Celebrating Past and Modern-day Writing Friendships

Especially over the past year, when we have been hard at work on our joint-book, we have been focusing mostly on historical literary friendships on this blog.

Reading the novels and stories of Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, George Eliot, Virginia Woolf and their friends has given us much to think about, as have our conversations about these important literary relationships.

We’ve often been struck by how relevant the issues faced by these authors of the past still feel to female writers today – particularly in terms of the need to balance the desire to write with other pressing responsibilities.

Austen’s great friend and governess to her brother’s children, Anne Sharp, had time to pen her theatricals only in the hours in between teaching lessons.

Before the tremendous success of her first published novel, Jane Eyre, Brontë faced similar struggles.

But just as Sharp benefited from the support of Austen, who did her best to improve her friend’s work life, Brontë was lucky to have the future feminist author Mary Taylor to encourage her literary efforts.

The two of us have been teachers for about a decade now and have thankfully never found it as limiting as Brontë, or even Sharp, did. We have been lucky in that, rather than teaching a broad curriculum, we are teachers only of writing – a subject in which we naturally have a genuine interest.

Nonetheless, there have been times in both of our pasts when, being short of money or eager to get a foot in the door at a particular institution, we’ve taken on too many classes and our own writing has suffered as a result.

This need for authors to try and find the right balance been writing and other aspects of their lives came up at our recent Writing Friendships event at City, University of London, made possible by the generous support of Arts Council England.

Susan Barker
Susan Barker

We were joined by writers Susan Barker, Ann Morgan and Denise Saul – all also former guest bloggers for Something Rhymed. The feeling among the group seemed to be that, although teaching (and teaching writing especially) can provide inspiration for an author, it’s important to fiercely guard your own writing time.

But we all also felt that it was equally important not to cut yourself off from other people. In the talks by Susan, Ann and Denise, audience members were treated to insights about the literary friendships of each woman on the panel.

Ann Morgan - image by Steve Lennon
Ann Morgan – image by Steve Lennon

Ann, the first speaker of the evening, talked about the important bonds she’d forged through her web project and non-fiction book, Reading the World. Susan spoke about the invaluable advice and support she’d received from Liang Junhong, a friend she met while she was living in China and working on her novel The Incarnations. Denise talked about collaborating with other artists as part of a video poem project, Silent Room: a Journey of Language.

Denise Saul - image by Amanda Pepper
Denise Saul – image by Amanda Pepper

Audience member, Rosie Canning, has written up a fuller account of the evening, which you can read here.

We are grateful to Rosie for commemorating the event in this way, and to everyone who came along to support us. We’re sure to be running more Something Rhymed events in the new year, so do keep an eye on our blog for more details.

 

Jane Austen’s Admiration for Maria Edgeworth

This month, we’ve really enjoyed reading and discussing The Absentee by Maria Edgeworth. Neither of us had read the Anglo-Irish writer before, but we’d long heard of her as an influence on Jane Austen. This is particularly interesting since Edgeworth held progressive views for her time, her novels exploring issues such as inter-racial relationships, feminism and same-sex desire.

‘The authoress of Pride and Prejudice has been so good as to send me a new novel just published, Emma’
‘The authoress of Pride and Prejudice has been so good as to send me a new novel just published, Emma’
Jane Austen
Jane Austen greatly admired the novels of Maria Edgeworth. Both these images are in the public domain.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Austen singled out for praise one of Edgeworth’s most controversial books, Belinda, in her own novel, Northanger Abbey:

“And what are you reading, Miss –?” “Oh! it is only a novel!” replies the young lady, while she lays down her book with affected indifference, or momentary shame. “It is only Cecilia, or Camilla, or Belinda”; or, in short, only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best-chosen language.”

Austen so prized her fellow novelist’s good opinion that in 1816 she asked her publisher to send a precious presentation copy of Emma to Edgeworth in Ireland.

You might remember that a presentation copy of Emma cropped up in our post on Austen’s radical bond with the family governess and amateur playwright, Anne Sharp. Just as Sharp was the only friend whom Austen singled out to receive these rare volumes, so Edgeworth appears to have been the only professional author.

