Arifa Akbar, Literary Critic and Reviewer: So-Called Women’s Issues

During her talk at the second Something Rhymed Salon, Arifa Akbar, formally of The Independent, gave us an insider’s glimpse of life as a literary editor.

She has generously allowed us to share it on here so that you can mull it over at your leisure.

Until recently, I was the literary editor of The Independent newspaper. I worked there for fourteen and a half years, many of these on the book desk, and in a decision make capacity, so that I was choosing who wrote reviews for our weekly books section, where they were placed on the pages, what labels were put on them, and who was reviewed.

Part of this process involved the management of so-called women’s fiction, women’s genres, women’s writing. These categories have been helpful to me at times to ensure that equal numbers of women writers are represented, to make sure they are on the books pages of a national newspaper. And further afield, the categories are useful so that we have the Bailey’s prize correcting the bias against women’s fictions because we know statistically men don’t like to buy books by women authors (that’s why we have the likes of JK Rowling, who sell their books under ambiguous gender identities). The category of women’s fiction is also helpful to publishers – Virago was built upon the idea of making space for women’s issues.

But concepts of ‘women’s fiction’, and women’s issues in literature, can be trapping too, precisely because we have created a nice tidy category that can be devalued by the literary establishment! It can be ‘put in its place’, side-lined in its own ghetto. Margaret Atwood’s fiction is suddenly women’s fiction; it’s not SF or dystopic fiction. Elena Ferrante dramatizes female friendship so she writes female fiction A builder who was recently laying my floors at home was a voracious reader and I saw that he was reading Paula Hawkin’s bestelling debut, The Girl on The Train. I asked him a few days later what he had thought of it and he said he enjoyed it but that it was ‘more a woman’s book’. Having read it, I had considered it to be a crime thriller so I asked him what he meant and he said it was ‘a book about a woman, so women would read it’. This made me think – when women read about men’s experiences through fiction, we so often universalise them, while the reverse doesn’t always happen. It’s certainly what I do with my favourite male authors such as Dave Eggers and Michel Faber – I extrapolate a universal story from their books, and their male protagonists.

Conversely, the domestic novel is only called the domestic novel when a woman writes it. Not when Philip Roth writes American Pastoral, all about one American family, or when Karl Ove Knausgaard writes about looking after the kids and wiping their noses in his series, My Struggle, or when Jonathan Franzen writes Freedom, about middle-class American life. These are considered to be state-of-the-nation-novels, but not when Anne Tyler writes them, or so many other women. And so-called women’s issues aren’t devalued either when they’re written about by men.

 

In 2011, Granta brought out an edition of the magazine called The F-Word. I wrote a long piece on women’s fiction at the time to mark this publication, asking what it is, and studying the sexual politics of storytelling. When I asked some writers and thinkers who I regard as staunchly feminist, and hugely aware of the issues, they told me they didn’t want to be part of that article. It seemed to me as if they didn’t want to be hounded by the same old questions – what are women’s issues, what is women’s fiction, what is a woman’s way of writing…

These questions can corner you as a woman in the same way that questions of race and writing do – some writers I know are forever having to answer the question, ‘are you an Asian writer or a writer?’ The ones who are sick of being seen as Asian writers, rather than just writers, have every right to be sick of it, but I would argue that they can’t escape being Asian writers. Just as women writers are both writers and women writers, dealing with universal issues, and also grappling with women’s issues.

So I would return to the central Catch-22 – once the categories of women’s writing, and women’s issues in fiction, are created, some use them as an excuse to take women out of the universal spectrum. I have a recent example from The Independent: we had a section called ‘Round-up’ in which five or six books under a specific category were reviewed together – so this month’s crime fiction, or romance, or historical fiction, or debuts. One week, we had a crime fiction round up that happened to feature five books by five women writers. This was flagged up to me by a sub-editor, and then, when I ignored it, by a more senior editor, and I was asked how this had happened, why it had happened that the reviewer hadn’t even included one man, and please could I make sure it didn’t happen again? It was even suggested to me that we should change the category name to ‘women’s crime fiction’. And yet, how many times had the reverse happened – that all the authors mentioned in so many lists and round-ups, are all men? And how many times is it queried?

I want to end by drawing back to my article on The F-Word, on how relevant feminism was to 21st women’s fiction, in which I quoted several acclaimed female writers, some of whom would say they write about women’s issues, and some who wouldn’t. I was struck by the broad range of opinions and differences between them and I thought their opinions might add to our discussion tonight.

