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.
Jacqui: I first met Louise twenty years ago, at the University of East Anglia, on a photo shoot for the Sunday Telegraph. We had both studied there, for our MA in Creative Writing under Malcolm Bradbury, but in different years.
It’s a moody photograph (the photographer told us ‘don’t smile, you’ll look stupid’) but the actual mood was celebratory. Louise was wearing a sleeveless polka dot dress and had a brilliant suntan. She looked very stylish and cool. We were both excited about the publication of our first novels. Louise’s was already out and mine was about to appear. I still couldn’t quite believe that I was about to be published by Hamish Hamilton and was mixing with other published authors.
Louise: Jacqui struck me immediately as enviably calm and serene. We swapped notes on being students on the UEA MA and how neither of us felt regarded as the stars of our year – we laughed about that, and about how we were tortoises rather than hares.
The Polymath and the Will of Steel
Jacqui: Louise has been more focussed than me over the years, in terms of her writing, whereas I’ve been more distracted by entrepreneurial ventures, such as setting up my business coaching writers, but also by other art forms, returning to my love of drama and even having an interlude training to be a drama teacher. Right now, for example, I’m developing the business, finishing a second draft of a play, in discussion with a filmmaker and attending screen acting classes. Louise is focusing on her latest novel full-time. Some of this relates to financial decisions, but I think it’s also about our character types. She has a will of steel and I can’t stop myself diversifying.
Louise: Jacqui is more of a polymath than me: she’s much more plugged in to social media, has trained as a coach and run her own business. I’ve focused very much on the novels and although that’s paid off to a certain extent I think her life is more interesting and varied than mine.
The Unrest Cure
Jacqui: One dinner that particularly stays with me was the night when I told Louise I was planning to train as a secondary school drama teacher. In the end, it was only a two year interlude, but it felt hard breaking the news that I was going to do something so different and apparently out of character. I was ready for a change, what Saki calls the ‘unrest cure’. I wanted to give something back to young people, to be more ‘out in the world’ but I remember, at that time, also feeling somewhat jaded with the literary world and saying ‘but what would you do?’ I don’t think Louise had an answer but I imagine she was thinking ‘I’d rather starve in my garret than do something as crazy as that!’ But she was gracious enough not to try to hold me back from something that I so clearly wanted to do. Those two years, in fact, served to remind me how vital writing is in my life; how impossible it is for me to do without it.
Girl Novelists’ Dry Martini Club
Louise: At one point, just for a laugh, we formed something called the Girl Novelists’ Dry Martini Club. There were five of us and an agreement that whenever one of us signed a book deal, we would all go out for martinis. It started out as just an in-joke between a group of friends but it got picked up by the media – I think I mentioned it on Radio 4’s Midweek – and the next thing we knew it was mentioned in articles and we received letters from women asking if they could join. I thought it was a hoot when the Club made it into Jacqui’s satirical novel The Modigliani Girl. Almost every aspect of writing and the writing world gets satirised in that book.
Jacqui: Louise introduced me to the novelist Charles Palliser at a reading we did together. I was awestruck because an old beau of mine had bought me a copy of Charles’ novel The Quincunx so it was clearly the book to have! Meeting Charles, who had real literary kudos, made me feel incredibly grown up, but more importantly, he is now a genuine friend, whose devotion to writing and books never fails to inspire. In turn, Charles introduced me to a number of other writers and we still meet for an annual dinner each January at Louise’s home and talk about the year we’ve had, sharing the ups and downs of the writing life – and indeed, of life beyond writing.
Louise: This writing group is Silent 3 (don’t ask me why it’s called that, no idea), which was set up by Robert Irwin, a renowned Arabic scholar who also writes science fiction. The group used to be very large and meet in a pub in central London once a month but has shrunk to a hard-core now and every January we all have dinner at my house and review our writing years – another member brings the food and I do the long table etc.
Louise: When I look back over the twenty years I’ve been publishing, it strikes me just how essential my writing friends have been: my other close writing buddy is the novelist Jill Dawson, but along with her and Jacqui there is a wider circle of writing friends, mostly women but not exclusively, who I feel I have really grown up with. Those friends are incredibly important, partly because you know each other’s personal and domestic lives as well, but also because you know that the successes are hard-fought for and well-earned and the disappointments often arbitrary. A writer’s life is such a rollercoaster of success and disappointment that it’s invaluable having friends that will understand and support you whatever part of the ride you are on. Friends are far more important, at the end of the day, than finding an agent or a publisher.
Louise Doughty is the author of seven novels includingApple Tree Yard and Whatever You Love, which was shortlisted for the Costa Novel Award and longlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction. She is also a critic and cultural commentator and broadcasts regularly for the BBC.
