Arifa Akbar is a journalist and literary critic. She is the former literary editor of The Independent, where she worked from October 2001 until April 2016, as a reporter and arts correspondent before joining the books desk in 2009.
She was a judge for the Orwell Prize in 2013, the Fiction Uncovered Prize in 2014, and the British Book Industry Award in 2016.
Arifa has chaired author interviews at the London Literature Festival, Foyles, Asia House and the Bath Literature Festival.
She is a regular newspaper reviewer on Sky News, and reviews books in print and on radio. She studied English Literature at university and then completed a Masters in Gender Studies, specialising in French Feminism and ‘writing the body’.
We are delighted that Sarah LeFanu has agreed to share her wealth of experience with us at the Arts Council sponsored Something Rhymed salon on May 4th. It will be a particular delight to meet Sarah since we were so captivated by the thoughts on female literary friendship that she explored in her guest post last year.
Sarah LeFanu was an editor at The Women’s Press for ten years, and was responsible for their ground-breaking feminist science fiction list. She has edited seven anthologies of original stories (including three all-women anthologies), and her books include Rose Macaulay: A Biography and its companion volume, Dreaming of Rose: A Biographer’s Journal. For six years (2003 – 2009) she was Artistic Director of the Bath Literature Festival, where she consistently promoted women writers.
If you would like to join Sarah LeFanu, Karen Maitland, Arifa Akbar and Michele Roberts to discuss the problem of gender inequality in the literary world, do email us at SomethingRhgymed@gmail.com.
We decided to celebrate the bicentenary of Charlotte Brontë’s birth by talking about Jane Eyre – a novel that caused great scandal when it was first published in 1847 but that elicited a very different response from Brontë’s school friend and fellow writer, Mary Taylor…
This month, we’ve really enjoyed reading and discussing The Absenteeby Maria Edgeworth. Neither of us had read the Anglo-Irish writer before, but we’d long heard of her as an influence on Jane Austen. This is particularly interesting since Edgeworth held progressive views for her time, her novels exploring issues such as inter-racial relationships, feminism and same-sex desire.
Austen singled out for praise one of Edgeworth’s most controversial books, Belinda, in her own novel, Northanger Abbey:
“And what are you reading, Miss –?” “Oh! it is only a novel!” replies the young lady, while she lays down her book with affected indifference, or momentary shame. “It is only Cecilia, or Camilla, or Belinda”; or, in short, only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best-chosen language.”
Austen so prized her fellow novelist’s good opinion that in 1816 she asked her publisher to send a precious presentation copy of Emma to Edgeworth in Ireland.
You might remember that a presentation copy of Emma cropped up in our post on Austen’s radical bond with the family governess and amateur playwright, Anne Sharp. Just as Sharp was the only friend whom Austen singled out to receive these rare volumes, so Edgeworth appears to have been the only professional author.
In our recorded conversation, we talk about Edgeworth’s and Sharp’s wildly different responses to Austen’s gift and their respective reactions to the novel itself. We also share our reasons for believing that Edgeworth’s The Absentee played a crucial and illuminating role in the unlikely friendship between Austen and Sharp.
As we mentioned in last week’s post, Margaret Mason’s relationship with Mary Shelley – the daughter of her former governess Mary Wollstonecraft – changed dramatically over the years. Thinking about the change in Mason and Shelley’s relationship prompted us to look back on some of the changes that have affected our own friendship.
It’s my great pleasure to be able to talk of this most recent one now…
Some of our readers – particularly those who follow Emma and me on Twitter – will already know that the first of our novels will be published in 2016. I say ‘our’, but I want to make it clear that this is not a collaborative work of fiction.
Owl Song at Dawn is written by Emma Claire Sweeney. Emma is the one who imagined the characters of twins Maeve and Edie, who grow up together in a seaside boarding house and whose lives later take dramatically different courses. Emma created each sister’s distinctive voice – that of straight-talking Maeve and lyrical Edie, whose musical speech patterns are both enthralling and hard-to-fathom. Emma arranged the modern-day and 1950s story strands until they sang as a pleasing whole.
I cannot take credit for any of these things. And yet, because I have known Emma for so long, and because we have had so many conversations about her novel, I do feel that I am a part of the story behind Owl Song at Dawn.
Over the past few years, I have lived in several different places around Britain, and Emma’s novel-in-progress – like her friendship – has accompanied me from home to home.
I remember cooking dinner in the cramped kitchen of my flat at the time, while Emma – who’d come up on the train from London – stood, sipping wine, close by. Owl Song at Dawn existed only in fragments back then – some of them committed in embryonic form to paper, some still only in her mind. Keen not to give away the plot before she was in a position to show me a full draft, she was sparing with details. But as she talked, and I stirred the pan, I started to fit these snippets together until I began to get a fuzzed sense of the novel’s characters and the intriguing connections between them.
