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 What’s more, we discovered a cache of their unpublished correspondence.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