Taking Stock

Seven months into our yearlong quest to discover the friendships enjoyed by famous female authors, it seems a good time to take stock.

Creative Commons License
Creative Commons License

We had the chance to do just that when we were asked to write a double page spread for the Independent on Sunday and a guest post for Writers and Artists.

When we first mooted the idea of Something Rhymed, we couldn’t have named twelve sets of famous female writer pals of old. We had no idea that Jane Austen risked her family’s disapproval by forging a radical relationship with a playwright who was one of the family’s servants. Who’d have thought that the mythically reclusive Emily Dickinson was a lifelong friend of the bestselling novelist Helen Hunt Jackson? As for Katherine Mansfield and Virginia Woolf, we’d heard that they were enemies.

But once we set up this blog, so many of you gave us such great tip-offs about women’s partnerships that it’s become tough to choose who to profile. We’ve become increasingly curious, therefore, about why such fascinating relationships have been misrepresented or written out of literary lore.

In our guest post for Writers and Artists, we put forward some of our theories on this.

We initially wondered whether these female alliances got overlooked because they were most often carried out within private domestic spheres. Unlike Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins, Jane Austen and Anne Sharp never visited risqué music halls together; unlike F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, Charlotte Brontë and Elizabeth Gaskell never chronicled joint drinking binges in their published writings.

Even more significant, perhaps, is that whilst most of these men’s writing partnerships suffered spectacular bust-ups, many of the friendships we’ve featured were relatively harmonious. So it could also be that their frequent lack of drama has cost them newspaper column inches and lengthy entries in literary biographies.

Potentially most insidious, however, it that, unlike the camaraderie of Byron and Shelley, frequently recalled as robustly combative, the professional rivalry of Katherine Mansfield and Virginia Woolf was seen as entirely incompatible with female friendship.

As the year progresses, we’ve increasingly been led to wonder whether the lack of a level playing field lies at the root of it all. Although society has traditionally allowed men to accommodate healthy competition within their relationships, the same has been looked on much less favourably when it occurs between women.

We were able to explore this theory further in our feature for the Independent on Sunday.

In A Room of One’s Own, Woolf claimed that collaborative, intellectual friendship between women was considered taboo. The new feminists who we interviewed, however, were happy to celebrate such relationships. Laura Bates, author of Everyday Sexism, was keen to credit novelist and No More Page 3 campaigner Lucy-Anne Holmes for fuelling her own success. And co-writers of The Vagenda, Holly Baxter and Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett, friends since their student days, have relied on each other during periods when they’ve had to face down misogynistic attacks.

The sheer level of aggression faced by these friends suggests that although such relationships are no longer taboo, female solidarity is considered subversive even today.

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