With our book A Secret Sisterhood just out in the UK, it gives us such pleasure to look back on the past three years running Something Rhymed together.
By the time we launched our blog at the beginning of 2014, with this post on Katherine Mansfield and Virginia Woolf, we had been researching the subject of female literary friendship for some time already. But, over the months that followed, it was the enthusiasm of Something Rhymed readers that encouraged us to explore the subject of female literary friendship in far greater detail in a book.
A Secret Sisterhood features the stories of the literary friendships of Jane Austen and amateur-playwright-cum-family-governess Anne Sharp; Charlotte Brontё and early feminist author Mary Taylor; George Eliot and Harriet Beecher Stowe, of Uncle Tom’s Cabin fame; fellow Modernists Katherine Mansfield and Virginia Woolf.
We thought you might be interested in the following articles and reviews, which give something of a taster of the book. We’re also hard at work on pieces for the I newspaper, and the TLS, among others, so do look out for those.
We’ll be profiling another pair of female writer friends, suggested to us by one of our readers. If you have an idea for a pair of literary pals you’d like to see featured on Something Rhymed, do please let us know. You can do this by leaving a comment or visiting the Contact Us page.
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 feministauthorMary 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 recentWriting Friendshipsevent at City, University of London, made possible by the generous support of Arts Council England.
We were joined by writersSusan Barker, Ann MorganandDenise 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, the first speaker of the evening, talked about the important bonds she’d forged through herweb projectand 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 novelThe Incarnations. Denise talked about collaborating with other artists as part of a video poem project, Silent Room: a Journey of Language.
Audience member, Rosie Canning, has written up a fuller account of the evening, which you can readhere.
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.
This year, Emma and I have spent a lot of time thinking about sisterhood – the kind of literary sisterhood we’ve been exploring here on Something Rhymed, and the ties that bind flesh and blood female siblings.
Unlike these other writers who will feature in our forthcoming book, George Eliot’s relationships with other family members had been brought to an abrupt end some fifteen years before she began her alliance with Harriet Beecher Stowe. In her mid-thirties, Eliot had begun to live out of wedlock with George Henry Lewes. On discovering this, her sister and half-sister had heeded the warnings of their scandalised brother and cut off all contact. This cruel treatment may have made Eliot particularly happy when she received her first letter from Stowe. In this missive of spring 1869, the American author – who Eliot had never met – addressed her both as a ‘dear friend’ and a ‘sister’.
In Emma’s June post, she talked of reading Mrs Dalloway as a teenager with her sister, Lou. This got me thinking about my own sister, Erica, and the novels we enjoyed when we were young.
Back then, we often used to talk about the books we read, sharing recommendations. I couldn’t remember us ever discussing Middlemarch, though. Although Erica is a year younger than me, I had come to Eliot’s work considerably later than her and by the time I read the novel we were no longer both living at home.
As I have recently been re-reading Middlemarch, I thought I would ask Erica about her memories of the book. It was a long time since she’d read it, it turned out, so she remembered the atmosphere far better than the intricacies of the plot. The character she recalled best was Dorothea Brooke – the intelligent, deeply pious young woman, whose story (one of several major interlocking plot lines) opens chapter one.
Dorothea struck Erica – who’d read Middlemarch as a teenager in the 1990s – as an amazingly well-developed character, a young woman who becomes locked into a marriage with a with joyless older man, and whose complex personality Erica found interesting on so many levels. It was with a sense of happiness that she recalled meeting Dorothea on the page for the first time and feeling, she said, that she was reading truly great writing.
Well over a century earlier, the character of Dorothea had also captivated Harriet Beecher Stowe and, like Erica, there was a good deal she admired more generally about the book. But Stowe’s letters to Eliot over the period when she was reading Middlemarch, in serialised form, also express her frustration with what she regarded as Eliot’s high-mindedness and her story’s lack of ‘jollitude’.
Reading this time with Stowe’s criticism in mind, I couldn’t help feeling that the verdict was too harsh. There are more challenging passages to Middlemarch, certainly. The book’s Prelude, for instance, grabbed me far less than the first chapter proper, which introduces Dorothea. Her tale, too, is often sad, but none the less gripping for that. There are also quite a number of light comic moments, many of which I had forgotten. As Erica said, the main impression she retains of the novel is that of an enormous literary achievement – and one to which, having chatted about it with me, she would like to return.
I would certainly encourage my sister to do that. As I have found, on coming back to Eliot’s novel at the age of thirty-six, Middlemarch absolutely rewards a re-reading. Just as Emma and I found when we returned to Jane Eyresome months ago, scenes that made the greatest impressions on me when I was younger are not always the ones that affected me the most now.
This time round, with sisterhood on my mind so much of late, Dorothea’s relationship with her sister Celia is the one that stayed with me the most in between stints of reading the novel. Dorothea is serious, Celia more lighthearted. Dorothea’s mind is always on study and religious matters, whereas Celia is concerned with the day to day world around her. But despite their seeming differences, the two sisters – Kitty and Dodo as they affectionately call each other – could not be closer.
