A Second Year of Hidden Friendships… and More Unexpected Connections

As 2015 draws to a close, this feels like another good moment to look back on the friendships we’ve profiled on Something Rhymed, and the surprising, often intergenerational, connections between some of our literary heroines.

Daphne du Maurier, whose friendship with Oriel Malet we featured in June, is well-known to have been a fan of Haworth’s most famous sisters. Du Maurier’s most famous novel, Rebecca, has drawn comparisons with Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, and du Maurier also wrote a biography of Charlotte’s troubled brother, Branwell, published in 1960.

On reading du Maurier’s letters to Malet, though, we were surprised to find several references – not just to the Brontës – but also to Katherine Mansfield.

Katherine Mansfield - this image is in the public domain.
Katherine Mansfield – this image is in the public domain.

An admirer of Mansfield’s writing when she grew older, du Maurier’s fascination with the author of The Garden Party went all the way back to her earliest years. As a child, du Maurier used to look out of the night nursery window of her Hampstead home and see a light burning bright in the opposite house. She used to wave at the light each evening and wonder whose lamp it was.

Only years later would she discover that she had been looking in at the window of Mansfield’s bedroom, a place to which she was sadly often confined thanks to the health problems brought on by her tuberculosis.

Noticing these sorts of unexpected links between the different authors we have profiled has been one of the pleasures of our research into their literary friendships. This has been particularly so when we’ve stumbled upon these links by chance, when we were looking for other things.

George Eliot - this image is in the public domain.
George Eliot – this image is in the public domain.

On re-reading the opening of Agatha Christie’s 1926 Murder of Roger Ackroyd while preparing to write our April post on her friendship with Dorothy L. Sayers, we spotted an admiring reference to George Eliot delivered by one of the novel’s principal characters.

And when we were studying the friendship between Elizabeth Bowen and Iris Murdoch the month before, we were delighted to learn that, in the 1940s, Bowen wrote a radio play for the BBC on the life of Jane Austen.

Over the two years that we’ve been running Something Rhymed, we’ve come upon so many of these unanticipated branches between our literary heroines that it’s become difficult to hold them all within our heads. So we’ve set ourselves the challenge this month of creating a ‘family tree’ depicting some of these fascinating connections.

We hope you’ll join us again next week to see the literary ancestral lines that we’ve traced back through the ages.

 

Crying Tears of Laughter: Irenosen Okojie and Yvette Edwards

In her work as a reviewer for the Sunday Times, Dorothy L. Sayers often took the opportunity to praise the work of her friend Agatha Christie – calling Murder on the Orient Express, for example, ‘a murder mystery conceived and carried out on the finest classical lines’. Inspired by this, we asked April’s guest bloggers, Yvette Edwards and Irenosen Okojie, to each sing the praises of their writer friend.

They met when they appeared together at a literary event, a couple of years ago. Irenosen takes up the story:

SONY DSCIt was a platform to showcase new writers; at that point the buzz had started to build about Yvette’s writing. When she read, her work immediately captured me. It was evocative, fearless and powerful.

Not only that but she was very warm, generous and humble. She was the star attraction on the bill but she didn’t behave that way and she didn’t distance herself from me or the other writer. She was incredibly chatty, curious about our writing journeys and happy to offer advice.

One of the images I never forget from that evening was Yvvettes’s mother managing her stack of books being the literary equivalent of a roadie. I enjoyed this tiny window into their relationship.

We all exchanged details; afterwards, I bought a copy of her book A Cupboard Full of Coats. It was so engrossing I read it in one sitting. What I really loved was that the female protagonist was complex and darkly drawn, unapologetically so. It is a brilliant debut novel, a heartbreaking read worth every penny.

One of the things I admire about Yvvette is her tenacity. She didn’t have an easy writing journey but she never gave up.

Over the next year, we’d bump into each other at literary gatherings, our friendship developed from there. We’d email back and forth and she’d encourage me to keep writing when things were difficult. Writing can be such an isolating endeavour that friendships and support are invaluable.

My favourite thing about her other than her literary prowess is her humour. She’s one of the most hilarious writers I know and is never without a funny anecdote or encounter. I cry with laughter whenever we meet up. She could have been a stand-up comedian had she not wanted to go into fiction writing. She’s a natural storyteller. When you engage with her, this becomes apparent.

It’s been fun and heartening watching her journey so far being both a fan and a friend.

Yvette says:

iphone pics 202

Irenosen is a power ball of energy that continually amazes me. She is always busy, is always writing as well as juggling various projects, passionate about everything literary, from the craft itself to championing events, interviewing other authors, getting involved in awards and prizes, reading, judging, spreading the word.

