Tales of Two Sisters: George Eliot, Harriet Beecher Stowe and Middlemarch

This year, Emma and I have spent a lot of time thinking about sisterhood – the kind of literary sisterhood we’ve been exploring here on Something Rhymed, and the ties that bind flesh and blood female siblings.

Jane Austen enjoyed a famously close bond with her sister Cassandra. So did Charlotte, Emily and Anne Brontё; and Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell.

George Eliot by Frederick William Burton – this image is in the public domain.

Unlike these other writers who will feature in our forthcoming book, George Eliot’s relationships with other family members had been brought to an abrupt end some fifteen years before she began her alliance with Harriet Beecher Stowe. In her mid-thirties, Eliot had begun to live out of wedlock with George Henry Lewes. On discovering this, her sister and half-sister had heeded the warnings of their scandalised brother and cut off all contact. This cruel treatment may have made Eliot particularly happy when she received her first letter from Stowe. In this missive of spring 1869, the American author – who Eliot had never met – addressed her both as a ‘dear friend’ and a ‘sister’.

In Emma’s June post, she talked of reading Mrs Dalloway as a teenager with her sister, Lou. This got me thinking about my own sister, Erica, and the novels we enjoyed when we were young.

I remember us both reading Jane Eyre and  Wuthering Heights, and watching a BBC costume drama of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, going to the cinema to see Sense and Sensibility, first encountering A Room of One’s Own.

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First edition title page – this image is in the public domain.

Back then, we often used to talk about the books we read, sharing recommendations. I couldn’t remember us ever discussing Middlemarch, though. Although Erica is a year younger than me, I had come to Eliot’s work considerably later than her and by the time I read the novel we were no longer both living at home.

As I have recently been re-reading Middlemarch, I thought I would ask Erica about her memories of the book. It was a long time since she’d read it, it turned out, so she remembered the atmosphere far better than the intricacies of the plot. The character she recalled best was Dorothea Brooke – the intelligent, deeply pious young woman, whose story (one of several major interlocking plot lines) opens chapter one.

Dorothea struck Erica – who’d read Middlemarch as a teenager in the 1990s – as an amazingly well-developed character, a young woman who becomes locked into a marriage with a with joyless older man, and whose complex personality Erica found interesting on so many levels. It was with a sense of happiness that she recalled meeting Dorothea on the page for the first time and feeling, she said, that she was reading truly great writing.

Well over a century earlier, the character of Dorothea had also captivated Harriet Beecher Stowe and, like Erica, there was a good deal she admired more generally about the book. But Stowe’s letters to Eliot over the period when she was reading Middlemarch, in serialised form, also express her frustration with what she regarded as Eliot’s high-mindedness and her story’s lack of ‘jollitude’.

Reading this time with Stowe’s criticism in mind, I couldn’t help feeling that the verdict was too harsh. There are more challenging passages to Middlemarch, certainly. The book’s Prelude, for instance, grabbed me far less than the first chapter proper, which introduces Dorothea.  Her tale, too, is often sad, but none the less gripping for that. There are also quite a number of light comic moments, many of which I had forgotten. As Erica said, the main impression she retains of the novel is that of an enormous literary achievement – and one to which, having chatted about it with me, she would like to return.

I would certainly encourage my sister to do that. As I have found, on coming back to Eliot’s novel at the age of thirty-six, Middlemarch absolutely rewards a re-reading. Just as Emma and I found when we returned to Jane Eyre some months ago, scenes that made the greatest impressions on me when I was younger are not always the ones that affected me the most now.

This time round, with sisterhood on my mind so much of late, Dorothea’s relationship with her sister Celia is the one that stayed with me the most in between stints of reading the novel. Dorothea is serious, Celia more lighthearted. Dorothea’s mind is always on study and religious matters, whereas Celia is concerned with the day to day world around her. But despite their seeming differences, the two sisters – Kitty and Dodo as they affectionately call each other – could not be closer.

Eliot and Stowe’s personalities were also markedly different, so different that many biographers have doubted that they could really have been friends. Eliot’s letters to Stowe reveal her as the more rational and measured of the pair. Stowe, by contrast, is impulsive, sometimes careless – occasionally shockingly so.

But as the example of Celia and Dorothea reminds us, major differences needn’t be an impediment to friendship. Familial ties were what united the Middlemarch sisters. For Stowe and Eliot, it was the sense that – for all that divided them – they were bonded together by being part of the same literary sisterhood.

Next month

We’ll be discussing Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and the impact it had on her friendship with George Eliot.

We’ll also be running two friendship-themed writing workshops in Spalding and Boston (Lincolnshire), on Saturday 15th and Sunday 16th October respectively. We still have some tickets available, so if you would like to reserve a place, do please get in touch with us at somethingrhymed@gmail.com. More information about the workshops can be found here.

Footage of Something Rhymed Salon 3: Genuine Change

For those of you who were unable to make our literary salon series this spring, or for those of you who’d like to relive the experience, please take a look at these film clips of the discussions we enjoyed.

At the third salon, our stellar line-up of guests talked about ways to achieve genuine improvements in diversity in the UK literary scene. To hear their ideas, take a look at clips of Melanie Abrahams, Founder of Renaissance One – a literary events company committed to diversity in the arts; Jill Dawson, Orange Prize shortlisted novelist; Louise Doughty, Costa Award shortlisted novelist and former Booker Prize judge; and Varaidzo, Arts and Culture Editor at gal-dem – an online magazine comprising almost fifty women of colour.

