Charlotte Mew and May Sinclair

We were delighted when Jess Molyneux got in touch. The youngest contributor to Something Rhymed, Jess first contacted us when she was still a sixth-former. We were impressed and touched that she had traveled from Manchester to Nuneaton to attend the George Eliot Fellowship’s Annual Lecture, which we delivered last year. She has since won a place to study English at Cambridge, and we’re thrilled that she’s continuing our conversation on female literary friendship – this time with her filling us in on the bond between the retiring Charlotte Mew and the more outgoing May Sinclair.

Charlotte Mew is one of the most famously un-famous poets of the early 20th century, the genius remembered for not being remembered. According to her contemporary Thomas Hardy, she was ‘far and away the best living woman poet’. Other admirers included D. H. Lawrence, Siegfried Sassoon, and Ezra Pound. But what of support from female writers?

This image is in the public domain.

Mew seems to have eschewed literary companionship. Whilst Mew herself was deeply unwilling to promote herself (characterized as ‘almost pathologically demure’ by The New York Times), her literary champions wanted to see her succeed. But her reluctance to promote herself (or become a ‘performing monkey’, as she said) led her to withdraw from support offered by fellow literary women.

But Mew did eventually submit to the literary patronage of a sister, and was rewarded with a friendship which, for a time, allowed her an outlet for the passion and sensitivity which pulsate through her poetry.

In 1913, Mew was invited to recite some of her poems at the west London home of Catherine Dawson Scott, literary hostess and founder of PEN International, known to Mew as ‘Mrs Sappho’. Mew’s reading of her innovative and heartfelt verses, including ‘The Farmer’s Bride’ and ‘In Nunhead Cemetery’, impressed her audience, who found their author no less fascinating.

Through Dawson Scott, Mew became familiar with the work of Mary Amelia St. Clair, writing under the name May Sinclair. Disciplined and commercially successful, Sinclair had produced eight books in the previous seven years. She was constantly active, belonged to many groups like the Woman Writers’ Suffrage League, and had first used the term ‘stream of consciousness’ in a literary context.

Mew and Sinclair engaged on a literary level first. Both passionate about the Brontë sisters, Sinclair’s theory of Emily’s ‘virility’ in The Three Brontës (1912) jarred with

This image is in the public domain.

Mew’s ideas about her favourite poet’s ethereal qualities. But Mew wrote to express her admiration on reading Sinclair’s next novel, The Combined Maze (1913). She still avoided an encounter, telling Dawson Scott that she ‘didn’t want to meet clever people’.

Mrs Sappho nonetheless persevered in bringing them together, and her intuition proved right: upon Mew’s recitation of ‘The Farmer’s Bride’, Sinclair was ‘won over’ and the two ‘went away together’, as the deserted Dawson Scott described in a triumphant letter.

Sinclair continued to be impressed by the liveliness and depth of Mew’s poems. This mutual admiration cemented their intimacy, giving the withdrawing Mew an emotional and professional outlet for her literary enthusiasm. Despite her ambivalence about Mew’s metrical experiments, which chimed with the emerging modernist style, Sinclair recommended her to Pound, who published ‘The Fête’ in the The Egoist, alongside the serial of James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

But Mew’s intense, potentially erotic love for this friend wasn’t returned in full. After exerting herself to help Sinclair hunt for a new house, Mew was met with pity rather than the hoped-for, warm thanks. Sinclair had in fact casually solicited the help of several friends for the project; Mew had not been singled out. Mew ‘bolted’, by her own admission, to Dieppe, a favourite holiday destination and safe haven, and their intimacy felt fragile when she returned.

Sinclair’s plea for Mew to take their relationship at face value captures her desire for loving friendship without the intensity Mew seemed to demand: ‘And when I say, “I want to walk with you to Baker Street Station”, I mean to walk, and I want to walk with you, and I want to walk to Baker Street Station…Better to take things simply and never go back on them, or analyse them, is it not?’

