Betweenity, Friendship Across Miles and the Making of Mary Taylor’s Graphic Biography

Rae Joyce got in touch to tell us that she shared our fascination with Mary Taylor, the radical classmate who pushed Charlotte Brontë to earn her living by the pen. We were keen to learn more – not least since, like Taylor, Joyce is a Yorkshire woman living in New Zealand.

I drew Mary Taylor – in truth, she drew me to her.

109 port nicholson image ref As if a great planet fell out of the sky

In early 2016, I was sitting at the kitchen table with my partner batting around ideas for a project in which I could reconcile both of my hemispheres: Yorkshire and Aotearoa. As an English woman in New Zealand, I occupy a position of privilege that doesn’t sit comfortably with my working-class roots. I had always considered myself an underdog in the UK. But I’d recently finished co-editing Three Words, An Anthology of Aotearoa Women’s Comics (Beatnik), a book that sought to redress the erasure of women’s comics history in New Zealand, which forced me to acknowledge the link between comics and colonialism in Aotearoa. The book, and my essay included in it, was something of a stick to the wasps’ nest of the dominant culture of New Zealand comics. My partner, Māori poet Robert Sullivan, a former librarian, knew better than most what I was trying to achieve when he said, “Didn’t Charlotte Brontë have a friend who lived in New Zealand?”

I had read Jane Eyre in my teens and still had my copy. I put it in the laundry room where I had a small school desk and opened my laptop. Although I had a copy of Shirley, I hadn’t read it, so hadn’t yet encountered Rose and her family whose depictions Charlotte drew from Taylor and her family. But as I accumulated Brontë biographies and articles, an outline emerged of a woman I felt a strong pull to make out. Only one academic biography of Taylor had been published, and while I waited for a copy to arrive in the post, I began to draw.

For as long as I can remember, as well as writing, I have drawn and painted. I grew up in a small South Yorkshire mining town, until I didn’t. Which is to say, when the pits were closed, the pit head gear demolished and slag heaps overplanted the way kids scribble to hide their mistakes, I grew up on the edge of a ground-down town, cut off from all but a few houses by the new by-pass road that meant nobody had to drive through the place. At night, I would look out over the whips of birch at the brown-orange haze of streetlights above and the terraces silhouetted against them and wonder why the terrace I lived in was all on its own. Stories were my imaginative escape in lieu of the real thing.

It was a shift in circumstances that drove Taylor to Te Whanganui-a-Tara, as Wellington was known to Māori before Pākehā/Europeans arrived. After the death of her father, the family woollen mill passed to her eldest brother, and with it, her home. Taylor’s father had taught her never to marry for money, encouraging her in the belief that would underpin her writing: women must work. She differed from her best friend Charlotte in that she did not pay heed to social mores that considered work for women to be degrading – she referred to the working-classes as an example for the equality that could exist between the sexes. And by working and living independent of men, Taylor lived by her words. She set sail alone. But she maintained her friendship by letter.

Like Taylor, I travelled to New Zealand to improve my circumstances and to write. I have lived in Auckland almost as long as Taylor lived in Wellington, during which time I have corresponded with my best friend via letter. When my research for Taylor’s biography took me to New York in February 2017, I met my own Brontë in person for the first time.

Unlike the real Charlotte Brontë, Loredana Tiron-Pandit migrated, from Romania to Massachusetts. She is no coward. She is also the best supporter and encouragement a woman could have, and she never baulks from telling me what she thinks (Taylor would have loved her). She also helped me draft the copy of my graphic biography with text boxes that resemble torn fragments of Taylor and Brontë’s letters, because she is brilliant at all things ‘computer’ and I am a Luddite. (Taylor had a lot of sympathy for the Luddites. What an amiable bunch we four lasses would have made!).

