Eliot Bliss and Jean Rhys

Towards the end of 2014, when we had been running Something Rhymed for just one year, we had the pleasure of interviewing Diana Athill about the literary bond she shared with the late Jean Rhys.

Plaque outside Jean Rhys's former home in London's Chelsea (Creative Commons licence)
Plaque outside Jean Rhys’s former home in London’s Chelsea (Creative Commons licence)

As many others before her had also observed, Athill recalled that Rhys was not someone who made friends easily. On the other hand, the famously temperamental author could be ‘fun to be with’, Athill told us – at least ‘when she was being happy’.

Rhys also knew how to turn on the charm when she needed help. ‘When she was young and a very, very pretty woman’, Athill remembered with a wry smile, ‘she was rescued over and over again by helpful men. When she became older, she was rescued by nice women like me’.

Having so enjoyed our afternoon’s talk back in 2014, Emma and I were delighted to learn of another of Rhys’s female literary alliances.

Although Rhys had written four earlier, highly accomplished novels, she remains best known today as the author of Wide Sargasso Sea, inspired by the plot of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. But almost three decades before the publication of Rhys’s 1966 book, which would bring her the kind of public admiration that she’d always felt she deserved, she became acquainted with Eliot Bliss – like her, a white writer from the Caribbean, Rhys hailing from Dominica whereas Bliss came from Jamaica.

Image used with the kind permission of Michela A. Calderaro, who has published a newly-discovered collection of poems by Bliss.

Eliot Bliss (born Eileen Norah Lees Bliss in 1903), whose pen-name was partially inspired by George Eliot, was the author of the novels Saraband and Luminous Isle. And, like Rhys, her work was highly autobiographical, often focusing on the lush island homes of their youths.

The pair got to know each other while they were both living in London, and Rhys, then in her forties, was enjoying an unusually settled – and therefore happy – period in an often chaotic life. During the summer of 1937, the two met every fortnight to enjoy home-cooked Caribbean dinners washed down with vast quantities of wine.

Such was Rhys’s ability to drink that her poor younger friend always felt ill after these meals. Rhys, too, sometimes ended up so drunk that her husband would have to put both women to bed.

On occasion, Bliss would catch a glimpse of her friend’s stormy temper – for instance, when Rhys drunkenly accused Bliss (the daughter of a colonial army officer) of looking down on her. But when Rhys was sober, according to Bliss, she was always kind-natured and – as Athill, too, would later note – full of fun.

Sadly, in the winter of 1937, Bliss left for America. But the two writers continued to correspond in the decades to come, their letters challenging the common perception of Rhys as constantly difficult-natured and someone who was unable to make friends with other women.

This year…

We are looking forward to profiling many more female writing friendships. If you sent us a recommendation over the past twelve months, when we have been working hard on our forthcoming book, please know that we have not forgotten about it. We welcome all ideas for literary pairs you’d like to see on this site, so if a friendship we haven’t covered yet comes to mind, please do let us know.

Who Cares?

Someone recently told me that she considered my sister’s life to have no value.

My sister has severe autism and cerebral palsy, so she requires constant support from family, friends and paid carers. I stayed with Lou recently and, during this time, it was me who cut up her food into bite-size pieces, bathed and dressed her, held her hand to help her safely cross the road.

It would seem unthinkable now to dismiss Helen Keller’s life as valueless. And yet, many people must have written off this deaf-blind girl and pitied those who looked after this hot-tempered child.

In fact, Keller’s disabilities enabled her to look at our world from a distinctive vantage point – one that came to be valued by prestigious literary journals, world leaders and the general public alike.

As with many of the literary women we’ve featured on this site, it is difficult to prise apart Keller’s dazzling abilities from her apparent disabilities. Could Emily Dickinson have written such wildly challenging verse if she had conformed to the demands of the outside world? Could Jean Rhys have penned Wide Sargasso Sea without her own feelings of imprisonment? Could Virginia Woolf have rendered Septimus Smith’s shell shock had she not experienced the loosening grip of her own sanity?

The courage, determination and soaring talent of these writers were supported by the care and commitment of their family, friends and employees. Infamously reclusive, Dickinson underwent surgery on her eyes and a recent biographer claims that she may also have had epilepsy. Her writing life was facilitated by her siblings, and she received invaluable support from fellow writer Helen Hunt Jackson during a time when few others recognised the genius of her work – a subject we’ve written about for Shooter Literary Magazine.

