A Second Year of Hidden Friendships… and More Unexpected Connections

As 2015 draws to a close, this feels like another good moment to look back on the friendships we’ve profiled on Something Rhymed, and the surprising, often intergenerational, connections between some of our literary heroines.

Daphne du Maurier, whose friendship with Oriel Malet we featured in June, is well-known to have been a fan of Haworth’s most famous sisters. Du Maurier’s most famous novel, Rebecca, has drawn comparisons with Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, and du Maurier also wrote a biography of Charlotte’s troubled brother, Branwell, published in 1960.

On reading du Maurier’s letters to Malet, though, we were surprised to find several references – not just to the Brontës – but also to Katherine Mansfield.

Katherine Mansfield - this image is in the public domain.
Katherine Mansfield – this image is in the public domain.

An admirer of Mansfield’s writing when she grew older, du Maurier’s fascination with the author of The Garden Party went all the way back to her earliest years. As a child, du Maurier used to look out of the night nursery window of her Hampstead home and see a light burning bright in the opposite house. She used to wave at the light each evening and wonder whose lamp it was.

Only years later would she discover that she had been looking in at the window of Mansfield’s bedroom, a place to which she was sadly often confined thanks to the health problems brought on by her tuberculosis.

Noticing these sorts of unexpected links between the different authors we have profiled has been one of the pleasures of our research into their literary friendships. This has been particularly so when we’ve stumbled upon these links by chance, when we were looking for other things.

George Eliot - this image is in the public domain.
George Eliot – this image is in the public domain.

On re-reading the opening of Agatha Christie’s 1926 Murder of Roger Ackroyd while preparing to write our April post on her friendship with Dorothy L. Sayers, we spotted an admiring reference to George Eliot delivered by one of the novel’s principal characters.

And when we were studying the friendship between Elizabeth Bowen and Iris Murdoch the month before, we were delighted to learn that, in the 1940s, Bowen wrote a radio play for the BBC on the life of Jane Austen.

Over the two years that we’ve been running Something Rhymed, we’ve come upon so many of these unanticipated branches between our literary heroines that it’s become difficult to hold them all within our heads. So we’ve set ourselves the challenge this month of creating a ‘family tree’ depicting some of these fascinating connections.

We hope you’ll join us again next week to see the literary ancestral lines that we’ve traced back through the ages.

 

Daphne du Maurier and Oriel Malet

We wonder how many young writers have dreamed of an older, more experienced author taking her under her wing. Well, this was Oriel Malet’s luck one evening in the early 1950s.

oriel_malet_1
Oriel Malet (image used with the kind permission of Persephone Books).

Auriel Rosemary Malet Vaughan, born into an aristocratic family in 1923, was hardly a novice. She had written her first book Trust in the Springtime when she was seventeen, been a winner of the John Llewellyn Prize for Young Novelists, and enjoyed international success. The party at which she would meet Daphne du Maurier was being hosted by Ellen Doubleday, the wife of both authors’ American publisher.

But despite these early achievements, Malet still considered herself something of an outsider to the capital’s literary scene. When she arrived to find the hotel suite address locked-up and silent, she felt relieved at the excuse it provided for beating a hasty retreat.

But just then she heard a voice close by, and turned to see another woman also waiting alone. The two soon fell into easy conversation, passing over small talk for enthusiastic discussions about ‘books, the theatre, Paris, Life’. Neither one seems to have felt the need to introduce herself by name, and so by the time Doubleday arrived – full of apologies and ushering in a brigade of waiters carrying silver dishes of food and buckets of iced champagne – Malet remained unaware that she had been talking to the celebrated Daphne du Maurier.

When the young woman discovered the truth, she was embarrassed. Fearing what faux pas she might make next, she decided to try to creep out of the party unnoticed. She’d almost made it to the door when she saw that du Maurier was doing exactly the same thing.

Downstairs, the pair escaped in a taxi and ended up going to du Maurier’s London flat, on the King’s Road in Chelsea. When they said goodbye later that evening, Malet, found herself feeling sorry that her path was unlikely to cross again with du Maurier’s.

