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):

 

 

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.

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.

How Far Would You Go for a Friend? – An insight into Elizabeth Gaskell’s friendship with Charlotte Brontё

Having featured the literary bond between Charlotte Brontë and Elizabeth Gaskell on this blog, and touched on it in  our book  A Secret Sisterhood, we were delighted to receive a message from Susan Dunne, who is writing the first full-length biography of the friendship between these two authors. If this piece inspires an idea for a future Something Rhymed post, please do get in touch here.

Elizabeth Gaskell (portrait by George Richmond, 1851). This image is in the public domain.

How far should you go to save a friend’s life – risk your own, break the law, face the wrath of family and friends?  It seems that Elizabeth Gaskell would have been prepared to do any of these to save her friend Charlotte Brontё from death caused by pregnancy.

Gaskell and  Brontё met in 1850 and formed a lasting friendship based on their experience as fellow novelists.  Both shot to fame with their first published novels, Mary Barton and Jane Eyre, and both endured the dubious pleasures of being northern English women lionized by London society.  They subsequently met just three times but their correspondence shows a deep mutual respect and affection.

Their friendship went beyond their lives as writers:  Gaskell was a married mother of four girls and she actively promoted Brontё’s marriage to her father Patrick Brontё’s curate, Arthur Bell Nicholls, by trying to find him a more profitable position through engaging the help of the influential Yorkshire parliamentarian, Richard Monkton Milnes. Nicholls was offered two curacies, one in Lancashire and one in Scotland but turned both down to remain in Yorkshire, near to Brontё.   It is ironic that following her marriage to Nicholls in June 1854, Brontё’s correspondence with Elizabeth was curtailed due to Nicholls’s High Church proclivities.  Nicholls was intolerant of dissenters, and in particular of Unitarians like the Gaskells whose faith did not recognize the divinity of Christ.  From the start of her engagement, Brontё knew that her continued friendship with Gaskell would not be easy but hoped that the day would come when Nicholls would ‘see both you and Mr Gaskell’.

Charlotte Bronte – portrait by J.H. Thompson. This image is in the public domain.

By the time Brontё began to suspect that she was pregnant in February 1855, she had had no correspondence with Gaskell since October 1854.  Brontё’s pregnancy was confirmed by the local doctors but all was not well – she began to suffer from what is now commonly believed to be hyperemesis gravidarum, a particularly virulent form of pregnancy associated sickness.  Today the condition, which can lead to severe dehydration and kidney failure, can be treated but in Brontё’s time it was likely to prove fatal.  She died in March 1855, her unborn child dying with her.

The only hope of saving the mother’s life in such a case was to abort the child, but the law did not permit this.  The 1803 Ellenborough Act had made it an offence for any person to perform or cause an abortion on a quickening child, punishable by death or transportation for 14 years.  The law was subsequently amended but it remained an illegal act and certainly not one that would have been sanctioned by the church or churchmen like Brontё’s husband and father.

Despite the official legal, moral and religious stance, in an age when pregnancy posed a very real threat, termination either to save the mother’s life or for economic reasons was not uncommon.  Although necessarily a taboo subject, abortion was far from unknown behind closed bedroom doors.

When Gaskell heard from the Haworth stationer John Greenwood that her friend had died as a result of her pregnancy, her response was unhesitating:  “I do fancy that if I had come, I could have induced her, – even though they had all felt angry with me at first – to do what was so absolutely necessary, for her very life”.  She later reiterated to Brontё’s publisher, George Smith, that she might have been able to save Brontё’s life if she had only known.

Unlike Brontё’s other principle friends – Ellen Nussey, Mary Taylor and her old headmistress and former employer, Margaret Wooler who were all unmarried and childless – Gaskell was no stranger to the workings of the female body. She had been through seven pregnancies by the age of 36 and through her charitable works amongst the textile workers of Manchester would have known that unwanted pregnancies were rife.  For the working class, crude methods of getting rid of unwanted children were employed, including sharp instruments, induced falls and, in the most desperate cases,  infanticide following birth.   For  middle class women, information about abortion was at once covert and overt:  newspaper adverts offering pills which should not be taken during pregnancy were widely understood to be advertising abortifacients. It is possibly this which Gaskell had in mind when thinking about inducing Brontё.