I remember us sitting, surrounded by metal railings and creeping honeysuckle, on the balcony of a different flat, us talking through all the notes I’d made on that first full draft. I remember other drafts in another flat, and later, emails flying back-and-forth between us about submission letters to literary agents, and then the book being sent out to publishing houses.
Back in the very earliest days of our friendship, I think both Emma and I assumed that – although we were already such a big part of each other’s writing lives – moments of success like these would be chiefly for one of us alone. While I’m sure we assumed we’d join in with our friend’s celebrations, I doubt either of us imagined just how collaborative those celebrations would feel.
But when Emma called me up on the phone and told me the wonderful news that Owl Song at Dawn had been bought by Legend Press, I felt the same feeling I’d experienced at this year’s Lucy Cavendish Prize ceremony, just a few months ago: that this was an achievement not just for Emma or for me, but for us both as writer friends.
Emily and I have sometimes envied Vera Brittain and Winifred Holtby their shared university years. If we could defy time and pal up with just one of the pairs of writers that we’ve profiled on this site, I’m pretty sure that we’d both pick these friends: two women who ‘didn’t exactly grow up together’ but ‘grew mature together’ and considered that ‘the next best thing’.
Unlike them, we met after separate and rather different undergraduate experiences: Emily partying hard in London while I pored over books in Cambridge.
In the best possible way, co-running Something Rhymed feels akin to studying together. We now spend hours on end searching the stacks at Senate House Library, and we regularly exchange bulging folders of notes. We’ve created for ourselves a second stab at studenthood – this time together and with a curriculum of our own.
This month I’ve relished the chance to re-read the poetry of Marianne Moore, which I’d first come across as an undergrad. We toyed at first with profiling Moore’s friendship with fellow modernist Hilda ‘H.D.’ Doolittle, who she met in 1905 when they were both studying at Bryn Mawr College, Pennsylvania. But we ended up becoming even more fascinated by a bond that began in 1934 when the middle-aged Moore took final-year undergraduate, Elizabeth Bishop, under her wing.
Both Emily and I have benefited from the wisdom of women writers older and more experienced than us and, as with Moore and Bishop, these mentorships have sometimes blossomed into friendships. Now that we teach ourselves, we’ve had the chance in our own small way to continue this intergenerational sisterhood.
Without ever really discussing it, we must have both come to the conclusion that – in the widest sense – the best students are also teachers; the best teachers, forever students. We each tend to enrol in one writing course per year – sometimes together, sometimes separately – to remind ourselves what it feels like to sit at the other side of the desk. And yet we were surprised (and heartened) to learn that a poet of Moore’s stature had taken this same approach.
Inspired by Moore, this month I’ve been attending Berko Writers’ screenwriting course, taught by Abigail Webber, formerly a commissioning editor and now a script consultant. I have written poetry, fiction and non-fiction over the years, taking my first steps into all of these forms as if entering familiar rooms. But screenwriting has always felt like a closed door – and one on which I felt nervous even to knock. My heart pounded so loudly during the first session at Berko Writers that I promised myself never to underestimate the courage it might take for one of my own students to step into my class.
The course has opened up that locked door, and screenplays no longer feel to me like a forbidden wing in literature’s house. Emily’s acting background and her storyteller’s skill lead me to suspect that she might one day turn her hand to scripts and that I might get to share with her the tips that I’ve recently gleaned.
Emily’s storytelling skill and lyricism were recognised last night at the awards ceremony for the prestigious Lucy Cavendish Fiction Prize 2015. Emily’s shortlisting opened up for her – and for me as her guest – the usually closed doors of the dining hall at this Cambridge College. Here we had the chance to chat over dinner with its president, Professor Janet Todd – a feminist heroine of ours. In the hall at Lucy Cavendish, among its students and fellows, I enjoyed the great privilege of cheering on my friend as she was announced the winner. As I sat there, watching her receive her prize, it dawned on me that this shared moment of celebration more than made up for our separate university years. Growing mature together is, in fact, the very best thing.
Although it is hardly in the spirit of Something Rhymed, I considered myself firmly in the Elizabeth Bowen camp. My copy of her Collected Stories accompanied me when I first left for college and has been packed and unpacked so many times since. When I got my first lecturing post, I put it on my syllabus, and nowadays I often quote Bowen to encourage my New York University students to focus on creativity during their time in the UK: ‘Imagination of my kind is most caught, most fired, most worked upon by the unfamiliar’.
My memories of reading Murdoch, on the other hand, are scant and chequered.