But not long afterwards, while riding the motorcycle she’d bought with her John Llewellyn Prize winnings, Malet crashed into a closed gate which ‘should have been open but was mysteriously closed’. When word reached du Maurier about what had happened, she invited the young author to recuperate at Menabilly, the grand country house where she lived in Cornwall, and the inspiration for her most famous novel Rebecca.

This marked the start of a friendship spanning over thirty years, and one that came to an end only with du Maurier’s death in 1989. Over the period, they wrote to each other regularly, and du Maurier’s half of the correspondence – later collected and published by Malet in Letters From Menabilly charts the development of their literary relationship.

Letters From Menabilly
Daphne du Maurier, within the cover of Oriel Malet’s book. (Used with the kind permission of Rowman & Littlefield.)

In its earliest days, du Maurier signed off using ‘Daphne’, but switched to the nicknames ‘Bing’, ‘Tray’ or ‘Track’ as the pair grew closer. She wrote about her family and friends, her reading and writing, and sent advice to Malet on literary matters. The names of other authors crop up frequently in her letters – both those of contemporaries and the forebears who inspired her, Katherine Mansfield, Elizabeth Gaskell, and the Brontë sisters in particular.

Du Maurier would eventually write a biography of the Brontës’ brother Branwell, and she and Malet made a pilgrimage to the Parsonage in Haworth in the 1950s – still a quiet spot in those days, not yet on the tourist trail.

Although du Maurier’s is, as one would expect, the voice that dominates the book’s pages, Malet’s frequent interjections do much more than put the letters in context. They give a sense of the younger woman’s loyalty, her inquisitive nature, and most of all her enormous affection for her friend du Maurier.

Special thanks

We are grateful to two of our readers, Anne Hall and Jenny McAuley, who answered our open request for information about a literary friend of Daphne du Maurier’s by letting us know about Oriel Malet.

Activity

When we read Daphne du Maurier’s words ‘Dearest Oriel, Your great long letter arrived this morning’, we wished we were able to tell exactly what Malet had said. Over the time we’ve been running Something Rhymed, we’ve often speculated about the gaps that remain, through lack of solid evidence, in what we can know about the friendships we’ve profiled. This month, we will each take a look at just a few of these gaps. We’ll write about what draws us to these particular mysteries, and the stories we think we can piece together.

A Motherhood of Writers, a Sisterhood of Readers

My heart sank when Emily challenged me to read The Unicorn by Iris Murdoch.

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.

Tree of life. Creative Commons License.
Tree of life. Creative Commons License.

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’s Jane Eyre since, 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 True Story

Emily and I have vivid memories of the moment when we first admitted that we were both secretly writing: the bowls of garlicky spaghetti we were eating; the acquaintance who unexpectedly showed up at the restaurant, putting a stop to our conversation; the way we picked up where we’d left off as we wandered through a shopping mall on our way home.

That discussion revealed some differences in our main motivations. Emily was driven by a desire to tell gripping stories whereas – ridiculously, in retrospect – that didn’t much interest me. My imagination was more fired by the psychology of characters and the cadences of individual lines.

A year later, when we gathered the courage to swap drafts, Emily sent me a fully formed story, while my pages comprised a series of vignettes with no discernible narrative. I still remember the first scene I read from Emily’s pen: a girl hunched over a sink in a drab Parisian hotel room, rinsing blood from her clothes while her boyfriend looked on. I still remember the tension that mounted as I turned the pages, the male character metamorphosing into a mosquito. The story ended with two possibilities hanging in the balance: perhaps the transformation had been real or perhaps it was the product of the girl’s unhinged mind.

Emily’s fiction has become increasingly stamped with her own unique style while still containing traces of those early literary influences: Jean Rhys, Haruki Murakami and Daphne du Maurier. But even those first efforts contained the beginnings of the melodic elegance and taut precision that I have come to so admire in Emily’s work. Many of her characters have lingered long in my mind: Loll, the Western nightclub hostess in Ōsaka’s Moonglow bar, who mixes cocktails for breakfast and wears long platinum blond wigs over her dark razor-cut hair; Nigel, the nylon-suited twenty-seven year-old, who is devoted to his elderly wife ‘Mrs Brewster’; Violet Wyndham, long-time principal of the Wyndham School of Ballet and Modern Dance, who wears stage makeup, dyes her hair flame red and cuts a controversial figure in the local town.