As I pored over Taylor’s correspondence with Brontë I could not help but reflect on the letters – proper old fashioned paper letters – I had shared with Lori, how she was my first reader; how much I valued her honest opinion; how much I had come to rely on her and looked forward to her letters the way Taylor did – my driveway is no Mount Victoria, but I climb it with no less enthusiasm to check the mail box! My friendship with Lori was my first port of call for answering my questions of ‘How would Mary feel?’ Always at a distance, always waiting for a reply. And the satisfaction of handling the paper and reading the words in my friend’s own hand – Lori was never far from my thoughts as I shaped my book.144 gomersal brier hall image ref I can hardly explain to you the queer feeling of living...

And this is how my thoughts ran throughout the whole process of researching and drawing then inking the book; it wasn’t me finding out about Taylor, it was me and Lori talking to Charlotte and Mary. Sometimes I confused us. Sometimes I wanted to shake Taylor for her part in colonising Aotearoa. And once, in the Brontë Parsonage Library, I called Brontë a bitch. Taylor found the process messed with her head. Concerned for her health, she wrote to Brontë afraid she would slip into a state of “betweenity”. Body in New Zealand, head in Yorkshire.

I empathised.

Writing as Rae Joyce, Rachel J Fenton co-edited Three Words, An Anthology of Aotearoa Women’s Comics(Beatnik, 2016) and her participation in the NZ Book Council Graphic Novelist Exchange Residency in Association with the Publishers Association of NZ and the Taipei International Book Exhibition resulted in Island to Island, a Graphic Exchange between Taiwan and New Zealand(Dala/Upstart Press). Winner of the Auckland University of Technology Graphic Fiction Prize, Rachel is currently looking for a publisher for her graphic biography of Mary Taylor, Charlotte Brontë’s best friend, which she researched and drew with arts grant funding from Creative New Zealand.

Edited by Clêr Lewis.Clêr has an MA in creative writing from Goldsmiths, University of London, and is  working on her first novel.

If you too have an idea for a future Something Rhymed post, please do get in touch. You can find out more about what we are looking for here.

Sheer Good Fortune

As regular readers of Something Rhymed may have guessed, Emily and I have been busy these past months working on other projects.

I’ve become Director of The Ruppin Agency Writers’ Studio, which offers mentoring by authors and agents to writers of fiction, narrative non-fiction and YA.

Emily has been holed away in the rare books rooms of various libraries, researching a transatlantic group of Victorian clairvoyants for her new book Out of the Shadows, which will be published by Counterpoint Press.

And we’ve both made significant changes in our personal lives too…

When Emily and I launched Something Rhymed back in 2014, we published a post on Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison – writers whose friendship combined from its inception the personal and professional, the celebratory and consolatory.

These legends of American letters grew close when they shared a bill at the Hay Festival in Wales during a time when both women were concerned about their mothers who were ill back home. In the decades since then, these ‘sister friends’ moved seamlessly between the public and private aspects of their friendship, paying tribute to each other’s literary accomplishments at huge official gatherings but also talking about family over dishes of Angelou’s fried chicken or wedges of Morrison’s carrot cake.

It was just such a combination of intimacy and admiration, celebration and consolation that prompted Angelou to help put on an event to honour her fellow author during a period when she knew that Morrison needed to be shown love and comfort following the death of her son.

The event was poignantly titled Sheer Good Fortune after the dedication Morrison had made to her boys at the beginning of her novel Sula: ‘It is sheer good fortune to miss somebody long before they leave you’. And now, in the wake of Morrison’s recent death, such a sentiment feels particularly resonant.

Back at the Hay Festival in 2014, Morrison announced from the stage they’d once shared the sad news that Angelou had died. Emily and I, sitting in the audience side by side, promised each other to follow their example by not only continuing to offer each other solace during dark times but also to celebrate each other privately and publicly, professionally and personally.

Over the years, Emily and I have been there for each other during bereavements and breakups as well as periods of professional and financial uncertainty. This only heightens the pleasure we’ve taken in the sheer good fortune each of us has experienced of late.

I will never forget the excitement in Emily’s voice when she called to let me know that she was expecting a baby. And then, not long afterwards, when we were in a tiny French restaurant in Earl’s Court marking both her pregnancy and her birthday, she shared her news that she and her long-term partner Jack had got engaged on the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral.

