In the Hands of Chance?

Image by Angela Monika Arnold (Creative Commons licence)
Image by Angela Monika Arnold (Creative Commons licence)

A chance meeting in the ladies’ lavatory at a wedding marked the start of the friendship between last week’s guest interviewees, Polly Coles and Liz Jensen.

This got us thinking about some of the other unplanned first encounters of writers we’ve featured on Something Rhymed.

Susan Barker and Zakia Uddin, for instance – saw their paths collide back in 1999 at the Statue of Liberty, where they both had summer jobs. Rachel Connor and Antonia Honeywell formed an immediate connection when they happened to be paired as students in advance of their first MA Novel Writing workshop at Manchester University.

Of the monthly profiled writers, some like Charlotte Brontë and Elizabeth Gaskell and Harriet Beecher Stowe and George Eliot knew of each other by reputation before they met. Diana Athill formed a connection with Jean Rhys through her job as an editor at André Deutsch, and the friendship between Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison really blossomed when they both found themselves appearing at the Hay Festival in Wales.

But others, especially those who met early on in their literary careers, got to know each other under circumstances largely governed by happy twists of coincidence.

What would have happened if Vera Brittain and Winifred Holtby hadn’t each passed their university entrance exams and found themselves at the same Oxford college? Or if the teacher’s job in L.M. Montgomery’s hometown on Prince Edward Island had been given to someone other than Nora Lefurgey? Or Anne Sharp hadn’t gone to work as a governess with Jane Austen’s family?

Some might say that, with such similar political views and overlapping fields of work, Brittain and Holtby would likely have met eventually, but one can more easily imagine a life in which Austen had to manage without Sharp’s friendship, and Montgomery never found a kindred spirit in Lefurgey.

And since both Brittain and Holtby were always keen to credit the other for the role they had played in shaping their own success, this raises the question as to whether each woman’s life might have run a quite different course without the help of her valued friend.

Unlike the vast majority of our monthly guest bloggers and featured authors, who were already well on their way with their writing careers by the time they became acquainted, regular readers of Something Rhymed will know that when Emma Claire and I met neither of us had published a single article or story.

In fact, we had been scribbling in secret up until then, and hadn’t had the courage to share our ambitions to write with anyone else.

It’s nice to think that, having so many things in common, we would have found each other, perhaps on-line, eventually – an advantage female writers of today have over those in Montgomery or Austen’s times.

But it’s far nicer to be able to recall the fact that we’ve been there for each other through all the ups and downs of our writing journeys, and to think that, as Brittain once said about Holtby: ‘although we didn’t exactly grow up together, we grew mature together, and that is the next best thing’.

Two Lives, Lived in Different Ways: Polly Coles and Liz Jensen

Like Mary Lamb and Dorothy Wordsworth before them, writers Polly Coles and Liz Jensen have enjoyed many years of friendship. In our first guest interview of 2015, they give us some insights into what makes their relationship work.

SR: How did you become friends?

Liz: Where else but in the Ladies? It was at the wedding of two mutual friends twenty years ago. Polly had already made an impression on me at the ceremony, where she wore a lovely chocolate-brown outfit with a lace collar, and read a poem aloud. Beautifully.

She seemed so serene and poised, which is the exact opposite of how I felt in those days. In the Ladies I overheard her talking to someone – very eloquently and cool-headedly – about the fact that she was writing, and finding it hard. I was writing at the time too, and also finding it hard. So I accosted her.

Liz Jensen, photograph by Jacob Ehrbahn.

SR: Can you tell us about some of the ways in which you have you supported each other over the years?

Polly: Soon after we first met we began meeting every few weeks and exchanging chapters of the novels we were then writing. Liz’s work became her first novel, Egg Dancing. Mine was called Utopia Station. I sent it to a couple of agents and then, although I felt it was an honourable first try, I decided that I’d see it as a kind of apprentice piece and go on to a second one. I went through the same process with the next novel and in 2013 I had a non-fiction work published.

After I stopped writing with the same focus as Liz (some time around when my twins were born and I had three kids under three), I went on editing her novels. I hugely enjoy editing and in fact my work as an abridger for Radio 4 is the mother of all edits – massive cuts are needed, whilst one must also retain the continuity of prose style and narrative.

So – it always came easily and pleasurably to me, the more so because Liz is always very generous and appreciative of any help. I think this matters. It’s not that you expect to be acknowledged, but it’d be disingenuous to say it isn’t nice to be appreciated.

Polly Coles, photograph by Laurie Lewis.
Polly Coles, photograph by Laurie Lewis.

SR: Would you say that writing lies at the heart of your friendship?

