‘Prelude’ by Katherine Mansfield was the first short story that Virginia Woolf commissioned for Hogarth Press. We re-read it and tried to work out what Woolf might have seen in it…
Longstanding readers of Something Rhymed know that Emily and I have been reading or re-reading the works of Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, Mary Taylor, George Eliot, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield. We embarked on this literary marathon as part of the research for our forthcoming book, A Secret Sisterhood, and we have been sharing our conversations with you.
This month I re-read a novel that has perhaps influenced me more profoundly than any other. Below is the letter I sent to Emily, in which I explained the root of my fascination.
I’m sending you my copy of Mrs Dalloway, its margins filled with notes in different coloured inks. My fascination with Virginia Woolf predates our friendship by half a decade – the enclosed novel already dog-eared from several readings by the time you and I first met. It seems strange that I’ve never shown you this book, since my interest in Woolf is something I now share with you: the hours we’ve pored over her handwriting; our annual trips to her sister’s farmhouse; that time we forced our way through the crowds to reach her iconic image at the National Portrait Gallery. This well-thumbed novel is my way of introducing you to the Emma who, in 1996, propped herself up with pillows in her childhood bedroom in Birkenhead, breaking the spine of her brand new book.
In the rare quiet of the early morning – last night’s Mersey Beat still ringing in my ears, my hair heavy with nicotine – I struggle over Mrs Dalloway’s opening pages. Self-doubt bloats in the pit of my stomach. In just a week’s time, I will travel south from Liverpool Lime Street to an educational centre that promotes fair access to Oxbridge, and the tutors there will expect me to speak intelligently about this unfathomable book. It crosses my mind that the centre’s admissions team might have been right when they rejected my initial application. Perhaps I shouldn’t have convinced the Head of Sixth Form to write that second reference. As my hands leaf through the pages, my thoughts turn to the other successful applicants. Will they have understood with ease this book that’s defeating me?
Back then, I burned with such a ferocious sense of competition that I’m glad I didn’t meet you until half a decade later. I would learn so much about sisterhood during those intervening years.
Watch me focus once more on my new book, searching for stability amongst its shifting sands. See my concentration lapse as the rest of the house begins to wake. Hear the sounds from upstairs of my fourteen-year-old sister, exuberantly embracing the day: ‘What noise does an owl make? Twit-twoo, I love you true. Who do you love the best, pork pie or custard?’ Like most nights, she has crept into my parents’ bed during the early hours of the morning, lying diagonally across their mattress, forcing them to opposite sides. And, like most mornings, they sing her favourite nursery rhymes until they can no longer fight their fatigue. Listen out then for my dad’s stage whisper: ‘I’m sure Emma would love to play. Why don’t you go and wake her?’
Lou enters my room, cradling one of her noisy toys. After a minute or so of feigning sleep, I admit defeat by lifting my duvet and inviting her in. Partly to distract her from her talking teddy bear, I read to her from my difficult book. Lou clasps my chin and listens intently. I would love to know whether she shares my feeling that this novel marks a departure from those we’ve enjoyed together during the past few years: novels by Jane Austen, the Brontës and George Eliot. But it’s impossible to tell whether she appreciates simply the tones and tremors or whether she also picks up on some of its sense.
What were you and your sister reading, I wonder, back when I was reciting Mrs Dalloway to Lou? I would love to get a glimpse of you both in your teens, sitting in your home on the outskirts of York, worlds unfurling from the pages of your books. Lou and I were separated from you and Erica by the Pennine hills’ great spine, neither pair of us aware of each other’s existence. But perhaps you sat up in bed with The Collected Stories of Katherine Mansfield while I opened my copy of Mrs Dalloway. I know that you came to the New Zealand author’s work far earlier than I did, but you’ve never told me about your discovery. Did your imagination take flight from your small Yorkshire village, landing in the author’s childhood of wooden verandas, fresh oysters, and aloe trees that flower once in every hundred years? Was it you or Erica who first came across these stories; did you argue over which one you each preferred?
Just a week after I fell in love with this compassionate novel about a shell-shocked soldier returned from the front, I discovered something that filled me with the same kind of fury that Katherine had once felt. Imagine me if you can, Emily, nineteen years ago, sitting in a darkened seminar room in that educational centre in Oxfordshire, flush with hatred for Virginia Woolf. My new classmates and I are watching a film about Modernist literature, and Virginia’s diary entry for January 9th, 1915 has just appeared on the screen:
On the towpath we met & had to pass a long line of imbeciles. The first was a very tall young man, just queer enough to look twice at, but no more; the second shuffled and looked aside; & then one realised that every one in that long line was a miserable ineffective shuffling idiotic creature, with no forehead or no chin; or an imbecile grin, or a wild suspicious stare. It was perfectly horrible. They should certainly be killed.