Whilst their friendship stood in peril, its foundation in literary affinity remained firm. Sinclair was moved when Mew first read ‘Madeleine in Church’ to her, ‘so furiously well’. Likewise, Mew was touched by the attempts at French poetry which Sinclair shared with her.

But what drew them together would break them apart. Mew interpreted the pitying intimacy of the poems as a special communication, returning deep affection. Mew reached out, and a rupture followed. Sinclair later (somewhat cruelly, and probably hyperbolically) claimed to have been chased by Mew up to her bedroom and forced to ‘leap the bed five times’, as Sinclair’s friends reported to one of Mew’s biographers. ‘Charlotte has been bothering and annoying May,’ wrote Mrs Sappho to one of her circle. If Dawson’s curt conclusion that ‘Charlotte is evidently a pervert’ is anything to go by, she appears to have sided with Sinclair.

Years later, Mew refused the invitation to read to Mrs Sappho’s latest initiative, the Tomorrow Club; she evidently felt that something in her relationship with Sinclair, and indeed the whole circle, had been irreparably broken. Perhaps Sinclair regretted the fall from friendship which followed her rejection of Mew. She continued to offer professional advice, but their correspondence never again reached its former intimacy. Sinclair remained a great admirer of Mew’s work; but neither was able to rekindle the flame of mutual esteem, enthusiasm, and love which had burnt so strongly in its short course.

Jess Molyneux is studying English at Jesus College, Cambridge. She enjoys writing about her thoughts on literature, language, feminism, and the intersections between the three on her blog, Jess Writes.

Edited by Kathleen Dixon Donnelly, who posts at Such Friends, and is currently working on a book, ‘Such Friends’: A Scrapbook Almanac of Writers’ Salons, 1897-1930.

 If this has inspired 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.

Beryl Bainbridge and Bernice Rubens

Vicky Grut Photo © Bill Williams

We were thrilled when short-story writer Vicky Grut offered to write a piece on the friendship between Beryl Bainbridge and Bernice Rubens. Ever since 2014, when Emma wrote about an inspirational meeting with Rubens, we have been hoping to profile the friendship she enjoyed with Bainbridge.

 

Beryl Bainbridge (1932 – 2010) and Bernice Rubens (1923 – 2004) were friends for almost thirty years. They met on a British Council trip to Israel in July 1977, the first of many such outings. Describing this trip in the Independent’s How We Met’ column, Rubens recalled: ‘The group was Fay Weldon, William Trevor, Ted Willis, Iris Murdoch, Melvyn Bragg and Beryl, who made an impression on me immediately because she was wearing a hat and was quite clearly out to lunch.’

Bainbridge’s version of the occasion was that she was extremely nervous and the flight was delayed, which meant that she overdid it in the hospitality lounge and had to be wheeled out to the plane on a luggage trolley. ‘I didn’t even get going as a writer until 1971 and Bernice had won the Booker Prize before then,’ Bainbridge remembered. ‘I had read her and was quite in awe of her and the rest of the group.’

Bainbridge and Rubens
Beryl Bainbridge and Bernice Rubens, left to right. Photo courtesy Sue Greenhill.

Bainbridge was hardly a newcomer in 1977. She had been publishing steadily since A Weekend With Claude in 1967. Shortlisted for the Booker in 1974, she had won the Whitbread Prize with her eighth book three years later. But Rubens was six years older and probably did seem more confident and established. She was the first woman ever to win the Booker – in 1970 for her fourth novel, The Elected Member. Today she is perhaps best remembered for her second book, Madame Sousatzka (1962), which became a John Schlesinger film in 1988, starring Shirley MacLaine.

Rubens was the author of 26 books and Bainbridge 24, but neither started out as writers. Bainbridge left school at sixteen to join a theatre company in Liverpool, an experience vividly portrayed in her 1989 novel An Awfully Big Adventure. Rubens initially took a more conventional route: a scholarship to study English at Cardiff University, then marriage and teaching English in schools. She followed this with a career as a documentary film maker and scriptwriter, and the novels came later still, when she was in her thirties, as was the case for Bainbridge.

