The Maternal Line

When we began to work on this month’s challenge to create a ‘family tree’ showing the literary ancestral lines that we’ve traced on the site, we soon realised that we couldn’t possibly accommodate all the intertwined connections between the forty-five authors we’ve profiled so far.

Instead, we decided to focus on the literary forebears and successors of just four of our favourite novelists: Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, George Eliot and Virginia Woolf. You’ll need to click on the image and zoom in to read it.

The Maternal Line

Our literary family tree includes the following connections:

Jane Austen

  • George Eliot re-read Austen novels prior to writing her own.
  • Eliot’s partner, George Henry Lewes, was a vocal fan of Austen.
  • Charlotte Brontë couldn’t understand what Lewes saw in Austen’s work.
  • Virginia Woolf called Austen ‘the  most perfect artist among women’.
  • Katherine Mansfield described Woolf’s Night and Day as ‘Miss Austen up to date’.
  • Mansfield and her husband read Jane Austen together. Mansfield admired Austen’s abilities to plot novels.
  • Elizabeth Bowen wrote a BBC programme about Austen’s life.
  • Iris Murdoch counted Mr Knightly as her favourite fictional character.
  • Austen fantasised that her friend, Anne Sharp – a governess and amateur playwright – might marry her employer.

Charlotte Brontë

  • In Jane Eyre, Brontë fictionalised the kind of scenario Austen had dreamed of for Sharp.
  • Brontë’s lifelong feminist author friend, Mary Taylor, helped Elizabeth Gaskell with the first biography of their mutual friend.
  • Harriet Beecher Stowe claimed that Brontë appeared to her from beyond the grave.
  • Woolf claimed that Brontë ‘will write in a rage when she should write calmly’.
  • Woolf felt that Austen had ‘less genius’ than Brontë but ‘got infinitely more said’.
  • Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea is a prequel to Jane Eyre.
  • Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca owes a debt of gratitude to Jane Eyre.
  • Du Maurier wrote a biography of Brontë’s brother, Branwell.
  • The young Maya Angelou found the experience of reading the Brontë sisters inspiring and empowering.

George Eliot

  • Gaskell found Eliot’s unmarried status an impediment to friendship.
  • Woolf described Middlemarch as ‘one of the few English novels written for grown up people’.
  • Woolf also felt that Eliot ‘committed atrocities’ by aping masculine prose.
  • Rhys’ friend, Eliot Bliss, chose her pen-name as a mark of respect for both George Eliot and T.S. Eliot.

Virginia Woolf

Katherine Mansfield

  • Du Maurier’s night nursery directly faced Mansfield’s bedroom.
  • Du Maurier corresponded with the younger author, Oriel Malet, and the pair shared their love of Mansfield’s work in their letters.

Activity

One of our readers, Sarah Emsley, offered us the perfect excuse to re-read Jane Austen’s Emma as she is hosting Emma in the Snow – an online celebration of the bi-centenary of its publication. Our piece will go live on her site on January 1st, and we’ll also post a conversation between the two of us about the novel here on Something Rhymed. We’ve had such fun reacquainting ourselves with this novel – an old favourite.

If you are looking for a holiday read, we’d love you to choose Emma so that you can share your thoughts with us in the new year.

In the meantime, we both hope that you have a peaceful holiday and that 2016 is full of creativity and friendship.

The Ghost of Charlotte Brontë

In our first post of October, we mentioned that George Eliot once received a letter from her friend Harriet Beecher Stowe in which she recounted a ghostly visit she’d received from the late Charlotte Brontë. Although Eliot brushed off this tale, telling Stowe that, ‘rightly or not’, she found it ‘enormously improbable’, the strange episode intrigued us. From which of the historic writers we’ve profiled on our website, we wondered, would we most welcome the chance of a visit?

