This month, we’ve really enjoyed reading and discussing The Absenteeby Maria Edgeworth. Neither of us had read the Anglo-Irish writer before, but we’d long heard of her as an influence on Jane Austen. This is particularly interesting since Edgeworth held progressive views for her time, her novels exploring issues such as inter-racial relationships, feminism and same-sex desire.
Austen singled out for praise one of Edgeworth’s most controversial books, Belinda, in her own novel, Northanger Abbey:
“And what are you reading, Miss –?” “Oh! it is only a novel!” replies the young lady, while she lays down her book with affected indifference, or momentary shame. “It is only Cecilia, or Camilla, or Belinda”; or, in short, only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best-chosen language.”
Austen so prized her fellow novelist’s good opinion that in 1816 she asked her publisher to send a precious presentation copy of Emma to Edgeworth in Ireland.
You might remember that a presentation copy of Emma cropped up in our post on Austen’s radical bond with the family governess and amateur playwright, Anne Sharp. Just as Sharp was the only friend whom Austen singled out to receive these rare volumes, so Edgeworth appears to have been the only professional author.
In our recorded conversation, we talk about Edgeworth’s and Sharp’s wildly different responses to Austen’s gift and their respective reactions to the novel itself. We also share our reasons for believing that Edgeworth’s The Absentee played a crucial and illuminating role in the unlikely friendship between Austen and Sharp.
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.
As we mentioned in our last post of 2015, one of our readers, Sarah Emsley, offered us the perfect opportunity to re-read Jane Austen’s novel, Emma, for her online celebration of the bicentenary of its publication.
You can see our post about the role of female friendship in the novel as part of the Emma in the Snow celebrations on Sarah’s site.
This gave us the idea to record a conversation about Emma to post on here. We ended up talking about the role of female friendship in the novel, and our different responses to this theme on first reading the book and on re-visiting it now. Our discussion also took us into the territory of Jane Austen’s own life and the female friendships she established off the page.
We do hope that some of you also took the opportunity to re-read Emma exactly two hundred years since the very first readers got their hands on the published book.
Jane Austen jotted down the opinions of her nearest and dearest, so you can read what Anne Sharp and others had to say about it here:
Please do share your thoughts with us by using the comment facility below.
We enjoyed this so much that we have decided to share more literary conversations about female friendship over the coming months. In January, we are challenging ourselves to read The Absentee – a novel by Maria Edgeworth, which we believe Jane Austen enjoyed discussing with her governess and amateur playwright friend, Anne Sharp.
We’ll post up our conversation at the beginning of February and we do hope that some of you will choose to read along with us.
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.
Although Anne Sharp wrote plays for her students to perform, and was able to use her sharp critiquing skills to give Jane Austen advice on her work, she has gone down in history as little more than a footnote in the life story of her illustrious friend.
We cannot know whether Sharp ever felt envious of Austen’s achievements, and the fact that her work had the chance to reach an audience far wider than her immediate social circle. Neither would we go as far as speculating that she could have been another Austen-in-the-making if life had dealt her a different hand of cards.
It is interesting to wonder, though, whether the governess might have attempted to pursue any similar ambitions if her family and financial circumstances had been different.
What we do know is that, despite their contrasting levels of commercial success, each woman rated the other. Sharp celebrated the publication of Austen’s novels along with her, but was also ready to tell her friend when she felt there was a flaw in the work – advice that Austen appears to have highly valued.
It’s nice to imagine that her decision to rename her novel First Impressions as Pride and Prejudice was her way of acknowledging in print the crucial support she’d received from Sharp.
It’s a notion that might mean something to last week’s guest bloggers. Antonia Honeywell and Rachel Connor discussed the pride they take, not just in each other’s creative output, but their long-running writing friendship too.
Antonia’s comment on the publication of Rachel’s first novel (ahead of her own book deal with Weidenfeld and Nicholson) was one that really struck home with us. ‘It felt like a great triumph not only for Rachel,’ she recalled, ‘but for the dedication with which we both carved out the time for our regular exchanges of work.’
As we’ve mentioned before on Something Rhymed, our own career trajectories have gone along roughly in tandem so far, but there is bound to be a point when – if only temporarily – one of us will accelerate past the other.
When that happens, we hope we can learn from the example of Antonia and Rachel, and Austen and Sharp too – that we will be able to enjoy this joint success for our writing friendship, rather than focusing on any perceived gulf that divides us as individuals.
We’ll be moving on to the next profiled writers on Tuesday. We were advised to look into the friendship of Vera Brittain and Winifred Holtby by many of our readers, so we particularly look forward to sharing what we’ve discovered about them.