Liz: As I remember it began as quite a formal writing/editing partnership but it quickly developed, not just because we complement one another so well (she is the wise one, I am the hysteric) but because after a few months of exchanging chapters and editing one another’s first novels, we both fell pregnant. It was a very happy surprise.

Our boys were born just a couple of weeks apart. Quite independently of one another we hit on archangel names: Gabriel and Raphael. Raphael was my second child, and I stopped at two. But Polly went on to have three more babies in quick succession.

So inevitably, our writing careers diverged. Because it happened in such an organic way, it didn’t feel like a problem. That said, with Polly’s writing mostly on hold, and my novels now being published at two-year intervals, there was an imbalance: she was helping me as much as ever, but I wasn’t reciprocating.

I knew one day she’d write something astonishing, and that it would be published: it was something I never, ever doubted. And sure enough, she has: her astute, philosophical, sharp-eyed memoir, The Politics of Washing: Real Life in Venice.

SR: Have you ever experienced any feelings of literary rivalry or envy?

Polly: None whatsoever, which might sound strange, given that she was a rising and active literary star and I, despite my literary aspirations, had taken a very different path. I did do some freelance work over the years, but I was mostly at home with my children and although I never stopped writing, I just never quite got round to pushing myself forward in any significant way.

I suppose success or the absence of it can spawn envy, but as I said, I chose to be a full time mother and I always believed that my time could come, so even there, it just was never an issue. I’m afraid this all sounds rather goody two-shoes. It’s not. It’s just two lives, lived in different ways. And a friendship.

The Politics of Washing: Real Life in Venice by Polly Coles is published by Robert Hale. The Essay – Venice Unravelled, her five programmes on life in modern Venice, was recently broadcast on BBC Radio 3.

Liz Jensen’s latest novel is The Uninvited. She is also the author of The Ninth Life of Louis Drax, which will be released as a film this year. Both books are published by Bloomsbury.

At the Risk of Disapproval

Since the beginning of our friendship in the early 2000s, Emma Claire and I have chalked up many dozens of hours of late-night conversation. Like her, I have happy memories from the period when we were in our early twenties and working as English teachers in Japan: of chatting, just the two of us, at parties.

On these frequent occasions when we slipped away from the crowd, I’m not sure if anyone cared, or even noticed, but I doubt it would have bothered me if they did. In my mind, this was where the real fun was happening: in us sharing revelations and laughter out in someone’s shadowed garden, or gossiping in a corner by the piled-up coats.

Bar in Lisbon - the scene of one of our late-night chats (in 2013).
Bar in Lisbon – the scene of one of our late-night chats (in 2013).

Over the decade and more that has passed since then, we’ve sat up talking well into the night in pubs and cocktail bars in many parts of Britain, and on holidays and writers’ retreats in various European cities.

But the vast majority of our after-dark talk over the years has taken place within the walls of our own homes.

In the days when we lived far away from each other, we would often arrange ‘writing weekends’ at either one of our houses. During these stays – and to the sheer bemusement of some we told about them – we’d spend much of our time, not in conversation at all, but writing in separate rooms. But we’d get together to discuss work-in-progress, and for meals and glasses of wine at the end of the day – times when our talk would meander through countless topics, but invariably keep circling back to writing, as the hours ticked by unnoticed.

Since moving to London a few years back, I now see Em most weeks, so whole weekends spent like this have become less common. But as she is still a frequent guest at the flat I share with my partner, our late-night chats at my place haven’t entirely come to an end.

Amongst the writers we’ve profiled on Something Rhymed, several had spouses or close relatives who seemed to view the time the woman in their life spent with her female friend as a negative thing.

L.M. Montgomery’s husband, for instance, once ‘jokingly’ pointed a gun at her writer pal Nora Lefurgey, and it’s hard to imagine that resentment of some kind wasn’t the cause. Dorothy Wordsworth, one half of this month’s featured pair, was temporarily banned from visiting Mary Lamb by her protective brother Charles (with whom she lived), because he feared that the two’s night-time conversations were depriving his sister from sleep and putting a strain on her fragile mental health. Poets Maxine Kumin and Anne Sexton, too, were so concerned that their friendship could provoke criticism from their husbands that they went as far as installing a secret phone line, so that they could chat to each other without the risk of being discovered.

It is a testament to the bonds of friendship between these pairs of women that they all continued with their literary relationships despite the possibility of more disapproval, and a reminder that it can be done. But I’m thankful that my partner has never voiced any annoyance at my closeness with Em –  even on those occasions when we’ve tied up the (non-secret) home phone line for several hours.

It helps, of course, that he likes Emma Claire too. But he also knows what a support she’s been to me over the years, and that my life would be much the poorer without her as my friend.

Conversations Spoken and Unspoken

Creative Commons License
Creative Commons License

I would like to say that our love of literature drew Emily and I together, or perhaps our mutual feminist ideals. But, if my memory serves me correctly, our very earliest conversations revolved around men.