The hardest thing about this month’s activity was making that choice. Katherine Mansfield, for instance, with her Bohemian ways, has always fascinated me. Having spent several months of this year immersed in Eliot’s letters to Stowe, I’ve become more and more interested in the life of the author of Middlemarch, and so I seriously considered writing about Eliot in this post, even though – given her reaction to Stowe – I’m not sure she’d have approved of the exercise.

But in the end I realised that, of all the authors we’ve profiled, it is the same writer that Stowe wrote of so excitedly to her British friend who has most haunted my own imagination over the years.

Title page of an early edition of Jane Eyre, showing Charlotte Bronte's pseudonym Currer Bell. Creative Commons licence.
Title page of an early edition of Jane Eyre, showing Charlotte Bronte’s pseudonym Currer Bell. Creative Commons licence.

Unlike Eliot or Stowe, Austen or Woolf, I can’t remember a time when I didn’t have some sense of who the Brontë sisters were. My mother had named me Emily, after her favourite of the three, and, once she thought her daughters were old enough to appreciate the atmospheric setting – but some time, I think, before Erica or I had actually read any of the Brontës’ books – she took us to visit the Parsonage Museum at Haworth. This was a place famously popular with Japanese tourists, and somewhere Mum had got to know well herself through her related work for the regional tourist board.

There was a gift shop at the Parsonage, selling brooches bearing the sisters’ images. I, of course, bought an Emily Brontë brooch – thinking that, given my name – this was pretty much a requirement. I also remember feeling momentarily envious that Erica was able to make the choice for herself, by holding the Charlotte and Anne brooches up to the light and trying to decide whose picture she liked the most.

After much chivvying from our parents, who were no doubt keen to get us all outside for our lunchtime sandwiches, Erica finally selected the Charlotte brooch. Later, on the drive home in the car, we sat side-by-side in the back comparing our Brontë sisters. Unlike the dark colours of my miniature portrait of Emily, the Charlotte brooch was all cream and taupe with the merest blush of rose on her cheeks and lips.

There was something not-quite-there about the image, something that hinted at all the elements missing from the artist’s representation of his subject. You couldn’t guess, not from looking at the woman of that picture, that this was someone whose most famous novel had once made her a scandalous figure, because of the way its plot was believed to mount a dangerous challenge to contemporary patriarchal traditions.

Image used with the kind permission of Oxford University Press.
Image used with the kind permission of Oxford University Press.

Even in the biography written by Elizabeth Gaskell, there are many elements missing in her account of Charlotte’s life because, in order to try and resurrect her friend’s reputation she suppressed evidence, for instance, of her love of the married Constantin Héger, and tended to ignore details that might work against her aims of honouring Charlotte ‘as a woman, separate from her character as an authoress’.

Although later biographies have filled in many of these details, there is something about all three Brontë sisters, in fact, that remains enticingly enigmatic. It explains to me why my mother, a life-long lover of mysteries, should have been so drawn to their stories, and even perhaps why Stowe sat down in the dark well over a century ago now and tried to make contact with Charlotte Brontë.

Thinking Back Through Our Mothers

By coincidence, this month Emily and I both recommended authors who were deeply influenced by Charlotte Brontë.

Portrait of Charlotte Brontë by J. H. Thompson  (Creative Commons License)
Portrait of Charlotte Brontë by J. H. Thompson
(Creative Commons License)

I will now treasure the copy of Jean Rhys’s After Leaving Mr MacKenzie, which Emily gave to me. Of course, Rhys’s most famous novel, Wide Sargasso Sea, which was inspired by Jane Eyre, imagines the first Mrs Rochester before she became consumed with madness and locked in the attic.

Rhys’s work, in turn, inspired Emily. She dedicated After Leaving Mr MacKenzie to me with the words: ‘When I first read this book, it changed the way I thought about writing forever’.

