So Many Unexpected Connections

As we mentioned in our first post of the month, it was one of our blog readers, Sarah Emsley, who told us about the friendship of L.M. Montgomery and Nora Lefurgey.

We’d got to know Sarah through her website and her support of Something Rhymed. Forming this kind of unexpected connection, often across the seas, has been one of the real pleasures we’ve encountered as a direct result of setting up our project.

Since beginning Something Rhymed at the start of this year, we’ve profiled the friendships of eleven pairs of female authors. But, of course, these women’s relationships with other writers didn’t stop with a single friend. Through our research we’ve learned about other important connections between different authors we’ve featured on this site.

Winifred Holtby, lovingly memorialised by Vera Brittain in Testament of Friendship, had earlier written a biography of her own: a book about Virginia Woolf. George Eliot, often believed to have been scornful of Jane Austen’s work, in fact studied the novels of her forebear in preparation for beginning to write her own fiction.

One of this month’s authors, L.M. Montgomery, felt a sense of affinity with Eliot. Mathilde Blind’s early biography of Eliot had such an impact on the then young and aspiring Montgomery that several of its words and phrases found their way into her own journals.

Elizabeth Gaskell was friends, not just with Charlotte Brontë, but also with Harriet Beecher Stowe. Stowe, as we wrote in October, was such an admirer of Charlotte Brontë that she once asked a medium to help her try to make contact with the late author’s ghost.

A planchette - the kind of device once used by Harriet Beecher Stowe, to try and make contact with the ghost of Charlotte Bronte. (Creative Commons licence)
A planchette – the kind of device once used by Harriet Beecher Stowe, to try and make contact with the ghost of Charlotte Bronte. (Creative Commons licence)

One half of next month’s pair of writers was also greatly influenced by Brontë, but she adopted a less other-worldly approach. Jean Rhys’s most famous book Wide Sargasso Sea resurrects the story of Antoinette Cosway, her reimagined version of the character of Bertha Mason, the ‘madwoman’ who’d previously languished in the attic of Brontë’s novel Jane Eyre.

We look forward to sharing more of Rhys’s own story with you in our first post of December, next week, and also continuing to discover many more important links between the great female authors – connections that often transcended their historical eras.

The Ghost of Charlotte Brontë

In our first post of October, we mentioned that George Eliot once received a letter from her friend Harriet Beecher Stowe in which she recounted a ghostly visit she’d received from the late Charlotte Brontë. Although Eliot brushed off this tale, telling Stowe that, ‘rightly or not’, she found it ‘enormously improbable’, the strange episode intrigued us. From which of the historic writers we’ve profiled on our website, we wondered, would we most welcome the chance of a visit?

The hardest thing about this month’s activity was making that choice. Katherine Mansfield, for instance, with her Bohemian ways, has always fascinated me. Having spent several months of this year immersed in Eliot’s letters to Stowe, I’ve become more and more interested in the life of the author of Middlemarch, and so I seriously considered writing about Eliot in this post, even though – given her reaction to Stowe – I’m not sure she’d have approved of the exercise.

But in the end I realised that, of all the authors we’ve profiled, it is the same writer that Stowe wrote of so excitedly to her British friend who has most haunted my own imagination over the years.

Title page of an early edition of Jane Eyre, showing Charlotte Bronte's pseudonym Currer Bell. Creative Commons licence.
Title page of an early edition of Jane Eyre, showing Charlotte Bronte’s pseudonym Currer Bell. Creative Commons licence.

Unlike Eliot or Stowe, Austen or Woolf, 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.

Image used with the kind permission of Oxford University Press.
Image used with the kind permission of Oxford University Press.

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 about all 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, and even perhaps why Stowe sat down in the dark well over a century ago now and tried to make contact with Charlotte Brontë.

George Eliot and Harriet Beecher Stowe

Mary Ann Evans, as she was born, did not easily inspire friendship amongst her fellow nineteenth century female novelists. Even before she found fame as an author, George Eliot was firmly entrenched in a London social circle that was unconventional, intellectual and predominantly male.

George Eliot, painted by Aged 30 by the Swiss artist Alexandre Louis François d'Albert Durade (Creative Commons Licence)
George Eliot, painted by Alexandre Louis François d’Albert Durade (Creative Commons Licence)

There was also the matter of her living ‘in sin’ with critic and philosopher George Henry Lewes – a state that kept many ‘respectable ladies’ away from her door. Elizabeth Gaskell, for instance, though she wrote to Eliot to praise her books Adam Bede and Scenes of Clerical Life, couldn’t help lamenting that ‘I wish you were Mrs Lewes’.

