How Far Would You Go for a Friend? – An insight into Elizabeth Gaskell’s friendship with Charlotte Brontё

Having featured the literary bond between Charlotte Brontë and Elizabeth Gaskell on this blog, and touched on it in  our book  A Secret Sisterhood, we were delighted to receive a message from Susan Dunne, who is writing the first full-length biography of the friendship between these two authors. If this piece inspires an idea for a future Something Rhymed post, please do get in touch here.

Elizabeth Gaskell (portrait by George Richmond, 1851). This image is in the public domain.

How far should you go to save a friend’s life – risk your own, break the law, face the wrath of family and friends?  It seems that Elizabeth Gaskell would have been prepared to do any of these to save her friend Charlotte Brontё from death caused by pregnancy.

Gaskell and  Brontё met in 1850 and formed a lasting friendship based on their experience as fellow novelists.  Both shot to fame with their first published novels, Mary Barton and Jane Eyre, and both endured the dubious pleasures of being northern English women lionized by London society.  They subsequently met just three times but their correspondence shows a deep mutual respect and affection.

Their friendship went beyond their lives as writers:  Gaskell was a married mother of four girls and she actively promoted Brontё’s marriage to her father Patrick Brontё’s curate, Arthur Bell Nicholls, by trying to find him a more profitable position through engaging the help of the influential Yorkshire parliamentarian, Richard Monkton Milnes. Nicholls was offered two curacies, one in Lancashire and one in Scotland but turned both down to remain in Yorkshire, near to Brontё.   It is ironic that following her marriage to Nicholls in June 1854, Brontё’s correspondence with Elizabeth was curtailed due to Nicholls’s High Church proclivities.  Nicholls was intolerant of dissenters, and in particular of Unitarians like the Gaskells whose faith did not recognize the divinity of Christ.  From the start of her engagement, Brontё knew that her continued friendship with Gaskell would not be easy but hoped that the day would come when Nicholls would ‘see both you and Mr Gaskell’.

Charlotte Bronte – portrait by J.H. Thompson. This image is in the public domain.

By the time Brontё began to suspect that she was pregnant in February 1855, she had had no correspondence with Gaskell since October 1854.  Brontё’s pregnancy was confirmed by the local doctors but all was not well – she began to suffer from what is now commonly believed to be hyperemesis gravidarum, a particularly virulent form of pregnancy associated sickness.  Today the condition, which can lead to severe dehydration and kidney failure, can be treated but in Brontё’s time it was likely to prove fatal.  She died in March 1855, her unborn child dying with her.

The only hope of saving the mother’s life in such a case was to abort the child, but the law did not permit this.  The 1803 Ellenborough Act had made it an offence for any person to perform or cause an abortion on a quickening child, punishable by death or transportation for 14 years.  The law was subsequently amended but it remained an illegal act and certainly not one that would have been sanctioned by the church or churchmen like Brontё’s husband and father.

Despite the official legal, moral and religious stance, in an age when pregnancy posed a very real threat, termination either to save the mother’s life or for economic reasons was not uncommon.  Although necessarily a taboo subject, abortion was far from unknown behind closed bedroom doors.

When Gaskell heard from the Haworth stationer John Greenwood that her friend had died as a result of her pregnancy, her response was unhesitating:  “I do fancy that if I had come, I could have induced her, – even though they had all felt angry with me at first – to do what was so absolutely necessary, for her very life”.  She later reiterated to Brontё’s publisher, George Smith, that she might have been able to save Brontё’s life if she had only known.

Unlike Brontё’s other principle friends – Ellen Nussey, Mary Taylor and her old headmistress and former employer, Margaret Wooler who were all unmarried and childless – Gaskell was no stranger to the workings of the female body. She had been through seven pregnancies by the age of 36 and through her charitable works amongst the textile workers of Manchester would have known that unwanted pregnancies were rife.  For the working class, crude methods of getting rid of unwanted children were employed, including sharp instruments, induced falls and, in the most desperate cases,  infanticide following birth.   For  middle class women, information about abortion was at once covert and overt:  newspaper adverts offering pills which should not be taken during pregnancy were widely understood to be advertising abortifacients. It is possibly this which Gaskell had in mind when thinking about inducing Brontё.

Whether Gaskell could have saved Brontё’s life is a moot point.  Brontё was 38 at the time of conception – a very late age then to have a first child – and she was notably small.  She had once told her friend Ellen Nussey that full woman size chemisettes were too big for her.  Moreover, although she had been well since her marriage, Brontё’s physical health was not particularly strong – given the high maternal mortality rates of the time she was at high risk.

