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

Working on our book, A Secret Sisterhood, has given us the perfect excuse to visit some of the places most associated with our literary heroines.

Some of these, such as Jane Austen’s former home at Chawton, are geographically close to where we live. Others, like Harriet Beecher Stowe’s house in the Connecticut town of Hartford, or the site of the school Charlotte Brontë attended in Brussels – both on the agenda for research trips this month – are considerably further afield.

A few are fixtures on the tourist trail, attracting many thousands of literary pilgrims each year; others are not usually open to visitors; others still, though they welcome the public, are nowhere near as well-known as they deserve to be.

A couple of months ago, I returned to my home county of Yorkshire to gain a stronger insight into the close and startlingly frank bond between Charlotte Brontë and Mary Taylor.

Regular readers of Something Rhymed may recall that I visited the Brontë Parsonage with my sister as a child – the two of us spending a long time in the gift shop picking out souvenir brooches bearing the images of Charlotte and Emily Brontë.

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

Once again, on this most recent trip, that famed grey-stone building on the edge of the moors was back on my itinerary. But this time I sought out other locations too: the house purchased by the intrepid Mary Taylor in her later years, once she’d returned to Yorkshire from New Zealand; the boarding school she and Charlotte Brontë attended as teenagers; and Taylor’s family residence, the Red House.

Situated in the village of Gomersal, its pleasant gardens and warm red brickwork make Taylor’s old home a welcoming sight. Inside, the marble-like pillars and wide-open balcony above the entrance hall give a markedly different impression from the dim downstairs corridor of the Haworth parsonage where her friend, Brontë, grew up.

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

Thanks to the writings of both women, some features of the Red House felt pleasingly familiar to me.

In her novel, Shirley, Brontë reimagines it as Briarmains – the home of the Yorkes, who she based on the lively and opinionated Taylor clan. And in letters Taylor wrote to Elizabeth Gaskell, when she was preparing to write her biography of Brontë, Taylor recalled her late friend’s visits to the Red House – occasions when the once socially-conservative young Brontë was coaxed out of her usual reticence to engage in lively political arguments with the radical Taylor siblings.

Walking through the rooms of the Red House that day, scenes I’d last experienced in the written words of Brontë and Taylor kept resurfacing in my mind. It was a thrill to go into the back parlour and pick out the pair of stained glass windows and picture of Mount Vesuvius erupting  – mentioned in the pages of Shirley – and to imagine the young Brontë first coming face-to-face with the drama of that painting, and the sparkling purple and amber lights bouncing off the panes of stained glass.

We’ll look forward to sharing many more stories about the Red House, and Brontë and Taylor’s fascinating friendship in our forthcoming book, which comes out in late 2017.

In the meantime, we’ll feature another post about this literary pair, here on Something Rhymed, this month:

Discussing Jane Eyre together in March, made us curious to read Mary Taylor’s ground-breaking feminist novel, Miss Miles. Rather than doing an audio interview, this time we’ve decided to vary things by giving you our thoughts in a video, which we’ll post two weeks from now. We hope you’ll come back then to take a look.

Charlotte Brontё and 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.

Charlotte Bronte - this image is in the public domain.
Charlotte Bronte painted by J.H. Thompson – this image is in the public domain.

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.

Mary Taylor (far left), climbing in Switzerland at the age of fifty-seven. We asked the Red House museum for their permission to use this image.

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.

This month

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.

Namesake

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.  

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.

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 kind permission of Oxford University Press.
Image used with 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.

A Forgotten Author, A Forgotten Town

My research into Margaret Oliphant revealed that she grew up in my home region of Merseyside. History has neglected so very many aspects of Oliphant’s extraordinary life but her northern upbringing has remained especially shrouded in mystery.

She is more often associated with London or Scotland, but, with some digging, I discovered that Oliphant spent the early years of her literary career living just a few minutes’ walk away from my family home. She moved to 24 Kenyon Terrace in 1850, the year after she published her first novel.

Kenyon_Terrace

I’ve learnt so many things while investigating forgotten female friendships, but Oliphant’s residence in my hometown has perhaps moved me most profoundly. At first, I felt rather puzzled by the intensity of my reaction. But then it struck me that I had never before heard of any novelist hailing from Birkenhead.

Despite forever having my head buried in a novel or notebook, the dream of authorship never entered my mind during childhood or adolescence. It’s not that I lacked ambition. When I was a teenager, I aspired to write the blurbs on book jackets. It simply didn’t occur to me that I could become (or even dream of becoming) the woman who actually wrote the books.

And why would it have done? The authors whose novels I devoured did not much resemble me: Jane Austen lived in genteel poverty and was not expected to work outside the home; Virginia Woolf’s annual allowance funded her room of one’s own. Where was the maternal literary line through which I could trace examples of female authors based in industrial northern towns, women who found a way to earn their living by the pen?

These women did exist, I realise now. We’ve profiled some of them on this site: Elizabeth Gaskell and Winifred Holtby spring to mind. I can’t help but wish that I’d known about this tradition, back when I was growing up in Birkenhead. How inspiring it would have been to learn that in 1850 a twenty-two-year-old woman wrote a novel at a dining table less than a mile from the room in which I made my own first tentative attempts to write.

This weekend just gone, I peered through the bay window into this very dining room. My mother at my side, I imagined the young Oliphant entranced by the world she was creating on the page while her own mother sat beside her, absorbed in her cross-stitching. Oliphant’s former home is now divided into bedsits, several wheelie bins crowding around the front steps. On one side, the adjoining house stands derelict, its windows boarded up. But the house on the other side offered more of a glimpse into the middle-class comforts that these buildings would have afforded in Oliphant’s day. Here the residents sat in armchairs, a chandelier illuminating them as they drank their coffees and read their papers.Kenyon_Terrace_3

All of life stands cheek by jowl here, and yet the autumnal streets through which I walked with my mother and sister are radically under-represented in British fiction. It took us some time to find Oliphant’s former home because the street numbers have changed since her day, and there’s no plaque to mark the fact that a great Victorian writer began her literary adventure here: an unsurprising yet poignant ending to a pilgrimage through a forgotten town in search of a forgotten female forebear.

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.

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.

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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.