Maria Edgeworth's presentation copies of Emma, sent to her by Jane Austen
Maria Edgeworth’s presentation copies of Emma, sent to her by Jane Austen. This image is used with permission from Sotheby’s.
Anne Sharp's presentation copies of Emma, sent to her by Jane Austen. This image is used with permission from Bonham's.
Anne Sharp’s presentation copies of Emma, sent to her by Jane Austen. This image is used with permission from Bonham’s.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In our recorded conversation, we talk about Edgeworth’s and Sharp’s wildly different responses to Austen’s gift and their respective reactions to the novel itself. We also share our reasons for believing that Edgeworth’s The Absentee played a crucial and illuminating role in the unlikely friendship between Austen and Sharp.

Our book: A Secret Sisterhood

Having blogged about the subject of female writers’ friendships for the past two years, we’re delighted to have now been given the chance to explore this fascinating subject in much greater depth.

Our book, A Secret Sisterhood, will look at the literary bonds between Jane Austen and amateur playwright, Anne Sharp; Charlotte Brontë and feminist author, Mary Taylor; George Eliot and Harriet Beecher Stowe; and Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield.

A Secret Sisterhood will be published, by Aurum Press in the UK and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in the USA, in late 2017. The year coincides with the bicentenary of Jane Austen’s death.

An announcement appears in the Bookseller today, and we’ll look forward to sharing more details about these trailblazing relationships with our readers over the coming months.

As many of you know, it was our own writing friendship that first sparked our interest in these historical creative pairings. But it was the support we’ve received from Something Rhymed readers that encouraged us that there would be an audience for this book and convinced us to start writing it together.

So, thank you. We are both extremely grateful to all our Something Rhymed friends.

Remember

We’ll soon be following up on last month’s conversation about Jane Austen’s Emma with a new post on The Absentee by Maria Edgeworth – a novel that Austen enjoyed discussing with her friend, Anne Sharp. Over the coming months, we’ll look forward to sharing our thoughts on other books by, or associated with, the authors we’ll write about in A Secret Sisterhood.

 

On Re-Reading Jane Austen’s EMMA

As we mentioned in our last post of 2015, one of our readers, Sarah Emsley, offered us the perfect opportunity to re-read Jane Austen’s novel, Emma, for her online celebration of the bicentenary of its publication.

You can see our post about the role of female friendship in the novel as part of the Emma in the Snow celebrations on Sarah’s site.

This gave us the idea to record a conversation about Emma to post on here. We ended up talking about the role of female friendship in the novel, and our different responses to this theme on first reading the book and on re-visiting it now. Our discussion also took us into the territory of Jane Austen’s own life and the female friendships she established off the page.

We do hope that some of you also took the opportunity to re-read Emma exactly two hundred years since the very first readers got their hands on the published book.

Jane Austen jotted down the opinions of her nearest and dearest, so you can read what Anne Sharp and others had to say about it here:

This image is in the public domain.
This image is in the public domain.

Please do share your thoughts with us by using the comment facility below.

Activity

We enjoyed this so much that we have decided to share more literary conversations about female friendship over the coming months. In January, we are challenging ourselves to read The Absentee  – a novel by Maria Edgeworth, which we believe Jane Austen enjoyed discussing with her governess and amateur playwright friend, Anne Sharp.

We’ll post up our conversation at the beginning of February and we do hope that some of you will choose to read along with us.

Successes and Surprises

Butterfly-Fish-204x300
We sought permission from Jacaranda Books to use this image.

Last week, I had the pleasure of attending the book launch of one of our former guest blogger’s debut novels. Butterfly Fish by Irenosen Okojie has just been published by Jacaranda Books.

I first got to know Irenosen through her work as a Prize Advocate for the SI Leeds Literary Prize, an award that celebrates the writing of Black and Asian female writers, and for which I was delighted to be a runner-up in 2012. I am grateful to Irenosen for the support she’s given me with my writing, and so it was great to be able to go along last Wednesday to give my support to her.

It is this kind of reciprocity that takes a relationship away from a purely work-based arrangement and into the realms of friendship. Of the writer pairs we’ve profiled on Something Rhymed, some – like Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison, or George Eliot and Harriet Beecher Stowe – enjoyed similar phenomenal levels of literary success. Others – such as Jane Austen and Anne Sharp, or Emily Dickinson and Helen Hunt Jackson in their day (Dickinson being the unknown one) – were poles apart professionally. But what they all had in common was a high regard for their friend’s opinions and talents, and, in almost all cases, a desire to celebrate their successes with them.