Whether Gaskell could have saved Brontё’s life is a moot point.  Brontё was 38 at the time of conception – a very late age then to have a first child – and she was notably small.  She had once told her friend Ellen Nussey that full woman size chemisettes were too big for her.  Moreover, although she had been well since her marriage, Brontё’s physical health was not particularly strong – given the high maternal mortality rates of the time she was at high risk.

The fact that Gaskell was prepared to both break the law and risk the wrath of those around Brontё to save her friend’s life, suggests that theirs was a friendship that went much deeper than that of their shared writing interests.  Unable to save her friend’s life, she was determined to pay homage to her friend and create a lasting legacy by writing The Life of Charlotte Brontё which came out two years after Brontё’s death.  It has never been out of print.

Susan Dunne is a journalist and researcher.  She is currently writing the first full-length biography of the friendship between Elizabeth Gaskell and Charlotte Brontё.  Her memoir, A Pony in the Bedroom was published by Jessica Kingsley in 2015.

 

No Surer Foundation for Friendship: Sophie Butler and Miranda Mills

We first got to know the writer Miranda Mills when she asked us if she could interview us about our book for Tea & Tattle, the podcast she runs with her best friend, academic and writer Sophie Butler. We’ve since enjoyed catching up on their other episodes, and found ourselves particularly fascinated by one discussion in which they talk about the literary beginnings of their long-lasting bond. This week, they explore this subject further in a new piece for Something Rhymed.

Sophie Butler (left) and Miranda Mills

Miranda: 
Whenever I think about my friendship with Sophie, I think of one of my favourite quotes by P.G. Wodehouse: ‘There is no surer foundation for a beautiful friendship than a mutual taste in literature.’ I have certainly found this to be true.

Nowadays, the fact that we began our acquaintance as thirteen-year-old pen-pals, scribbling letters to each other that flew weekly across the Atlantic Ocean, is hard to imagine. No Whatsapp, no Facebook – we didn’t even email! But from the very first letter that I exchanged with Sophie, where we described our mutual love for the Chalet School  books by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer, I knew I’d found what I’d been searching for since reading Anne of Green Gables – a kindred spirit.

It never fails to come as a small shock to me to realise that Sophie and I have always been
long-distance friends; perhaps because it feels as though, from those first hastily torn open envelopes, we’ve never stopped talking. Books have always been a common theme in our friendship. As undergraduates, we’d plan out trips to our favourite book shops: when Sophie visited me in London, we made the rounds of Persephone Books, Daunt and Foyles. Weekend jaunts of mine to Oxford would culminate in blueberry muffins and gossip at Blackwells. Many of our favourite authors were read in sync: Jane Austen, Nancy Mitford, P.G. Wodehouse, Dorothy L. Sayers

Today, our conversations about life and the books we’re reading are broadcast to thousands of listeners around the world, through our podcast, Tea & Tattle. I can only imagine how thrilled our thirteen-year-old selves would be if they knew.

Sophie:

Throughout my teenage years, suffering from M.E. and being home-schooled, much of my interaction with the world came through the written word. Confined to the house for long periods, my bookshelves became increasingly important, allowing me to travel anywhere from the Austrian classrooms of the Chalet School series to the country-houses of Bertie Wooster and his friends. If only I had someone with whom to discuss my discoveries!

I remember my excitement when I read the first letters Miranda sent me from America, responding to my appeal for pen-pals in a Chalet School appreciation society newsletter. Not only did she like and dislike the same Chalet School characters as I did (vitally important for a thirteen-year-old school story fan), but (what amazement!) she had read The Tenant of Wildfell Hall and preferred it to Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights. With such markers of good taste, how could we fail to become firm friends?

Together, we explored the works of our mutual favourite, Jane Austen, recommending biographies to one another and delving into collections of Austen’s letters to discuss them in our own. I’ve no doubt that it was through these discussions, taking place across hundreds of sheets of paper and thousands of miles, that I began my journey towards becoming a University Lecturer in English Literature.