Eliot and Stowe’s personalities were also markedly different, so different that many biographers have doubted that they could really have been friends. Eliot’s letters to Stowe reveal her as the more rational and measured of the pair. Stowe, by contrast, is impulsive, sometimes careless – occasionally shockingly so.
But as the example of Celia and Dorothea reminds us, major differences needn’t be an impediment to friendship. Familial ties were what united the Middlemarch sisters. For Stowe and Eliot, it was the sense that – for all that divided them – they were bonded together by being part of the same literary sisterhood.
We’ll be discussing Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and the impact it had on her friendship with George Eliot.
We’ll also be running two friendship-themed writing workshops in Spalding and Boston (Lincolnshire), on Saturday 15th and Sunday 16th October respectively. We still have some tickets available, so if you would like to reserve a place, do please get in touch with us at firstname.lastname@example.org. More information about the workshops can be found here.
Fydell House, Boston (Lincolnshire): Sunday 16 October, 2-5pm
With practical writing exercises that can be tackled at different levels, these workshops will be open to experienced and novice writers – and, of course, both men and women.
The workshops have been generously funded by Arts Council England. Places are free but limited and need to be reserved in advance by emailing email@example.com, indicating whether you want to attend the Spalding or Boston workshop.
We do hope to see you at one of these events. In the meantime, do look out for the videos of our recent London literary salons. We’ll be sharing these here on Something Rhymed over the coming weeks.
This month I re-read a novel that has perhaps influenced me more profoundly than any other. Below is the letter I sent to Emily, in which I explained the root of my fascination.
I’m sending you my copy of Mrs Dalloway, its margins filled with notes in different coloured inks. My fascination with Virginia Woolf predates our friendship by half a decade – the enclosed novel already dog-eared from several readings by the time you and I first met. It seems strange that I’ve never shown you this book, since my interest in Woolf is something I now share with you: the hours we’ve pored over her handwriting; our annual trips to her sister’s farmhouse; that time we forced our way through the crowds to reach her iconic image at the National Portrait Gallery. This well-thumbed novel is my way of introducing you to the Emma who, in 1996, propped herself up with pillows in her childhood bedroom in Birkenhead, breaking the spine of her brand new book.
In the rare quiet of the early morning – last night’s Mersey Beat still ringing in my ears, my hair heavy with nicotine – I struggle over Mrs Dalloway’s opening pages. Self-doubt bloats in the pit of my stomach. In just a week’s time, I will travel south from Liverpool Lime Street to an educational centre that promotes fair access to Oxbridge, and the tutors there will expect me to speak intelligently about this unfathomable book. It crosses my mind that the centre’s admissions team might have been right when they rejected my initial application. Perhaps I shouldn’t have convinced the Head of Sixth Form to write that second reference. As my hands leaf through the pages, my thoughts turn to the other successful applicants. Will they have understood with ease this book that’s defeating me?
Back then, I burned with such a ferocious sense of competition that I’m glad I didn’t meet you until half a decade later. I would learn so much about sisterhood during those intervening years.
Watch me focus once more on my new book, searching for stability amongst its shifting sands. See my concentration lapse as the rest of the house begins to wake. Hear the sounds from upstairs of my fourteen-year-old sister, exuberantly embracing the day: ‘What noise does an owl make? Twit-twoo, I love you true. Who do you love the best, pork pie or custard?’ Like most nights, she has crept into my parents’ bed during the early hours of the morning, lying diagonally across their mattress, forcing them to opposite sides. And, like most mornings, they sing her favourite nursery rhymes until they can no longer fight their fatigue. Listen out then for my dad’s stage whisper: ‘I’m sure Emma would love to play. Why don’t you go and wake her?’
Lou enters my room, cradling one of her noisy toys. After a minute or so of feigning sleep, I admit defeat by lifting my duvet and inviting her in. Partly to distract her from her talking teddy bear, I read to her from my difficult book. Lou clasps my chin and listens intently. I would love to know whether she shares my feeling that this novel marks a departure from those we’ve enjoyed together during the past few years: novels by Jane Austen, the Brontës and George Eliot. But it’s impossible to tell whether she appreciates simply the tones and tremors or whether she also picks up on some of its sense.
What were you and your sister reading, I wonder, back when I was reciting Mrs Dalloway to Lou? I would love to get a glimpse of you both in your teens, sitting in your home on the outskirts of York, worlds unfurling from the pages of your books. Lou and I were separated from you and Erica by the Pennine hills’ great spine, neither pair of us aware of each other’s existence. But perhaps you sat up in bed with The Collected Stories of Katherine Mansfield while I opened my copy of Mrs Dalloway. I know that you came to the New Zealand author’s work far earlier than I did, but you’ve never told me about your discovery. Did your imagination take flight from your small Yorkshire village, landing in the author’s childhood of wooden verandas, fresh oysters, and aloe trees that flower once in every hundred years? Was it you or Erica who first came across these stories; did you argue over which one you each preferred?