 

 

These films were made by the brilliant Ashley Hall, a former New York University in London student. She also updated this website and designed our banner and posters. Ashley is building up a portfolio for her future career as a media consultant. Get her while you can still afford her! She is based in New York but we communicated by Skype and email. If you are interested in getting a quote from her, feel free to email on ashley.hall@nyu.edu

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Footage of Something Rhymed Salon 2: So-Called Women’s Issues

For those of you who were unable to make our literary salon series this spring, or for those of you who’d like to relive the experience, please take a look at these film clips of the discussions we enjoyed. You can also click on the links below to read write-ups from some of the salon speakers.

At the second salon, our stellar line-up of guests talked about why books by and about women and so-called women’s issues tend to get devalued by the literary establishment. Take a look at clips of journalist and literary critic, Arifa Akbar; biographer and former senior editor at The Women’s Press, Sarah LeFanu; bestselling author, Karen Maitland; and Booker Prize shortlisted novelist, Michèle Roberts to see hear them identify the problems and make suggestions for accelerating change.

These films were made by the brilliant Ashley Hall, a former New York University in London student. She also updated this website and designed our banner and posters. Ashley is building up a portfolio for her future career as a media consultant. Get her while you can still afford her! She is based in New York but we communicated by Skype and email. If you are interested in getting a quote from her, feel free to email on ashley.hall@nyu.edu

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Footage of Something Rhymed Salon 1: VIDA Count

For those of you who were unable to make our literary salon series this spring, or for those of you who’d like to relive the experience, please take a look at this film of the discussions we enjoyed during the first event. You can also click on the links below to read write-ups from some of the salon speakers.

At the first salon, our stellar line-up of guests included Michael Caines, Assistant Editor of The Times Literary Supplement; Maggie Gee, first female chair of the Royal Society of Literature; Harriett Gilbert, presenter of Radio 4’s A Good Read; and Salena Godden, poet, performer, author and host of the Book Club Boutique.

They explored why so many of the UK’s most prestigious literary magazines and newspapers review far fewer books by and about woman than men – as evidenced by the VIDA count. On this film, you will hear our speakers pinpointing problems and suggesting solutions.

This film was kindly made by Sam Cheung, a former student at New York University in London.

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Something Rhymed Friendship-Themed Writing Workshops in Lincolnshire

Many thanks to everyone who came along to Saturday’s Margate Bookie talk on the literary friendships of Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, George Eliot and Virginia Woolf. We’ll look forward to sharing more stories about these authors and their friends in our forthcoming book, A Secret Sisterhood.

Emma (left) and Emily talking about female literary friendship (Image by Jonathan Ruppin)
Emma (left) and Emily talking about female literary friendship. Image by Jonathan Ruppin.

 

For our readers based in or near Lincolnshire, or those of you who are able to travel to this part of Britain, we want to let you know about two more Something Rhymed events coming up soon.

Something Rhymed friendship-themed writing workshops

Dates & Times: We will be running the same Printworkshop at two different venues.

South Holland Centre, Spalding: Saturday 15 October, 2-5pm

Fydell House, Boston (Lincolnshire): Sunday 16 October, 2-5pm

With practical writing exercises that can be tackled at different levels, these workshops will be open to experienced and novice writers – and, of course, both men and women.

The workshops have been generously funded by Arts Council England. Places are free but limited and need to be reserved in advance by emailing somethingrhymed@gmail.com, indicating whether you want to attend the Spalding or Boston workshop.

We do hope to see you at one of these events. In the meantime, do look out for the videos of our recent London literary salons. We’ll be sharing these here on Something Rhymed over the coming weeks.

KATHERINE MANSFIELD: A ‘Prelude’ to What?

‘Prelude’ by Katherine Mansfield was the first short story that Virginia Woolf commissioned for Hogarth Press. We re-read it and tried to work out what Woolf might have seen in it…

Something Rhymed by the Sea…

Something Rhymed at the Margate Bookie festival

Do join us for our talk on literary friendship at Margate’s literary festival on August 20th. Or why not make a weekend of it and stick around for Emma’s appearance at the literary lounge on August 21st, where she will be talking about her debut novel, Owl Song at Dawn? 

Something Rhymed Event Poster (3)
Date & Time: Saturday 20 August, 5.30-6.30pm Venue: Sands Hotel, Margate Ticket: £5, book here. Click on the poster to view it in greater detail.

We are really looking forward to two days of literary fun  and friendship down by the sea. The line-up includes friends of Something Rhymed, Maggie Gee and Salena Godden, who wrote a joint guest post for us back in 2014 and appeared at our first Something Rhymed Salon.

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Tickets: £5.00 or all three Literary Lounge events for £15 Date & Time: Sunday August 21, 5.30-6.30pm Venue: Sands Hotel, Margate. Click on the poster to view it in greater detail.

There’s something for everyone: Jay Rayner for the foodies, Ruth Dugdall for fans of crime writing, magical storytelling shows for the kids and happiness workshops run by Psychologies Magazine, which we might all find beneficial. Here’s the full Margate Bookie Programme for your perusal.

As if that’s not enough, we’re assured that Margate Bookie is England’s friendliest litfest.