Here we discuss the final book in this year’s female-friendship-inspired reading list, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s anti-slavery novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
By the time Stowe extended a figurative hand of friendship across the waves to George Eliot, in 1869, the American author had already made her name with this controversial book – the runaway bestseller of the day. Please click on the video below to hear us talking about what Eliot might have found so inspiring.
This year, Emma and I have spent a lot of time thinking about sisterhood – the kind of literary sisterhood we’ve been exploring here on Something Rhymed, and the ties that bind flesh and blood female siblings.
Unlike these other writers who will feature in our forthcoming book, George Eliot’s relationships with other family members had been brought to an abrupt end some fifteen years before she began her alliance with Harriet Beecher Stowe. In her mid-thirties, Eliot had begun to live out of wedlock with George Henry Lewes. On discovering this, her sister and half-sister had heeded the warnings of their scandalised brother and cut off all contact. This cruel treatment may have made Eliot particularly happy when she received her first letter from Stowe. In this missive of spring 1869, the American author – who Eliot had never met – addressed her both as a ‘dear friend’ and a ‘sister’.
In Emma’s June post, she talked of reading Mrs Dalloway as a teenager with her sister, Lou. This got me thinking about my own sister, Erica, and the novels we enjoyed when we were young.
Back then, we often used to talk about the books we read, sharing recommendations. I couldn’t remember us ever discussing Middlemarch, though. Although Erica is a year younger than me, I had come to Eliot’s work considerably later than her and by the time I read the novel we were no longer both living at home.
As I have recently been re-reading Middlemarch, I thought I would ask Erica about her memories of the book. It was a long time since she’d read it, it turned out, so she remembered the atmosphere far better than the intricacies of the plot. The character she recalled best was Dorothea Brooke – the intelligent, deeply pious young woman, whose story (one of several major interlocking plot lines) opens chapter one.
Dorothea struck Erica – who’d read Middlemarch as a teenager in the 1990s – as an amazingly well-developed character, a young woman who becomes locked into a marriage with a with joyless older man, and whose complex personality Erica found interesting on so many levels. It was with a sense of happiness that she recalled meeting Dorothea on the page for the first time and feeling, she said, that she was reading truly great writing.
Well over a century earlier, the character of Dorothea had also captivated Harriet Beecher Stowe and, like Erica, there was a good deal she admired more generally about the book. But Stowe’s letters to Eliot over the period when she was reading Middlemarch, in serialised form, also express her frustration with what she regarded as Eliot’s high-mindedness and her story’s lack of ‘jollitude’.
Reading this time with Stowe’s criticism in mind, I couldn’t help feeling that the verdict was too harsh. There are more challenging passages to Middlemarch, certainly. The book’s Prelude, for instance, grabbed me far less than the first chapter proper, which introduces Dorothea. Her tale, too, is often sad, but none the less gripping for that. There are also quite a number of light comic moments, many of which I had forgotten. As Erica said, the main impression she retains of the novel is that of an enormous literary achievement – and one to which, having chatted about it with me, she would like to return.
I would certainly encourage my sister to do that. As I have found, on coming back to Eliot’s novel at the age of thirty-six, Middlemarch absolutely rewards a re-reading. Just as Emma and I found when we returned to Jane Eyresome months ago, scenes that made the greatest impressions on me when I was younger are not always the ones that affected me the most now.
This time round, with sisterhood on my mind so much of late, Dorothea’s relationship with her sister Celia is the one that stayed with me the most in between stints of reading the novel. Dorothea is serious, Celia more lighthearted. Dorothea’s mind is always on study and religious matters, whereas Celia is concerned with the day to day world around her. But despite their seeming differences, the two sisters – Kitty and Dodo as they affectionately call each other – could not be closer.
Eliot and Stowe’s personalities were also markedly different, so different that many biographers have doubted that they could really have been friends. Eliot’s letters to Stowe reveal her as the more rational and measured of the pair. Stowe, by contrast, is impulsive, sometimes careless – occasionally shockingly so.
But as the example of Celia and Dorothea reminds us, major differences needn’t be an impediment to friendship. Familial ties were what united the Middlemarch sisters. For Stowe and Eliot, it was the sense that – for all that divided them – they were bonded together by being part of the same literary sisterhood.
We’ll be discussing Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and the impact it had on her friendship with George Eliot.
We’ll also be running two friendship-themed writing workshops in Spalding and Boston (Lincolnshire), on Saturday 15th and Sunday 16th October respectively. We still have some tickets available, so if you would like to reserve a place, do please get in touch with us at firstname.lastname@example.org. More information about the workshops can be found here.
A Secret Sisterhood will be published, by Aurum Press in the UK and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in the USA, in late 2017. The year coincides with the bicentenary of Jane Austen’s death.
An announcement appears in the Bookseller today, and we’ll look forward to sharing more details about these trailblazing relationships with our readers over the coming months.
As many of you know, it was our own writing friendship that first sparked our interest in these historical creative pairings. But it was the support we’ve received from Something Rhymed readers that encouraged us that there would be an audience for this book and convinced us to start writing it together.
So, thank you. We are both extremely grateful to all our Something Rhymed friends.
We’ll soon be following up on last month’s conversation about Jane Austen’s Emmawith a new post on The Absentee by Maria Edgeworth – a novel that Austen enjoyed discussing with her friend, Anne Sharp. Over the coming months, we’ll look forward to sharing our thoughts on other books by, or associated with, the authors we’ll write about in A Secret Sisterhood.
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.
Our literary family tree includes the following connections:
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.
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.