The fact that Gaskell was prepared to both break the law and risk the wrath of those around Brontё to save her friend’s life, suggests that theirs was a friendship that went much deeper than that of their shared writing interests.  Unable to save her friend’s life, she was determined to pay homage to her friend and create a lasting legacy by writing The Life of Charlotte Brontё which came out two years after Brontё’s death.  It has never been out of print.

Susan Dunne is a journalist and researcher.  She is currently writing the first full-length biography of the friendship between Elizabeth Gaskell and Charlotte Brontё.  Her memoir, A Pony in the Bedroom was published by Jessica Kingsley in 2015.

 

New Chapters: From co-authors to creative companions

On the day when our joint book comes out in paperback in North America, it is my great honour to announce that Emily’s new non-fiction book, Out of the Shadows, will be published by Counterpoint Press over there, most likely in summer 2020. And the North American audio rights have been acquired by Recorded Books, who also produced the audio version of A Secret Sisterhood.

In the midst of our celebrations, I reflect on our circular literary journey from a nervous first exchange of drafts to co-authoring and back again.

I first read Emily’s creative writing a decade and a half ago, when she was still in Japan (where we’d met as young English teachers) while I had returned to the UK and was living back with my parents in Birkenhead. The package of word-processed pages, which had wended their way from Emily’s shoebox apartment to my pink-walled childhood bedroom, lay unopened for days on end.

During my shifts front-of-house at a local cinema and in between protracted break-up conversations with my long-term boyfriend, my faraway friend’s unread work kept playing on my mind: what if I didn’t understand it, or couldn’t think of a response, or hated every word?

Part of me regretted our agreement to exchange writing samples. Although we’d been friends for two years, and had known about our shared dreams of publication for the past twelve months, I wondered whether our promise to read and give feedback on each other’s work had been too hasty. With my home, job and relationship all feeling temporary, I held onto writing and friends for stability. Both, I prayed, would remain in my life for the long haul. And yet, I dreaded receiving Emily’s feedback on my fledgling fiction. I wasn’t sure I had much to offer as a critic, either, and I was worried about the strain the discussion might place on us.

But as soon as I read Emily’s story – pen in hand and bolstered by pillows – I felt a sense of hope. The compelling narrative, enigmatic characters and captivating sensuality introduced me to a new side to my friend. I was brimming with ideas and comments and questions. For the first time in a while, I felt confident about the future: here was a friendship that could only be deepened by our daunting literary endeavours; here was someone I sensed would become my constant writing companion and confidante.

Neither of us could have predicted the extent to which we would walk alongside each other during our long, shared journeys to publication: postgraduate degrees in creative writing from the same programme; lecturing jobs at the same universities; thousands of draft pages covered in each other’s scrawl.

When we finally attended each other’s book launches or award ceremonies – having both by then accumulated stacks of rejection slips – the celebrations felt jointly earned. After all, we knew each other’s writing almost as well as our own, detecting behind each published page the ghostly presences of killed-off characters, discarded scenes and amputated lines.

The North American paperback of A Secret Sisterhood, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, is out now.

Back when we first plucked up the courage to exchange our earliest drafts, we’d hardly dared dream of such intense collaboration, let alone the prospect of seeing our names published side-by-side. The first time we enjoyed this privilege was when we pitched a joint idea on female literary friendship to  The Times. And, of course, we would later experience the joy of seeing our names together on the cover of our co-authored book, A Secret Sisterhood: The literary friendships of Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, George Eliot and Virginia Woolf.

Writing together has brought us countless chances to share a creative process that is usually characterized by solitude. Instead, we’ve ferried bulging files of notes between each other’s homes; pored over forgotten manuscripts in far-flung archives; eaten fry-ups together after editing through the night; travelled across the USA on the Secret Sisterhood book tour, knowing that the friend we sat beside on stage was ready to pitch in whenever we needed help.

Even the inevitable difficulties of co-authorship have ultimately enhanced our friendship and our writing lives. We learnt, for instance, that we can get over fiery sleep-deprived arguments, that our literary disagreements invariably challenge us to come up with new and more robust ideas.

Owl Song at Dawn (Legend Press) won the literary category of Nudge Book of the Year 2016

Our joint research for A Secret Sisterhood paved the way for each of our new books. I have become increasingly fascinated by another of Virginia Woolf’s female relationships – one that instilled in Woolf such fear and shame that she suppressed it from accounts of her life. Consigned to the footnotes of literary history, this woman will take centre stage in my novel based on her life.

Fiction writing marks a homecoming for me since my debut, Owl Song at Dawn, was a novel that explored Britain’s little-known history of learning disability through the lives of twin sisters born in Morecambe in 1933. Emily, however, will be deepening her practice as a writer of non-fiction.