Joyce Carol Oates, a writer who is constantly cited for her excellence in creating (often marginalised) female voices, said that she mines material from her imagination, not politics, and that the best literature endures beyond its political outlook: “Though I have been told by younger women – in fact, sometimes by men – that I have been a ‘model’ for them, of an imaginative sort, I had not felt this way about myself.

“In the short run, something like a ‘political’ vision seems essential; in the long run, it is probably irrelevant…. A revolutionary political vision will attract attention – initially. But if the literary work is not enduring, the politics will soon become dated. That is why the most seemingly apolitical of American women poets, Emily Dickinson, reads as if she were our contemporary, while the feminist polemics of women writers of the 1970s and 1980s have lost their audiences.”

Kate Mosse, founder of the then-Orange (now Bailey’s) Prize, reckoned that an older generation of women felt the burden to be standard-bearers of female fiction in a way that the new generation does not. Their imaginations are “freed up” she says, to write fiction that goes beyond the social realism of the kitchen sink.

Toril Moi, a professor of literature at Duke University and author of the feminist classic, Sexual/Textual Politics, strongly disagreed, but added that “I completely understand that some women can feel cornered by the question ‘are you a woman writer?’ People hardly ever ask that question of men.” The statement “I am not a woman writer” need not be anti-feminist either, she said. It is, in many cases informed by the desire to escape from the “other” enclave.

Urvashi Butalia, an Indian activist, writer and feminist, said: “Whether you like it or not, your politics and gender follow you into the world of the imagination”. And Margaret Drabble said she so often chose to write about women because “I write about what is important to me… I haven’t felt a duty or a responsibility to write fiction about women, and nobody has imposed this on me. I have written about women because their lives are important to me.”

The Ghanian-American author, Taiye Selasi, said that she had not made a conscious effort to create strong women characters in her fiction. They just “emerge on the page that way”, and Emma Donoghue said that she felt no obligation to represent women’s lives, yet a feminist consciousness remains: “I suppose to me a feminist novelist (of any gender) is one who notices gender.

“So you might say I am an obviously feminist writer in that my work often focuses on women’s lives; I try to tell neglected stories and many of them are women’s. But I would argue that I’m being just as feminist when I write about my male characters, because I am just as interested in how notions of manhood shape (and in many cases cage) them… I certainly don’t feel as if I’m working within a distinct tradition of women’s writing.”

Lastly, I want to quote Virginia Woolf, who believed in the ideal of literary androgyny. In her 1929 essay, A Room of One’s Own, she suggested that “it is fatal for anyone who writes to think of their sex.”

Discuss!

Please do continue the conversation by using the comment facility below.

Successes and Surprises

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We sought permission from Jacaranda Books to use this image.

Last week, I had the pleasure of attending the book launch of one of our former guest blogger’s debut novels. Butterfly Fish by Irenosen Okojie has just been published by Jacaranda Books.

I first got to know Irenosen through her work as a Prize Advocate for the SI Leeds Literary Prize, an award that celebrates the writing of Black and Asian female writers, and for which I was delighted to be a runner-up in 2012. I am grateful to Irenosen for the support she’s given me with my writing, and so it was great to be able to go along last Wednesday to give my support to her.

It is this kind of reciprocity that takes a relationship away from a purely work-based arrangement and into the realms of friendship. Of the writer pairs we’ve profiled on Something Rhymed, some – like Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison, or George Eliot and Harriet Beecher Stowe – enjoyed similar phenomenal levels of literary success. Others – such as Jane Austen and Anne Sharp, or Emily Dickinson and Helen Hunt Jackson in their day (Dickinson being the unknown one) – were poles apart professionally. But what they all had in common was a high regard for their friend’s opinions and talents, and, in almost all cases, a desire to celebrate their successes with them.

Prior to beginning Something Rhymed, Emma Claire and I were not at all sure that we’d be able to find so many heartening examples of female solidarity – not necessarily because we doubted these kinds of relationships existed through history, but because we feared that the evidence might no longer be there.