My cousin Nic – a voracious and insightful reader – had devoured Murdoch’s novels, and my writer friend Wendy Vaizey had written about Murdoch in her PhD. Nic and I shared a love of Thomas Hardy’s books and Wendy and I had introduced each other to our favourite texts by medieval mystics, so I felt sure that I too would fall in love with Murdoch’s work.
On one of my trips down to stay with Nic in her book-lined cottage in Cornwall, I picked up a copy of Murdoch’s A Severed Head. I read it over Easter, sitting in Nic’s sunlit conservatory – the mugs of tea at my side replaced at dusk by glasses of gin. When Nic got home from work, I’d put down the book and we’d take cliff-top walks or share plates of fish straight from the sea.
There was such a stark difference that week between my external life – full of sunshine and hyacinths and warm conversation – and the world that Murdoch’s novel set up in my mind. Neither the story nor the characters have stayed with me, but the coldness and cruelty of the book have remained.
The Unicorn also has an iciness to it, yet I found it compelling and clever and self-consciously indebted to its literary forebears.
Bowen’s influence is clear: the faded glory of the Irish country house and the Anglo-Irish cast, which are said to have been inspired by guests Murdoch met at Bowen’s Court.
Yet it was another female author who came to mind when I read the opening of The Unicorn. Its gothic setting and the simultaneous presence and absence of the mistress of the house was redolent with echoes of Rebecca.
It quickly became obvious, however, that Murdoch’s approach to the gothic differed from that of Daphne du Maurier. As I read on, I began to feel that The Unicorn shares more of its DNA with Northanger Abbey. Like Jane Austen before her, Murdoch self-consciously plays with gothic conventions, calling them into question and sending them up.
Even more prominent still, is Murdoch’s engagement with Charlotte Bronte’sJane Eyresince, like its predecessor, The Unicorn features an imprisoned mistress of the house. But Murdoch makes Hannah Crean-Smith a more central character than Brontë’s Bertha, and the novel investigates the question of her sanity.
Critics have tended to interpret Hannah Crean-Smith as an enchantress: apparently pure but ultimately revealed as an evil manipulator. I see her more as a damaged being, fashioned by the scarring experiences of torture and imprisonment.
I would love to sit beside my cousin in her Cornish conservatory, sipping gin and finding out what she made of Hannah Crean-Smith. But Nic died last year in a sunlit room, our family reading to her right up to the end. When I talk with Wendy and Emily about The Unicorn – and about Murdoch’s other novels, which I will surely now read – my memories of Nic will inform this conversation between my sisterhood of readers, just as Austen and Brontë and du Maurier lived on as Murdoch’s literary mothers.
Can You Help Us?
We’re hoping that one of our online sisterhood of readers might know of a female writing friendship enjoyed by Daphne du Maurier. If so, please could you tell us about it by using the comment tab below or by using the ‘Contact Us’ form. We’d love to profile du Maurier on this site.
I would like to say that our love of literature drew Emily and I together, or perhaps our mutual feminist ideals. But, if my memory serves me correctly, our very earliest conversations revolved around men.
Before boarding our flight to Tokyo to take up posts as English teachers, I’d spotted Emily and a bloke making their goodbyes. Since I was leaving my boyfriend behind in the UK, I suspected that Emily and I might share the experience of attempting to sustain long-distance relationships.
During many late-night conversations in the months that followed, I discovered that we had, in fact, made the opposite decisions: my boyfriend and I planned to keep going whereas Emily’s relationship had already come to an end.
In an attempt to move on, Emily was generally rather reticent about the man she’d left behind. Having seen him from afar at the airport, however, and sensing that her feelings still ran deep, I was curious and so tended to ask about him. As we gradually opened up about these men back home, our own friendship began to grow.
Many of these early conversations occurred towards the end of parties when most of our English teacher friends would embark on games like truth-or-dare and spin-the-bottle. When drunken nights began to get raucous, Emily and I often ended up drifting outside. I was loyal to my boyfriend back home and uninterested in hooking up with someone new. And, although Emily was officially single, I suspect that this was partially true of her too. Indeed, the goodbye I witnessed at Heathrow turned out only to mark a brief pause: after she completed her two years in Japan, they took up where they left off and have remained together ever since.
But the more I’ve got to know Emily, the more I’ve realised that there was also another reason why she preferred to absent herself when talk turned dirty: Emily is incredibly discreet. Over the years, this is one of the traits I have grown to admire most in my friend.
In truth-or-dare type scenarios, I have been known to reveal things about my life that should have remained private. The next day, I’ve invariably woken up regretting it. I can’t think of a single occasion when I’ve ever seen Emily make such a mistake.
