Typewriter’ – the story that had brought Dorothy West to New York and marked the very  start of her literary friendship with Zora Neale Hurston.

Mentor or tormentor – Ali Thurm’s thoughts on female friendship in fiction

Back in February, before such gatherings had been put on hold in London owing to the Covid-19 pandemic, the two of us enjoyed attending the launch of the debut novel by a former student of ours.  Ali Thurm’s book, One Scheme of Happiness, is an engrossing read about the close yet unsettling bond between two old school friends who reconnect in later life. We are so pleased to feature this guest post by Ali, in which she shares some thoughts on the subject of female friendship in fiction through the ages.

I’ve always been interested in how childhood friendships influence the choices we make as adults – those moments in childhood that stand out as turning points and that we remember for the rest of our lives. Some of us want a large group of friends and many hanker after a best friend, a soul mate. We want to know how to be a good friend and how to keep these friends, how to achieve a balance between pleasing our friends and being true to ourselves. And what to do if things go wrong, if this fine balance tips over into envy or destructive hatred? As a writer and keen reader, it feels natural to me to look to fiction for answers.

Image by Benjamin White (Creative Commons licence)

In the 19th century novel female friendship is often relatively straightforward: a friend is a good influence or not.

In Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontё, we see an example of how to be a good friend. When Jane goes to Lowood School, the older Helen Burns befriends her. Virtuous, and long-suffering, Helen shows Jane how to overcome the bullying and cruelty of the school through religion and stoicism. When Jane is forced to stand on a stool as a punishment Helen walks past her, inspiring the book’s heroine with the ‘strange light’ in her eyes. ‘It was as if a martyr, a hero, had praised a slave or victim, and imparted strength in the transit.’ This is a friendship in adversity that strengthens Jane’s character.

In Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, Lucy Steele befriends Elinor Dashwood. She is pretty and vivacious and at first Elinor enjoys her friendship; but Lucy is ‘a person who joined insincerity with ignorance’ and not averse to flattery and outright lying to further her marriage prospects. Austen treats her with wit and humour, but Lucy’s ‘little sharp eyes’ cause Elinor great emotional distress. She is a friend to be avoided.

Post Freud, the contemporary novel delves deep into psychology; female friendships endure and aren’t cast off with marriage or by other circumstances. They are complex and complicated. Now that women can choose to have it all, or none of it, friendships are fluid too. And not necessarily nice.

The friendship between Lila and Elena in Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend, set in 1950’s Naples, is intense and often problematic. As the narrator Elena remarks, ‘Lila … immediately impressed me because she was very bad.’ Even when it is Lila who has thrown Elena’s doll into a dark cellar and Lila who constantly dares her to try more and more dangerous games, Elena is devoted to her. Having been dared by her friend to climb a dark staircase, Elena recalls that ‘Lila did something unexpected. She stopped to wait for me, and when I reached her she gave me her hand.’ After this one moment their friendship lasts for decades.

In Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye a middle-aged narrator, Elaine, looks back at childhood friendships – relationships in which her friends also became her torturers. Picturing herself back in those days, she says: ‘They are my friends, my girl friends, my best friends. I never had any before and I’m terrified of losing them. I want to please.’ Elaine never comes to terms with these negative feelings and how her childhood relationships led her to lose all self-respect. The novel focuses on these damaging early experiences and their resulting psychological trauma.

Like Cat’s Eye, my novel, One Scheme of Happiness, is driven by an adult re-evaluation of a friendship. My protagonist Helen has been influenced by caring for her acutely anxious mother, and by her own narrow reading of 19th century novels, Mansfield Park in particular. As a child she is so besotted by the glamorous Vicky that she does whatever Vicky tells her to do to retain her friendship, including  bullying other children. But when the bullying becomes sexual and turns on her, Helen drops Vicky and finds friendship with another quieter girl, Ann.  At the heart of the novel, is the shifting and game-playing between Helen and Vicky, which continues into adulthood.  Ultimately, Helen needs to find the balance between holding onto this relationship and preserving her own sanity. She will have to reappraise the life choices she’s made as a result of her complex and confusing childhood friendship.

For us, Helen’s changing feelings about her personal bond with Vicky are one of the most interesting characteristics of Ali’s novel. They are also a reminder that, despite how often the subject has been tackled in fiction over the centuries, there’s still a great deal to explore afresh in the subject of female friendship.

Ali Thurm’s first novel One Scheme of Happiness is published by Retreat West Books. You can find out more about Ali’s work at alithurm.com. She is also on Twitter @alithurm and Instagram @alithurm.