Physically, Rubens was bulky while Bainbridge was girlishly slight. Rubens was Jewish, Bainbridge a Catholic, and their personalities, too, were radically different. ‘When praised I took refuge in a smirk,’ Bainbridge said, ‘Bernice lashed out. When confronted with tragedy I shed tears and crept away; she made inquiries and organised relief.’

But they had some important things in common. Both came from difficult families. Both were devoted to their children and grandchildren but lived alone. Both believed that if they had been happier they would not have needed to write. They also shared an interest in other art forms. According to Bainbridge’s daughter Jojo Davies, her mother would do a painting each time she finished a book. In the attic room where Rubens worked there was a grand piano and a cello next to her desk so that she could reward herself by playing when the writing went well.

Writing in The Times after Bainbridge’s death, their friend Paul Bailey said of the two of them: ‘Bernice could best be described as a fiery particle, for she blew very hot or cold, especially with those she loved. Beryl, by sweet contrast, never judged anybody.’

This was a quality that Rubens valued greatly. ‘Although I have many friends who are writers, I don’t want to talk about [my work] to any of them except Beryl, because – like the Midland Bank – she listens, and she is terrifically loyal. […] I’ve never heard Beryl talk evilly about anybody.’ In their later years, the two friends met fortnightly for breakfast at the Cafe Delancey, just around the corner from Bainbridge’s house in Camden Town.

There are many anecdotes about Rubens sweeping in to avert disaster for Bainbridge, the most dramatic being A. N. Wilson’s assertion that when her publisher Duckworth ran into financial difficulties, the head of the company Colin Haycraft, whom she adored, came to see her and suggested that she sign her house over to them. ‘For a few hours she seriously considered this monstrous demand. Then the steely common sense surfaced – helped by her friend Bernice Rubens shouting from the sidelines.’

Bainbridge once talked about the nurturing quality of their friendship. Remembering that they had never quarrelled, and had ‘no rivalry’, she said, ‘If one of us is miserable then we ring the other. I got drunk at one of her dinner parties and she rang me the next day because she knew I’d be feeling remorse, to tell me I behaved beautifully, which wasn’t true.’ If one of them saw a bad review about the other, she added, then they would ‘ring and not refer to it directly, but support the other in a roundabout way’.

What more could anyone ask of a friend?

Beryl and Bernice google
Bainbridge and Rubens, left to right, at a publication party, 1988. Photo courtesy of Sue Greenhill.

LiveShow_thumbnailVicky Grut’s short fiction has appeared in anthologies published by Picador, Granta, Duckworths, Serpent’s Tail and Bloomsbury. Live Show, Drink Included: Collected Stories is published on October 5, 2018, by Holland Park Press. Find her on Twitter @VickyGrut.

 

Edited by Kathleen Dixon Donnelly, who posts at Such Friends, and is currently working on a book, ‘Such Friends’: A Scrapbook Almanac of Writers’ Salons, 1897-1930. Follow Kathleen on Twitter @SuchFriends.

 

It has been a particular pleasure to feature Vicky’s post on a historical pair of female writer friends today since tonight she will be celebrating the publication of Dear Evelyn by her own close writer friend, Kathy Page. On October 5th, Vicky and Kathy will be letting us into the secrets of their long-standing friendship to mark the publication of Vicky’s book, a short story collection called Live Show, Drink Included

If this has inspired 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.

 

 

Pratibha Parmar and Alice Walker

In March, we announced that Something Rhymed would, for the first time, be open to submissions. It is a particular pleasure that the first profile post we received from our call for submissions came from former City University student Alice Fitzgerald. As she celebrates the publication of her debut novel, Her Mother’s Daughter, she wrote for Something Rhymed about the friendship of her literary heroines Pratibha Parmar and Alice Walker

We also spread the word that we were looking for people to help us out with the editorial and administrative side of things. It was wonderful to hear back from Kathleen Dixon Donnelly, who we knew of through her fascinating blog, Such Friends, which explores the early-twentieth century literary salons of the Irish Literary Renaissance, the Bloomsbury Group, the Americans in Paris, and the Algonquin Round Table. Our thanks to Kathleen for editing this post. 

