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.

 

 

Jean Webster and Adelaide Crapsey

Late last year, we received an intriguing message from novelist Jennifer Montgomery, who had recently read our book A Secret Sisterhood: The hidden friendships of Austen, Brontë, Eliot and Woolf and then discovered Something Rhymed.

Jennifer told us about a thesis project she’d completed at university about nineteenth and early twentieth-century books for American girls. As she researched, she told us, she kept stumbling upon literary friendships between the women who wrote these books. But since this was tangential to her thesis, she had to set these notes aside – until now.

Jean Webster. This image is in the public domain.

Few writers owe as much to their university experiences as Jean Webster. Not only is her most famous novel, Daddy-Long-Legs, set at a woman’s college much like Jean’s beloved alma mater Vassar, but the main character draws heavily on Jean’s adventures with her best friend at university: her fellow writer Adelaide Crapsey.

Although Jean wrote stories while Adelaide focused on poetry, the two lively, rambunctious young women had much in common. When they weren’t collaborating on plays – in their sophomore year, their gleefully melodramatic comedy won a college drama competition – they careened around the countryside on their bicycles, debated vociferously in favor of women’s rights and socialism, and dreamed of spectacular literary careers.

But their paths diverged after they graduated in 1901. Jean swiftly met success. Her literary reputation built steadily novel by novel, until her seventh book Daddy-Long-Legs catapulted her to literary stardom in 1912. The novel, which is still in print today, is told through a series of letters written by a young woman much like Jean or Adelaide: a sprightly aspiring writer with feminist and socialist sympathies and a well-developed sense of fun.

Meanwhile, Adelaide’s career stalled. Although she continued to write poetry, family troubles and then ill health made it impossible for her to give single-minded attention to her work. Finally she received a devastating diagnosis: tuberculosis.

At the time, tuberculosis was considered a poet’s disease: a sign that the creative fires within were burning away the poet’s physical frame. But Adelaide had wanted to be a new kind of poet, just as she and Jean were New Women: robust and hearty, precise and scientific, not at all like the stereotype of the languishing early Victorian maiden or the sickly, emotionally overwrought Romantic poet. The diagnosis flew in the face of the identity she and Jean had built together.

Adelaide Crapsey. This image is in the public domain.

Perhaps for this reason, Adelaide told neither Jean nor her family of her diagnosis. Instead, she joined in the celebrations of Jean’s meteorically successful new book. Their friendship remained strong despite their different life paths: the two friends decided to spend the summer of 1913 together.

They made ice cream, stayed out late (‘Adelaide and I nearly slept out-of-doors the night of the 4th,’ Jean wrote exuberantly), and worked together on a play, just as they had at Vassar. But this time, rather than writing a college drama, they were transforming Jean’s book for Broadway.

But the pace proved too much for Adelaide: she collapsed. Jean rushed her to the hospital, but at first she remained optimistic.‘I think at last – after 4 years of silly tonics and rest & fresh air & everything else that didn’t work – we are going to cure her up!’ she wrote.

But soon Adelaide could no longer hide her fatal diagnosis. Jean let go of dreams of curing her friend, and focused instead on making her last months comfortable: helping her family find a sanatorium, visiting her, and trying to find publishers for her poems. She knew, as only a fellow writer could, what comfort it would give her friend to see at least some of her work in print. When she managed to place Adelaide’s poem ‘The Witch’ in the magazine Century, Adelaide wrote to her in gratitude: ‘the thinnest blade of an opening wedge is the thing that counts now, and the times are all against us’.

The times were even more against them than Adelaide knew; barely a month after Adelaide wrote that letter, Jean rushed from the production of Daddy-Long-Legs to be at Adelaide’s deathbed. After Adelaide’s death, Jean fulfilled her final promise to her friend: she presented Adelaide’s book of poems to her parents. Adelaide had not wanted her parents to see the poems earlier because so many of them dealt with Adelaide’s suffering and approaching death.

Jean hoped to find a publisher for Adelaide’s poems, but within two years she too was dead: felled, like Charlotte Bronte, by complications of pregnancy. Instead, one of Adelaide’s former suitors shepherded the collection into print under the simple title Verse, complete with an introduction that described Adelaide as exactly the sort of sickly romantic poet she scorned.

Despite the inappropriate introduction, critics noticed the brilliant concision of the five-line cinquain form that Adelaide had invented, which she wielded to great effect in poems such as Niagara. Her poems are still reprinted in anthologies, just as Jean’s paean to their college days remains in print to this day. Despite their truncated lives, Jean and Adelaide fulfilled their most important Vassar dream: their words are still read over a century after their deaths.