I think her website is a perfect reflection of her as a person and as a creative.  It is warm, full, interesting, regularly updated, filled with information about her own work as well as the projects she’s involved in.

It is vast and varied and quirky. You could pop in, intending only a short visit and a quick browse, and hours later still be clicking into tabs and links, discovering fabulous pics, astute observations and confident commentary, writing that’s rich, humorous, profound. It’s impossible to sum up either Irenosen or her website with a mere handful of words.

And that’s what her writing is like. It defies strait-laced and simple definition.  It doesn’t slip into any pre-packaged boxes or notions or expectations.  You can never exactly anticipate the journey she’ll take you on, or the destination you’ll reach, but you can be confident it will be interesting, that there will be surprises in store, that you will be challenged and entertained along the way, that you’ll emerge from your journey both heady and giddy, like stepping off a super roller coaster at a different place to where your journey began.

And if you do decide to take the matter up with her, there is every possibility she’ll hug you, throw her head back and laugh.

A Cupboard Full of Coats (Oneworld) by Yvette Edwards was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, and shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize.

Irenosen Okojie’s first novel, Butterfly Fish, and a collection of short stories, Speak Gigantular, will be published in June 2015 by Jacaranda Books.

Travellers on the Same Road

Image by Luke Detwiler (Creative Commons Licence).
Image by Luke Detwiler (Creative Commons Licence).

Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers never shared the extraordinary levels of closeness enjoyed by their contemporaries Vera Brittain and Winifred Holtby, who saw each other as literary ‘travelling companions’.

Neither were they spurred on by the kind of highly motivating personal rivalry that fired the bond between modernists Katherine Mansfield and Virginia Woolf, another pair of author friends of a similar generation.

What Christie and Sayers had instead was a solid working friendship, and, for them, this was presumably enough. For Emma Claire and me it never has been, though.

As some of our readers will already be aware, we got to know each other at a time when we were both living carefree lives as young English teachers in rural Japan. It was still some months before we’d admit to anyone else – and each other first – that we had serious ambitions to write, and so, although I remember us sometimes talking about books we were reading, writing was not a big part of our friendship. We spent our time doing other things: travelling the country, going to parties, and sampling the wares of local noodle shops and bars.

Back then, I would have been delighted to be told that, once we’d ‘come out’ to each other as would-be authors, the similar direction in which we’d chosen to travel would allow us to support each other through the years to come: celebrating individual triumphs as a pair, providing each other with a sympathetic ear when necessary, and –  through our mutual interest in female literary friendship – eventually finding a way to write together.

Image by maroubal2. Creative Commons licence.
Image by maroubal2. (Creative Commons Licence).

This would have sounded fantastic, and of course it is. What could be better than your closest co-worker also being one of your closest friends?

The only niggling problem is that recently it began to dawn on us that, bit by bit over time, our whole friendship had become consumed by work. When we went out for the evening, supposedly for fun, our thoughts would soon turn to ideas for feature articles we could write together. When one of us invited the other over for dinner, we’d find ourselves talking about the next literary event we’d be doing together, or our jobs at the universities at which we both teach.

Now that we’ve become aware of this, we’ve started to make a concerted effort to have times when we turn off the ‘shop talk’, although sometimes it can be hard. As I write this, I’m acutely aware that, despite having sent Emma Claire three emails today and talked with her on the phone, each of these conversations was about our various joint projects.

That’s why it was especially good to go out for cocktails and noodles recently. The drinks were fancier than the cans of alcoholic fruit Chu-hi that we used to buy in our twenties. The ramen broth was floating with all sorts of extra ingredients unseen in the traditional joints we used to frequent. But there was something about the night’s holiday atmosphere that took me back to those heady, early days in Japan.

It reminded me that, though a working writers’ friendship is a wonderful thing, to have found someone with whom you can truly ‘travel’ is many, many times better.

Cocktails and Candour

London buzzed with a carnival energy on the night Emily and I met for cocktails at the Hotel Café Royal. It was the evening before the Easter weekend and Piccadilly Circus milled with people who had just arrived or were just about to depart, almost everyone wheeling cases or carrying backpacks or cradling cones of spring flowers.

Something Rhymed’s April ‘challenge’ to follow in the footsteps of Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers provided the perfect excuse to embrace the city’s festive atmosphere. Surrounded by holidaymakers and all decked out in my cocktail dress, I took in afresh the grandeur of Regent Street – its buildings tall and white against the clear blue sky.

