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.
We decided to celebrate the bicentenary of Charlotte Brontë’s birth by talking about Jane Eyre – a novel that caused great scandal when it was first published in 1847 but that elicited a very different response from Brontë’s school friend and fellow writer, Mary Taylor…
Back in 2014, we profiled Charlotte Brontё’s friendship with the author of Cranford, Elizabeth Gaskell. Theirs was a fascinating bond, but – important though Gaskell was to Brontё – another writer, Mary Taylor, had an even greater influence on her life.
Brontё met Taylor, the future author of the feminist novel Miss Miles, in 1831 when they were teenage boarders at Roe Head School near Huddersfield. Their relationship got off to a rocky start when pretty Taylor told the pale, frizzy-haired new girl that she found her very ugly – a typically outspoken remark, and one from which Brontё would never fully recover.
But the pair’s bookish natures and their love of political argument soon drew them together, with Taylor’s bold and radical views opening Brontё’s eyes to fresh ways of thinking, especially in terms of the place of women in Victorian society.
After leaving school the next year they kept in touch by letter and paid visits when they could to each other’s houses: the now-famous parsonage at Haworth where Brontё lived, and Taylor’s home the Red House at Gomersal.
A decade later when they were in their mid-twenties, Taylor’s encouragement gave Brontё a ‘wish for wings’. The two daringly left their native rural Yorkshire and headed for urban Brussels, to continue their education at separate schools in the Belgian capital.
The Pensionnat de Demoiselles Heger-Parent, where Brontё enrolled, was to become the scene of one of the most infamous episodes of her life – the place where she fell desperately in love with her temperamental tutor, the married Constantin Heger.
Taylor, ever hungry for greater independence, soon moved on to Germany and took a position, controversially, teaching young men. Friendless and alone in Brussels, Brontё eventually realised that her position at the Pensionnat was untenable and returned to Haworth.
Taylor, on the other hand, decided to set-sail for an even more distant destination – New Zealand. On learning that the two would now be separated by thousands of miles, a devastated Brontё remarked that it felt as if ‘a great planet fell out of the sky’.
To most, including herself, it looked as if Taylor was the true adventurer. But Brontё was beginning to break new ground too. While Taylor pushed her literary ambitions into the background – concentrating instead on the daily challenges of her brave new life – safe within her childhood home, Brontё was finally getting the chance to write.
In 1847, Brontё tasted success for the first time when the publication of her first novel, Jane Eyre, caused a nationwide sensation.
Taylor, who’d continued to correspond with Brontё during her time in New Zealand, returned to Britain in 1860, five years after her friend’s early death. She kept on travelling into her later years. Aged in her fifties, she joined a female mountaineering expedition in Switzerland, which resulted in the jointly-authored book Swiss Notes by Five Ladies.
Owing to the distractions of her intrepid life, her novel Miss Miles wasn’t published until 1890 when Taylor was in her seventies. Like Brontё’s novel, Shirley – for which Taylor provided the inspiration for the plucky character of Rose Yorke – it can be regarded as a book that celebrates the enduring power of female friendship.
Later this month, we’ll be doing another audio interview. This time we’ll be discussing Charlotte Brontё’s novel Jane Eyre, and Mary Taylor’s forthright reaction to the book. If you missed our previous interviews about Jane Austen’s Emma and Maria Edgeworth’s The Absentee, you can catch up on what we talked about then by scrolling down to those earlier posts.
For those who’d like a quick refresher, Jane Eyre is currently BBC Radio 4’s 15 Minute Drama. You can listen to episode one of the adaptation here.
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.
We’ll soon be following up on last month’s conversation about Jane Austen’s Emmawith 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.
Due to family illness, Emily has not yet been able to post about her literary pilgrimage. However, we thought that perhaps those of you who missed it last time might be interested in an excerpt from the piece Emily wrote this time last year about her childhood visit to the Brontë Parsonage in Haworth.
I can’t remember a time when I didn’t have some sense of who the Brontë sisters were. My mother had named me Emily, after her favourite of the three, and, once she thought her daughters were old enough to appreciate the atmospheric setting – but some time, I think, before Erica or I had actually read any of the Brontës’ books – she took us to visit the Parsonage Museum at Haworth. This was a place famously popular with Japanese tourists, and somewhere Mum had got to know well herself through her related work for the regional tourist board.
There was a gift shop at the Parsonage, selling brooches bearing the sisters’ images. I, of course, bought an Emily Brontë brooch – thinking that, given my name – this was pretty much a requirement. I also remember feeling momentarily envious that Erica was able to make the choice for herself, by holding the Charlotte and Anne brooches up to the light and trying to decide whose picture she liked the most.
After much chivvying from our parents, who were no doubt keen to get us all outside for our lunchtime sandwiches, Erica finally selected the Charlotte brooch. Later, on the drive home in the car, we sat side-by-side in the back comparing our Brontë sisters. Unlike the dark colours of my miniature portrait of Emily, the Charlotte brooch was all cream and taupe with the merest blush of rose on her cheeks and lips.