By day, Jennifer Montgomery works in a library; by night, she writes novels and reads about nineteenth-century novelists.
We’re looking forward to sharing more of Jennifer’s research discoveries over the coming months.
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.

Doris Lessing and Muriel Spark

Since this month marks the centenary of Muriel Spark’s birth, we were keen to investigate whether the famed author of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie turned to another female writer for support. We instinctively felt that she might have found something in common with fellow grande dame of post-war British literature, the Nobel Prize-winning author of The Golden Notebook, Doris Lessing.

A recent memoir by a male friend of Spark confirmed our hunch, but mentioned the friendship only in passing. Other biographies miss out the relationship altogether. Turning instead to the words of Lessing and Spark themselves, we were delighted to find that they mention each other in print. What’s more, we discovered a cache of their unpublished correspondence. The Doris Lessing collection is held in the British Archive for Contemporary Writing at the University of East Anglia, and a letter and telegram to her friend are currently on show at the National Library of Scotland, home to the Muriel Spark Archive.

Both diminutive women with immense intellects, Doris Lessing and Muriel Spark seem destined to have crossed paths. Born just a year apart into a world ravaged by the First World War, they would each grow into outspoken women who dared to question convention.

Such a destiny could hardly have been predicted when, at nineteen, both girls married older men and immediately fell pregnant. However, while each of these young wives cradled their new-borns with one arm, they attempted to write with the other. Lessing – who grew up in Southern Africa – had already published stories in local magazines, and Edinburgh-born Spark was now winning local prizes for poetry. During this period, unbeknown to each other, these two future literary stars were both living in Zimbabwe, then known as Rhodesia.

Muriel Spark in 1940. Photo by G H Addecott. Every effort has been made to obtain permission to reproduce this photograph

Looking back on this time, they’d each feel that their lives would have been easier if they had met during these inter-war years. The newly married Spark had felt horrified by the casual racism she encountered in Southern Africa, and her husband proved an unstable, violent man, prone to shooting his revolver indoors. The Second World War had broken out by this stage, trapping a frightened, lonely Spark thousands of miles from her Scottish home. ‘How I would have loved to have someone like Doris to talk to’, she later recalled.

By the early 1940s, Lessing, too, had begun to feel disturbed by Rhodesia’s race relations, and disappointed by her marriage. She threw herself into literature and politics, joining a communist book club, ordering novels from London and getting her hands on New Writing magazine, which championed working-class writers alongside their middle-class contemporaries. When Lessing later discovered that Spark had also treasured this wartime publication, she found herself wishing she had known of this other female writer on her doorstep. Long conversations about their shared reading, she felt, could have offered much solace during that difficult time.

But their paths were not fated to cross until they had divorced their husbands and relocated to London. Each woman would remain forever dogged by her choice to forge a new life for herself: Lessing had left her two eldest children with their father in Southern Africa, and Spark had placed her son in a Rhodesian boarding school for a year before he was brought to Scotland to be raised by her parents.

Doris Lessing with her cat, Black Madonna. Every effort has been made to obtain permission to reproduce this photograph

These women, who had so much in common, finally met in the mid-1950s. But, by then, Lessing was known as the celebrated author of The Grass is Singing, which had come out when she was in her early thirties, whereas Spark was a few years off publishing her first novel at the age of thirty-nine. Describing their early years of friendship in an essay, Lessing – who had been part of a cash-strapped crowd of bohemians and communists – recalled her surprise at her new friend’s traditional furniture and tasteful clothes.

Their unpublished correspondence reveals, however, that their similarities far outweighed their differences. During their enduring friendship, the pair reminisced about Rhodesia; celebrated literary successes and commiserated about professional frustrations; and shared the glare of the media spotlight – trained so often throughout their long years of fame on their controversial decisions to leave the upbringing of their children to other relatives.

The surface-level differences in their novels – Spark’s much-praised acerbic wit versus Lessing’s radical politics – bely deeper similarities. Like that of their mutual friend Iris Murdoch, both women’s work was shaped by an interest in philosophy and religion – subjects they discussed. While Spark credited her development as a novelist to her conversion in 1954 to Roman Catholicism, Lessing turned her back on communism and in the mid-1960s immersed herself in Sufism, a mystical strand of Islam. Yet they both remained anti-establishment at heart – two fiercely forthright authors who dared to point out hypocrisy and absurdity whenever and wherever they found it.

We are looking forward to the UK paperback publication on March 1st  of our co-written book, A Secret Sisterhood: The hidden friendships of Austen, Brontë, Eliot and Woolf, which is available for pre-order now.      

