As 2015 draws to a close, this feels like another good moment to look back on the friendships we’ve profiled on Something Rhymed, and the surprising, often intergenerational, connections between some of our literary heroines.
Daphne du Maurier, whose friendship with Oriel Malet we featured in June, is well-known to have been a fan of Haworth’s most famous sisters. Du Maurier’s most famous novel, Rebecca, has drawn comparisons with Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, and du Maurier also wrote a biography of Charlotte’s troubled brother, Branwell, published in 1960.
On reading du Maurier’s letters to Malet, though, we were surprised to find several references – not just to the Brontës – but also to Katherine Mansfield.
An admirer of Mansfield’s writing when she grew older, du Maurier’s fascination with the author of The Garden Party went all the way back to her earliest years. As a child, du Maurier used to look out of the night nursery window of her Hampstead home and see a light burning bright in the opposite house. She used to wave at the light each evening and wonder whose lamp it was.
Only years later would she discover that she had been looking in at the window of Mansfield’s bedroom, a place to which she was sadly often confined thanks to the health problems brought on by her tuberculosis.
Noticing these sorts of unexpected links between the different authors we have profiled has been one of the pleasures of our research into their literary friendships. This has been particularly so when we’ve stumbled upon these links by chance, when we were looking for other things.
Over the two years that we’ve been running Something Rhymed, we’ve come upon so many of these unanticipated branches between our literary heroines that it’s become difficult to hold them all within our heads. So we’ve set ourselves the challenge this month of creating a ‘family tree’ depicting some of these fascinating connections.
We hope you’ll join us again next week to see the literary ancestral lines that we’ve traced back through the ages.
We were intrigued by Oriel Malet’s account of how she met Daphne du Maurier. In this month’s guest blog, two modern-day writers, Yen Ooi and Denise Saul, share their story of how they first became friends.
Yen: I spotted Denise at a writing masterclass nearly three years ago. There, we talked about characters, plot, tricks and tropes. I thought she was a fiction writer like myself, and only found out about her love and skill at poetry a little while later. On our first meeting, she seemed so serious and unassuming with her flask of tea and packed lunch. She still is, though I’m getting more of a glimpse of what drives her passion, and what riles her.
Our friendship grew slowly but surely with occasional coffee meet-ups and more writing classes. We talked mostly of our (surprising) shared interest in all things horror and fantastic. Though Denise definitely has a stronger stomach than I do, we are both intrigued by the horror stories that cultures present: today, in the past, at home in London and from our heritage. This side of Denise makes me smile, as it feels so different from her serious side: the poet.
I watched Denise at a poetry event earlier this year at The Poetry Cafe. The evening was pleasant and the people really warm. The basement, filled with poets, audience, family and friends, made it seem like a welcoming house party, where the entertainment was artistic, cultural and distinctive. Denise came on after the interval, and she read with grace and control. Her poetry painted vivid pictures of people and places that brought comforting smiles to our faces, yet they touched us with a sense of reality that demanded attention.
Many of us hide behind our writing, conjuring a new self from the words we make up, but Denise shows me through her work that it is possible to be true to yourself in your writing. And most importantly, that it is ok to do that.
Denise: Yen and I first met at a fiction masterclass about three years ago. I remember her as the most serious writer in the group as she was focused on typing up her notes in the session. We had a chat afterwards about speculative fiction. It was evident that Yen was a natural storyteller. She has the ability to shift her stories from London to other places such as Malaysia or Japan.
We’re both fans of science fiction and horror. A year ago, Yen invited me to the science fiction convention, Worldcon, where she launched her novella, Sun: Queens of Earth, and also acted as a panellist in the same afternoon.
She is a multi-tasker who can work on several writing projects at the same time. It’s a quality that I admire because she always finds time to start her own projects and also help other writers with their writing strategies. Yen always has a number of projects on the go and yet always completes them successfully. It’s easy to see why she has such drive and passion for whatever she does. I recently found out that Yen is an accomplished musician who started playing the piano from the age of three.
I can understand why she sees herself as “a creator, thinker and do-er” and my first impression of Yen was that she embraces refreshingly new ways of literary thinking.
Yen Ooi’s second book, A Suspicious Collection of Short Stories, Poetry and Drawings will be published in July 2015. More information on Yen’s writings can be found on yenooi.com.
Inspired by our reading of Daphne du Maurier’s letters, this month Emma Claire and I have been thinking about what we know and can’t know about the various writer friends we’ve profiled on Something Rhymed.
Something that has always interested me about these two is that they could so easily not have become close friends.
Despite their shared status as the most celebrated female authors either side of the Atlantic, and the level of common understanding this brought with it, the great geographical gulf between Eliot and Stowe meant that they were only ever able to communicate by letter.
It would have been challenging enough to maintain relations, even if they’d previously enjoyed a face-to-face friendship. Doubly so, you would think, since, unlike the other pairs we’ve profiled, Stowe and Eliot’s bond began by letter and was sustained entirely on paper.