Just as Rhys’s descriptions of dingy hotel rooms and low-lit streets have lingered long in Emily’s imagination, I feel as if I have sat at the cocktail bar in A Tiny Speck of Black and then Nothing, Emily’s novel, chatting with the blind barman. There’s a scene in which the heroine searches for her missing friend in the labyrinthine alleyways of Osaka that has become so lodged in my own mind that I could almost mistake it for a memory. Moreover, the melodic quality of Emily’s novel sets up in duet with Rhys’s melancholic song.

 

Jean Rhys in the 1970s (Creative Commons License)
Jean Rhys in the 1970s
(Creative Commons License)

I also chose for Emily a writer whose work I engage with in my own writing. Virginia Woolf, although she famously overturned taboos of madness and sexuality, claimed that ‘one could hardly describe’ the life of her half-sister who was diagnosed with ‘imbecility’.

When I began my novel, The Waifs and Strays of Sea View Lodge, I set out to prove Woolf wrong by writing from the perspective of twin sisters, one of whom has profound learning disabilities. However, I ended up turning back to Woolf’s novels for inspiration on how to write about our flawed yet valiant attempts to read each other’s minds.

Woolf had an ambivalent relationship with Charlotte Brontë, whose genius she felt was hindered by her attempts to ape a male type of writing rather than creating a voice of her own. However, like Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea, it seems to me that Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway also owes a debt of gratitude to Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre.  

Virginia Woolf (Creative Commons License)
Virginia Woolf
(Creative Commons License)

I first read Mrs Dalloway when I was in my late teens, and I still remember the passage that seduced me: ‘Like a nun withdrawing, or a child exploring a tower, she went upstairs, paused at the window, came to the bathroom. There was the green linoleum and a tap dripping. There was an emptiness about the heart of life; an attic room’.

How odd that this depiction of sexual grief so captured my adolescent imagination. I now wonder whether I subconsciously related it back to Bertha, Charlotte Brontë’s ‘mad woman in the attic’, whose story I found even more fascinating than that of Jane Eyre.

‘We think back through our mothers if we are women,’ Woolf claimed in A Room of One’s Own. In Mrs Dalloway and Wide Sargasso Sea we catch a glimpse of two authors doing just that: befriending and confronting their predecessor on the page. This, in turn, has been the founding philosophy of our quest on Something Rhymed. Together, Emily and I are gleaning tips about how to sustain our valuable friendship by thinking back through the successes and mistakes of our literary mothers – a lineage that runs from Brontë to Woolf and Rhys.

Sharing the Knocks and Knockouts: Emily Bullock & Ann Morgan

Emily Bullock & Ann Morgan
Emily Bullock & Ann Morgan

In this month’s guest blog, long-time writer friends Emily Bullock and Ann Morgan take up the June challenge to send each other a book with a dedication inside.

Emily Bullock

Ann and I first met on the interview day for UEA’s Creative Writing MA… So she tells me, and over the years I’ve come to think of her memory as my own. We were then lucky enough to be in the same writing workshop. Was I first drawn to the person or the pen? I no longer recall that either. But I do know that I liked both a great deal. Ann spent some nights on my airbed, which sealed the new friendship, and all these years later we are still friends.

The book I have chosen for Ann was inspired by her Year of Reading the World. Through this project, she came across a writer who didn’t get to read a novel until she was a teenager. The anecdote stayed in my mind because Ann is such a good storyteller. The first novel this writer got to read also seems the right selection for Ann because of her adventures in reading a book from every country, and the writing journey we have both been on, which will finally result in our debut books coming out next year.

In the words of all the best DJs – Ann Morgan, this one’s for you: Around the World in Eighty Days by Jules Verne.

Around the World in Eighty Days
Image used with the kind permission of Penguin Pocket Classics

And my dedication:

‘What had he brought back from this long and weary journey?’

The airbed has deflated but we go on: friends and writers. I feel fortunate to have you as a travelling companion.

Ann Morgan

Emily’s right: we did meet at the interview day for our master’s. I can even remember the book she was reading – Salt: A World History by Mark Kulansky.