We’re still actively researching female writer pals, so do keep letting us know, by leaving a reply or Tweeting one of us, if there is any particular friendship you’d like to see profiled.
Antonia and I were connected even before we met: we were paired, in advance of the MA in Novel Writing at Manchester University, to submit work in the same workshop.
From the beginning, friendship and work have been intertwined. For nearly a decade we’ve spent happy hours talking of books and our children; of our ambitions, hopes and passions. There’s a geographical distance (I live in the north; Antonia in the south of England) but we snatch time together in person where we can.
When the MA ended, Antonia and I took turns to submit work by email, which was printed off by the other and returned with comments. This loop of regular submission and feedback has sustained us ever since.
The pressures of work or childcare have sometimes interrupted the pattern but the firm foundation of a working relationship will always be there. We are, for each other, cheerleader, editor and critical friend.
When I received the beautiful locket Antonia sent me I was immensely touched. It symbolises space – the space we have afforded each other and the space for development of our creative work.
When I opened it, I was surprised to see that it contains a tiny rose, to represent growth. I’m not sure whether she thought of it, but the rose is a crucial image in a novel I’m working on right now (which is based on Charles Rennie Mackintosh). Consciously or subconsciously, she must have picked up on that.
I do miss Antonia’s actual presence but I know that we’ve carved out an emotional and creative space in which we can both grow. It’s a friendship and a collaboration to be treasured – just like the locket, in fact, which now takes pride of place on the bookshelves next to my writing desk.
It’s possible that the early hours of the morning aren’t the best time to write, but on top of four small children, we have chronic illness in the house, a head teacher being an arse, and a cellar pump that keeps failing. Yet here I am, writing.
From the first days of our friendship, Rachel’s faith in my work has given me permission to write even, and especially, when life has conspired to make it impossible. Others know us as mothers, teachers, wives and workers, but to each other, we are writers first.
The little book Rachel sent me symbolises what brought us together, what sustains our friendship and what is produced by it. No Anne Sharp could have been prouder of Jane Austen than I was of Rachel when Sisterwives was published: it felt like a great triumph not only for Rachel, but for the dedication with which we both carved out the time for our regular exchanges of work.
Those exchanges have ebbed and flowed with the vicissitudes of our other lives, but our writing relationship has always been one in which the words ‘I told you so’ hold no negative connotations.
We don’t meet in person very often, but every meeting is an oasis. The next will be on Rachel’s birthday this summer. The last time I was able to celebrate Rachel’s birthday with her in person, too long ago, I confided the seed of the idea that would become The Ship. This time, The Ship will be on the verge of publication.
It began with two women who wanted to write. The rose in the locket is a symbol of the wonders that can happen, when dreams are given a little space.
Rachel Connor’s novel Sisterwiveswas published by Crocus Books in 2011. Her radio playThe Cloistered Soul will be broadcast on Radio 4 on 29th May this year.
Antonia Honeywell’s novel The Ship will be published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson in January 2015.
We’re still searching for more famous female writer pals to feature in the upcoming months, so do let us know if there’s a pair you’d like to see profiled.
Pears soap, Emma Claire’s recent trinket gift has a special place in my family history too. It was the choice of my father’s own Grandma and, because of the childhood memories he associated with it, a favourite of his too.
Consequently, at least in the early years, it was the only soap we used at home. On receiving this broken sliver of amber, I found myself immediately transported by its familiar stickiness and herb-like scent to long-ago bath times at Eastfield Crescent, sitting in the tub with my little sister, our singing voices competing with the noise of the electric fan.
Emma Claire, this trinket that stands both for Bam-Bam and the ghost of your novel in its earlier forms, has now been safely shut away in my own memory box. It’s been a discovery, though perhaps not an entirely surprising one, to learn that this tendency to memorialise our pasts is just another thing we share in common.
But, in keeping with the last of our February posts, I’m keener now to acknowledge the differences between us too. I’ve stored away a petalled pink and green ballet headdress, a tiny scented satin bag from Japan that (even after eighteen years) still somehow keeps its perfume, and – having grown up in a non-religious household – there are no equivalents to your christening bracelets.
The trinket I have removed to make way for your soap, Em, is the inner-most part of a Russian Doll.
I have fractured memories of playing with its outer casings as a child, painted wooden shells that split apart to reveal the series of dolls inside them. I don’t know what happened to those exterior pieces. Did they get cracked, or lost over time? Did my mother pass the doll to a friend without realising its heart was missing?
At some stage, anyway, I must have found this solitary little doll, the only part that couldn’t be broken into two, and decided I wanted to save it.