Muriel St. Clare Byrne and Dorothy L. Sayers

As fans of  The Mutual Admiration Society: How Dorothy L. Sayers and her Oxford Circle Remade the World for Women, we were delighted when its author Mo Moulton agreed to write a post for this blog. Long-time readers of Something Rhymed might recall us profiling Sayers’s literary bond with fellow crime author Agatha Christie back in 2015. Mo, though, focuses on the several-decades-long friendship between Sayers and Muriel St. Clare Byrne. It’s a piece that raises fascinating questions about criticism, collaboration and female friendship, and one that we’re sure our readers will enjoy.

‘Did they fight?’

That’s the question I always get when I speak about the Mutual Admiration Society, a writing group founded in 1912 at Somerville College, the University of Oxford, by a group of young women who remained friends and collaborators for life. The answer is yes, of course – if anyone has discovered the secret of decades-long, conflict-free intimacy, it wasn’t them, and it isn’t me. Even the name is a joke rather than a description: future detective novelist Dorothy L. Sayers, a founding member, said they should call themselves a mutual admiration society, before others did.

In fact, the MAS was free with sharp criticism. Sayers’s closest friend in the group was Muriel St. Clare Byrne, who would go on to be a playwright and a historian of Tudor England. Before that, she was editor of the student literary magazine, The Fritillary. Assessing Sayers’s entry to a poetry competition run by the magazine, Byrne wrote that it ‘has some very good lines in it, but has also too many serious lapses to justify the award of a prize’.

After university, Sayers and Byrne were in less frequent contact, as each struggled to find her own way as an independent woman in postwar London. By the late 1920s, however, they had become firm friends again, and Byrne and her partner Marjorie Barber won a cameo appearance as Harriet Vane’s best friends, Sylvia and Eiluned, in the 1929 Lord Peter Wimsey crime novel Strong Poison. (Eiluned, we learn, ‘scorns everything in trousers’, a classic euphemism if ever there was one.)

Strong Poison is based on one of Sayers’s own unhappy love affairs, and it introduces a romantic interest to the Wimsey novels in the person of Harriet Vane. Having created Vane, Sayers seemed unsure what to do with her, writing several more Wimsey novels that fail to advance the romantic plot. Her writerly impasse echoed her real-life dilemmas, which she and Byrne discussed in depth.

In 1933, they took a road trip together. Sayers introduced Byrne to her son, who had been born out of wedlock a decade earlier and was raised in some secrecy by her cousin in Oxford. They drove on through Somerset, and I imagine them in the car, rattling rapidly between high hedges, talking about whether Sayers should divorce her husband, and, probably, what Byrne should do about her own desire to incorporate another partner into her relationship with Barber. 

A year, and no doubt many conversations later, Byrne proposed: why not write a play together, set during the honeymoon of Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane? The result was Busman’s Honeymoon, a comic detective play that nonetheless takes on serious questions about how to reinvent marriage to be egalitarian, honest, and liberating rather than constraining and degrading. Drafts of the play reveal the working process to have been frank and equal, too: Byrne and Sayers debate everything from individual word choices to the big questions of motive and emotional integrity.

Having committed to an on-stage honeymoon, Sayers needed to get her characters engaged to be married, which she did in the novel Gaudy Night. Written after Busman’s Honeymoon was completed, but before it was performed, Gaudy Night is probably Sayers’s most beloved novel, an homage to Somerville College as well as a love story. But Byrne was unconvinced by the version she read in draft, finding it slow-moving and unlikely to appeal to readers.

Is this, finally, the fight that folks want, the dramatic falling-out after collaboration? It is not. Sayers rebutted the criticism but took it in stride. In fact, she looked forward to seeing Byrne again soon so they could have ‘a good argufying evening’.

In the questions about fights, I hear an echo of the stereotypes about women and friendships: that women are competitive, they are jealous and catty, they don’t have real friendships. But, as Sayers and Byrne would go on to argue in a pair of linked essays, women are, after all, just human beings, who loved and fought like any other human beings.

Sayers dedicated the 1937 novel version of Busman’s Honeymoon to Byrne, Barber, and their mutual friend Helen Simpson. In her dedication, she dismisses the stereotypes and celebrates, instead, that ‘friendship of which the female sex is said to be incapable; let the lie stick i’ the wall!’

Sayers and Byrne debated and argued and disagreed, but that was a part of their friendship, which ultimately became a collaboration that transformed them both as writers and thinkers.

Mo Moulton is a historian and writer, and the author of The Mutual Admiration Society: How Dorothy L. Sayers and her Oxford Circle Remade the World for Women. You can find out more at momoulton.com. They are also on Twitter @hammock_tussock. (Photo credit: Holly Revell)

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.