Tales of Two Sisters: George Eliot, Harriet Beecher Stowe and Middlemarch

This year, Emma and I have spent a lot of time thinking about sisterhood – the kind of literary sisterhood we’ve been exploring here on Something Rhymed, and the ties that bind flesh and blood female siblings.

Jane Austen enjoyed a famously close bond with her sister Cassandra. So did Charlotte, Emily and Anne Brontё; and Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell.

George Eliot by Frederick William Burton – this image is in the public domain.

Unlike these other writers who will feature in our forthcoming book, George Eliot’s relationships with other family members had been brought to an abrupt end some fifteen years before she began her alliance with Harriet Beecher Stowe. In her mid-thirties, Eliot had begun to live out of wedlock with George Henry Lewes. On discovering this, her sister and half-sister had heeded the warnings of their scandalised brother and cut off all contact. This cruel treatment may have made Eliot particularly happy when she received her first letter from Stowe. In this missive of spring 1869, the American author – who Eliot had never met – addressed her both as a ‘dear friend’ and a ‘sister’.

In Emma’s June post, she talked of reading Mrs Dalloway as a teenager with her sister, Lou. This got me thinking about my own sister, Erica, and the novels we enjoyed when we were young.

I remember us both reading Jane Eyre and  Wuthering Heights, and watching a BBC costume drama of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, going to the cinema to see Sense and Sensibility, first encountering A Room of One’s Own.

322px-middlemarch_1
First edition title page – this image is in the public domain.

Back then, we often used to talk about the books we read, sharing recommendations. I couldn’t remember us ever discussing Middlemarch, though. Although Erica is a year younger than me, I had come to Eliot’s work considerably later than her and by the time I read the novel we were no longer both living at home.

As I have recently been re-reading Middlemarch, I thought I would ask Erica about her memories of the book. It was a long time since she’d read it, it turned out, so she remembered the atmosphere far better than the intricacies of the plot. The character she recalled best was Dorothea Brooke – the intelligent, deeply pious young woman, whose story (one of several major interlocking plot lines) opens chapter one.

Dorothea struck Erica – who’d read Middlemarch as a teenager in the 1990s – as an amazingly well-developed character, a young woman who becomes locked into a marriage with a with joyless older man, and whose complex personality Erica found interesting on so many levels. It was with a sense of happiness that she recalled meeting Dorothea on the page for the first time and feeling, she said, that she was reading truly great writing.

Well over a century earlier, the character of Dorothea had also captivated Harriet Beecher Stowe and, like Erica, there was a good deal she admired more generally about the book. But Stowe’s letters to Eliot over the period when she was reading Middlemarch, in serialised form, also express her frustration with what she regarded as Eliot’s high-mindedness and her story’s lack of ‘jollitude’.

Reading this time with Stowe’s criticism in mind, I couldn’t help feeling that the verdict was too harsh. There are more challenging passages to Middlemarch, certainly. The book’s Prelude, for instance, grabbed me far less than the first chapter proper, which introduces Dorothea.  Her tale, too, is often sad, but none the less gripping for that. There are also quite a number of light comic moments, many of which I had forgotten. As Erica said, the main impression she retains of the novel is that of an enormous literary achievement – and one to which, having chatted about it with me, she would like to return.

I would certainly encourage my sister to do that. As I have found, on coming back to Eliot’s novel at the age of thirty-six, Middlemarch absolutely rewards a re-reading. Just as Emma and I found when we returned to Jane Eyre some months ago, scenes that made the greatest impressions on me when I was younger are not always the ones that affected me the most now.

This time round, with sisterhood on my mind so much of late, Dorothea’s relationship with her sister Celia is the one that stayed with me the most in between stints of reading the novel. Dorothea is serious, Celia more lighthearted. Dorothea’s mind is always on study and religious matters, whereas Celia is concerned with the day to day world around her. But despite their seeming differences, the two sisters – Kitty and Dodo as they affectionately call each other – could not be closer.

Eliot and Stowe’s personalities were also markedly different, so different that many biographers have doubted that they could really have been friends. Eliot’s letters to Stowe reveal her as the more rational and measured of the pair. Stowe, by contrast, is impulsive, sometimes careless – occasionally shockingly so.

But as the example of Celia and Dorothea reminds us, major differences needn’t be an impediment to friendship. Familial ties were what united the Middlemarch sisters. For Stowe and Eliot, it was the sense that – for all that divided them – they were bonded together by being part of the same literary sisterhood.

Next month

We’ll be discussing Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and the impact it had on her friendship with George Eliot.

We’ll also be running two friendship-themed writing workshops in Spalding and Boston (Lincolnshire), on Saturday 15th and Sunday 16th October respectively. We still have some tickets available, so if you would like to reserve a place, do please get in touch with us at somethingrhymed@gmail.com. More information about the workshops can be found here.

The Heroism of the Hostess

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.

Lady Ottoline Morrell Creative Commons License
Lady Ottoline Morrell
Creative Commons License

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.

Thinking Back Through Our Mothers

By coincidence, this month Emily and I both recommended authors who were deeply influenced by Charlotte Brontë.