Shooter Literary Magazine available from Foyles
Shooter Literary Magazine available from Foyles

During our interview with Diana Athill, she told us that Rhys relied in her youth on ‘helpful men’ to guide her through the trials of everyday life, while in later years ‘she was rescued by nice women like me’. Leonard Woolf – his wife’s most prized reader – helped to nurse her through dark times, never doubting her brilliance.

Throughout her long and dignified life, Keller relied on others night and day. Those who helped her were privileged to glean insights on how to value and be valued by a fellow human being. The support, of course, went both ways. Indeed, when Keller turned down offers from world-famous filmmakers in favour of the inexperienced Nancy Hamilton, she acted out of deep care for her friend.

During the past weeks, while I was helping my sister to bathe and dress and eat, she was looking after me in ways that were subtle but just as significant. Before travelling up to stay with her, I had been feeling uncharacteristically low. By welcoming me into her daily routine, Lou reminded me that joy can be found in all sorts of places: her face would light up when she selected an outfit from the clothes I’d laid out on her bed; in the cinema, she sang along to ‘Tomorrow’ with Annie, clapping her hands above her head; one evening, she dragged me around the marine lake at sunset, forcing me to run against the wind and laughing all the way.

Lou bringing a smile to my face
Lou bringing a smile to my face

Later that night we went to a gig and Lou shook hands with all and sundry, repeating her favourite phrases: ‘What’s your name? You’re a ratbag! I like college.’ In this way, we got chatting to a young man, who – full of despair – had just dropped out of university. Lou reached across me to take hold of the young man, and they sat hand in hand for a long time. I like to think that she was helping him that night just as she was helping me: that her zest for life was rubbing off on him; that he would value – as I did – her reminder that there can be dignity and kindness in seeking and accepting care.

The Ship has set sail

We are delighted to announce that yet another of our guest bloggers has a book out this month. What’s more, Antonia Honeywell’s The Ship asks wise and searching questions about the value of life and what it really means to care.

 

In the Hands of Chance?

Image by Angela Monika Arnold (Creative Commons licence)
Image by Angela Monika Arnold (Creative Commons licence)

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.

Of the monthly profiled writers, some like Charlotte Brontë and Elizabeth Gaskell and Harriet Beecher Stowe and George Eliot knew of each other by reputation before they met. Diana Athill formed a connection with Jean Rhys through her job as an editor at André Deutsch, and the friendship between Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison really blossomed when they both found themselves appearing at the Hay Festival in Wales.

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’.

A Year of Hidden Friendships

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.

Old treasure chest
Creative Commons License

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:

  1. 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.
  1. 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?
  1. 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…
  1. The literary status of some of our writer heroines has suffered because their genre, style or subject matter was particularly associated with women.
  1. Some of the pairs shared an alliance so radical that others refused to believe that it could possibly have thrived.
  1. Other collaborations challenged core mythologies about female authors: the well-bred lady; the solitary eccentric; and the suffering genius.
  1. Popular perceptions of female friendship still struggle to allow for the kind of rivalry embraced by some of our writer forebears.
  1. Rumours of lesbian affairs sometimes actually seem easier for commentators to accommodate than the possibility of an intellectual partnership between women.
  1. Close friendships between girls might be all well and good but, after marriage, women have traditionally been expected to devote themselves primarily to their husband and offspring.
  1. 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.

Memories of Jean Rhys: our interview with Diana Athill

We recently wrote to one of this month’s profiled authors to ask if she would be willing to answer some questions about the late Jean Rhys. We were delighted when Diana Athill responded with a charming picture postcard and an invitation to come and visit her. December’s guest blog is the result of our conversation.

Jean Rhys in older age (1970s). Creative Commons licence
Jean Rhys in older age (1970s). Creative Commons licence

Diana Athill, now in her mid-nineties, has often spoken about how much she likes living at this residential home in north London. The greatest wrench she experienced when she moved out of her old flat in Primrose Hill was the need to give up a lifetime’s worth of books.

There is a single tall bookcase to the left of the chair where she is now sitting. Although it holds a great many more volumes than my similarly-aged grandparents had in their entire house, Athill’s collection previously ran into the thousands. In fact, the mammoth task of being forced to reduce it caused her such stress that she ended up spending a night in hospital.

From the chairs she’s instructed us to pull up – warning me apologetically that mine won’t be very comfortable – we count several titles by Jean Rhys, the author whose career Athill helped to resurrect through her work as an editor at André Deutsch.

Readers of our first December post will know what a long wait Athill had in store for her when Rhys told her she could have the final draft of Wide Sargasso Sea in ‘six or nine months’, and of her support and encouragement over the nine years it took for Rhys to finally deliver her manuscript.