But perhaps the greatest obstacle to friendship was her formidable, and intimidating, reputation. Eliot had previously written to Gaskell to congratulate her on Mary Barton and Cranford, but she was often less generous to other female authors of the era.

Withering public pronouncements, for instance in her essay ‘Silly Novels by Lady Novelists’ (1856), can have offered little encouragement to the majority of writing women who might have wanted to get to know her better.

Some, though, were undeterred, including the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe, who first wrote to her in 1869. Though this was their first direct contact, Stowe greeted Eliot as ‘my dear friend’, then quickly moved from opening pleasantries to praise but also bold suggestions about the British writer’s books, which she said she had recently re-read ‘carefully pencil in hand’.

Harriet Beecher Stowe by Gurney & Sons (Bowdoin College Museum of Art) (Creative Commons Licence)
Harriet Beecher Stowe by Gurney & Sons (Bowdoin College Museum of Art) (Creative Commons Licence)

Perhaps surprisingly, given Eliot’s well-known reserve, her response was enthusiastic. It marked the start of an eleven-year friendship that would continue until her death.

At first, it’s difficult to understand what could have drawn these two together. They must have quickly realised they’d never have an opportunity to meet. Although in that first letter, Stowe implored Eliot to visit America, the ill health of Lewes and Calvin Ellis Stowe meant neither felt able to travel far from home.

Their personalities were markedly different too, as were their views on religion. Stowe was a staunch Christian, whereas Eliot had stopped attending church as a young woman when her critical reading had convinced her to abandon her earlier evangelical fervour.

What seems to have cemented the relationship is a willingness to concentrate on areas in which their lives did converge: their status as hugely successful female authors, ‘marriages’ to eccentric intellectuals, and their interest in literature.

Communicating long-distance naturally meant enforced pauses in conversation, allowing Eliot to skirt away from trickier subjects, such as Stowe’s ardent enthusiasm for spiritualism, although she did take her more firmly to task on the occasion when Stowe wrote of being visited by the ghost of Charlotte Brontë, telling her that ‘whether rightly or not’ the account struck her as ‘enormously improbable’.

Their physical separation must also have made it easier than if they’d lived in the same country for Stowe to regard Lewes and Eliot simply as husband and wife. And it turned Eliot into an ideal confidante when on two occasions – Stowe’s notorious essay alleging incest between Byron and his sister, and later, her clergyman brother’s alleged adultery – the American author found herself the subject of explosive social scandal.

Sometimes there were significant gaps in their correspondence, but in each case the pair seems to have picked up the conversation again with little trouble, and the endurance of this unexpected friendship certainly throws a fascinating new light on the intellectual and private lives of these two nineteenth century literary giants.

Activity

George Eliot was far from convinced by Harriet Beecher Stowe’s assertion that she’d been visited by the ghost of Charlotte Brontë. Although we share her scepticism, something about this episode in their letters intrigued us. And so this month we’ll each be asking ourselves from which of the deceased authors we’ve featured on Something Rhymed we’d most welcome the chance of a visit.

Ruth Rendell and Jeanette Winterson

Ruth Rendell and Jeanette Winterson at the Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival 2013 (Copyright Fenris Oswin)
Ruth Rendell and Jeanette Winterson at the Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival 2013 (Copyright Fenris Oswin)

At first glance, the friendship between two of Britain’s best-loved writers, Ruth Rendell and Jeanette Winterson, might seem a tad unlikely. For starters, their fiction is radically different. And then there’s the obvious difference in age.

Now in her eighties, Rendell is almost thirty years Winterson’s senior and, certainly in the friendship’s earliest days, she took on the role of nurturer. Winterson, whose relationship with the woman who adopted her as a baby was famously troubled, writes of Rendell with great affection in her memoir, describing her as ‘the Good Mother – never judging, quietly supporting’.

This side of their friendship, reminded us of the maternal element to the relationship between Charlotte Brontë and Elizabeth Gaskell, despite there only being a six-year age difference in their case.

Rendell took Winterson under her wing from the beginning. Hearing that the younger writer was looking for a place to stay, she invited her to move into her own home while she was abroad. She had no qualms about handing over the keys to someone she’d only just met, claiming to have known ‘at once that she was absolutely trustworthy and honest and honourable’.

Rendell’s nurturing was professional as well as personal, leading Winterson to describe the older author – to whom she has sometimes even turned for writerly advice – as her ‘role model’. When Hammer commissioned Winterson to write a horror novel, she sought out Rendell’s guidance on how to maintain a page-turning plot.