If you would like to get more involved with Something Rhymed, please find further details here.

You might know Alice Walker as the author of groundbreaking novel, The Color Purple. This would make sense; it was off the back of this book that she made history as the first African-American woman to win a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, as well as the National Book Award, in 1983, gaining more fame when the novel was made into a film directed by Steven Spielberg in 1985. In fact, Walker is a prolific writer, having penned everything from poetry and essays to short fiction and novels.

Born in 1944, the eighth child to sharecropper parents in Georgia during a time of racial segregation, she is also an activist, best known for her work with civil rights, women’s equality and peace campaigns. She coined the term ‘womanism’ in 1979 to describe a black feminist or feminist of colour.

British filmmaker Pratibha Parmar, meanwhile, was born just over a decade later in Kenya to a family who had emigrated from India to East Africa during the period of the British Empire, and migrated again to England in a group that the British media then termed ‘East African Asians’. Hailing from a persecuted people who had travelled across three continents, Parmar’s work is embedded in political complexity, examining themes such as gender, identity, LGBT issues, race and feminism.

It was Walker’s political beliefs and prominent role as an activist that first brought her and Parmar together. Having written Possessing the Secret of Joy, a novel which touches on female genital mutilation, Walker hoped to make a film on this controversial practice of female circumcision. She wanted to put her words into something more visual and accessible, and Parmar was happy to make that a reality.

The 1994 documentary, Warrior Marks, went on to win awards, and ‘that harrowing journey both triggered and cemented our mutual respect and trust’, Parmar told E. Nina Rothe in 2013 of her relationship with Walker. The two women soon went on to co-publish the book, Warrior Marks: Female Genital Mutilation and the Sexual Blinding of Women.

Alice Walker (left) and Pratibha Parmar (right) by Shaheen Haq, the producer of Alice Walker: Beauty in Truth.

Their friendship now stretches over more than 25 years. Like most of us, they communicate over email. Parmar is now based in San Francisco and Walker has a house in Mexico. There have been more fruits of their friendship, too. In 2013, Parmar made a documentary film about Walker’s life. ‘Two exceptional women, talking about one exceptional woman’s life, with the help of a few really exceptional friends’, writes Rothe in her Huffington Post article.

Parmar’s love, respect and admiration for her friend are clear throughout the beautifully-shot documentary, called Alice Walker: Beauty in Truth, which is Parmar’scontribution to filling this gaping abyss of on screen representations of women as history makers and shapers, women as public intellectuals and visionary leaders’.

As with any friendship that spans a length of time, one has seen the other change and grow. Speaking of Walker, Parmar told Bernard Boo in a 2013 interview on Way Too IndieShe’s gone through so many different experiences over the last few decades that I’ve known her, I’ve seen her grow, I’ve seen her suffer, I’ve seen her speak out about things even when she knows it won’t make her popular with people. Through all of that, I would say that there is an essence that’s never changed. She has a very strong inner core and will that’s powered her through her life.’

There have been hard times, too; Warrior Marks earned them criticism for not being African women. But Walker had wise words for her friend. Pratibha. Teflon,’ Walker told Parmar. She said I had to develop a skin like Teflon. She’s had to have done that to survive’, explains the filmmaker.

HERMOTHERSDAUGHTERWritten by Alice Fitzgerald, whose debut novel Her Mother’s Daughter is out now with Allen & Unwin. You can follow her on Twitter @AliceFitzWrites

 

 

    Edited by Kathleen Dixon Donnelly, who posts at Such Friends, and is  currently          working on a book, ‘Such Friends’: A Scrapbook Almanac of Writers’ Salons,                 1897-1930.