I now know that Virginia was on the verge of a shattering breakdown when she made this note in her diary, and that ‘imbecile’ was the official terminology of the time. But pause for a while with the sixteen-year-old me, wounded by Virginia’s vehemence. Would this author have described my sister with such vitriol: Lou, who had climbed into my bed, our bodies still warm with sleep, whose palm had felt the vibrations of Mrs Dalloway, whose ears had delighted in its music – would Virginia have condemned her to death?
Together, Lou and I had come under Mrs Dalloway’s incantatory spell: ‘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.’ I’m still at a loss to explain the magic of these lines, but they have continued to enchant me, even during the moments when I’ve doubted the sisterliness of their author.
Search with me, Emily, the faces of my fellow students, studying them for signs of solidarity. Share in my confusion at the endurance of my love for Mrs Dalloway and, by extension, its creator – a complicated love affair with a complex book, which I now want to share with you.
With love and friendship,
Next month Emily and I will be talking about ‘Prelude’ – a long short story by Katherine Mansfield, which Virginia Woolf commissioned for her newly-formed Hogarth Press.
Having blogged about the subject of female writers’ friendships for the past two years, we’re delighted to have now been given the chance to explore this fascinating subject in much greater depth.
Our book, A Secret Sisterhood, will look at the literary bonds between Jane Austen and amateur playwright, Anne Sharp; Charlotte Brontë and feminist author, Mary Taylor; George Eliot and Harriet Beecher Stowe; and Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield.
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 Emma with 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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Winifred Holtby wrote the first biography of Woolf.
- Woolf stayed up all night reading Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth.
- Woolf stayed in Bowen’s court.
- Toni Morrison wrote her Master’s thesis on Woolf.
- 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.
From the mad tea party in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland to The Great Gatsby’s glamorous shindigs to the almost unbearable occasion to mark Blanche’s birthday in A Streetcar Named Desire, literature is full of social occasions that linger on in the minds of its audiences.
In the hands of a writer, the bringing together of a sizable cast of characters can lead to moments of revelation, conflict or panic. In Larry’s Party by Carol Shields, the whole plot builds towards the titular gathering. A devastating mistake made at a party by the timid protagonist of Rebecca signals an important shift in Daphne du Maurier’s novel. A mysterious soirée in A Murder is Announced marks the shocking point at which Agatha Christie’s village mystery truly begins.
Emma Claire and I were hoping for considerably less drama at our party – the first we’d ever organised together – and yet, we wanted it to be an occasion that would remain as a memory, in a good way, for all those who were there.
We were inspired by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, who once organised a get-together for Zora Neale Hurston, and also a feeling that we wanted to provide an opportunity for female writers we knew to make new writer friends. Owing to the size of my London flat, we were forced to keep things small-scale, so we invited just four writing women and asked each of them to bring along a female writer friend.
Our guests were Susan Barker, Emily Bullock, Ann Morgan, Irenosen Okojie, Yen Ooi, Denise Saul and Zakia Uddin – some of whom will be known to Something Rhymed readers through their guest posts on our blog.
In a written story, it is often the things that go wrong at a party that cement it in the reader’s imagination. We thought we might have a situation like that on our hands when, only five minutes before our first guest turned up, I opened the freezer door to get some ice and suddenly discovered two forgotten bottles of fizz – one smashed to pieces and one that promptly exploded everywhere when Emma Claire eased out the cork.
It’s the sort of incident that, if you’re hosting on your own (or feel that sole responsibility for a party’s success lies with you), can become magnified out of all proportion. In The Garden Party by Katherine Mansfield, though the majority of family members are remarkably untroubled by the genuinely terrible news that arrives halfway through the tale, there is much concern earlier on about the feared disappearance of the little flags for the sandwiches.
But as the two of us struggled to leap out of the way of the flying foam, we found we were unable to stop laughing: a reminder that, having the right friend at your side at moments like these swiftly transforms them from catastrophe to comedy.
Amazingly, too, the sparkling wine down Em’s dress seemed to dry out in record time and had virtually disappeared by the time everyone arrived. We’d wondered earlier – completely unnecessarily as it turned out – if, with a group of people who didn’t really know each other, conversation would be initially stilted. So we’d asked each writer to bring along a sample of her work as a way of introducing herself. In between the sandwiches, cakes and replenishing of glasses, we were treated to extracts from novels and short stories, and some of Denise’s poetry.
We talked about professional issues too. Questions about book launches, ways of spreading the word about our work, and university programmes were just some of the things we discussed. If I had to sum up the occasion in a few words, I’d say it was five hours of warmth and good conversation, and lots of laughter: not the conflict of great literature perhaps, but – for Emma Claire and me, and we hope for all our guests – the stuff of a great party for writers.
In the week that Emily and I will be holding a party for female writers, our conversation has turned to the historical significance of literary gatherings. Katherine Mansfield got to know Virginia Woolf – the fellow author whom she wanted to meet above all others – through their shared connection with Lady Ottoline Morrell. Famed as a society hostess, Morrell was sometimes cruelly lampooned by the very artists she supported. But her salons were more than glittering parties; they were occasions full of creative ferment.