So it was good to learn about Jane Austen and Anne Sharp. While Austen’s books enjoyed great popularity during her lifetime, the plays of her friend Sharp remained unperformed outside the home. Nonetheless, a level playing field always remained between the two when it came to discussions of their work. After the publication of her novel, Emma, Austen sought out Sharp’s critical opinions. Sharp expressed admiration for the book, but she wasn’t afraid to let Austen know that she found the character of Jane Fairfax – inspired in part by Sharp herself – insufficiently complex.

Emily Dickinson’s extrovert friend, Helen Hunt Jackson, author of the novel Ramona, made several attempts to even things out professionally between the two of them by raving about Dickinson’s writing in her own literary circles and encouraging her reclusive friend to publish her poems. Although Dickinson largely resisted these efforts, such an endorsement must surely have done wonders for her confidence and perhaps even had an impact on her prolific output, which totalled nearly 1800 poems.

As Emma Claire mentioned in last week’s post, over the many months during which we have been researching female literary friendships, we have been surprised by the historical sources that do indeed exist, and how often they have been overlooked or misinterpreted.

Just as unpublished material in the Austen family’s papers revealed new insights into her friendship with Sharp, the close transatlantic bond  between George Eliot and Harriet Beecher Stowe was illuminated for us by the letters between them – letters that have too often been dismissed as a correspondence between mere acquaintances. Going back to the diaries of Virginia Woolf allowed us to see that Katherine Mansfield was her greatest literary confidante rather than her bitterest foe.

These last two were not always willing to share in the joy of each other’s achievements, and occasionally even revelled in their friend’s disappointments. But they were ready to lavish praise when they felt it was due, and even collaborated together on Mansfield’s Prelude, published by Woolf through her Hogarth Press.

Setting every single letter of her friend’s story with the wooden blocks of her hand-press was a drawn-out and laborious process. For me, this image stands as a strong symbol, not just of the value Woolf accorded to Mansfield’s work, but also of one woman helping another – as a friend and a fellow writer.

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.

 

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.

Diaries, Diversions and Double Beds

As a young woman, L.M. Montgomery, the woman who would later publish the famous Anne of Green Gables series, kept a giddy collaborative journal with her writer friend and housemate, Nora Lefurgey. Inspired by them, we have written a joint diary post about a trip we made together to Ilkley.

Emily: We get off to a slower-than-expected start when, on arriving at King’s Cross railway station, the board tells us our train has been cancelled. But it doesn’t maGregPhoto.comtter: our Something Rhymed event at the Ilkley Literature Festival isn’t until tomorrow – we’ve allowed ourselves an extra day for lots of rehearsing – and even though we’ve arranged to meet our friends at the town’s Playhouse bar later, we still have plenty of time.

Plus, with the two of us together, these things are always all right; they would be even if we were cutting it fine. 

An hour or so later, we are on the train making our journey north. I plan to work on a blog post that’s set to go live tomorrow, while Emma Claire puts the final touches to an article we’ve written for Shooter Lit Mag. But we keep talking, and so we don’t get as much done as we’d have liked.

Emma Claire: The article is about Emily Dickinson, and so I have been reading her letters and am itching to share my findings with Em: the only friend who I know for sure will find Dickinson’s love life as fascinating as I do. DespitGregPhoto.come at least one proposal of marriage; a darkly mysterious correspondence with someone she called ‘Master’; and a late-life erotic liaison with a man eighteen years her senior, Dickinson famously never married. And yet, as an adolescent, she had harboured such high hopes of romance. I can’t help disturbing Em from her blog post to share this snippet from one of Dickinson’s letters: ‘I am growing handsome very fast indeed! I expect I shall be the belle of Amherst when I reach my 17th year. I don’t doubt that I will have perfect crowds of admirers at that age. Then how shall I delight to make them await my bidding and with what delight shall I witness their suspense while I make my final decision’. Who would have thought that such a sociable creature would have become mythologised as a crazed recluse?GregPhoto.com

Emily: When the man with the refreshments trolley reaches us he says ‘What can I get you, girls?’ We wonder for how long people will keep calling us that. We are almost thirty-five.

Emma Claire: Now that Emily has pointed it out, I keep noticing people’s tendency to refer to us as ‘girls’. We got to have a brief chat with Edna O’Brien at tGregPhoto.comhe Small Wonder Festival recently and, although we were there in our role as lecturers accompanying our New York University students, she greeted us affectionately with the words: ‘Two girls!’ Both with Edna O’Brien and with the man on the train, I found myself quite enjoying the image of us as young friends – perhaps because, in both cases, their tones seemed wistful rather than patronising. Life’s thrown quite a lot at Emily and me during the dozen or so years since we first met, beating much of our youthful naivety out of us. And yet, now that we’re far closer to forty than twenty, I feel as if my friendship with Emily has helped me not only to mature but also to prolong my girlhood.   