Most scholars date the friendship’s beginning from the spring of 1869: the point at which Stowe sat down in her sunny orange grove in Florida to pen the first of their letters. It’s often claimed that when these pages reached Eliot at her north London villa, their arrival was entirely unexpected.
However, their opening line has led Emma and me to wonder whether it was all really quite this simple.
Stowe began her letter by saying that, the previous year, a mutual friend had called on her and passed on ‘a kind word of message’ from Eliot. Unsurprisingly, Stowe didn’t bother to repeat the message, so Eliot’s exact words remain tantalisingly out of reach of readers other than the original recipient.
But this hasn’t stopped Emma and me from wondering what she’d said that encouraged Stowe’s overtures of friendship.
Thinking about Eliot’s earlier admiring review of Stowe’s anti-slavery novel Dred, it’s possible that she might have mentioned that she was a long-time admirer of the American author’s work. But Eliot had found herself drawn to Stowe’s personality too, ever since she’d been shown a letter addressed to the abolitionist Eliza Cabot Follen in which Stowe had caricatured herself as ‘a little bit of a woman, rather more than forty, as withered as dry as a pinch of snuff – never very well worth looking at in my best days, and now a decidedly used up article’.
Eliot, who had always been made to feel painfully self-conscious about her own lack of conventional beauty, was so moved by this passage that she transcribed it to keep. She would remark afterwards that the whole letter by Stowe was ‘most fascinating and makes one love her’.
Stowe would be closer to sixty than forty by the time she reached out to Eliot directly, and perhaps even more interesting than Eliot’s tacit encouragement of an approach is Stowe’s motivation for picking this moment to seek a new literary friendship.
Homing in on the first line of Stowe’s correspondence led us to question the received wisdom that she’d contacted Eliot out of the blue. But stepping back to survey all the correspondence between them allowed us to appreciate the significance of the letter’s date. 1869 was also the year when, five months later in September, Stowe would publish her notorious article in the Atlantic. The piece made public the once only whispered rumour that the now deceased Lord Byron had indulged in incestuous relations with his half-sister.
Byron’s wife, who had also died by this time, had been a friend of Stowe’s. Recent criticisms of Lady Byron by one of her husband’s former mistresses had so incensed Stowe that she was moved to write this spirited defence of the trials her friend had suffered.
Even before the article’s publication, Stowe had privately expressed fears that making such a scandal public would attract widespread criticism – a prediction that would prove right. Therefore, given the timing, it seems feasible that Stowe might have had another more self-serving motivation for getting in touch at this time.
If someone as intellectually respected as Eliot had been willing to support her this would surely have added weight to Stowe’s arguments. But, sadly for Stowe, even in their personal letters, Eliot refused to endorse her, telling Stowe that she ‘should have preferred that the “Byron question” should not have been brought before the public’.
But by this stage, the two had cemented their friendship through their warm and surprisingly candid epistolary conversations. Though the eleven-year correspondence has never been published altogether and in full, were it ever to be gathered into a single volume it would make for a great gift to fans of both of authors.
What we have learned through our studies of Eliot and Stowe’s letters is that, in order to gain the truest picture of their friendship, you sometimes have to get up close to the words, sometimes stand back from them, and sometimes look hardest at the blank surrounding spaces to try to make sense of important things unspoken.
Cassandra Austen took the time, just four days after her sister’s funeral, to pen a letter and send some treasured mementoes to Jane’s friend, the governess and amateur playwright Anne Sharp. It was the second letter she is known to have written after Jane’s death. The first was to Fanny Knight: the niece whom Anne once taught.
When I first learnt that Anne was the only person outside of the Austen family and household to receive such poignant trinkets, I assumed that the note accompanying Jane’s lock of hair, pair of belt clasps and silver needle would have been infused with a sense of shared love and grief for Jane.
But, when I tracked down Cassandra’s letter, I detected instead a barbed quality that hints at a deep conflict between Jane’s sister by birth and the sister-friend she singled out.
I long to read the letter Anne sent to Cassandra, to measure for myself the friend’s ‘ardent feelings’ against the sister’s stoicism. But Anne’s voice has been largely silenced – like that of so many working women of the past.
In her dotage, Cassandra re-read all of Jane’s correspondence one last time. Secretly, she then removed from her cache all those letters she felt might compromise the mythology her family had constructed of Jane as a meek, conservative maiden aunt, who dabbled with storytelling in between chores. And finally Cassandra built up a fire and, one by one, fed her sister’s most personal words to the flames.
But surviving letters, like the one above, and several volumes of unpublished diaries have allowed us to reconstruct something of Jane’s incendiary relationship with a woman of lower social standing – a sister-friend who shared her fieriness, whose ‘ardent feelings’ provided a welcome contrast to her sister’s ‘tranquil’ restraint.