Morrell is said to have influenced two of Mansfield’s and Woolf’s best loved works: The Garden Party and Mrs Dalloway. In both texts, parties and hostesses play central roles. Mansfield’s collection of stories came out in 1922, during a period when her relationship with Woolf was especially riddled with misunderstanding. Woolf, afraid that Mansfield’s book would overshadow her own latest novel, admitted to feeling pleased when her friend failed to win the Hawthornden Prize. However, Mansfield’s title story must have exerted a powerful influence on Woolf, who that same year was beginning work on Mrs Dalloway. Both Mansfield’s story and Woolf’s novel invite us into the life of a hostess on the day of her party. In each case, the gathering is interrupted by the news of a man’s death – a man who, due to class division, would never have received an invitation to the heroine’s gathering.
Emily and I spoke about the relationship between these two texts during our interview with Steve Wasserman on Read Me Something You Love. The connections seemed glaringly obvious to us, and yet we subsequently discovered that they have largely gone unnoticed. Many a tree has been felled, on the other hand, to produce the reams of pages devoted to the influence on Mrs Dalloway of James Joyce’s Ulysses and T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land.
The reason for this imbalance lies, in part, in the differing status accorded to certain subjects. Woolf’s textual conversations with her male peers are most often represented in terms of the impact of war on literature, and representations of the city: both topics that have long been embraced by the literary establishment. Any discussion about the influence of ‘The Garden Party’ on Mrs Dalloway must emphasise the role of hostess, the domestic space, and the creative act of forging connections between friends. Such feminine spheres of influence fall outside those traditionally deemed valuable by the literary gatekeepers. As Woolf put it in A Room of One’s Own: ‘This is an important book, the critic assumes, because it deals with war. This is an insignificant book because it deals with the feelings of women in a drawing-room’.
We came up against this ingrained double standard when we realised that last month’s challenge had focused on clothing and this month’s involves throwing a party. Any reflection prompted by red dresses and Turkish cheesecakes, we worried, would inevitably be considered trivial. But following in the footsteps of our female forebears, we are encouraged to embrace our own realms of experience and proclaim them as valuable as any other.
If we’re honest, we both felt some trepidation on 31 December 2013. On the day before we launched Something Rhymed, each of us had the same questions. Would anyone, other than our nearest and dearest, want to visit this website? Is the subject of female literary friendships one that interests other people?
We’ve been delighted to discover that it has struck a chord with so many of you: 3000 hits on the site so far, the majority from the UK, USA, Canada, Ireland and Australia, but from other corners of the globe too. We’ve heard from emerging and established authors, readers, academics, literary bloggers, editors at publishing houses and literary magazines, agents, publicists, owners of writing retreats and more.
The Independent on Sunday featured our website in their Between the Covers column, and Book Oxygen, Books by Women and Writers’ Centre Norwich all asked us to talk more about Something Rhymed in the guest blogs we wrote for them this month.
There have been hundreds of tweets about the site, and many more of you have got in touch, by sending a message or leaving a comment, to add your thoughts to the discussions we’ve started and to recommend pairs of writer pals we could profile.
Some suggestions focused on friendships we’d already heard something about, but others were entirely unknown to us. We’re keen to explore all of your ideas, so do please keep them coming in.
We were also delighted to learn that some of you had joined us in this month’s letter writing activity.
Elaine, who wrote to to her long-standing friend Frieda, seems to have shared some of the same feelings that we encountered, noting that ‘In these days of e-mail and Facebook we have instant if rushed communication on tap, but my rambling missive penned whilst enjoying traditional afternoon tea on a winter’s Sunday afternoon, gave me a chance to experience a much less frequent pleasure nowadays’.
Novelist Sarah Butler and screenwriter Tessa Nicholson used their letters to talk about the business of writing itself and to give each other advice. Sarah told us how much she appreciated her friend’s wisdom, singling out two tips in particular: ‘Your competitive streak is like a motor. Don’t be ashamed of it’, and ‘You’ll have to learn to put your blinkers on and write more for you’.
It seems that, for some of this blog’s readers at least, letter writing is not such a lost art after all. As author and journalist Erina Reddan pointed out in a comment on the site, ‘Letters pull you down and into a place that conversation does not take you’.
On Saturday, we’ll be saying goodbye to Katherine Mansfield and Virginia Woolf and letting you know about the next pair of famous writing pals.
Sarah Moore was the first to mention Maya Angelou when she left a response to our first post of the year, which mentioned the author’s friendship with Jessica Mitford.
But this was followed by separate suggestions on Twitter from the writers Wendy Vaizey and Salena Godden. They cited Angelou too, but it was another one of her friendships that they thought we should consider.
And so, after much deliberation, we’ve decided to go with that duo next: Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison. If you return here on 1 February, you’ll find lots more information about that relationship and also details of the month’s activity. And if you have any thoughts you’d like to share about this pair, do please get in touch. As always, we’d love to hear from you.
Don’t forget, if you want to make sure you don’t miss out on any Something Rhymed updates, you can sign up to follow us via email using the tab on the right of the screen.
Until Saturday then…