Winterson is keen to reciprocate the generosity in different ways, often for instance, buying Rendell gifts of earrings. But other attempts to treat her friend haven’t always quite gone to plan, thanks to Rendell’s more private nature. Winterson recalls how on the occasion of her pal’s birthday one year she’d thought of taking her out for dinner and champagne. But she says Rendell responded with ‘oh, do I have to?’ and so she ‘went round to her house and cooked scrambled eggs instead’.

This incident, narrated with good humour by Winterson, seems to encapsulate both the differences and the closeness between these two women. It’s a simple memory, but, to us at least, it speaks volumes about an outwardly unusual literary pairing that transcends differences in creative output, age and personality.

Activity

When Ruth Rendell offered Jeanette Winterson a place to stay, it made all the difference to the young author, who was then struggling to find somewhere to write.

This month, we’ll be letting each other know about a time of our own when the help of our friend made all the difference.

Do keep those recommendations for other pairs of writing friends coming in.

Thinking Back Through Our Mothers

By coincidence, this month Emily and I both recommended authors who were deeply influenced by Charlotte Brontë.

Portrait of Charlotte Brontë by J. H. Thompson  (Creative Commons License)
Portrait of Charlotte Brontë by J. H. Thompson
(Creative Commons License)

I will now treasure the copy of Jean Rhys’s After Leaving Mr MacKenzie, which Emily gave to me. Of course, Rhys’s most famous novel, Wide Sargasso Sea, which was inspired by Jane Eyre, imagines the first Mrs Rochester before she became consumed with madness and locked in the attic.

Rhys’s work, in turn, inspired Emily. She dedicated After Leaving Mr MacKenzie to me with the words: ‘When I first read this book, it changed the way I thought about writing forever’.

Just as Rhys’s descriptions of dingy hotel rooms and low-lit streets have lingered long in Emily’s imagination, I feel as if I have sat at the cocktail bar in A Tiny Speck of Black and then Nothing, Emily’s novel, chatting with the blind barman. There’s a scene in which the heroine searches for her missing friend in the labyrinthine alleyways of Osaka that has become so lodged in my own mind that I could almost mistake it for a memory. Moreover, the melodic quality of Emily’s novel sets up in duet with Rhys’s melancholic song.

 

Jean Rhys in the 1970s (Creative Commons License)
Jean Rhys in the 1970s
(Creative Commons License)

I also chose for Emily a writer whose work I engage with in my own writing. Virginia Woolf, although she famously overturned taboos of madness and sexuality, claimed that ‘one could hardly describe’ the life of her half-sister who was diagnosed with ‘imbecility’.

When I began my novel, The Waifs and Strays of Sea View Lodge, I set out to prove Woolf wrong by writing from the perspective of twin sisters, one of whom has profound learning disabilities. However, I ended up turning back to Woolf’s novels for inspiration on how to write about our flawed yet valiant attempts to read each other’s minds.

Woolf had an ambivalent relationship with Charlotte Brontë, whose genius she felt was hindered by her attempts to ape a male type of writing rather than creating a voice of her own. However, like Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea, it seems to me that Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway also owes a debt of gratitude to Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre.  

Virginia Woolf (Creative Commons License)
Virginia Woolf
(Creative Commons License)

I first read Mrs Dalloway when I was in my late teens, and I still remember the passage that seduced me: ‘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’.

How odd that this depiction of sexual grief so captured my adolescent imagination. I now wonder whether I subconsciously related it back to Bertha, Charlotte Brontë’s ‘mad woman in the attic’, whose story I found even more fascinating than that of Jane Eyre.

‘We think back through our mothers if we are women,’ Woolf claimed in A Room of One’s Own. In Mrs Dalloway and Wide Sargasso Sea we catch a glimpse of two authors doing just that: befriending and confronting their predecessor on the page. This, in turn, has been the founding philosophy of our quest on Something Rhymed. Together, Emily and I are gleaning tips about how to sustain our valuable friendship by thinking back through the successes and mistakes of our literary mothers – a lineage that runs from Brontë to Woolf and Rhys.

Charlotte Brontë and Elizabeth Gaskell

Image used with the kind permission of Oxford University Press.
Image used with the kind permission of Oxford University Press.

When we first became interested in female writing friendship, we wrote off Elizabeth Gaskell and Charlotte Brontë as mere acquaintances.

In between their first meeting in the Lake District in 1850, and Brontë’s untimely death just five years later, they met only a handful of times, and, undoubtedly, each of them was closer to other women.