During our Secret Sisterhood research trip to the New York Public Library, Emily transcribed a cache of letters from Harriet Beecher Stowe, the American author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, to her British female friend George Eliot. Emily became fascinated by Stowe’s interest in Spiritualism – the belief that the living have the power to communicate with the dead.

Out of the Shadows will be published by Counterpoint Press, most likely in summer 2020.

Through this, Emily discovered a transatlantic community of Victorian women whose clairvoyant claims secured them unprecedented levels of power and celebrity.

Emily’s book proposal for Out of the Shadows introduced me to the mysterious world of seances, trance lecturers and former child mediums, who spoke up about female suffrage and draconian lunacy laws, delivered powerful political oration, advised Wall Street brokers, and even, in one case, stood as the first female presidential candidate of the United States.

I know that Emily has been spending hours on end in the library, and that her draft chapters are stacking up, but I have only caught glimpses so far of the stories they might contain. Soon, I hope, Emily will send them to me for feedback.

Fifteen years ago, when we first exchanged work, I felt almost paralyzed by the unknown territory contained in Emily’s word-processed pages. Now, I will pick up my pen straight away, curious to see where my friend’s research has taken her, impatient to read her words once more. On this journey back from co-authoring to writing separately, it is this renewed sense of mystery that I most relish – the opportunity to be taken somewhere entirely unexpected, led every step of the way by a trusted friend.

A Secret Sisterhood: The literary friendships of Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, George Eliot and Virginia Woolf is out in paperback in North America today.

A New Paperback… and a new direction for Something Rhymed

We’re very excited to let you know that, here in the UK at least (as well as various other Commonwealth countries) the paperback of A Secret Sisterhood is out in shops today.

As regular Something Rhymed readers will know, it tells the stories of the literary friendships of Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, George Eliot and Virginia Woolf. To celebrate, we’ve arranged a blog tour, which will take place over the next couple of weeks and feature reviews of our book. The first stop on the tour is A View from the Balcony. The full tour schedule is below:

 

Also look out for upcoming reviews on Lonesome Reader, Cornflower Booksthe Literary SofaNorthern ReaderJess Writes and Crocus Connect Books.

If you or anyone you know would be interested in reviewing the paperback on their blog, please do get in touch via the ‘Contact Us’ page and we will arrange for a copy to be sent out by return of post. Of course, we are also hugely appreciative of any feedback on Amazon (regardless of where the book was purchased).

We hope you’ll enjoy following the tour, especially since we could never have written A Secret Sisterhood without the support and encouragement of all of you. When we began this blog in January 2014, we imagined that it would be a year-long web project. We never anticipated where it would take us. Writing for Something Rhymed has been a wonderful experience, and we have been delighted to forge so many new friendships of our own with readers all over the world.

It’s always been important to us that Something Rhymed remains an advert-free, not-for-profit blog. We run this site in our spare time and it has become increasingly tricky to find enough hours in the day to keep generating new content, in addition to writing our books, teaching, journalism and doing events.

Now that we are both embarking on new writing projects, we have begun to turn our minds to the future of Something Rhymed. And, as such, we’d love to hear from you.

Open call for submissions

Would you like to write for Something Rhymed? If so, please send a short pitch via our Contact Us page, letting us know who you are and what you would like to write about.

In the past, articles on Something Rhymed have included:

  • Posts that profile the friendship of a well-known or unjustly forgotten, usually historical, female literary pair – 500 to 800 words. (For examples of former profile posts, please click on the links on this page and scroll down to the earliest post listed under each link.)
  • Posts that deal more generally with the theme of female literary friendship – 500 to 800 words. (See this, this and this example but we’d also be open to all sorts of new approaches.)
  • ‘Guest posts’ that profile a writer’s own literary friendship – 500 to 650 words. (For examples of former guest posts, please click on the links on this page.)

Please note that if you would like to send us a pitch for a guest post, we ask that you do this as part of a pitch for two articles – one of which should not be about your own literary friendship.

We are open to other ideas too, as long as they fall within the general theme of female literary friendship.

Editorial / administrative volunteers

We’re also looking for people who might be interested in volunteering to help out with the editorial and administrative side of things. Over the years we’ve been running Something Rhymed, as well as writing blog posts ourselves we have solicited and edited guest posts from other writers, organised site logistics (such as timings of posts, image rights, design issues), publicised posts on social media, managed contact lists etc.

Doing these kinds of things has helped us to develop valuable skills while also building our profiles and expanding our literary contacts. We’d love now to give some of these opportunities to others who might find them similarly helpful. If you are interested in helping out with editorial and admin, please do get in touch with us via our Contact Us page.

We’ll look forward to hearing from anyone with ideas for submissions and / or interested in volunteering with editorial and admin.

