At the Risk of Disapproval

Since the beginning of our friendship in the early 2000s, Emma Claire and I have chalked up many dozens of hours of late-night conversation. Like her, I have happy memories from the period when we were in our early twenties and working as English teachers in Japan: of chatting, just the two of us, at parties.

On these frequent occasions when we slipped away from the crowd, I’m not sure if anyone cared, or even noticed, but I doubt it would have bothered me if they did. In my mind, this was where the real fun was happening: in us sharing revelations and laughter out in someone’s shadowed garden, or gossiping in a corner by the piled-up coats.

Bar in Lisbon - the scene of one of our late-night chats (in 2013).
Bar in Lisbon – the scene of one of our late-night chats (in 2013).

Over the decade and more that has passed since then, we’ve sat up talking well into the night in pubs and cocktail bars in many parts of Britain, and on holidays and writers’ retreats in various European cities.

But the vast majority of our after-dark talk over the years has taken place within the walls of our own homes.

In the days when we lived far away from each other, we would often arrange ‘writing weekends’ at either one of our houses. During these stays – and to the sheer bemusement of some we told about them – we’d spend much of our time, not in conversation at all, but writing in separate rooms. But we’d get together to discuss work-in-progress, and for meals and glasses of wine at the end of the day – times when our talk would meander through countless topics, but invariably keep circling back to writing, as the hours ticked by unnoticed.

Since moving to London a few years back, I now see Em most weeks, so whole weekends spent like this have become less common. But as she is still a frequent guest at the flat I share with my partner, our late-night chats at my place haven’t entirely come to an end.

Amongst the writers we’ve profiled on Something Rhymed, several had spouses or close relatives who seemed to view the time the woman in their life spent with her female friend as a negative thing.

L.M. Montgomery’s husband, for instance, once ‘jokingly’ pointed a gun at her writer pal Nora Lefurgey, and it’s hard to imagine that resentment of some kind wasn’t the cause. Dorothy Wordsworth, one half of this month’s featured pair, was temporarily banned from visiting Mary Lamb by her protective brother Charles (with whom she lived), because he feared that the two’s night-time conversations were depriving his sister from sleep and putting a strain on her fragile mental health. Poets Maxine Kumin and Anne Sexton, too, were so concerned that their friendship could provoke criticism from their husbands that they went as far as installing a secret phone line, so that they could chat to each other without the risk of being discovered.

It is a testament to the bonds of friendship between these pairs of women that they all continued with their literary relationships despite the possibility of more disapproval, and a reminder that it can be done. But I’m thankful that my partner has never voiced any annoyance at my closeness with Em –  even on those occasions when we’ve tied up the (non-secret) home phone line for several hours.

It helps, of course, that he likes Emma Claire too. But he also knows what a support she’s been to me over the years, and that my life would be much the poorer without her as my friend.

Mary Lamb and Dorothy Wordsworth

In our round-up of Something Rhymed’s first year, we promised this month to reveal a friendship between two female authors that has been neglected in favour of these women’s relationships with famous men.  

Mary Lamb (Creative Commons License)
Mary Lamb (Creative Commons License)

Mary Lamb and Dorothy Wordsworth, great writers themselves, are most often remembered because of their intense attachments to their brothers, essayist Charles Lamb and Romantic poet William Wordsworth. Their own fascinating friendship, preserved in their intimate correspondence, barely scrapes a mention in most literary histories.

And yet, like the men in their circle, Mary and Dorothy also hiked up the mountains around Grasmere, exchanging their thoughts on the natural world and trading ideas on each other’s poems.

When Dorothy visited London, Mary would welcome her into the small Inner Temple flat where she lived with her brother, and the two women would stay up talking late into the night.

The pair both shunned marriage in favour of devotion to their sisterly roles. The night before William’s wedding, Dorothy wore the ring that he had purchased for his betrothed and, when she gave it to him the following morning, he slipped it back onto her finger before taking it to the church. Dorothy did not attend the ceremony.

Stories of the relationship between the Lamb siblings suggest similar hints of the illicit. Mary, who suffered throughout her life from severe attacks of mental illness, had tragically stabbed their mother to death during her first breakdown. Charles promised to take care of his sister, thereby preventing her from being sent to Bedlam. They upheld their mutual pledge never to marry, instead committing themselves to each other ‘for better, for worse’ as Charles put it; writing in collaboration; and caring for their adopted child.

The women’s fraternal relationships, which had drawn them together, later threatened to split them apart. One of Mary’s breakdowns – so severe that she spent several weeks in an asylum – occurred after an overnight visit from Dorothy.

Charles, who felt that his sister’s mental health was reliant on a good night’s sleep, blamed the women’s late-night conversations for the onset of her illness. He therefore banned Dorothy from staying with them in future and declined her offer to bring Mary up to the Lakes.

But as soon as Mary recovered, she wrote a cheerful letter to Dorothy and the pair continued their friendship despite the restrictions imposed by Mary’s kindly but overbearing brother.

Dorothy Wordsworth (Creative Commons License)
Dorothy Wordsworth (Creative Commons License)

Both of them eventually outlived their beloved siblings. In her dotage, Dorothy also suffered a loss of mental health – although different in nature from Mary’s lifelong illness.

As Dorothy’s grip on the present loosened she became immersed in memories of her youth. She took to reciting poems from the early Grasmere days: poems by the men we’ve come to think of as the great Romantics, but also her poems and those of her friend – the female Romantics whose lives and works have for too long been consigned to the shadows.


Inspired by Mary Lamb and Dorothy Wordsworth, this month we will write about some of our own late-night conversations.