There was something not-quite-there about the image, something that hinted at all the elements missing from the artist’s representation of his subject. You couldn’t guess, not from looking at the woman of that picture, that this was someone whose most famous novel had once made her a scandalous figure, because of the way its plot was believed to mount a dangerous challenge to contemporary patriarchal traditions.
Even in the biography written by Elizabeth Gaskell, there are many elements missing in her account of Charlotte’s life because, in order to try and resurrect her friend’s reputation she suppressed evidence, for instance, of her love of the married Constantin Héger, and tended to ignore details that might work against her aims of honouring Charlotte ‘as a woman, separate from her character as an authoress’.
Although later biographies have filled in many of these details, there is something aboutall three Brontë sisters, in fact, that remains enticingly enigmatic. It explains to me why my mother, a life-long lover of mysteries, should have been so drawn to their stories.
The literary legacies of Margaret Oliphant and Anne Thackeray Ritchie have been overshadowed by those of their female forebears and descendants.
Yet the legendary women who came before and after recognised these author’s talents. Charlotte Brontë singled out Oliphant’s first novel for praise and George Eliot claimed that, with the partial exception of Trollope, Ritchie was the only modern novelist she cared to read. Virginia Woolf, related to Ritchie through her father’s first marriage, described her step-aunt as ‘a writer of genius’.
Oliphant and Ritchie recognised each other’s gifts too, communing on the page long before they met in person. Indeed, the twenty-three-year-old Ritchie, who had published The Story of Elizabeth anonymously in 1863, received her first ever review from Oliphant. The praise caused Ritchie’s father, the famous novelist William Makepeace Thackeray, to beam with pride. The endorsement meant a great deal to Ritchie too. She had considered the older author a torchbearer ever since her governess introduced her to Christian Melville, which Oliphant had penned at the tender age of seventeen.
When their paths eventually crossed, during a holiday in the Swiss Alps in the summer of 1875, Oliphant was a widow in her mid-forties and Ritchie a thirty-something singleton. Their literary reputations were already well-established but their personal lives were in disarray. As much as their shared vocation, it was a sense of mutual sympathy that drew the women together.
Richie found herself the brunt of snubs from fellow guests, who regarded her as an eccentric spinster. Oliphant – indignant that Ritchie’s sister laughed along at this casual cruelty – decided there and then to take the younger author under her wing. During the rest of their stay at The Bear Hotel in Grindelwald, Oliphant singled out Ritchie for her own brand of sisterly attention, abrasively taking her aside on the terrace each evening for rambunctious conversations beneath a bough of clematis in full flower.
Oliphant also had worries of her own. Following the death of her husband and the bankruptcy of her brother, she’d become the sole breadwinner for both families. Ritchie, who’d received a generous inheritance from her father – the wealthiest self-made author of his day – felt especially aware of her own privilege when she witnessed just how hard Oliphant had to work in order to make ends meet. Oliphant’s output was prodigious by any estimation: 98 novels, and over 50 short stories, 25 books of non-fiction and 300 articles.
Ritchie saw at close quarters the discipline required to write for a living – quite at odds with her own haphazard approach to creativity. Keen to alleviate the financial pressures on her new friend, Ritchie persuaded her brother-in-law, a magazine editor, to purchase two stories – each one generating the bulk of a year’s income. Oliphant later returned the favour: when she was appointed editor of a series, she immediately commissioned Ritchie to write one of the biographies.
But personal tragedies cemented their friendship even more than professional triumphs. The first of these occurred just a few months after their Alpine holiday, when Oliphant had invited Ritchie to Windsor for an overnight visit. While there, Ritchie received a telegram summoning her back to London. Her sister had died, suffering a massive eclampsia seizure, and the unborn baby had also failed to survive.
These female authors stuck together for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, and for decades they remained the closest of friends.
Ritchie visited regularly during Oliphant’s final illness, sitting at the bedside of her lifelong friend and making her last goodbye in June 1897 to the woman in whom she had found ‘one of those people who make life’.
Margaret Oliphant and Anne Thackeray Ritchie shared an intrepid approach to travel. They were also both keenly aware of their indebtedness to the female authors of the past who had laid the way for their own literary and literal adventures. Inspired by both these qualities, we’ve decided to take pilgrimages to the homes of some of the authors we’ve featured on this site.
Although it is hardly in the spirit of Something Rhymed, I considered myself firmly in the Elizabeth Bowen camp. My copy of her Collected Stories accompanied me when I first left for college and has been packed and unpacked so many times since. When I got my first lecturing post, I put it on my syllabus, and nowadays I often quote Bowen to encourage my New York University students to focus on creativity during their time in the UK: ‘Imagination of my kind is most caught, most fired, most worked upon by the unfamiliar’.
My memories of reading Murdoch, on the other hand, are scant and chequered.
My cousin Nic – a voracious and insightful reader – had devoured Murdoch’s novels, and my writer friend Wendy Vaizey had written about Murdoch in her PhD. Nic and I shared a love of Thomas Hardy’s books and Wendy and I had introduced each other to our favourite texts by medieval mystics, so I felt sure that I too would fall in love with Murdoch’s work.