Prior to beginning Something Rhymed, Emma Claire and I were not at all sure that we’d be able to find so many heartening examples of female solidarity – not necessarily because we doubted these kinds of relationships existed through history, but because we feared that the evidence might no longer be there.

So it was good to learn about Jane Austen and Anne Sharp. While Austen’s books enjoyed great popularity during her lifetime, the plays of her friend Sharp remained unperformed outside the home. Nonetheless, a level playing field always remained between the two when it came to discussions of their work. After the publication of her novel, Emma, Austen sought out Sharp’s critical opinions. Sharp expressed admiration for the book, but she wasn’t afraid to let Austen know that she found the character of Jane Fairfax – inspired in part by Sharp herself – insufficiently complex.

Emily Dickinson’s extrovert friend, Helen Hunt Jackson, author of the novel Ramona, made several attempts to even things out professionally between the two of them by raving about Dickinson’s writing in her own literary circles and encouraging her reclusive friend to publish her poems. Although Dickinson largely resisted these efforts, such an endorsement must surely have done wonders for her confidence and perhaps even had an impact on her prolific output, which totalled nearly 1800 poems.

As Emma Claire mentioned in last week’s post, over the many months during which we have been researching female literary friendships, we have been surprised by the historical sources that do indeed exist, and how often they have been overlooked or misinterpreted.

Just as unpublished material in the Austen family’s papers revealed new insights into her friendship with Sharp, the close transatlantic bond  between George Eliot and Harriet Beecher Stowe was illuminated for us by the letters between them – letters that have too often been dismissed as a correspondence between mere acquaintances. Going back to the diaries of Virginia Woolf allowed us to see that Katherine Mansfield was her greatest literary confidante rather than her bitterest foe.

These last two were not always willing to share in the joy of each other’s achievements, and occasionally even revelled in their friend’s disappointments. But they were ready to lavish praise when they felt it was due, and even collaborated together on Mansfield’s Prelude, published by Woolf through her Hogarth Press.

Setting every single letter of her friend’s story with the wooden blocks of her hand-press was a drawn-out and laborious process. For me, this image stands as a strong symbol, not just of the value Woolf accorded to Mansfield’s work, but also of one woman helping another – as a friend and a fellow writer.

The Rivalry between Jane Austen’s Sister and Sister-Friend

This pendant is set with what is supposed to have been Jane Austen’s hair. A lock of which was set for Fanny Austen, and another sent to Jane’s dear friend, Anne Sharp.
This pendant is set with what is supposed to have been Jane Austen’s hair. A lock of which was set for Fanny Austen, and another sent to Jane’s dear friend, Anne Sharp.

Cassandra Austen took the time, just four days after her sister’s funeral, to pen a letter and send some treasured mementoes to Jane’s friend, the governess and amateur playwright Anne Sharp. It was the second letter she is known to have written after Jane’s death. The first was to Fanny Knight: the niece whom Anne once taught.

When I first learnt that Anne was the only person outside of the Austen family and household to receive such poignant trinkets, I assumed that the note accompanying Jane’s lock of hair, pair of belt clasps and silver needle would have been infused with a sense of shared love and grief for Jane.

But, when I tracked down Cassandra’s letter, I detected instead a barbed quality that hints at a deep conflict between Jane’s sister by birth and the sister-friend she singled out.

Letter from Cassandra to Anne (2)

I long to read the letter Anne sent to Cassandra, to measure for myself the friend’s ‘ardent feelings’ against the sister’s stoicism. But Anne’s voice has been largely silenced – like that of so many working women of the past.

In her dotage, Cassandra re-read all of Jane’s correspondence one last time. Secretly, she then removed from her cache all those letters she felt might compromise the mythology her family had constructed of Jane as a meek, conservative maiden aunt, who dabbled with storytelling in between chores. And finally Cassandra built up a fire and, one by one, fed her sister’s most personal words to the flames.