I am grateful to Emily for the conversations we shared in the dark of our friends’ empty backyards: the confidences we traded about love and loss, and soon enough about literature and feminism too. But I am just as grateful for the conversations she saved me from indulging in: the private moments that remained private because of her.
We all get lumbered with mythologies about our character long after we’ve outgrown them. In my family, for instance, I’m thought to be fiercely competitive, keen only to do those things at which I excel.
This version of me came about with good reason: at about ten years old, I asked my mum whether I stood a chance of getting into Oxford or Cambridge; in my teens, I could hardly enjoy exam success if a classmate got 98% when I got only 96; I was so appalled at my ineptitude at driving that once, during a lesson with my dad, I stormed out of the car at traffic lights, leaving him to take the wheel. My parents were amused and bemused by the precocity and ferocity of my ambitions, wondering how I’d acquired such traits.
Friends I first met in my twenties, such as Emily, rarely recognise my family’s characterisation of me. In my own narrative, my competitive streak disappeared during my university years. At Cambridge, I tell myself, I learnt to study simply for the joy of it; I became privileged enough to consider reading and writing and thinking as ends in themselves.
But when Emily commissioned me to write about gymnastics, the memories I mulled over complicated my own version of this change in me.
After years of pestering my parents, they let me join a gym club when I turned seven. Even at that young age, I was acutely aware of the need to catch up with those who’d been training since they were three: I’d get really worked up about competitions, not allowing my parents to watch, and eventually feeling devastated when an excruciating 3.0 on the asymmetric bars led to my demotion from the squad.
But I carried on training throughout my teens, attending as many as five sessions per week, long after I’d accepted that I’d never get back into the first team, let alone really make it as a gymnast.
The experience of practising something that didn’t come naturally gave me a tiny glimpse into my sister’s life. Lou’s cerebral palsy and autism make everyday tasks at least ten times harder for her than they are for me. After years of hearing me talk nineteen to the dozen, she kept on sounding out words in front of the mirror until she eventually said them clearly enough for us to comprehend; after years of watching me cartwheel around the garden, she managed her first steps at six.
More remarkable still, Lou undertakes her daily graft with such aplomb that it rarely comes across as onerous. She’ll introduce herself to strangers, trying out her favourite phrases, and she’s invariably the first one on the dance floor and the last one off. Lou’s zest for life is never based on achievement or competition, her sense of self-worth never reliant on beating someone else.
When I made the choice to continue with gymnastics, I came to value the journey without getting fixated on the destination – a lesson that’s served me well when it comes to writing. It strikes me now that I was unwittingly following Lou’s example by doing something simply for the love of it: a quality that comes naturally to her but that was at least ten times harder for me.
The trinkets contained in this jewellery box show that I was a child intent on self-memorialising: christening bracelets; gymnastics medals; my annual bus passes; the label from my first bra.
But the object that I’ve removed from the jewellery box to pass on to you, Emily, is a memento of Bam-bam – my grandma. After she died, when I was just nine, I took this bar of Pears soap as a keepsake and its scent of thyme still reminds me of her.
Bam-bam wore fur coats and visited the hairdresser every week; she fed me milk loaf and strawberry splits; people gathered around the piano when she played; the local librarians all knew her by name. After she died, we found exercise books stacked in her bedside cabinet all of them filled with her own handwritten poems.
For me, the search for literary ancestresses stems back to the discovery that my own grandma was a closet writer. My dad kept her exercise books and I have treasured her bar of Pears soap.
So now, Em, you have a little more insight into the importance of Pears soap in The Waifs and Strays of Sea View Lodge. Or, I should say, the significance it used to have. The soap is now only mentioned here and there, no longer carrying the symbolic weight it had in earlier drafts – drafts that you read and critiqued. Only you, who have accompanied me on every step of this long writing journey, would detect in the final version the lingering scent of Pears soap.
In a way, then, may this memento stand for everything that’s written out, for our shared dedication to voicing stories that have previously been silenced. After all, with its focus on female friendship – a neglected aspect of literary lore – this is what Something Rhymed is all about.
Sadly, this trinket must also stand for broken things. Although I’d kept the bar of soap intact for decades, packing and unpacking it every time I moved house, I dropped it when I reached into a high cupboard to fetch it for you.
After my initial dismay, I realised that there’s perhaps something appropriate about this. I’ve always been drawn to broken things: derelict funfairs; threadbare cardigans; people whose surface resilience hides their distress.
My grandma was broken by the death of her eldest son and the disintegration of her marriage. In writing this message to you, Em, it strikes me that in my novel I offer an elderly woman a last chance to be healed – a chance my grandma never seized.
But there’s beauty in the broken, isn’t there, Em? I know that you too will appreciate the brighter amber that was revealed when the bar of Pears soap splintered, its headier scent of thyme.