Before boarding our flight to Tokyo to take up posts as English teachers, I’d spotted Emily and a bloke making their goodbyes. Since I was leaving my boyfriend behind in the UK, I suspected that Emily and I might share the experience of attempting to sustain long-distance relationships.

During many late-night conversations in the months that followed, I discovered that we had, in fact, made the opposite decisions: my boyfriend and I planned to keep going whereas Emily’s relationship had already come to an end.

In an attempt to move on, Emily was generally rather reticent about the man she’d left behind. Having seen him from afar at the airport, however, and sensing that her feelings still ran deep, I was curious and so tended to ask about him. As we gradually opened up about these men back home, our own friendship began to grow.

Many of these early conversations occurred towards the end of parties when most of our English teacher friends would embark on games like truth-or-dare and spin-the-bottle. When drunken nights began to get raucous, Emily and I often ended up drifting outside. I was loyal to my boyfriend back home and uninterested in hooking up with someone new. And, although Emily was officially single, I suspect that this was partially true of her too. Indeed, the goodbye I witnessed at Heathrow turned out only to mark a brief pause: after she completed her two years in Japan, they took up where they left off and have remained together ever since.

But the more I’ve got to know Emily, the more I’ve realised that there was also another reason why she preferred to absent herself when talk turned dirty: Emily is incredibly discreet. Over the years, this is one of the traits I have grown to admire most in my friend.

In truth-or-dare type scenarios, I have been known to reveal things about my life that should have remained private. The next day, I’ve invariably woken up regretting it. I can’t think of a single occasion when I’ve ever seen Emily make such a mistake.

I am grateful to Emily for the conversations we shared in the dark of our friends’ empty backyards: the confidences we traded about love and loss, and soon enough about literature and feminism too. But I am just as grateful for the conversations she saved me from indulging in: the private moments that remained private because of her.

 

Mary Lamb and Dorothy Wordsworth

In our round-up of Something Rhymed’s first year, we promised this month to reveal a friendship between two female authors that has been neglected in favour of these women’s relationships with famous men.  

Mary Lamb (Creative Commons License)
Mary Lamb (Creative Commons License)

Mary Lamb and Dorothy Wordsworth, great writers themselves, are most often remembered because of their intense attachments to their brothers, essayist Charles Lamb and Romantic poet William Wordsworth. Their own fascinating friendship, preserved in their intimate correspondence, barely scrapes a mention in most literary histories.

And yet, like the men in their circle, Mary and Dorothy also hiked up the mountains around Grasmere, exchanging their thoughts on the natural world and trading ideas on each other’s poems.

When Dorothy visited London, Mary would welcome her into the small Inner Temple flat where she lived with her brother, and the two women would stay up talking late into the night.

The pair both shunned marriage in favour of devotion to their sisterly roles. The night before William’s wedding, Dorothy wore the ring that he had purchased for his betrothed and, when she gave it to him the following morning, he slipped it back onto her finger before taking it to the church. Dorothy did not attend the ceremony.

Stories of the relationship between the Lamb siblings suggest similar hints of the illicit. Mary, who suffered throughout her life from severe attacks of mental illness, had tragically stabbed their mother to death during her first breakdown. Charles promised to take care of his sister, thereby preventing her from being sent to Bedlam. They upheld their mutual pledge never to marry, instead committing themselves to each other ‘for better, for worse’ as Charles put it; writing in collaboration; and caring for their adopted child.

The women’s fraternal relationships, which had drawn them together, later threatened to split them apart. One of Mary’s breakdowns – so severe that she spent several weeks in an asylum – occurred after an overnight visit from Dorothy.

Charles, who felt that his sister’s mental health was reliant on a good night’s sleep, blamed the women’s late-night conversations for the onset of her illness. He therefore banned Dorothy from staying with them in future and declined her offer to bring Mary up to the Lakes.

But as soon as Mary recovered, she wrote a cheerful letter to Dorothy and the pair continued their friendship despite the restrictions imposed by Mary’s kindly but overbearing brother.

Dorothy Wordsworth (Creative Commons License)
Dorothy Wordsworth (Creative Commons License)

Both of them eventually outlived their beloved siblings. In her dotage, Dorothy also suffered a loss of mental health – although different in nature from Mary’s lifelong illness.

As Dorothy’s grip on the present loosened she became immersed in memories of her youth. She took to reciting poems from the early Grasmere days: poems by the men we’ve come to think of as the great Romantics, but also her poems and those of her friend – the female Romantics whose lives and works have for too long been consigned to the shadows.

Activity

Inspired by Mary Lamb and Dorothy Wordsworth, this month we will write about some of our own late-night conversations.