But surviving letters, like the one above, and several volumes of unpublished diaries have allowed us to reconstruct something of Jane’s incendiary relationship with a woman of lower social standing – a sister-friend who shared her fieriness, whose ‘ardent feelings’ provided a welcome contrast to her sister’s ‘tranquil’ restraint.

Cassandra’s envy of Anne’s intimacy with Jane emerges in her insistence that ‘What I have lost, no one but myself can know, you are not ignorant of her merits, but who can judge how I estimated them?’ Cassandra could have become close to Anne through their shared bereavement. After all, Jane had drawn both intelligent spinsters into her inner circle. But the sister found the sister-friend’s spirited personality a source of pain during this desolate time.

The letter is freighted with Cassandra’s conflicting emotions: her desire to honour her sister’s highly-valued relationship competing against the dual demands of snobbery and envy. She feels compelled to offer the hand of friendship to the woman her sister so loved: ‘If any thing should ever bring you into attainable distance from me we must meet my dear Miss Sharp’. But she will not go out of her way to visit the woman her sister called ‘my dearest Anne’, nor will she offer any specific hospitality.

So, imagine my surprise when I discovered that Anne stayed in Chawton Cottage with Cassandra for several weeks in 1820 – three years after Jane’s death. We know then that the fraught relationship between sister and sister-friend endured against the odds. But from this answer more questions arise: How did the pair move from competition to compassion? What took them from half-hearted invitations to residing under the same roof? How did their relationship develop and change during this time?

These questions send me back to the diaries, back to the letters that survived the flames, back into the realms of my own imagination where Anne sits beside Cassandra, reminiscing about their beloved Jane, a fire roaring in the grate.

In the Hands of Chance?

Image by Angela Monika Arnold (Creative Commons licence)
Image by Angela Monika Arnold (Creative Commons licence)

A chance meeting in the ladies’ lavatory at a wedding marked the start of the friendship between last week’s guest interviewees, Polly Coles and Liz Jensen.

This got us thinking about some of the other unplanned first encounters of writers we’ve featured on Something Rhymed.

Susan Barker and Zakia Uddin, for instance – saw their paths collide back in 1999 at the Statue of Liberty, where they both had summer jobs. Rachel Connor and Antonia Honeywell formed an immediate connection when they happened to be paired as students in advance of their first MA Novel Writing workshop at Manchester University.

Of the monthly profiled writers, some like Charlotte Brontë and Elizabeth Gaskell and Harriet Beecher Stowe and George Eliot knew of each other by reputation before they met. Diana Athill formed a connection with Jean Rhys through her job as an editor at André Deutsch, and the friendship between Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison really blossomed when they both found themselves appearing at the Hay Festival in Wales.

But others, especially those who met early on in their literary careers, got to know each other under circumstances largely governed by happy twists of coincidence.

What would have happened if Vera Brittain and Winifred Holtby hadn’t each passed their university entrance exams and found themselves at the same Oxford college? Or if the teacher’s job in L.M. Montgomery’s hometown on Prince Edward Island had been given to someone other than Nora Lefurgey? Or Anne Sharp hadn’t gone to work as a governess with Jane Austen’s family?

Some might say that, with such similar political views and overlapping fields of work, Brittain and Holtby would likely have met eventually, but one can more easily imagine a life in which Austen had to manage without Sharp’s friendship, and Montgomery never found a kindred spirit in Lefurgey.

And since both Brittain and Holtby were always keen to credit the other for the role they had played in shaping their own success, this raises the question as to whether each woman’s life might have run a quite different course without the help of her valued friend.

Unlike the vast majority of our monthly guest bloggers and featured authors, who were already well on their way with their writing careers by the time they became acquainted, regular readers of Something Rhymed will know that when Emma Claire and I met neither of us had published a single article or story.

In fact, we had been scribbling in secret up until then, and hadn’t had the courage to share our ambitions to write with anyone else.

It’s nice to think that, having so many things in common, we would have found each other, perhaps on-line, eventually – an advantage female writers of today have over those in Montgomery or Austen’s times.

But it’s far nicer to be able to recall the fact that we’ve been there for each other through all the ups and downs of our writing journeys, and to think that, as Brittain once said about Holtby: ‘although we didn’t exactly grow up together, we grew mature together, and that is the next best thing’.