Through these epistolary conversations, I discovered my interest in exploring a literary subject in its historical context, the fun of following up literary leads, and, most of all, the joy of analyzing literature – and so much else – with a like-minded friend. But much as I treasure my collection of old letters, I’m rather glad that Miranda and I now don’t need to put pen to paper whenever we want a chat!

Miranda Mills and Sophie Butler co-host the Tea & Tattle podcast, which celebrates female friendship and creativity. This incorporates Tea Reads, for which they discuss some of their favourite short reads (none of which should take longer than the time it takes to drink a cup of tea).

Miranda blogs at Mirandasnotebook.com. You can also follow her on Instagram: @mirandasnotebook and @mirandasbookcase.

In her work as an English Literature academic, Sophie’s writing focuses on the Renaissance period. You can follow her on Instagram:  @sophie_perdita

A New Paperback… and a new direction for Something Rhymed

We’re very excited to let you know that, here in the UK at least (as well as various other Commonwealth countries) the paperback of A Secret Sisterhood is out in shops today.

As regular Something Rhymed readers will know, it tells the stories of the literary friendships of Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, George Eliot and Virginia Woolf. To celebrate, we’ve arranged a blog tour, which will take place over the next couple of weeks and feature reviews of our book. The first stop on the tour is A View from the Balcony. The full tour schedule is below:

 

Also look out for upcoming reviews on Lonesome Reader, Cornflower Booksthe Literary SofaNorthern ReaderJess Writes and Crocus Connect Books.

If you or anyone you know would be interested in reviewing the paperback on their blog, please do get in touch via the ‘Contact Us’ page and we will arrange for a copy to be sent out by return of post. Of course, we are also hugely appreciative of any feedback on Amazon (regardless of where the book was purchased).

We hope you’ll enjoy following the tour, especially since we could never have written A Secret Sisterhood without the support and encouragement of all of you. When we began this blog in January 2014, we imagined that it would be a year-long web project. We never anticipated where it would take us. Writing for Something Rhymed has been a wonderful experience, and we have been delighted to forge so many new friendships of our own with readers all over the world.

It’s always been important to us that Something Rhymed remains an advert-free, not-for-profit blog. We run this site in our spare time and it has become increasingly tricky to find enough hours in the day to keep generating new content, in addition to writing our books, teaching, journalism and doing events.

Now that we are both embarking on new writing projects, we have begun to turn our minds to the future of Something Rhymed. And, as such, we’d love to hear from you.

Open call for submissions

Would you like to write for Something Rhymed? If so, please send a short pitch via our Contact Us page, letting us know who you are and what you would like to write about.

In the past, articles on Something Rhymed have included:

  • Posts that profile the friendship of a well-known or unjustly forgotten, usually historical, female literary pair – 500 to 800 words. (For examples of former profile posts, please click on the links on this page and scroll down to the earliest post listed under each link.)
  • Posts that deal more generally with the theme of female literary friendship – 500 to 800 words. (See this, this and this example but we’d also be open to all sorts of new approaches.)
  • ‘Guest posts’ that profile a writer’s own literary friendship – 500 to 650 words. (For examples of former guest posts, please click on the links on this page.)

Please note that if you would like to send us a pitch for a guest post, we ask that you do this as part of a pitch for two articles – one of which should not be about your own literary friendship.

We are open to other ideas too, as long as they fall within the general theme of female literary friendship.

Editorial / administrative volunteers

We’re also looking for people who might be interested in volunteering to help out with the editorial and administrative side of things. Over the years we’ve been running Something Rhymed, as well as writing blog posts ourselves we have solicited and edited guest posts from other writers, organised site logistics (such as timings of posts, image rights, design issues), publicised posts on social media, managed contact lists etc.

Doing these kinds of things has helped us to develop valuable skills while also building our profiles and expanding our literary contacts. We’d love now to give some of these opportunities to others who might find them similarly helpful. If you are interested in helping out with editorial and admin, please do get in touch with us via our Contact Us page.

We’ll look forward to hearing from anyone with ideas for submissions and / or interested in volunteering with editorial and admin.

We’re really hoping that in this way we can keep building the Something Rhymed community, and expand the site as a resource for anyone who values female literary friendship.