If it seems a bit freaky that I can recall so much, it’s no doubt testament to how well we got on. Almost from the word go, we were chatting easily and seemed to understand each other’s take on books and writing. The friendship was particularly important for me as I was commuting from London to study on the course in Norwich – hence the airbed (in case you were wondering).

Ten years on, we remain great friends. We’ve seen each other change, grow, struggle and succeed, and it’s lovely that our debut books, The Longest Fight and Reading the World: Postcards from my Bookshelf, will be coming out at roughly the same time in 2015.

In recognition of this, I’ve chosen a novel that links together our projects: Seconds Out by Martín Kohan.

Seconds-Out
Image used with the kind permission of Serpent’s Tail

It’s the book I read from Argentina during my Year of Reading the World and centres on boxing, which is the subject of Emily’s novel. The story also seems appropriate because I think both of us would agree that the journey to publication has been a bit like a battle on occasions. As a result, my dedication reads:

‘It has felt like the longest fight at times, but it’s been great to share the knocks and knockouts with you. Here’s to the next bout.’

 

Emily Bullock’s novel The Longest Fight will be published by Myriad Editions in spring 2015.

Ann Morgan’s non-fiction book Reading the World: Postcards from my Bookshelf will be published by Harvill Secker, also in spring 2015.

A Room of One’s Own to Share

A Room of One's Own by Virginia Woolf
A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf

My gift for you, Emily, is A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf – a book to which I have returned so many times during my quest to find a literal and psychological writing space.

When I first read this extended essay on women and creativity in my college bedroom, we hadn’t yet met. The very fact that I was studying in Cambridge was evidence, perhaps, that the world had begun to listen to Woolf’s argument that women should receive the same access to education as men. Her words particularly resonated, since I read them from the other side of doors that had kept her locked out.

I don’t think I’d admitted to anyone that I wanted to become a writer myself but when the opportunity arose to run the college literary society, I jumped at the chance.

The first female writer I ever met was Bernice Rubens, and I got to take her to dinner in college. The drinking society members were downing glasses of wine and playing a game called ‘no hands pudding’, which involved them thrusting their faces into their food. ‘You don’t fit in here,’ Rubens told me. ‘You’ll look back and feel proud that you don’t.’

Cambridge introduced me to some brilliant and kind academics, to some very dear friends, and to many varied and wonderful books. But it was a world still relatively unused to northern state school educated women, so Ruben’s observation had been astute. I am profoundly grateful for the room I found during my time at Cambridge, but it wasn’t quite yet a room of one’s own.

I re-read the essay a few years after graduation, when I was by then trying to forge my way as a writer. In order to work on my first novel, I slept on a friend’s floor, shared a bunk bed with a flatmate, and lived as a warden in a raucous halls of residence. Woolf’s argument that ‘A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction’ had taken on, for me, a pressing significance.

Although I was still struggling to find a literal room of one’s own, I had by then found a figurative one in my friendship with you. In you, I discovered someone else who was also trying to carve out enough time and money and space to write, someone else who shared the conviction that it was worth the fight.

Most recently, I re-read A Room of One’s Own in the study in my backyard – my very own creative refuge. You have your own study now too. We have sat side-by-side at both of our desks, writing together about friendships between literary women. In this way, you have given me a gift that perhaps exceeds even Woolf’s hopes for the female writers who would follow her. With your help, I have been lucky enough to find not only a room of one’s own, but also a room to share.

A Gift to a Writer: After Leaving Mr Mackenzie by Jean Rhys

IMG_1109

 

Since I first picked up a copy of Jean Rhys’s novel in my late teens, I have pressed it on a number of people. I say pressed, because I’m not sure it’s always been a welcome recommendation, the response often being that it’s depressing.

This is a valid comment, and each time I’ve returned to the book over the years I’ve found it sadder than I did on the previous reading. But there are flashes of dark humour there too, in Rhys’s wry observations, and her sharp-drawn depiction of the titular Mr Mackenzie’s pomposity.