Inside the revolving doors of the Hotel Café Royal, I entered a marble lobby filled with tall vases of orchids, and the bustle of the street gave way to a hushed sense of glamour. It was easy to imagine Christie and Sayers, the Queens of Crime, meeting here with fellow members of the Detection Club, for their lavish club dinners.

The Café Royal, London (William Orpen, 1912). Creative Commons License.
The Café Royal, London (William Orpen, 1912). Creative Commons License.

Unlike the ‘shop talk’ that took up much of their usual meetings, the club’s spring and summer dinners focused more on celebration.

Now that Emily and I teach at the same university, co-write literary features and run Something Rhymed together, we have to remind ourselves to make time for purely socialising. But we long ago pledged to mark every writing success, however small. During the past few years this commitment to celebration has become more important still.

In the Green Bar, we toasted Something Rhymed over a pink champagne cocktail and a luridly blue martini, and we agreed just to chat for a while, putting off the task we’d set ourselves to compose our own set of literary rules.

We got on with that part of April’s activity in the distinctly less rarified surroundings of a Soho noodle joint, writing in between slugs of Asashi beer, and miraculously managing to avoid staining our dresses with broth.

This ramen shop brought to mind the early days of our friendship, when we both taught English in rural Japan, secretly writing in between classes. Looking back on the ways our friendship has developed since then, we realised that another unspoken ‘rule’ had developed over the years and that we had this to thank for the development of our collaboration: as well as committing ourselves to celebration we’ve also committed ourselves to candour.

Rules
Rules for Our Collaborative Work

I’ve learnt so much from Emily about the importance of honesty, and the courage it sometimes takes to speak the truth as we see it. This is not to say that we talk about all aspects of our lives: there remain subjects we keep to ourselves or are more likely to discuss with others. But whether we’re seeking advice on personal matters, critiquing each other’s fiction, dividing workloads, or thrashing out a line of enquiry in our collaborative writing, we always endeavour to speak our minds.

This fundamental tenet led us to formulate a few more specific rules. In terms of maintaining trust between each other, we’ll always be clear about which projects we’d like to work on together and which we’d prefer to tackle alone, and we’ve also agreed that we must never co-publish anything that we can’t both stand by. And in terms of establishing trust with our readers, we’ve promised always to acknowledge speculation.

In this way, we hope that our collaboration will thrive and, more importantly, that our friendship will endure for a lifetime.

Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers

Despite some parallels in their childhoods, and their shared status as ‘Golden Age’ queens of crime, the differences between Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers were far more profound.

Agatha Christie (Creative Commons licence)
Agatha Christie, 1890-1976 (Creative Commons licence)

Agatha Mary Clarissa Miller was schooled largely at home. Her mother had wanted to hold her back from reading until she was eight, but by the age of five the impatient girl managed to teach herself.

While Christie’s learning was relatively ad hoc, and focused ultimately on helping her to find a good husband, the parents of Dorothy Leigh Sayers (who also educated her at home) kept her to a rigorous schedule.

Dorothy L Sayers
Dorothy L. Sayers, 1893-1957 (Image used with the kind permission of the Dorothy L. Sayers Society.)

Sayers eventually won a scholarship to Somerville College at the University of Oxford (also the alma mater of writer friends Vera Brittain and Winifred Holtby) and went on to a series of jobs, most successfully in the advertising industry.

Later in life she would return to academia, her translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy becoming the work of which she felt most proud. But most remember her as the author of the Lord Peter Wimsey novels, and it was this position as a writer of detective fiction that led her into a friendship with Christie.

Both were members of the Detection Club. This group of leading crime writers, who met regularly to socialise and talk shop, had to abide by a strict set of literary rules designed to give the reader a fair chance of guessing the guilty party in their books. They also jointly-penned several mysteries, three of which – the novel The Floating Admiral and two radio serials – included both Christie and Sayers as contributors.

Each woman’s attitudes to these activities illustrate the contrast in their personalities. Sayers devised the club’s elaborate initiation rituals, threw herself into ceremonies with gusto, and took on the formidable task of organising her fellow writers for their collaborations.

The reserved Christie, on the other hand, merely submitted to her initiation. When she accepted the role of president (succeeding Sayers) it was on the condition that someone else be appointed to make speeches and chair events.

When working on the radio serials, she often proved elusive, leading to frantic phone calls and letters between her and Sayers when at last she’d been tracked down. But Sayers also sent notes praising Christie’s recent fiction and divulged her exasperation at what they both saw as unnecessary interference by J.R. Ackerley, their BBC producer.

