The Stuff of Legend

It was a question that prompted us to launch Something Rhymed, a question that eluded easy answers: why have so many female writer friends, unlike their male counterparts, failed to make legends of each other?

We wondered whether women had traditionally conducted their relationships privately while men had more opportunities to promote each other in public. Coleridge, for instance, had the freedom to up sticks to the Lakes where he could collaborate with Wordsworth on the Lyrical Ballads. At around the same time, Jane Austen’s abode was entirely at the whim of her family and she still felt she had to publish anonymously.

However, closer investigation showed us that women too have long been attempting to make legends of each other. After all, Charlotte Brontë travelled cross country to stay with Elizabeth Gaskell (a pair we’re sure to profile since so many of you have suggested them), and after Brontë’s early death Gaskell published the first biography of her friend.

This month’s pair, Vera Brittain and Winifred Holtby, emerged very much from this trailblazing tradition, embracing mutual publicity from the start: debating at the Oxford Union, campaigning for their shared social and political causes, publishing prolific amounts of journalism. Indeed, the pair became so entangled in people’s minds that Winifred Holtby was once introduced at a meeting as ‘Miss Vera Holtby’! It is fitting, therefore, that after Holtby’s early death, Brittain edited and promoted her friend’s final novel and then memorialised their relationship in Testament of Friendship.

Question Mark

We took rather longer to expose our friendship to public scrutiny. For the first decade since our initial meeting, we critiqued each other’s work in the privacy of our own homes, and we published entirely separately. But ever since The Times commissioned us to write about female writing friendship, we’ve become far less publicity shy, looking to Brittain and Holtby as our role models.

Our attempts to follow in their footsteps has brought us many unexpected and joyful connections, from drinking Prosecco in Kiliney Castle with writer pals Anne Enright and Lia Mills to gaining our first hits on this site from Korea and Kyrgyzstan. The generous coverage Something Rhymed has received from Slightly Bookist and Women Writers, Women, Books has resulted in particularly strong contingents of blog followers from Canada and the USA, and tweets from the likes of the New York Public Library. Just recently, we received some especially interesting suggestions from our new North American friends, who alerted us to the epistolary relationship between George Eliot and Harriet Beecher Stowe, as well as the friendship that A.S. Byatt managed to forge with her literary heroine, Iris Murdoch.

Murdoch also came up on the back of a connection we’ve forged closer to home. When the Yorkshire Post picked up on Holtby’s (and Emily’s) Yorkshire connections, one of their reader’s got in touch to tell us about Murdoch and the philosopher Philippa Foot, whose extraordinary friendship eventually survived a sexual interlude and even a massive bust-up.

Mercifully, our friendship has not only survived but thrived since we made the decision to follow the example of Brittain and Holtby. But our investigation into female writers and publicity has not yet produced an answer to our initial question. Instead, the question itself has changed. So now we’ve begun to ask ourselves this: why do women’s attempts to make legends of each other tend to get written out of literary lore?

2 thoughts on “The Stuff of Legend

  1. On the subject of mythmaking, just finished reading two very good memoir/eulogies, commemorating great literary friendships and writers who died too young: Ann Patchett’s Truth and Beauty (on her friendship with Lucy Grealy) and Gail Caldwell’s Let’s Take the Long Way Home (on Caroline Knapp.) The controversy surrounding Truth and Beauty (including Grealy’s sister dismissing Patchett as a presumptuous parasite) offers more evidence that making legends is not without risk!

    1. I love Truth and Beauty too, and I’ve now added Let’s Take the Long Way Home to my reading list! Interesting that you mention the risks of mythmaking because this is something I’ve been thinking about a great deal recently. Vera Brittain and Winifred Holtby were subject to rumours about their sexualities, for instance, and it is still rare to come across a discussion of their friendship that doesn’t get mired in such (largely unfounded) speculation. I suspect such gossip stemmed from people feeling threatened by the notion of two fiercely ambitious and intelligent women joining forces. Perhaps it was less threatening to frame their friendship as romantic or sexual than to recognise that it was powered by shared social, political, and artistic aims? I can feel another blog post brewing!

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