Did Athill ever feel frustrated with her, we wonder. ‘I quite often felt frustrated’, she says, ‘but on the hand it became sort of a habit… She was fun to be with, you see, when she was being happy. And she was great as a writer.’

In relation to her writing, Athill remarks that Rhys was ‘steely’. ‘She knew exactly what she wanted and she was always dead right. In relation to ordinary life, I think she got stuck at about the age of eight.’

But because she could be charming, people wanted to come to her aid: ‘When she was young and a very, very pretty woman, she was rescued over and over again by helpful men. When she became older, she was rescued by nice women like me.’

When we ask Athill about her happiest memories of Rhys, she responds with laughter. She recalls the times when she stayed at Rhys’s cottage in Devon, saying that they were ‘hardly happy… but fun’.

Rhys once described the village she lived in as ‘a dull spot which even drink can’t enliven much’. Athill reserves comment on the geographical location, but she was clearly horrified by the small house itself: ‘When I first saw it I thought, how could anybody live here?’

But although she and others spent hours trying to find the author an alternative home, Athill tells us that Rhys would always say, in the end, ‘I think not. Better the devil I know.’

After the publication of Wide Sargasso Sea and republication of her earlier novels brought her greater financial stability, Rhys’s friends arranged for improvements to be made to the house, which resulted in it becoming warmer. The shed beside the building was converted into a spare room.

‘The funniest time really’, Athill laughs, was ‘when I went there and I was staying in this awful little shed’. It was a windy night and the surrounding bushes were banging against its outer walls. She woke up thinking: ‘Oh goodness, it’s making even more of a noise, and so I opened my eyes and what did I see? My handbag flying through the air out of the window!’

It would turn out that a thief with a hook on a long wooden rod had whisked her bag away. Athill leapt out of bed, but the boy vanished immediately.

First page of the introduction to Smile Please by Diana Athill, Jean Rhys's unfinished autobiography.
First page of Diana Athill’s introduction to  Smile Please, Jean Rhys’s unfinished autobiography.

When she told Rhys about the incident the next morning, the author’s reaction was: ‘“Oh good!” Because she’d been telling people that she’d heard suspicious people creeping about outside at night and they’d all told her she was imagining it.’

Rhys was famously paranoid – something she herself admitted. ‘Victim’ is another term readily associated with her, although this was something that used to make her angry. ‘There was a lot of violence in Jean’, Athill says. ‘She used to get very, very cross when people said she was a victim because she knew perfectly well, in her heart of hearts, that she was pretty fierce.’

Rhys’s literary ferocity combined with her helplessness in everyday matters created the circumstances for her collaboration with Athill – one of the most important in recent literary history.

Diana Athill’s collection of short stories Midsummer Night in the Workhouse is published by Persephone Books. Her selected memoirs Life Class is published by Granta Books.

What I’ve Learned from Emma Claire Sweeney

Drawing inspiration from Diana Athill and Jean Rhys, this month we take up the challenge to let each other know some of the things we’ve learned from the experience of regularly reading our friend’s writing.

The first time Emma Claire and I swapped pieces of work, we each printed out a short story we’d written, tucked it into an envelope fixed with airmail stamps and then waited with considerable trepidation for a postal reply.

I was living on the Japanese island of Shikoku at the time. Emma Claire, whose home had previously been a ninety-minute drive away, was now back in Britain, at her parents’ house in Birkenhead. A year had passed since we’d each confessed our secret ambitions to write, but it had taken us all this time to get up the nerve to show the other what we were working on.

View from Matsuyama Castle (the town where I used to live) by Jyo81 (Creative Commons licence)
View from Matsuyama Castle (the town where I used to live) by Jyo81 (Creative Commons licence)

Today, when Em and I exchange writing so frequently, this seems, on the one hand, extremely timid. But on the other, we probably did have some cause to worry – not just that our own efforts wouldn’t be good enough – but about how our friendship would be affected if we didn’t like each other’s prose styles.

Thankfully, the opposite turned out to be true, which is not to say that those early stories were much good. We were still grappling with the basics: how to pace a story, when to show and when to tell, and (in my case) how to write in grammatical sentences.

Nonetheless, Emma Claire’s use of language, infused with sensory detail, immediately pulled me in. In those early years, the stories she sent me were most often inspired by her experiences of living in Japan and her backpacking travels around South East Asia. I still easily recall a scene aboard a cramped Mekong river barge, ‘a garland of white jasmine petals and pink carnations’ swinging ‘hypnotically’ at the boat’s bow.