Some of its varnish has come away and the red and green of the painted clothing has faded to nothing in places. But I feel certain that someone who can see the brighter amber in a broken bar of Pears soap will overlook the many scuff marks, and be able to enjoy this small memento of her friend from a time many years before she knew her.
The trinkets contained in this jewellery box show that I was a child intent on self-memorialising: christening bracelets; gymnastics medals; my annual bus passes; the label from my first bra.
But the object that I’ve removed from the jewellery box to pass on to you, Emily, is a memento of Bam-bam – my grandma. After she died, when I was just nine, I took this bar of Pears soap as a keepsake and its scent of thyme still reminds me of her.
Bam-bam wore fur coats and visited the hairdresser every week; she fed me milk loaf and strawberry splits; people gathered around the piano when she played; the local librarians all knew her by name. After she died, we found exercise books stacked in her bedside cabinet all of them filled with her own handwritten poems.
For me, the search for literary ancestresses stems back to the discovery that my own grandma was a closet writer. My dad kept her exercise books and I have treasured her bar of Pears soap.
So now, Em, you have a little more insight into the importance of Pears soap in The Waifs and Strays of Sea View Lodge. Or, I should say, the significance it used to have. The soap is now only mentioned here and there, no longer carrying the symbolic weight it had in earlier drafts – drafts that you read and critiqued. Only you, who have accompanied me on every step of this long writing journey, would detect in the final version the lingering scent of Pears soap.
In a way, then, may this memento stand for everything that’s written out, for our shared dedication to voicing stories that have previously been silenced. After all, with its focus on female friendship – a neglected aspect of literary lore – this is what Something Rhymed is all about.
Sadly, this trinket must also stand for broken things. Although I’d kept the bar of soap intact for decades, packing and unpacking it every time I moved house, I dropped it when I reached into a high cupboard to fetch it for you.
After my initial dismay, I realised that there’s perhaps something appropriate about this. I’ve always been drawn to broken things: derelict funfairs; threadbare cardigans; people whose surface resilience hides their distress.
My grandma was broken by the death of her eldest son and the disintegration of her marriage. In writing this message to you, Em, it strikes me that in my novel I offer an elderly woman a last chance to be healed – a chance my grandma never seized.
But there’s beauty in the broken, isn’t there, Em? I know that you too will appreciate the brighter amber that was revealed when the bar of Pears soap splintered, its headier scent of thyme.
When we realised that we knew all about the great male literary friendships but little of their female counterparts, we both immediately wondered whether Jane Austen had a writer friend. But since so little is known of her life, we weren’t confident of discovering much.
However, after a bit of sleuthing, we found out that Austen did have ‘an excellent kind friend’. What’s more, this support came from an unexpected source: her niece’s governess, Anne Sharp.
This name will be familiar to those of you who’ve been following Radio 4’s 15 Minute Drama, The Mysterious Death of Jane Austen. You might not be aware, however, that Sharp was herself a writer.
Austen was attracted to Sharp’s keen intelligence and wit, combined with independence of spirit – sensibilities that transcended class lines. But Sharp lived an even more financially precarious existence than Austen – something Austen worried about on her friend’s behalf. Rehearsing the match-making role of her heroine, Emma, she dreamt that Sharp might marry a wealthy employer.
Like Austen, though, Sharp never did wed. The demands of fulltime teaching prevented her from pursuing writing professionally. However, she did get to flex her literary muscles by writing plays for her pupils to perform. Austen herself likely acted in one such play (interestingly, cast in the role of governess), and Sharp was known to pen male roles for herself.
Fascinatingly, one of her theatricals was entitled Pride Punished or Innocence Rewarded. Several years later, Austen decided to change the title of one of her novelsfrom First Impressions to Pride and Prejudice, and it’s hard to imagine that she hadn’t been influenced by the work of her friend.
She certainly valued Sharp’s critical faculties, electing her as the only friend to whom she sent one of her precious presentation copies of Emma. The candour with which Sharp answered her request for a critique shows the level of trust between these two writer friends. Sharp pointed out a flaw in one of the sub-plots, ultimately rating this latest novel somewhere between Pride and Prejudice and Mansfield Park.
After Austen’s early death, her sister sent Sharp a lock of Austen’s hair, a pair of clasps, and a small bodkin as mementoes – mementoes of a radical friendship that refused to be bound by the constraints of class, or to be defined by divisions between the professional and the amateur; mementoes of an influential literary alliance, yet one that has been all but forgotten.
This month, we’re going to send each other a trinket accompanied by a note that explains why it should stand as a memento of our friendship. Like the gifts that Anne Sharp cherished, something as small as a hairclip or needle might be all it takes to bring back memories.
As usual, please also share with us any more female writing friendships that you’ve discovered.