Cassandra’s envy of Anne’s intimacy with Jane emerges in her insistence that ‘What I have lost, no one but myself can know, you are not ignorant of her merits, but who can judge how I estimated them?’ Cassandra could have become close to Anne through their shared bereavement. After all, Jane had drawn both intelligent spinsters into her inner circle. But the sister found the sister-friend’s spirited personality a source of pain during this desolate time.
The letter is freighted with Cassandra’s conflicting emotions: her desire to honour her sister’s highly-valued relationship competing against the dual demands of snobbery and envy. She feels compelled to offer the hand of friendship to the woman her sister so loved: ‘If any thing should ever bring you into attainable distance from me we must meet my dear Miss Sharp’. But she will not go out of her way to visit the woman her sister called ‘my dearest Anne’, nor will she offer any specific hospitality.
So, imagine my surprise when I discovered that Anne stayed in Chawton Cottage with Cassandra for several weeks in 1820 – three years after Jane’s death. We know then that the fraught relationship between sister and sister-friend endured against the odds. But from this answer more questions arise: How did the pair move from competition to compassion? What took them from half-hearted invitations to residing under the same roof? How did their relationship develop and change during this time?
These questions send me back to the diaries, back to the letters that survived the flames, back into the realms of my own imagination where Anne sits beside Cassandra, reminiscing about their beloved Jane, a fire roaring in the grate.
We wonder how many young writers have dreamed of an older, more experienced author taking her under her wing. Well, this was Oriel Malet’s luck one evening in the early 1950s.
Auriel Rosemary Malet Vaughan, born into an aristocratic family in 1923, was hardly a novice. She had written her first book Trust in the Springtime when she was seventeen, been a winner of the John Llewellyn Prize for Young Novelists, and enjoyed international success. The party at which she would meet Daphne du Maurier was being hosted by Ellen Doubleday, the wife of both authors’ American publisher.
But despite these early achievements, Malet still considered herself something of an outsider to the capital’s literary scene. When she arrived to find the hotel suite address locked-up and silent, she felt relieved at the excuse it provided for beating a hasty retreat.
But just then she heard a voice close by, and turned to see another woman also waiting alone. The two soon fell into easy conversation, passing over small talk for enthusiastic discussions about ‘books, the theatre, Paris, Life’. Neither one seems to have felt the need to introduce herself by name, and so by the time Doubleday arrived – full of apologies and ushering in a brigade of waiters carrying silver dishes of food and buckets of iced champagne – Malet remained unaware that she had been talking to the celebrated Daphne du Maurier.
When the young woman discovered the truth, she was embarrassed. Fearing what faux pas she might make next, she decided to try to creep out of the party unnoticed. She’d almost made it to the door when she saw that du Maurier was doing exactly the same thing.
Downstairs, the pair escaped in a taxi and ended up going to du Maurier’s London flat, on the King’s Road in Chelsea. When they said goodbye later that evening, Malet, found herself feeling sorry that her path was unlikely to cross again with du Maurier’s.
But not long afterwards, while riding the motorcycle she’d bought with her John Llewellyn Prize winnings, Malet crashed into a closed gate which ‘should have been open but was mysteriously closed’. When word reached du Maurier about what had happened, she invited the young author to recuperate at Menabilly, the grand country house where she lived in Cornwall, and the inspiration for her most famous novel Rebecca.
This marked the start of a friendship spanning over thirty years, and one that came to an end only with du Maurier’s death in 1989. Over the period, they wrote to each other regularly, and du Maurier’s half of the correspondence – later collected and published by Malet in Letters From Menabilly – charts the development of their literary relationship.
In its earliest days, du Maurier signed off using ‘Daphne’, but switched to the nicknames ‘Bing’, ‘Tray’ or ‘Track’ as the pair grew closer. She wrote about her family and friends, her reading and writing, and sent advice to Malet on literary matters. The names of other authors crop up frequently in her letters – both those of contemporaries and the forebears who inspired her, Katherine Mansfield, Elizabeth Gaskell, and the Brontë sisters in particular.
Du Maurier would eventually write a biography of the Brontës’ brother Branwell, and she and Malet made a pilgrimage to the Parsonage in Haworth in the 1950s – still a quiet spot in those days, not yet on the tourist trail.
Although du Maurier’s is, as one would expect, the voice that dominates the book’s pages, Malet’s frequent interjections do much more than put the letters in context. They give a sense of the younger woman’s loyalty, her inquisitive nature, and most of all her enormous affection for her friend du Maurier.
We are grateful to two of our readers, Anne Hall and Jenny McAuley, who answered our open request for information about a literary friend of Daphne du Maurier’s by letting us know about Oriel Malet.
When we read Daphne du Maurier’s words ‘Dearest Oriel, Your great long letter arrived this morning’, we wished we were able to tell exactly what Malet had said. Over the time we’ve been running Something Rhymed, we’ve often speculated about the gaps that remain, through lack of solid evidence, in what we can know about the friendships we’ve profiled. This month, we will each take a look at just a few of these gaps. We’ll write about what draws us to these particular mysteries, and the stories we think we can piece together.