What really attracts me to After Leaving Mr Mackenzie, though, is the unaffected beauty of the writing. Rhys’s second published novel came out in 1931 and the story is firmly of its era, but the unfussy, hypnotic prose retains a freshness that’s stood the test of time.

I have thought about buying this book for you before, Emma Claire, but have always held back – perhaps because a favourite book can come to seem like a part of your own history. Unreasonable as it is, it’s hard not to take it as a personal slight if your friend then goes and tells you they didn’t like it.

But I think – I hope – you will like it, because you have such a musical ear. You’re always picking out riffs and melodies within written stories, or even spoken conversations, which other people might not care about, or miss.

Set in grey London and Paris, After Leaving Mr Mackenzie – the story of a woman who has, in reality, been left by yet another man – lacks the lush imagery of Rhys’s much-lauded later novel Wide Sargasso Sea. Neither is it as formally inventive as Goodnight Midnight (although I like it the better for that).

But there is an integrity about this novel that I love. To read it is to be transported to dingy hotel rooms and low-lit streets, and shabby bars that reek of quiet desperation, all rendered by the author with a unique kind of beauty.

But my main reason for choosing After Leaving Mr Mackenzie as this month’s gift is this:

When I discovered this book, it changed the way I thought about writing forever.

It showed me that a good novel could be about much more than a gripping plot and characters that linger long in the mind, or even a beguiling setting or atmosphere.

From Rhys I learned that good writing could sing a song to its reader. In this case, it’s a melancholic song about half-broken things, but – knowing of your literary tastes, Em – I wonder if you might like it all the more for that?

 

Charlotte Brontë and Elizabeth Gaskell

Image used with the kind permission of Oxford University Press.
Image used with the kind permission of Oxford University Press.

When we first became interested in female writing friendship, we wrote off Elizabeth Gaskell and Charlotte Brontë as mere acquaintances.

In between their first meeting in the Lake District in 1850, and Brontë’s untimely death just five years later, they met only a handful of times, and, undoubtedly, each of them was closer to other women.

Brontë had been a pal since childhood with the loyal Ellen Nussey. She was deeply influenced by the feminist Mary Taylor, and inextricably bonded with her famous sisters Emily and Ann. In the more sociable Gaskell’s case, she moved in exulted social circles and counted Florence Nightingale and Harriet Beecher Stowe amongst her friends.

But something about the relationship between Brontë and Gaskell kept nagging away at us. We found it intriguing that Patrick Brontë – a man fiercely protective of his late daughter’s memory – had chosen the author of Cranford as her biographer. Brontë’s sojourns to 84 Plymouth Grove, the home of the Gaskell family, also piqued our interest, as did the frequency of the correspondence between the two women.

Wondering whether we had been too hasty in overlooking this pair, we turned to their letters to investigate further. Here, we discovered a relationship based on mutual support, and shared artistic and professional concerns.

We found that Gaskell and Brontë regularly exchanged candid views on literature and publishing, sometimes accompanying their letters with recommended books. On a personal level, Gaskell took the ailing Brontë under her wing. When it came to their writing, though, it was Brontë who provided the greater share of support by acting as a sounding board for her friend’s literary ideas and giving her generous advice on how she could improve her novels.

Brontë even persuaded her publisher to delay the release of Villette, because it would have clashed with the publication of Gaskell’s novel Ruth.

Gaskell would, of course, one day seek to return this generosity by styling her Life of Charlotte Brontë as a tribute to her friend, someone of whom she’d once said, ‘I never heard or read of anyone who was for an instant, or in any respect, to be compared to her’.

Activity

Charlotte Brontë included a copy of Wordsworth’s Prelude with her first letter to her literary pal.

This month, we’ll be sending each other a book and writing a dedication on the inside cover.

If you know of any more writer friends that you think we ought to profile on this site, please do tell us about them.