Brontë had been a pal since childhood with the loyal Ellen Nussey. She was deeply influenced by the feminist Mary Taylor, and inextricably bonded with her famous sisters Emily and Ann. In the more sociable Gaskell’s case, she moved in exulted social circles and counted Florence Nightingale and Harriet Beecher Stowe amongst her friends.

But something about the relationship between Brontë and Gaskell kept nagging away at us. We found it intriguing that Patrick Brontë – a man fiercely protective of his late daughter’s memory – had chosen the author of Cranford as her biographer. Brontë’s sojourns to 84 Plymouth Grove, the home of the Gaskell family, also piqued our interest, as did the frequency of the correspondence between the two women.

Wondering whether we had been too hasty in overlooking this pair, we turned to their letters to investigate further. Here, we discovered a relationship based on mutual support, and shared artistic and professional concerns.

We found that Gaskell and Brontë regularly exchanged candid views on literature and publishing, sometimes accompanying their letters with recommended books. On a personal level, Gaskell took the ailing Brontë under her wing. When it came to their writing, though, it was Brontë who provided the greater share of support by acting as a sounding board for her friend’s literary ideas and giving her generous advice on how she could improve her novels.

Brontë even persuaded her publisher to delay the release of Villette, because it would have clashed with the publication of Gaskell’s novel Ruth.

Gaskell would, of course, one day seek to return this generosity by styling her Life of Charlotte Brontë as a tribute to her friend, someone of whom she’d once said, ‘I never heard or read of anyone who was for an instant, or in any respect, to be compared to her’.

Activity

Charlotte Brontë included a copy of Wordsworth’s Prelude with her first letter to her literary pal.

This month, we’ll be sending each other a book and writing a dedication on the inside cover.

If you know of any more writer friends that you think we ought to profile on this site, please do tell us about them.

The Stuff of Legend

It was a question that prompted us to launch Something Rhymed, a question that eluded easy answers: why have so many female writer friends, unlike their male counterparts, failed to make legends of each other?

We wondered whether women had traditionally conducted their relationships privately while men had more opportunities to promote each other in public. Coleridge, for instance, had the freedom to up sticks to the Lakes where he could collaborate with Wordsworth on the Lyrical Ballads. At around the same time, Jane Austen’s abode was entirely at the whim of her family and she still felt she had to publish anonymously.

However, closer investigation showed us that women too have long been attempting to make legends of each other. After all, Charlotte Brontë travelled cross country to stay with Elizabeth Gaskell (a pair we’re sure to profile since so many of you have suggested them), and after Brontë’s early death Gaskell published the first biography of her friend.

This month’s pair, Vera Brittain and Winifred Holtby, emerged very much from this trailblazing tradition, embracing mutual publicity from the start: debating at the Oxford Union, campaigning for their shared social and political causes, publishing prolific amounts of journalism. Indeed, the pair became so entangled in people’s minds that Winifred Holtby was once introduced at a meeting as ‘Miss Vera Holtby’! It is fitting, therefore, that after Holtby’s early death, Brittain edited and promoted her friend’s final novel and then memorialised their relationship in Testament of Friendship.

Question Mark

We took rather longer to expose our friendship to public scrutiny. For the first decade since our initial meeting, we critiqued each other’s work in the privacy of our own homes, and we published entirely separately. But ever since The Times commissioned us to write about female writing friendship, we’ve become far less publicity shy, looking to Brittain and Holtby as our role models.

Our attempts to follow in their footsteps has brought us many unexpected and joyful connections, from drinking Prosecco in Kiliney Castle with writer pals Anne Enright and Lia Mills to gaining our first hits on this site from Korea and Kyrgyzstan. The generous coverage Something Rhymed has received from Slightly Bookist and Women Writers, Women, Books has resulted in particularly strong contingents of blog followers from Canada and the USA, and tweets from the likes of the New York Public Library. Just recently, we received some especially interesting suggestions from our new North American friends, who alerted us to the epistolary relationship between George Eliot and Harriet Beecher Stowe, as well as the friendship that A.S. Byatt managed to forge with her literary heroine, Iris Murdoch.

Murdoch also came up on the back of a connection we’ve forged closer to home. When the Yorkshire Post picked up on Holtby’s (and Emily’s) Yorkshire connections, one of their reader’s got in touch to tell us about Murdoch and the philosopher Philippa Foot, whose extraordinary friendship eventually survived a sexual interlude and even a massive bust-up.

Mercifully, our friendship has not only survived but thrived since we made the decision to follow the example of Brittain and Holtby. But our investigation into female writers and publicity has not yet produced an answer to our initial question. Instead, the question itself has changed. So now we’ve begun to ask ourselves this: why do women’s attempts to make legends of each other tend to get written out of literary lore?