GregPhoto.comEmily: Through the window, we pick out places that bring back lots of memories: towns I remember from days that seem distant, when I used to commute to London from my old flat in Leeds every week. As we pull into Grantham, Emma Claire says she always recalls switching trains here, stepping down to take the much slower service to the village in Lincolnshire where I lived in my mid-twenties. Ever since I first got to know her, Em has been a regular house guest.

Emma Claire: During the years when I was living in central London and Emily and her partner were moving between various towns and villages, my visits to them always felt like mini-holidays. By the time I reached Grantham, I would already have begun to unwind. My memories of those weekends are full of small pleasures: picking rocket from tGregPhoto.comheir back garden; mixing gin with triple sec and a squeeze of lemon; shopping for sushi-fresh fish in their local market.

Since they moved to London and we started SomethingRhymed.com, I have become a far more frequent overnight guest – something that particularly struck me this weekend when Emily and her partner came over to my place for breakfast on their way to other friends. It had been five years since Emily’s partner had visited my house, and yet these days he welcomes me into theirs on an almost weekly basis.  

GregPhoto.com

Emily: When we arrive in Ilkley at last, we find our hotel with minimal trouble. Phone maps have made everything easier than it used to be, but it’s still far from unusual for us to get lost, particularly when we are chatting as we wander.

Through the front door, in the narrow corridor, Emma Claire, who’s made theGregPhoto.com two-night booking, gives her name to the man on reception. He nods, but seems strangely reluctant to show us to our room, and so we wait with our bags while he disappears out the back. We can hear the hum of his voice. He seems to be trying to find someone, anyone, else to show us to where we will be sleeping.

When he emerges at last, unsuccessful apparently, he leads us up the stairs. In the room, we see a large bed for two. The man talks us hurriedly through the facilities, his eyes focused away.

Once Emma Claire has explained that she’d requested a twin, our host visibly relaxes. He insists on showing us to three different rooms, asking us to take our pick. On our own again, with the door closed, we laugh about what’s just happened.

Emma Claire: ButGregPhoto.com we also feel that we’ve been given an insight into what it could be like for gay couples on their travels, and the way that such situations could become far more tiresome than funny. But we keep on laughing, wondering if there’ll ever come a day – now that we’re really no longer girls – when we might feel flush enough to book separate rooms. 

Emily: It’s not long before we have to get back out to meet Gail and Irenosen, also in town for the festival. The sky is dark and brooding and we are walking along the sloping streets, neither of us entirely sure where the Playhouse is, despite having been to Ilkey before – and in my case to the theatre itself.GregPhoto.com

Over the years, Em and I have got ourselves lost in so many locations: along the country roads of Japan’s Ehime Prefecture, circling the streets of Barreiro in Portugal, and on several nights out in London. This time, though, we keep up today’s earlier form and find our way fairly quickly – not that it would have mattered if we hadn’t, not really, with the two of us together.

 

In Unexpected Places

For May’s Something Rhymed activity, Emma Claire commissioned me to write about ‘the provinces’.

For the benefit of our international readers, some of whom may more commonly use this term in a different way, it’s worth mentioning that by ‘the provinces’ she meant those areas of the country away from the capital and other major cities.

I am, you might say, a city girl, which goes some way to explaining one of Emma Claire’s early impressions of me. Being mixed-race – I’m half-English and half-Japanese – I’ve generally felt more at home in the metropolis than the less ethnically-diverse smaller towns where, through accidents of birth and circumstance, I have actually spent the greater part of my life.

There are many things that I could say about this subject, some of which I touched on in a longer memoir, written for the Tangled Roots project last year. But since this is a relatively short blog post, and not an essay, I have taken a leaf out of Emily Dickinson’s book and interpreted Emma Claire’s assignment loosely.

Here, I have set down some thoughts about my first home, on the outskirts of York, in a part of the UK that could be regarded as firmly within the provinces.

1982-5-Emily
Emily in the garden, aged two-and-a-half

It was an ordinary semi-detached house on the Badger Hill estate.