We’ve decided to do something a bit different this month and post our responses by video instead. This week, I talk about consolation – and an instance of the lack of it – in the friendship of George Eliot and Harriet Beecher Stowe.
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.
A shared sense of a female literary tradition fired the epistolary alliance between this month’s profiled writers: the reserved George Eliot and the ebullient Harriet Beecher Stowe. And so we asked authors Maggie Gee and Salena Godden to tell us about their similarities and differences, and the role in their friendship of the written word.
Maggie: When I first met Salena I found her lively and funny but also quite dauntingly and dazzlingly young – she’s a quarter of a century younger than me. When I heard her perform for the first time, reading a piece of short prose that was as much poetry as story, I really sat up. Wow – she could write – my memory of that piece is of a wide golden field: a sort of dizzy sweep of perspective; and realizing that she was unafraid to be lyrical about the world – a risk most writers won’t take in a culture where irony is king.
I think we share that innocent eye. I do satire but the presiding vision I have is love. I think that’s true of Salena too, in among the outrageous humour and belly laughs. And maybe we recognized that innocence in each other, though we each in our different ways have shells that prevent most people from seeing it. I knew Salena would like the radiant David Hockney Yorkshire landscape show at the Royal Academy in 2012: we went together (it was about the 9th time I had seen it actually!).
Salena: I’ll never forget that day we met and went to see that Hockney exhibition, in my memory it is a film. We had a sunny afternoon tea and shared ideas and gossip. Afterwards I remember walking all the way home, through Regents Park and up into Kentish Town, utterly inspired by the colours and the art, but mostly the company, the listening and the sharing and the fantastic conversations we had that afternoon.
I think we share a love of language, colour and light as much as we share a capacity to imagine the worst and the darkest of outcomes. I also think both of us have had to work (and still do work) bloody hard and have hardly ever taken no for an answer. I might be the naughty one or more hedonistic of the two of us, but there is nothing wilder than having an idea and digging your heels in, there is nothing braver than keeping on keeping on, especially when the chips are down or the odds are against you. I think we share an old fashioned sense of fair play, a willingness to fight your corner and a mischief – these are some of the things I’d say we share. If we had gone to the same school I would have probably nicked sweets and pens from Woolworths to give to Maggie to woo her to be my friend and tell me all about writing.
Maggie: How are we different? Well, my father stuck around and gave me different problems to Salena, whose father left. I had more formal educational chances, and she has had more crazy fun. She sang, for heaven’s sake, and had two bands (at least), and ran cool things like The Book Club Boutique! What did I get: degrees. Oh, and she still writes, performs and publishes poetry, whereas my early drive to write poems compressed itself into prose. She’s a fine, bitter-sweet poet – I wish I had written her new collection, Fishing in the Aftermath: it’s intimate and wild and tender, but the words are worked and reworked like a Toledo blade.
Salena: My first impression of Maggie was of a sensation of being drawn into her fantastic inquisitive mind, what I mean is, she asks the most interesting questions of her surroundings and coerces people into revealing their mysteries. It is important to question and notice the tiny details in things, but these moments seem to spring golden when you are talking with Maggie.
When we first met back in 2002, I felt I was a rough boozy ruffian next to her, I was in awe. I could tell right away that Maggie was quick and smart, she uses language beautifully, there’s a magnetic pull and a magic in Maggie, she’s a bold heart and a true believer.
Maggie: I think we really like each other’s work. I read an early draft of Springfield Road, her brilliant memoir, which has just come out this summer. I was so pleased when she asked me to introduce her at the launch.
Salena: I took Springfield Road to Maggie feeling that I could trust her with it. My confidence was pretty shaken at the time, but I knew Maggie would ‘get it’ after I finished reading her beautiful and vivid memoir My Animal Life. Memoir is another kind of writing, you have no armour: you just have your truth and your ghosts.
Maggie: We both had problems with the same very big, mainstream publisher. Maybe my cynical view of how big publishers operate was helpful (my being lyrical about human life does not preclude being pretty cynical about most commercial publishing): and I could tell her, hand on heart, that I thought Springfield Road was a stunning piece of writing just as it was.
Salena: It was Maggie’s letters and words of encouragement that gave me the confidence I needed to persevere. Then I met John Mitchinson and Rachael Kerr who signed me on the Unbound label and together we all successfully crowd funded Springfield Road. My memoir would still be in a box under my bed if it weren’t for Maggie.
Maggie: Looking at the other side of the coin, Salena gave me a shot of new creative life by inviting me into a world of young writers and artists that I loved and felt happy in. Also, when I recently got a slightly demented Guardian review, Salena was the first to tweet in support.
Salena: As for that review, it missed the point, the romance, beauty and comedy in the book. I loved the concept of Virginia Woolf In Manhattan. I ate it all up, loving every imaginative word and page, it made me laugh and cry out loud. I mean imagine getting drunk with Virginia Woolf, what a wicked and wonderful dream that is…
Maggie: At significant moments in life, I have received wonderful long emails from Salena that are full of the texture of her days. They probably took a few seconds to write, read as naturally as breathing and are cousins of her confessional poems. Then I’ll write back in a kind of mirror writing. I notice my emails always reflect the style of the email that comes to me. Yes, Salena’s a very stylish lady, as well as a sweet one.
Salena: Maggie’s letters are a light beaming out of my inbox. She is a true comrade. It’s a funny old game writing, as you know, it is a lonely and competitive sport. Maggie has been so generous. I don’t know what I would have done without her this past decade or so. Some people bring out the best in you, they make you want to do good and aim high and dream bigger and Maggie Gee is that person to me.