We’re really hoping that in this way we can keep building the Something Rhymed community, and expand the site as a resource for anyone who values female literary friendship.

 

A Secret Sisterhood: in the media

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.

Literary journalists and friends Arifa Akbar and Katy Guest interviewing Emma and Emily during a friendship-themed literary event at New York University London to mark the launch of A Secret Sisterhood© Rachel Gilbertson

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.

Daily Telegraph: Emily and Emma on How Jane Austen’s mystery woman was edited out of history

The Pool: ‘You don’t think you can find out anything new about Jane Austen…’ says Emma. Kate Leaver interviews us.

Yorkshire Post: Emily asks Why are so many female authors portrayed as eccentric, lonely spinsters?

Litro: Emily and Emma discuss The Lost Art of Letter Writing

Foyles: Jonathan Ruppin interviews us about Jane Austen, Margaret Atwood and how to write together and stay friends.

Writers & Artists: Emma and Emily talk about Literary Sisterhood

Women Writers, Women[’s] Books: Emma and Emily on The Art of Co-Authorship

Byte the Book: Rebekah Lattin-Rawstrone reviews A Secret Sisterhood

Islington Gazette: Emily on A Secret Sisterhood: Uncovering the hidden friendships of great literary women

Sarah Emsley: Emily and Emma consider First Impressions: Jane Austen’s radical female friendship

The Writing Garnet: Emma and Emily talk about being Travellers on the Same Road

Annecdotal: Anne Goodwin reviews A Secret Sisterhood

Greenacre Writers: Emily and Emma In Conversation

 

Next week

We have an event coming up at Waterstones Crouch End in London. If you can make it, we’d love to see you. Tickets are £4 and can be purchased in advance here.

Details of our other forthcoming events are listed on our Events Calendar.

This month

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.

 

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.

 

Tales of Two Sisters: George Eliot, Harriet Beecher Stowe and Middlemarch

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.

Jane Austen enjoyed a famously close bond with her sister Cassandra. So did Charlotte, Emily and Anne Brontё; and Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell.

George Eliot by Frederick William Burton – this image is in the public domain.

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.

I remember us both reading Jane Eyre and  Wuthering Heights, and watching a BBC costume drama of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, going to the cinema to see Sense and Sensibility, first encountering A Room of One’s Own.

322px-middlemarch_1
First edition title page – this image is in the public domain.

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 Eyre some 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.

Next month

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 somethingrhymed@gmail.com. More information about the workshops can be found here.

Something Rhymed Friendship-Themed Writing Workshops in Lincolnshire

Many thanks to everyone who came along to Saturday’s Margate Bookie talk on the literary friendships of Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, George Eliot and Virginia Woolf. We’ll look forward to sharing more stories about these authors and their friends in our forthcoming book, A Secret Sisterhood.

Emma (left) and Emily talking about female literary friendship (Image by Jonathan Ruppin)
Emma (left) and Emily talking about female literary friendship. Image by Jonathan Ruppin.

 

For our readers based in or near Lincolnshire, or those of you who are able to travel to this part of Britain, we want to let you know about two more Something Rhymed events coming up soon.

Something Rhymed friendship-themed writing workshops

Dates & Times: We will be running the same Printworkshop at two different venues.

South Holland Centre, Spalding: Saturday 15 October, 2-5pm

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 somethingrhymed@gmail.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.

Mrs Dalloway and Me: A Complicated Love Affair

Longstanding readers of Something Rhymed know that Emily and I have been reading or re-reading the works of Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, Mary Taylor, George Eliot, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield. We embarked on this literary marathon as part of the research for our forthcoming book, A Secret Sisterhood, and we have been sharing our conversations with you.

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.

Dear Emily,

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,

Emma x

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.

Right now, we are looking forward to reading Everyone is Watching, the debut novel by Something Rhymed guest blogger, Megan Bradbury, which is out on 16 June.

More on Mary Taylor and Charlotte Brontë – female friendship and the novel, Miss Miles

We are looking forward to seeing those of you who can make it at our upcoming literary salons at NYU London on Thursday 28 April, Wednesday 4 May and Thursday 12 May. Times: 6.30-9pm.

Tickets are free, but must be booked in advance by emailing somethingrhymed@gmail.com.

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:

 

Behind the Doors of the Red House – former home of Mary Taylor, adventurous friend of Charlotte Brontë

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.

Walking on the moors by the Parsonage - as you can see from my scarf, there was a wuthering wind!
Walking on the moors by the Parsonage – as you can see from my flying scarf, there was a typically wuthering wind!

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.

The Red House - photographs of the interior of the house, including the stained glass and paintings mentioned in this post are available on their website.
The Red House – photographs of the interior of the house, including the stained glass and paintings mentioned in this post can be viewed on their website.

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.