 

Katherine Anne Porter and Eudora Welty

Some time ago, Tessa Hadley suggested that we explore one of Eudora Welty’s female alliances. When blog reader Elizabeth Ahlstrom also wrote to us to mention Katherine Anne Porter’s mentorship of Welty – a fellow writer from the Deep South – we were further intrigued.

This literary bond particularly piqued our interest since we have long felt indebted to the authors who took us under their wings when we were starting out. And, more recently, we thanked our lucky stars when Margaret Atwood generously agreed to write the foreword to A Secret Sisterhood: The hidden friendships of Austen, Brontë, Eliot and Woolf.

Katherine Anne Porter’s lifestyle, roaming from place to place and lover to lover, bore little resemblance to that of Eudora Welty, who returned to her family home in her early twenties and remained there unmarried until her dying day.

But, a few years later in the late 1930s, when the middle-aged Porter came across Welty’s short stories in the Southern Review, she knew she had found a kindred spirit in the twenty-eight-year-old.

The two women shared a deep admiration for the work of Jane Austen, Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield, and, as Southern writers, they considered themselves ‘bathers in the same sea’. Here, felt Porter, was a talent to nurture.

Welty never forgot the helping hand she received from the more established writer, looking back with wonder at her first letter from Porter, which seemed to come ‘out of the clear blue sky’. Porter invited the younger woman to visit her in the two-room apartment she shared with her third husband in Baton Rouge, Louisiana – 150 miles south of Jackson, Mississippi, where Welty lived with her mother in their large mock Tudor home.

It took Welty six months to gather the courage to take Porter up on the invitation. She twice got halfway there before turning back. But, one midsummer day in 1938, mutual friends drove her down to Porter’s home, where she enjoyed a convivial evening, the open windows letting in a welcome breeze as she listened intently to the conversation.

True to her word, Porter went out of her way for the modest, young writer, nominating her for a Houghton Mifflin Harcourt award, introducing her work to Ford Madox Ford, and inviting Welty to accompany her to Yaddo – a prestigious artists’ colony in Saratoga Springs, Upstate New York.

Katherine Anne Porter (left) and Eudora Welty (right) at Yaddo in 1941                                                                                    © Eudora Welty LLC; courtesy Welty Collection, Mississippi Department of Archives and History.  All Rights Reserved. The Eudora Welty Foundation.

At Yaddo it became clear that the outwardly shy Welty shared with her glamorous mentor a love of socialising and a knack for friendship. Neither woman got much work done during their two months together because they could not resist the temptations of companionship: Welty tried to teach Porter to drive and they made excursions to view the renovations at the nearby colonial home that the recently-divorced Porter had just purchased.

That summer, Porter did begin work on a foreword to Welty’s first collection of short stories, A Curtain of Green – an act that Porter herself predicted would add $10,000 to the book’s sales. But the gesture was not without its complications. Porter, who had always struggled with deadlines, failed to turn it around on time. Welty chose to postpone the publication date rather than chivvy on her mentor, and the book did eventually come out complete with Porter’s promised foreword.

Their bond would always combine the literary and the social. One of Welty’s abiding memories of Porter was an evening they spent together in the late 1970s. By this stage, both women had been awarded Pulitzer Prizes and Porter would soon honour her protegée by presenting her with a gold medal from the National Institute of Arts and Letters – an occasion for which Porter had prepared months in advance with the purchase of an Italian silk pant suit.

Despite recovering from cataract operations and suffering with a broken hip, the eighty-four-year-old spent all morning cooking for her friend. The pair began with spears of asparagus, butter melting onto their fingers, followed by ‘dainty catfish fingerlings’, which they ate using golden cutlery. They finished up with strawberries and champagne, celebrating and chatting all afternoon.

When Porter died at the age of ninety, Welty took a group of friends out for a crab supper after the memorial service so that they could reminisce in a style that would capture Porter’s spirit. And Welty looked back on her bond with Porter more publicly too. She wrote a tender essay about it for the Georgia Review, and her introduction to the Norton Book of Friendship conjures up the way friends give tribute to one of their group who has passed away: ‘As if by words expressed they might turn friendship into magic, the magic that now, so clearly, it had been.’

An Invitation to our Female Literary Friendship Event at the British Library, July 11 2017, 7.15-8.30pm:

We are honoured to be sharing a stage with novelist Kate Mosse, the founder of the Women’s Prize for Fiction, and her friend, the biographer Rachel Holmes. We will be talking about the friendships that we have explored in A Secret Sisterhood and they will be sharing details of their own literary friendship.

If you are free, we would love to share the occasion with you too.

Tickets can be reserved by calling +44 (0)1937 546546 or emailing boxoffice@bl.uk