On one of my trips down to stay with Nic in her book-lined cottage in Cornwall, I picked up a copy of Murdoch’s A Severed Head. I read it over Easter, sitting in Nic’s sunlit conservatory – the mugs of tea at my side replaced at dusk by glasses of gin. When Nic got home from work, I’d put down the book and we’d take cliff-top walks or share plates of fish straight from the sea.
There was such a stark difference that week between my external life – full of sunshine and hyacinths and warm conversation – and the world that Murdoch’s novel set up in my mind. Neither the story nor the characters have stayed with me, but the coldness and cruelty of the book have remained.
The Unicorn also has an iciness to it, yet I found it compelling and clever and self-consciously indebted to its literary forebears.
Bowen’s influence is clear: the faded glory of the Irish country house and the Anglo-Irish cast, which are said to have been inspired by guests Murdoch met at Bowen’s Court.
Yet it was another female author who came to mind when I read the opening of The Unicorn. Its gothic setting and the simultaneous presence and absence of the mistress of the house was redolent with echoes of Rebecca.
It quickly became obvious, however, that Murdoch’s approach to the gothic differed from that of Daphne du Maurier. As I read on, I began to feel that The Unicorn shares more of its DNA with Northanger Abbey. Like Jane Austen before her, Murdoch self-consciously plays with gothic conventions, calling them into question and sending them up.
Even more prominent still, is Murdoch’s engagement with Charlotte Bronte’sJane Eyresince, like its predecessor, The Unicorn features an imprisoned mistress of the house. But Murdoch makes Hannah Crean-Smith a more central character than Brontë’s Bertha, and the novel investigates the question of her sanity.
Critics have tended to interpret Hannah Crean-Smith as an enchantress: apparently pure but ultimately revealed as an evil manipulator. I see her more as a damaged being, fashioned by the scarring experiences of torture and imprisonment.
I would love to sit beside my cousin in her Cornish conservatory, sipping gin and finding out what she made of Hannah Crean-Smith. But Nic died last year in a sunlit room, our family reading to her right up to the end. When I talk with Wendy and Emily about The Unicorn – and about Murdoch’s other novels, which I will surely now read – my memories of Nic will inform this conversation between my sisterhood of readers, just as Austen and Brontë and du Maurier lived on as Murdoch’s literary mothers.
Can You Help Us?
We’re hoping that one of our online sisterhood of readers might know of a female writing friendship enjoyed by Daphne du Maurier. If so, please could you tell us about it by using the comment tab below or by using the ‘Contact Us’ form. We’d love to profile du Maurier on this site.
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.
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’.
When we first launched Something Rhymed, a year ago now, concerned well-wishers expressed scepticism about whether we’d discover twelve pairs of historic female writer friends to profile each month over the course of 2014.
Thanks to our close-knit community of readers from around the globe, the reverse has in fact been true. You’ve helped us to unearth many more female collaborations than we could possibly have envisaged at the beginning of the year. With such a treasure trove of hidden friendships still to explore, we intend to keep sharing our findings here in 2015.
The collaborations we’ve explored so far were sometimes illicit, scandalous and volatile; sometimes supportive, radical or inspiring. And so, we’ve increasingly found ourselves asking why they have been consigned to the shadows.
To mark the end of Something Rhymed’s first year, here are our top ten ideas on why the friendships between some of our most famous female writers still have a cloak of secrecy about them:
Women writing in the past had more opportunities to converse in the parlour than in the pages of literary magazines.
For reasons of propriety, for example, Harriet Beecher Stowe felt that she could not write an obituary in the Atlantic for her long-time friend and confidante, George Eliot.
The marked harmony and lifelong endurance of many of these writing partnerships cost them copy.
Charlotte Brontë and Elizabeth Gaskell bonded over their shared experience of infamy since they had both become mired in scandal for daring to pen biting social criticism. However, this enduring friendship often gets written off as a mere acquaintanceship. Could marked harmony also account for why so few of us have heard about the unlikely friendship between Ruth Rendell and Jeanette Winterson?
Friendships between women are often neglected in favour of a female author’s intense or turbulent relationships with men.
On January 1st we will reveal an intimate friendship that fits into this category…
The literary status of some of our writer heroines has suffered because their genre, style or subject matter was particularly associated with women.
Historically, female collaboration was considered subversive and therefore taboo.
And yet, the subversive nature of these friendships between women makes them powerful sources of transformation: Maya Angelou’s Nobel party for Toni Morrison, for instance, both celebrated the achievements of a fellow African American author and challenged their government’s failure to do so itself.
Working together on Something Rhymed this year, we have experienced some of the most jubilant moments in our own friendship (as well as some of the most fraught!). But, from Eliot and Stowe – who taught us the importance of candour – to Mansfield and Woolf – who showed us that rivalry can be a positive force – we are learning how to keep our own collaboration on course. And, with your support, we will continue to celebrate the secret sisterhood between our trailblazing forebears, finally bringing it centre stage.