The feeling, incidentally, appears to have been mutual. Ackerley later recalled that, though Christie was one of his favourite detective fictionists, he believed she was a ‘little on the feeble side’ as a broadcaster – adding that ‘anyone in that series would have seemed feeble against the terrific vitality, bullying and bounce of that dreadful woman Dorothy L. Sayers’.

Able to earn far more from other writing endeavours, Christie’s sense of loyalty to Sayers was probably a major reason why she agreed to take part in even as many of these joint ventures as she did. But Sayers also came to her friend’s aid on several occasions, including joining in with the search for the author during her famous 1926 ‘disappearance’. She also provided a vital supporting vote when disgruntled members of the Detection Club, unhappy with the ‘unfair’ plot of her Poirot mystery The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, called for Christie to be expelled.

It has been said that, partially due to her shyness, Christie had few intimate female friends. But with Sayers she established an important working friendship, and one on which each woman was able to draw for support through the glory years of their success.

Activity

The Detection Club often held their official dinners at London’s Café Royal. This month, we will visit this historic venue for a cocktail or two. Since the Detection Club sometimes wrote collaboratively and also came up with a series of rules to abide by, we will come up with a list of ‘rules’ for the writing we do together.

The Something Rhymed party

From the mad tea party in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland to The Great Gatsby’s  glamorous shindigs to the almost unbearable occasion to mark Blanche’s birthday in A Streetcar Named Desire, literature is full of social occasions that linger on in the minds of its audiences.

In the hands of a writer, the bringing together of a sizable cast of characters can lead to moments of revelation, conflict or panic. In Larry’s Party by Carol Shields, the whole plot builds towards the titular gathering. A devastating mistake made at a party by the timid protagonist of Rebecca signals an important shift in Daphne du Maurier’s novel. A mysterious soirée in A Murder is Announced marks the shocking point at which Agatha Christie’s village mystery truly begins.

Emma Claire and I were hoping for considerably less drama at our party – the first we’d ever organised together – and yet, we wanted it to be an occasion that would remain as a memory, in a good way, for all those who were there.

We decided to make an occasion of it with a traditional British afternoon tea.

We were inspired by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, who once organised a get-together for Zora Neale Hurston, and also a feeling that we wanted to provide an opportunity for female writers we knew to make new writer friends. Owing to the size of my London flat, we were forced to keep things small-scale, so we invited just four writing women and asked each of them to bring along a female writer friend.

Our guests were Susan Barker, Emily Bullock, Ann Morgan, Irenosen Okojie, Yen Ooi, Denise Saul and Zakia Uddin – some of whom will be known to Something Rhymed readers through their guest posts on our blog.

IMG_1153In a written story, it is often the things that go wrong at a party that cement it in the reader’s imagination. We thought we might have a situation like that on our hands when, only five minutes before our first guest turned up, I opened the freezer door to get some ice and suddenly discovered two forgotten bottles of fizz – one smashed to pieces and one that promptly exploded everywhere when Emma Claire eased out the cork.

It’s the sort of incident that, if you’re hosting on your own (or feel that sole responsibility for a party’s success lies with you), can become magnified out of all proportion. In The Garden Party by Katherine Mansfield, though the majority of family members are remarkably untroubled by the genuinely terrible news that arrives halfway through the tale, there is much concern earlier on about the feared disappearance of the little flags for the sandwiches.

But as the two of us struggled to leap out of the way of the flying foam, we found we were unable to stop laughing: a reminder that, having the right friend at your side at moments like these swiftly transforms them from catastrophe to comedy.

Zakia Uddin, Denise Saul and Susan Barker listening to Emily Bullock reading an extract from her forthcoming novel, The Longest Fight.
Zakia Uddin, Denise Saul, Susan Barker and Emily Bullock (reading from her forthcoming novel, The Longest Fight).

Amazingly, too, the sparkling wine down Em’s dress seemed to dry out in record time and had virtually disappeared by the time everyone arrived. We’d wondered earlier – completely unnecessarily as it turned out – if, with a group of people who didn’t really know each other, conversation would be initially stilted. So we’d asked each writer to bring along a sample of her work as a way of introducing herself. In between the sandwiches, cakes and replenishing of glasses, we were treated to extracts from novels and short stories, and some of Denise’s poetry.

We talked about professional issues too. Questions about book launches, ways of spreading the word about our work, and university programmes were just some of the things we discussed. If I had to sum up the occasion in a few words, I’d say it was five hours of warmth and good conversation, and lots of laughter: not the conflict of great literature perhaps, but – for Emma Claire and me, and we hope for all our guests – the stuff of a great party for writers.