Portrait of Charlotte Brontë by J. H. Thompson  (Creative Commons License)
Portrait of Charlotte Brontë by J. H. Thompson
(Creative Commons License)

I will now treasure the copy of Jean Rhys’s After Leaving Mr MacKenzie, which Emily gave to me. Of course, Rhys’s most famous novel, Wide Sargasso Sea, which was inspired by Jane Eyre, imagines the first Mrs Rochester before she became consumed with madness and locked in the attic.

Rhys’s work, in turn, inspired Emily. She dedicated After Leaving Mr MacKenzie to me with the words: ‘When I first read this book, it changed the way I thought about writing forever’.

Just as Rhys’s descriptions of dingy hotel rooms and low-lit streets have lingered long in Emily’s imagination, I feel as if I have sat at the cocktail bar in A Tiny Speck of Black and then Nothing, Emily’s novel, chatting with the blind barman. There’s a scene in which the heroine searches for her missing friend in the labyrinthine alleyways of Osaka that has become so lodged in my own mind that I could almost mistake it for a memory. Moreover, the melodic quality of Emily’s novel sets up in duet with Rhys’s melancholic song.

 

Jean Rhys in the 1970s (Creative Commons License)
Jean Rhys in the 1970s
(Creative Commons License)

I also chose for Emily a writer whose work I engage with in my own writing. Virginia Woolf, although she famously overturned taboos of madness and sexuality, claimed that ‘one could hardly describe’ the life of her half-sister who was diagnosed with ‘imbecility’.

When I began my novel, The Waifs and Strays of Sea View Lodge, I set out to prove Woolf wrong by writing from the perspective of twin sisters, one of whom has profound learning disabilities. However, I ended up turning back to Woolf’s novels for inspiration on how to write about our flawed yet valiant attempts to read each other’s minds.

Woolf had an ambivalent relationship with Charlotte Brontë, whose genius she felt was hindered by her attempts to ape a male type of writing rather than creating a voice of her own. However, like Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea, it seems to me that Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway also owes a debt of gratitude to Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre.  

Virginia Woolf (Creative Commons License)
Virginia Woolf
(Creative Commons License)

I first read Mrs Dalloway when I was in my late teens, and I still remember the passage that seduced me: ‘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’.

How odd that this depiction of sexual grief so captured my adolescent imagination. I now wonder whether I subconsciously related it back to Bertha, Charlotte Brontë’s ‘mad woman in the attic’, whose story I found even more fascinating than that of Jane Eyre.

‘We think back through our mothers if we are women,’ Woolf claimed in A Room of One’s Own. In Mrs Dalloway and Wide Sargasso Sea we catch a glimpse of two authors doing just that: befriending and confronting their predecessor on the page. This, in turn, has been the founding philosophy of our quest on Something Rhymed. Together, Emily and I are gleaning tips about how to sustain our valuable friendship by thinking back through the successes and mistakes of our literary mothers – a lineage that runs from Brontë to Woolf and Rhys.

A Room of One’s Own to Share

A Room of One's Own by Virginia Woolf
A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf

My gift for you, Emily, is A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf – a book to which I have returned so many times during my quest to find a literal and psychological writing space.

When I first read this extended essay on women and creativity in my college bedroom, we hadn’t yet met. The very fact that I was studying in Cambridge was evidence, perhaps, that the world had begun to listen to Woolf’s argument that women should receive the same access to education as men. Her words particularly resonated, since I read them from the other side of doors that had kept her locked out.

I don’t think I’d admitted to anyone that I wanted to become a writer myself but when the opportunity arose to run the college literary society, I jumped at the chance.

The first female writer I ever met was Bernice Rubens, and I got to take her to dinner in college. The drinking society members were downing glasses of wine and playing a game called ‘no hands pudding’, which involved them thrusting their faces into their food. ‘You don’t fit in here,’ Rubens told me. ‘You’ll look back and feel proud that you don’t.’

Cambridge introduced me to some brilliant and kind academics, to some very dear friends, and to many varied and wonderful books. But it was a world still relatively unused to northern state school educated women, so Ruben’s observation had been astute. I am profoundly grateful for the room I found during my time at Cambridge, but it wasn’t quite yet a room of one’s own.

I re-read the essay a few years after graduation, when I was by then trying to forge my way as a writer. In order to work on my first novel, I slept on a friend’s floor, shared a bunk bed with a flatmate, and lived as a warden in a raucous halls of residence. Woolf’s argument that ‘A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction’ had taken on, for me, a pressing significance.

Although I was still struggling to find a literal room of one’s own, I had by then found a figurative one in my friendship with you. In you, I discovered someone else who was also trying to carve out enough time and money and space to write, someone else who shared the conviction that it was worth the fight.

Most recently, I re-read A Room of One’s Own in the study in my backyard – my very own creative refuge. You have your own study now too. We have sat side-by-side at both of our desks, writing together about friendships between literary women. In this way, you have given me a gift that perhaps exceeds even Woolf’s hopes for the female writers who would follow her. With your help, I have been lucky enough to find not only a room of one’s own, but also a room to share.