More recently, her fiction has centred on places closer to her roots. Like the novel she’s close to finishing, my favourite short story of hers is set in the seaside town of Morecambe. ‘The Taj Mahal of the North’, exemplifies so much that I admire about Em’s writing: the warmth of her voice on the page; her compassion for her characters; her ability to make the ‘ordinary’ seem suddenly startling and new.

Morecambe by Immanuel Giel (Creative Commons licence)
Morecambe by Immanuel Giel (Creative Commons licence)

I love her descriptions of the thriving resort of yesteryear – ‘the thick scent of the sea… the honky-tonk noises of the amusement arcades, and the couples sharing sundaes in the ice-cream parlour’. There’s a melancholy beauty to the Morecambe of today too, as seen through the eyes of the elderly male narrator who laments the demise of ‘the bath-houses and theatres’ where he spent his youth, ‘all standing derelict and converted into discotheques’.

This is writing that flows with ease. A reader would never know how many revisions it’s been through, how boldly its author has reshaped her story, removing characters, reordering scenes and, as Athill once recalled Rhys saying, being ready to ‘cut, cut, cut’.

Emma Claire’s example has encouraged me to stick with many a project that isn’t working yet and to take brave decisions when it comes to rewriting, completely replotting a novel for instance, or ditching a once-loved narrator: decisions that are made that bit easier when you know you’re guaranteed to have a writer friend beside you, every step of the way.

Diana Athill and Jean Rhys

Prostitution, abortion, failed marriages and alcoholism: accounts of Jean Rhys’s story tend to paint her as a tragic femme fatale. But these facets make up only part of the colourful life that she’d weave so hauntingly into her fiction.

Of white Creole heritage, Ella Gwendoline Rees Williams was born in 1890 on the Caribbean island of Dominica. After emigrating to Europe in her late teens, she attended a girls’ boarding school in Britain, and later spent years living a financially precarious existence in bohemian Paris and London. This included periods as a chorus girl and artist’s model – experiences she’d later draw on in her lyrical early novels.

But works like Voyage in the Dark and Good Morning, Midnight – which takes its title from a poem by Emily Dickinson – initially met with only limited success.

In middle age, Rhys retreated from the gritty glamour of her earlier existence. Now living in a remote country cottage, she upped her alcohol intake to a bottle of whisky a day and all but disappeared from the public’s consciousness.

Literature lovers owe a great debt to the editor Diana Athill for the part she played in putting Rhys back on the literary map. When Athill’s publishing house, André Deutsch, committed itself to Wide Sargasso Sea, Rhys’s daring prequel to Jane Eyre, the author let the firm know that they could have the completed manuscript within six to nine months.

Image used with the kind permission of Penguin Books.
Image used with the kind permission of Penguin Books.

Six to nine months turned into a year. A year turned into five, six, and then seven… Throughout this period, Athill, along with her fellow editor Francis Wyndham, encouraged Rhys by letter, and neither of them ever lost their belief in her phenomenal talent.

Athill was already a published writer herself, of short stories and a first volume of memoir by that stage. Born close to two decades after Rhys, Athill, who’d grown up on a thousand-acre estate in the British county of Norfolk, came from a very different social background. But she too flouted convention: by going to Oxford University and then into a career in publishing, rather than settling down to married life as so many of her female friends had done.

The two, who’d been corresponding for seven years, had still never met when Rhys agreed to bring her almost-finished manuscript to London. They’d arranged to have lunch together, but, the day before, Athill received a panicked phone call from the manager of the hotel where the author was staying. Rhys had suffered a heart attack.

Instead of the planned champagne celebrations, she was rushed into hospital, and so the pair first really got to know each other during the following weeks of Rhys’s convalescence. Later, Athill would recall that the experience ‘with all the usual intimacies of nightdress washing, toothpaste buying and so on, plunged us into the deepest end of friendship’.

Although there had only been a few lines missing from Rhys’s manuscript at the time of her heart attack, it took her a further two years to complete it. But nine years after taking on the book as an editor, Athill travelled from London to Devon to collect Wide Sargasso Sea in person.

Its great success would bring Rhys the celebrated literary status that had always eluded her in her youth.

Athill, too, would go on to enjoy a hugely successful old age, with the release of several more books, including Stet, the memoir of her days as an editor, and the award-winning Somewhere Towards the End.

Image used with the kind permission of Granta Books.
Image used with the kind permission of Granta Books.

Activity

Diana Athill has said that she learned much about concision and clarity from Jean Rhys – lessons that she was able to draw on in her own writing. This month, we’ll let each other know the lessons we’ve learned from many years spent reading and commenting on each other’s work.