Although it is hardly in the spirit of Something Rhymed, I considered myself firmly in the Elizabeth Bowen camp. My copy of her Collected Stories accompanied me when I first left for college and has been packed and unpacked so many times since. When I got my first lecturing post, I put it on my syllabus, and nowadays I often quote Bowen to encourage my New York University students to focus on creativity during their time in the UK: ‘Imagination of my kind is most caught, most fired, most worked upon by the unfamiliar’.
My memories of reading Murdoch, on the other hand, are scant and chequered.
My cousin Nic – a voracious and insightful reader – had devoured Murdoch’s novels, and my writer friend Wendy Vaizey had written about Murdoch in her PhD. Nic and I shared a love of Thomas Hardy’s books and Wendy and I had introduced each other to our favourite texts by medieval mystics, so I felt sure that I too would fall in love with Murdoch’s work.
On one of my trips down to stay with Nic in her book-lined cottage in Cornwall, I picked up a copy of Murdoch’s A Severed Head. I read it over Easter, sitting in Nic’s sunlit conservatory – the mugs of tea at my side replaced at dusk by glasses of gin. When Nic got home from work, I’d put down the book and we’d take cliff-top walks or share plates of fish straight from the sea.
There was such a stark difference that week between my external life – full of sunshine and hyacinths and warm conversation – and the world that Murdoch’s novel set up in my mind. Neither the story nor the characters have stayed with me, but the coldness and cruelty of the book have remained.
The Unicorn also has an iciness to it, yet I found it compelling and clever and self-consciously indebted to its literary forebears.
Bowen’s influence is clear: the faded glory of the Irish country house and the Anglo-Irish cast, which are said to have been inspired by guests Murdoch met at Bowen’s Court.
Yet it was another female author who came to mind when I read the opening of The Unicorn. Its gothic setting and the simultaneous presence and absence of the mistress of the house was redolent with echoes of Rebecca.
It quickly became obvious, however, that Murdoch’s approach to the gothic differed from that of Daphne du Maurier. As I read on, I began to feel that The Unicorn shares more of its DNA with Northanger Abbey. Like Jane Austen before her, Murdoch self-consciously plays with gothic conventions, calling them into question and sending them up.
Even more prominent still, is Murdoch’s engagement with Charlotte Bronte’sJane Eyresince, like its predecessor, The Unicorn features an imprisoned mistress of the house. But Murdoch makes Hannah Crean-Smith a more central character than Brontë’s Bertha, and the novel investigates the question of her sanity.
Critics have tended to interpret Hannah Crean-Smith as an enchantress: apparently pure but ultimately revealed as an evil manipulator. I see her more as a damaged being, fashioned by the scarring experiences of torture and imprisonment.
I would love to sit beside my cousin in her Cornish conservatory, sipping gin and finding out what she made of Hannah Crean-Smith. But Nic died last year in a sunlit room, our family reading to her right up to the end. When I talk with Wendy and Emily about The Unicorn – and about Murdoch’s other novels, which I will surely now read – my memories of Nic will inform this conversation between my sisterhood of readers, just as Austen and Brontë and du Maurier lived on as Murdoch’s literary mothers.
Can You Help Us?
We’re hoping that one of our online sisterhood of readers might know of a female writing friendship enjoyed by Daphne du Maurier. If so, please could you tell us about it by using the comment tab below or by using the ‘Contact Us’ form. We’d love to profile du Maurier on this site.
For this month’s Something Rhymed activity, Emma Claire and I decided to each read something by one of our current profiled authors: Eva Trout by Elizabeth Bowen and The Unicorn by Iris Murdoch. Both of these books are said to have been influenced by the work of one author on the other.
I came to Eva Trout afresh, with no prior knowledge of its plot. Since I was going to be reading not only for pleasure but also for this website, I suppose I set out with a preconceived idea that the post I eventually wrote could be about one of the friendships enjoyed by the eponymous heroine.
But that’s the trouble with preconceived ideas. Long before the late stage in the novel when Eva declares ‘I have no friend’, I had been struck by the fact that my original intention wasn’t going to work at all.
The huge gap left by the lack of a true trusted confidante for much of Eva’s life was something I kept turning over in my mind as I moved through the chapters of the novel.
When the reader first encounters Eva at the start of the book, she is a young woman still waiting to come into the fortune left to her by her late father. Despite her personal wealth, Eva has not had an easy start in life. Her mother abandoned her when she was a child, only to be killed in a plane crash soon afterwards. Since her father’s suicide some years later, Constantine Ormeau, a man who appears to have been Eva’s father’s lover, has been her unsympathetic legal guardian.