I had never seen a badger anywhere in its vicinity. The name was merely a ghost of the wooded landscape that must have preceded the tarmac, brown brickwork, and fenced-off areas of lawn.

Our neighbours were an elderly couple, the Ks, who my little sister and I really liked. Although, as a rule, they had no time for ‘foreigners’, like most people with these sorts of prejudices, they were apt to make exceptions.

Our mother had managed to win them over early, due in part to what they believed was her miraculous ability to predict the weather. It didn’t matter that she’d told them she was simply a keen watcher of the BBC forecast, they were adamant it was all down to some mystical Asian charm.

The Ks would keep an eye out for those mornings when our mother emerged from our back door with a bagful of washing, and this would usually be followed an hour or so later by Mrs K stepping outside with a fresh load of her own. This meant, effectively, that if there was a full clothes line in our garden, there would almost always be laundry hanging outside our neighbours’ house too.

Externally, our house may have been indistinguishable from that of our neighbours, but inside there were noticeable differences between where we lived and the houses of our school friends.

In later years, after the deaths of both my parents, people who knew us back then would often recall the ‘exotic’ scents of Mum’s cooking drifting out of our kitchen, the Japanese scrolls and prints hanging on the walls, the miniature stringed koto on the windowsill with its melancholic plinking sound.

There were other differences too, like the many books in my parents’ study and the fact there was a study at all – where my parents worked at desks side-by-side – but it was the Japanese elements, so at odds with the Englishness of that building, that seem to make the biggest impression, probably because they were the least expected.

These seeming contradictions were, of course, entirely normal to me. I had grown up with them. But I’m sure I was influenced by these reactions, which included open-mouthed surprise at times.

In fact, it could have been the first spark of a fascination in me with objects or people that appear in unexpected places and the ways others react to them – a major theme, I’ve realised recently, in a lot of the writing I’ve done in the years since then.

Emily Dickinson and Helen Hunt Jackson

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Emily Dickinson (far left) and Helen Hunt Jackson (in purple dress) pictured on the Amherst Community History Mural. The picture is used with the kind permission of Jim Wald

The abiding image of Emily Dickinson is that of a reclusive poet, dressed only in white, and known among her neighbours as The Myth. So we were surprised and delighted to discover that she had been friends with one of the most famous writers of her generation, someone whom Ralph Waldo Emerson described as the best of America’s poets.

Dickinson’s celebrated friend was Helen Hunt Jackson – a name that, to our shame, we found unfamiliar. Although her reputation as a poet has failed to stand the test of time, she is still well remembered in the USA as a campaigner for the rights of Native Americans, and her novel Ramona has never been out of print.

Like Mansfield and Woolf, theirs was an unlikely friendship. Jackson was a social animal, whose successful career stood in stark opposition to that of Dickinson – an intensely private poet.

Indeed, during Dickinson’s lifetime, she saw only a handful of her poems go to press. Jackson actually shepherded one of them to publication, cajoling her into this by saying that: ‘It is a cruel wrong to your “day and generation” that you will not give them light’.

Dickinson also held Jackson’s work in high esteem, once claiming that – with the exception of George Eliot – she considered Jackson’s poems stronger than those of any woman since Elizabeth Barrett Browning.

Thomas Wentworth Higginson, who acted as a literary mentor to both writers, introduced Dickinson and Jackson to each other’s work. However, the two women had actually known each other since childhood. They both came from the small town of Amherst, Massachusetts but, whereas Jackson had roamed far and wide, Dickinson had stayed firmly put. Once they’d reconnected, Jackson visited Dickinson on her return trips to Amherst. So – unlike many of Dickinson’s friendships – the two writers conversed in person as well as through letters.

Their friendship even influenced some of their work. Jackson acted on occasion as muse, commissioner, and recipient of poems by Dickinson. And, for her part, Dickinson is widely thought to have inspired the central character in Jackson’s first novel: a woman who wears only white, and who writes strange and dazzling poems.

Activity

Helen Hunt Jackson once commissioned Emily Dickinson to write her a poem about an oriole – an orange-breasted blackbird common in the north east of America. Dickinson responded with ‘The Hummingbird’.

This month, we will be commissioning each other to write about a particular topic – although, like Dickinson, we reserve the right to go on a bit of a tangent!

As always, we’d be grateful for suggestions of other female writer friends you’d like us to research.