A few months later, when I was delivering bourguignons, curries and Spanish stews to Emily’s flat in preparation for the weeks following the approaching birth, I told her about my partner Jonathan’s proposal to me and mine to him on a hillside overlooking a market town in Shropshire. Once I’d stocked up Emily’s freezer, we headed back to Earl’s Court, this time to one of our favourite coffee houses. There, we celebrated my engagement to Jonathan and Emily’s marriage to Jack and her pregnancy alongside a female friend we’ve  known since our days as young English teachers in rural Japan.

Wedding shoes – Emily & Jack getting married
The spot where Jonathan and Emma proposed to each other.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Emily and I had dedicated our co-written book A Secret Sisterhood to Jack and Jonathan – a strange choice, perhaps, for a book on female literary friendship, but it felt fitting to us since our partners had always appreciated the importance of our own writing friendship, and had supported it at every turn. In our Acknowledgements, we thanked Jack and Jonathan for ‘keeping us well fed during long stints in our studies, and, most of all, never failing to be there when we emerged’.

No sooner did Emily and I emerge, however, than we each went back into hibernation – separately this time. Although we are no longer editing at a shared desk, sustained by Jack’s late-night dashes to the local kebab house or breakfasts with Jonathan at the greasy spoon, the four of us have found new ways to offer each other personal sustenance and professional support.

Emily and I have gone back to reading each other’s drafts, for instance, with a freshness and curiosity that was impossible when we’d already pored over the research materials side by side and laboured together over chapter plans.

And, when Jonathan and I set up The Ruppin Agency Writers’ Studio – a development scheme for writers of fiction and narrative non-fiction – Emily was one of the first people I asked to join our nationwide line-up of mentors. I know first-hand, of course, the quality of her feedback and the dedication she shows to other writers. Like me, Emily is originally from the north of England and we’ve both supported friends and family with access needs, so Emily shares our belief in making mentoring accessible across the country in person and via videocall, and she understands why we are committed to offering a free spot to someone of limited means. Like me, back when Emily was unpublished, she benefited from a period of mentoring by a more established author. Now that she is bringing out books on both sides of the Atlantic, she’s as keen as I am to offer other writers similar opportunities.

During a summer spent largely setting up The Ruppin Agency Writers’ Studio and continuing to work on my new novel, my friendship with Emily has offered me the most joyful of excuses to escape from my writing shed. During my first meetings with baby Lola, I have enjoyed rocking her to sleep in the nursery, pushing her pram through the park and chatting with Emily about everything from marriage to mentoring, motherhood to manuscripts. And, over the years to come, I’ll look forward to helping Emily teach her daughter what creative women have always known – that together we are greater than the sum of our parts.

Emily and Lola

Emily will be on maternity leave for the rest of this year, but I will continue to run Something Rhymed after its summer hiatus.  

We are looking for female writing friendships to feature on the site from October onwards. Please do take a look at our submission guidelines and get in touch if you’d like to pitch an idea.

It would also be lovely to hear from any of you who might be interested in the following literary projects I’ll be involved in over the coming months:

You can apply for all the mentoring and editing packages offered by The Ruppin Agency Writers’ Studio via its website, or direct any queries to studio@ruppinagency.com. The deadline for the selective scheme (including the free spot) is 5pm on Monday September 2nd but we accept ongoing applications for all other packages.  

Booking is now open for my one-day novel writing courses at the gorgeous Cambridge Writing Retreat. On Saturday October 19th, we’ll be asking what ‘Show Don’t Tell’ really means. And on Saturday November 23rd, Jonathan will join me in his role as literary agent to help writers work out what steps to take once the crucial first draft is complete.

And do save Saturday October 26th for the University of East Anglia’s Doris Lessing centenary celebration. I’m looking forward to sharing more stories about Lessing’s friendship with Muriel Spark during my conversation on stage with Rachel Cusk and Lara Feigel. This event also includes access to UEA’s Doris Lessing 100 exhibition, which contains archival material on display for the very first time.