Constantine regards Eva as a problem, and even Iseult Arble, a former schoolteacher who previously showed a great deal of interest in the girl and has allowed her to move into the home she shares with her husband, has begun to feel increasingly wary towards her youthful lodger.
Eva’s social awkwardness and hard-to-predict behaviour are a puzzle to most of the novel’s other characters, isolating her from those who surround her. As a reader, I don’t mind admitting that I was left somewhat puzzled, not just by the central character but aspects of the novel as a whole.
Certain episodes will undoubtedly live on in my mind – the unbearably stilted conversation that takes place between Mr and Mrs Arble as they wait for Eva to come home one evening; or the restaurant scene during which Iseult tucks into a plate of oysters in a way that is ‘at once methodical and voluptuous’, for instance. But, overall, there was something about the book that I didn’t quite ‘get’ – not in the way that I got The Death of the Heart, Bowen’s novel from thirty years earlier, or her moving short story ‘The Visitor’ – both of which thoroughly engaged me.
Like several notable readers I’ve since discovered, I struggled with some of Bowen’s decisions about language and structure, aspects of the book which I felt cut me off from the story and characters – particularly interesting in view of Murdoch’s likely influence on Bowen’s approach.
By the time I reached the final page, my thoughts on the subject of friendship had moved away from wishing for a lasting friend for Eva and onto wishing instead that my friend had read this book, so that we could discuss it together.
So, I suppose that this post has ended up as a request to Emma Claire to do just that, because I know for certain that, whether she agrees with my take on Eva Trout or not, conversations with her always provide me with interesting new ways to think about literary works. And as I mentioned in one of my posts from last month, this is something I’ve really come to value in our friendship.
Reading Bowen’s novel got me thinking about depictions of female friendship in literature. Anne Shirley and Diana Barry in L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables, Jane and Prudence in the novel of the same name by Barbara Pym, and the women of Amy Tan’s Joy Luck Club, are all examples that popped quickly into my mind. If a female friendship from a story, poem or play has left a lasting impression on you, we’d love to hear about it.
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The Anglo-Irish writer, Elizabeth Bowen, is remembered for surrounding herself with the most lauded of literary women.
Never allowing her severe stammer to get in the way of her role as a garrulous hostess, she entertained the likes of Carson McCullers, Rosamund Lehman, Eudora Welty and Virginia Woolf.
We were surprised to discover that Iris Murdoch had attended one of the glittering salons at Bowen’s Court since she was twenty years younger than her hostess and has often been mythologised as something of an honorary man. Famously dismissive of her female contemporaries, she refused to read any of Barbara Pym’s novels, despite (or because of) repeated and hearty recommendations from the men in her life.
It turned out that Murdoch and Bowen were first drawn together by their shared Anglo-Irish heritage and admiration for each other’s novels.
The salons at Bowen’s Court, mostly known for their decadence, were, in fact, full of creative ferment. Passages from Murdoch’s The Unicorn are so indebted to Bowen’s style and subject matter that they could almost have been written by the older author. Similarly, Bowen’s Eva Trout is influenced by the ‘demoniac’ subversion that she so admired in the work of her acolyte.
But it was confessions about their romantic relationships that cemented the intimacy of their inter-generational friendship. Murdoch confided her fears about agreeing to wed her lover, the fellow academic, John Bayley: as a married woman, she would be forbidden from continuing in her post as an Oxford don. Bowen, who had felt liberated rather than hemmed in by her own marriage, advised the younger author to embrace the opportunity to spend more time on her novels.
The pair visited each other regularly and commented on each other’s work, developing a deep and mutually influential friendship that lasted for nigh on two decades.
During this time Murdoch’s unconventional marriage endured, in some ways following the example mapped out by the flamboyant Bowen, whose husband was quite an introvert. Indeed, one party guest at Bowen’s Court stumbled into a cupboard in search of the loo only to find him crouched amongst the mops and brooms with a tray of food on his knees. Their successful union was more companionable than erotic, and Bowen sought sexual fulfilment elsewhere – most notably in a thirty year love affair with a Canadian diplomat.
Murdoch was similarly open to extramarital encounters. Most interesting among her affairs, perhaps, was her lesbian relationship, break-up and reconciliation with fellow philosopher, Philippa Foot. And yet, like Bowen, Murdoch was devoted to her husband, as, in both cases, the support of these men helped their creativity to thrive.
Not only did the older author show the younger one how to carve out erotic and creative freedom within a lifelong and nurturing marriage, Bowen also demonstrated by example how to extend wisdom and generosity to the next generation. And so, Murdoch – previously wary of her female contemporaries – ended up taking the young A.S. Byatt under her wing.
This month, Emma Claire will be reading The Unicorn by Iris Murdoch and Emily will be reading Eva Trout by Elizabeth Bowen.