Way back in 2014, we wrote a post about Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison, making it the second of close to eighty literary friendships that we have featured on Something Rhymed. Some time afterwards, our friend Sarah Moore suggested that we write a piece that focused on another of Angelou’s fascinating relationships with a fellow writer …
By the time Maya Angelou and Jessica Mitford met in the late 1960s, both had come a long way from the very different worlds of their childhoods.
Mitford, the fifth of the six legendary Mitford sisters, was born into an English aristocratic family during the First World War. She spent her early years living a life of material privilege in what she would later refer to as a ‘time-proofed corner of the world’.
Angelou’s youth, in contrast, in the American South, introduced her early to racial prejudice and physical trauma. At the age of eight, in the mid-1930s, she was raped by her mother’s boyfriend. In the aftermath of the attack, Angelou became mute – except with her brother – for close to five years.
Angelou and Mitford would come face to face for the first time some three decades later, at the London home of editor and archivist Sonia Orwell, the widow of George Orwell. Angelou, who was around forty, had just completed the manuscript for I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings – the first of her celebrated autobiographies. As such, she was keen to seek the advice of Mitford, a writer herself by then and author of the memoir, Hons and Rebels. First published in 1960, Mitford’s book explored the upper-class upbringing she had fled, the evolution of her left-wing politics and her later life in the United States, where she became a prominent campaigner and journalist.
When Mitford began reading Angelou’s manuscript at the breakfast table one morning, she found it ‘so fascinating’ that she ‘kept reading it all night’. In the years to come, Angelou would be equally effusive about her new friend’s writing, declaring that while reading The Trial of Dr. Spock – about the famous paediatrician’s trial for anti-war activities – she ‘couldn’t put it down’.
In addition to their literary bond, the pair grew close thanks to a shared dedication to challenging social injustices through their writings – a preoccupation, too, of their letters to each other. Such missives also explore their thoughts on political and cultural figures, past and present, and touch on key moments in twentieth century history. In 1992, when Angelou was ‘agonizing’ over the poem she’d committed to write for Bill Clinton’s inauguration and struggling to find her flow, Mitford sent some encouraging advice on possible ways in which her friend might find her ‘unique Maya rhythm’ once again.
By this stage, the pair had grown so attached that, when asked in a 1983 interview for Essence magazine whether black women could consider white women their sisters, it was this particular friendship that came to Angelou’s mind. In answer to writer Stephanie Stokes Oliver’s question, Angelou replied: ‘Jessica Mitford is a sister of mine. If I had to go into a room with a leopard, I wouldn’t hesitate to ask for her.’
In addition to this fierce shared loyalty, there was a lighter side to their relationship. Music was a mutual passion, and one that would lead to an unlikely episode in their later years when Angelou and Mitford recorded a duet of the comic song ‘Right Said Fred’. It would subsequently be included in the charity album Stranger than Fiction, which featured vocal recordings by well-known writers, with proceeds going to organisations promoting literature and literacy.
Singing with Angelou would also play a poignant part in the final stage of Mitford’s life. After being diagnosed with lung cancer in 1996, Mitford’s health deteriorated rapidly. Although she had at first expressed a determination to undergo intensive treatment to prolong her life, in order to keep working on the current book she was writing, the seventy-eight-year-old eventually changed her mind and asked to come home from hospital to die in the company of her family and closest friends.
Angelou visited Mitford on each one of those four precious last days. As Mitford’s husband, the civil rights lawyer Robert Treuhaft would remember it, she was, in some ways, ‘the real doctor’ his wife needed at the end of her life.
He would look back on the sight of Angelou standing beside her friend’s bed and singing songs to her. Mitford was so weak by then that at first she didn’t react. But as Angelou persisted, Mitford would at last recognise who it was and even open her mouth to try to join in. A witness to this long goodbye between two old friends, Treuhaft would fondly recall that his wife’s final words ‘were really songs that Maya started her singing’.
Later, he would say that experience was one of the most profound of his life – a moment when he learned ‘what true sisterhood is all about’ .
What we’ve been up to this month:
Emily has been reviewing edits for her forthcoming book, Out of the Shadows: Six Visionary Victorian Women in Search of a Public Voice, which will be published by Counterpoint Press in North America in May 2021.
In addition to focusing on her own writing, in her role as Director of the Ruppin Agency Writers’ Studio, Emma has been preparing for this upcoming deadline (more information here):