Creative Commons License
Creative Commons License

From Emily I learned that characters and cadences can only be enhanced by a good, old-fashioned, page-turning plot. But, much as she loves a great story, in her non-fiction she never gives way to the temptation to embellish or distort. ‘Is that quite right?’ Emily often asks when we are co-writing a literary feature, ‘Do we really believe that?’

When I came to write my PhD, I could often hear Emily’s voice in my head: ‘Is that a claim you’re prepared to stand by?’ she would ask. So, although she hasn’t read a word of my thesis, her influence is imprinted on every page.

The best story, Emily has taught me, is always the true story. It is the job of the non-fiction writer to draw out its inherent intrigue, tension and significance – something we endeavour to do on this site each and every time we unearth one of the hidden friendships of the women who went before us.

The Something Rhymed party

From the mad tea party in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland to The Great Gatsby’s  glamorous shindigs to the almost unbearable occasion to mark Blanche’s birthday in A Streetcar Named Desire, literature is full of social occasions that linger on in the minds of its audiences.

In the hands of a writer, the bringing together of a sizable cast of characters can lead to moments of revelation, conflict or panic. In Larry’s Party by Carol Shields, the whole plot builds towards the titular gathering. A devastating mistake made at a party by the timid protagonist of Rebecca signals an important shift in Daphne du Maurier’s novel. A mysterious soirée in A Murder is Announced marks the shocking point at which Agatha Christie’s village mystery truly begins.

Emma Claire and I were hoping for considerably less drama at our party – the first we’d ever organised together – and yet, we wanted it to be an occasion that would remain as a memory, in a good way, for all those who were there.

We decided to make an occasion of it with a traditional British afternoon tea.

We were inspired by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, who once organised a get-together for Zora Neale Hurston, and also a feeling that we wanted to provide an opportunity for female writers we knew to make new writer friends. Owing to the size of my London flat, we were forced to keep things small-scale, so we invited just four writing women and asked each of them to bring along a female writer friend.

Our guests were Susan Barker, Emily Bullock, Ann Morgan, Irenosen Okojie, Yen Ooi, Denise Saul and Zakia Uddin – some of whom will be known to Something Rhymed readers through their guest posts on our blog.

IMG_1153In a written story, it is often the things that go wrong at a party that cement it in the reader’s imagination. We thought we might have a situation like that on our hands when, only five minutes before our first guest turned up, I opened the freezer door to get some ice and suddenly discovered two forgotten bottles of fizz – one smashed to pieces and one that promptly exploded everywhere when Emma Claire eased out the cork.

It’s the sort of incident that, if you’re hosting on your own (or feel that sole responsibility for a party’s success lies with you), can become magnified out of all proportion. In The Garden Party by Katherine Mansfield, though the majority of family members are remarkably untroubled by the genuinely terrible news that arrives halfway through the tale, there is much concern earlier on about the feared disappearance of the little flags for the sandwiches.

But as the two of us struggled to leap out of the way of the flying foam, we found we were unable to stop laughing: a reminder that, having the right friend at your side at moments like these swiftly transforms them from catastrophe to comedy.

Zakia Uddin, Denise Saul and Susan Barker listening to Emily Bullock reading an extract from her forthcoming novel, The Longest Fight.
Zakia Uddin, Denise Saul, Susan Barker and Emily Bullock (reading from her forthcoming novel, The Longest Fight).

Amazingly, too, the sparkling wine down Em’s dress seemed to dry out in record time and had virtually disappeared by the time everyone arrived. We’d wondered earlier – completely unnecessarily as it turned out – if, with a group of people who didn’t really know each other, conversation would be initially stilted. So we’d asked each writer to bring along a sample of her work as a way of introducing herself. In between the sandwiches, cakes and replenishing of glasses, we were treated to extracts from novels and short stories, and some of Denise’s poetry.

We talked about professional issues too. Questions about book launches, ways of spreading the word about our work, and university programmes were just some of the things we discussed. If I had to sum up the occasion in a few words, I’d say it was five hours of warmth and good conversation, and lots of laughter: not the conflict of great literature perhaps, but – for Emma Claire and me, and we hope for all our guests – the stuff of a great party for writers.