Just a week after I fell in love with this compassionate novel about a shell-shocked soldier returned from the front, I discovered something that filled me with the same kind of fury that Katherine had once felt. Imagine me if you can, Emily, nineteen years ago, sitting in a darkened seminar room in that educational centre in Oxfordshire, flush with hatred for Virginia Woolf. My new classmates and I are watching a film about Modernist literature, and Virginia’s diary entry for January 9th, 1915 has just appeared on the screen:
On the towpath we met & had to pass a long line of imbeciles. The first was a very tall young man, just queer enough to look twice at, but no more; the second shuffled and looked aside; & then one realised that every one in that long line was a miserable ineffective shuffling idiotic creature, with no forehead or no chin; or an imbecile grin, or a wild suspicious stare. It was perfectly horrible. They should certainly be killed.
I now know that Virginia was on the verge of a shattering breakdown when she made this note in her diary, and that ‘imbecile’ was the official terminology of the time. But pause for a while with the sixteen-year-old me, wounded by Virginia’s vehemence. Would this author have described my sister with such vitriol: Lou, who had climbed into my bed, our bodies still warm with sleep, whose palm had felt the vibrations of Mrs Dalloway, whose ears had delighted in its music – would Virginia have condemned her to death?
Together, Lou and I had come under Mrs Dalloway’s incantatory spell: ‘Like a nun withdrawing, or a child exploring a tower, she went upstairs, paused at the window, came to the bathroom. There was the green linoleum and a tap dripping. There was an emptiness about the heart of life; an attic room.’ I’m still at a loss to explain the magic of these lines, but they have continued to enchant me, even during the moments when I’ve doubted the sisterliness of their author.
Search with me, Emily, the faces of my fellow students, studying them for signs of solidarity. Share in my confusion at the endurance of my love for Mrs Dalloway and, by extension, its creator – a complicated love affair with a complex book, which I now want to share with you.
With love and friendship,
Next month Emily and I will be talking about ‘Prelude’ – a long short story by Katherine Mansfield, which Virginia Woolf commissioned for her newly-formed Hogarth Press.
In the meantime, as we mentioned at the beginning of this month, we have recently been reading Mary Taylor’s novel, Miss Miles. Emily talks about the book, its author and her close friendship with Charlotte Brontë in this video:
Working on our book, A Secret Sisterhood, has given us the perfect excuse to visit some of the places most associated with our literary heroines.
Some of these, such as Jane Austen’s former home at Chawton, are geographically close to where we live. Others, like Harriet Beecher Stowe’s house in the Connecticut town of Hartford, or the site of the school Charlotte Brontë attended in Brussels – both on the agenda for research trips this month – are considerably further afield.
A few are fixtures on the tourist trail, attracting many thousands of literary pilgrims each year; others are not usually open to visitors; others still, though they welcome the public, are nowhere near as well-known as they deserve to be.
A couple of months ago, I returned to my home county of Yorkshire to gain a stronger insight into the close and startlingly frank bond between Charlotte Brontë and Mary Taylor.
Regular readers of Something Rhymed may recall that I visited the Brontë Parsonage with my sister as a child – the two of us spending a long time in the gift shop picking out souvenir brooches bearing the images of Charlotte and Emily Brontë.
Once again, on this most recent trip, that famed grey-stone building on the edge of the moors was back on my itinerary. But this time I sought out other locations too: the house purchased by the intrepid Mary Taylor in her later years, once she’d returned to Yorkshire from New Zealand; the boarding school she and Charlotte Brontë attended as teenagers; and Taylor’s family residence, the Red House.
Situated in the village of Gomersal, its pleasant gardens and warm red brickwork make Taylor’s old home a welcoming sight. Inside, the marble-like pillars and wide-open balcony above the entrance hall give a markedly different impression from the dim downstairs corridor of the Haworth parsonage where her friend, Brontë, grew up.
Thanks to the writings of both women, some features of the Red House felt pleasingly familiar to me.
In her novel, Shirley, Brontë reimagines it as Briarmains – the home of the Yorkes, who she based on the lively and opinionated Taylor clan. And in letters Taylor wrote to Elizabeth Gaskell, when she was preparing to write her biography of Brontë, Taylor recalled her late friend’s visits to the Red House – occasions when the once socially-conservative young Brontë was coaxed out of her usual reticence to engage in lively political arguments with the radical Taylor siblings.
Walking through the rooms of the Red House that day, scenes I’d last experienced in the written words of Brontë and Taylor kept resurfacing in my mind. It was a thrill to go into the back parlour and pick out the pair of stained glass windows and picture of Mount Vesuvius erupting – mentioned in the pages of Shirley – and to imagine the young Brontë first coming face-to-face with the drama of that painting, and the sparkling purple and amber lights bouncing off the panes of stained glass.
We’ll look forward to sharing many more stories about the Red House, and Brontë and Taylor’s fascinating friendship in our forthcoming book, which comes out in late 2017.
In the meantime, we’ll feature another post about this literary pair, here on Something Rhymed, this month:
Discussing Jane Eyre together in March, made us curious to read Mary Taylor’s ground-breaking feminist novel,Miss Miles. Rather than doing an audio interview, this time we’ve decided to vary things by giving you our thoughts in a video, which we’ll post two weeks from now. We hope you’ll come back then to take a look.