Something Rhymed Salon Series: A Summary

It’s been a week since the last of our first series of Something Rhymed salons, which looked at ways to increase gender parity in the literary world. So now marks a good time to reflect on the ideas we’ve generated during our panel discussions.

The author and books blogger, Kendra Olson, who attended all three salons, has kindly offered us her summary of the series. Over the coming days, we’ll follow on from this by posting up some of the panellists’ talks and some other responses by audience members. And, finally, we’ll collate all the ideas we’ve come up with for accelerating change.

If you came along, now’s your chance to voice any suggestions that you didn’t get to make on the nights. And, if you weren’t able to make it, do get involved in the conversation by using the comment box below.

A Summary of the Something Rhymed Salon Series by Kendra Olson

Over the last month I’ve been attending a series of literary salons in Central London that examine the problem of gender inequality in the literary world and attempt to come up with practical, positive solutions. The salons were run by the talented and generous Emma Claire Sweeney and Emily Midorikawa of Something Rhymed, a blog celebrating female literary friendship.

Emma and Emily brought together an impressive array of panellists for the salons, including women writers and academics, literary editors, critics, performance poets, reviewers, presenters, and the founder of a literary events company committed to diversity in the arts. Regarding the lack of male panellists (Michael Caines of the Times Literary Supplement was the only man on any of the panels), Emma said that they had tried very hard to get male panellists—they initially sought to have equal gender representation–but did not receive much interest from men. This is not to say that men did not attend the salons, because they did—indeed, it seemed to me that each salon brought more men who were intrigued and motivated by the discussion; one of them was the talented Leslie Tate, who has written up his observations on the first two salons on his blog.

The starting point for the discussions was the VIDA count, which has consistently shown a striking imbalance amongst the rates of publication and reviews of male and female writers at the major literary publications. For those who don’t know, VIDA is an organisation representing women in the literary arts, which seeks to examine, publicise and address gender (and other) imbalances in the literary world.

Salon One: VIDA Count

Michael Caines spoke about unequal representation of female reviewers. Caines speculated that one of the reasons why women are poorly represented is due to editors already having a ready pool of tried and tested male journalists at their disposal. He said that we don’t just need more female fiction reviewers but more female reviewers across all categories–women tend to be given the “lighter” stuff whereas men are given more serious subjects, such as politics.

BBC presenter and writer, Harriett Gilbert spoke of her experience, saying that literary editors at magazines are far more likely to be women—hers are nearly all female. However, they still tend to choose books by male writers. Her theory is that while women are happy to read books by men and immerse themselves in the male experience, the reverse is not true (this is something that several panellists commented upon over the course of the salons). She believes the problem has far deeper roots than the publishing industry, going all the way back to childhood. After all, it’s easier for a girl to be a tomboy than for a boy to be the reverse. She thinks this is why JK Rowling disguised her sex when writing the Harry Potter books, so that boys could safely walk around with her books. Because of this situation, editors need to ferret out the female reviewers, and female writers should be proactive in seeking reviewing roles. However, alternatives to traditional media should also be considered as publishers are now seeking a variety of publicity models for fear that print media is on its way out.

imageMaggie Gee (prolific writer and Vice-President of the Royal Society of Literature) advised young writers to do what they’re interested in and go where they wish—all writers are earning less these days. She recalled Virginia Woolf’s envy of Katherine Mansfield, which Gee put down to there being so few opportunities available for women at the time thus making them direct competitors. Gee encouraged women writers to be supportive of one another. During the discussion she spoke to the value of smaller, independent publishing houses who could take risks with more interesting work.

The ever inspiring performance poet and author, Salena Godden, a friend of Maggie Gee, said she is wary of labels and that a writer must only concern themselves with bettering the work they wrote yesterday. She read from a poignant essay she wrote for the forbookssake website to promote the Women in Print campaign by Unbound. She also encouraged women writers to put themselves out there and enter competitions and submit their work without the constant expectation of being rejected.

“I believe that if we do not start publishing more women, we only pass on half of our inheritance, half of our heritage, half of the story. If we only hear from the great white shark, we miss all the other diverse voices and fish in the sea.” –Salena Godden, ForBooksSake

During the discussion, the Books Editor for Mslexia, Danuta Kean, stated that we live in a society where 40% of the population is comprised of ethnic minorities, however this is not represented in literature and publishing. She said that it was up to publishing representatives to change the situation.

Salon Two:  So-called Women’s Issues

The second salon analysed why books about women and so-called women’s issues are so often devalued by the literary establishment. Why is it that the experiences and perspectives of women are seen as less than that of men? Is this because women have, traditionally, written about the home and family whereas men, as per their historical life roles, have explored, experienced and thus written about the wider world? Why is one experience seen as valid and not the other? Is this the reason for devaluing women’s literature, or are there other issues at play?

The Independent Arts Correspondant Arifa Akbar.

The journalist and literary critic, Arifa Akbar (formerly of The Independent) said that while the idea of women’s fiction is a helpful category, it is also a trap. It means you can be pushed to the side-lines more easily. Margaret Atwood suddenly becomes women’s fiction. When women read men’s writing we universalise it, but the reverse doesn’t happen. Conversely, the domestic novel is only domestic when a woman writes it, not when it’s by Philip Roth or Karl Ove Knausgård. She said that newspaper and magazine editors need to be aware of this and give equal space to women writers—she was unsure if these editors were indeed conscious of not doing so—and that women writers have a duty to make them mindful of this.

Photo - Karen Maitland (1)Bestselling historical fiction author, Karen Maitland, attended an all-girls school yet the only female novelist they read was Jane Austen, and she wrote about husband-hunting! Karen said that she became interested in historical fiction because of the beguinages (the medieval cities of women). She said that at historical fiction conferences, male authors are often given more credit than female authors when it comes to what are seen as male fields (weaponry etc). She was unsure if it worked the other way around. She also related an experience she’d had in a bookstore recently where the (male) bookstore owner had actually separated all the books by the gender of the writer (even those writers who used gender neutral pseudonyms) in order to ensure (one would presume) that his male customers did not “accidentally” buy a book written by a woman! Karen wondered if the advent of ebooks might actually change men’s buying habits as the book cover isn’t visible.

imageBooker Prize shortlisted novelist, Michèle Roberts, reminded us that women invented the novel. But most of our institutions – education, the law, the media etc. – have been dominated by men. She thought that the younger generation of men was changing, but that these changes need to be carried out in a wider cultural arena for there to be changes in the literary world.  She said that having a women’s writing group is one of the things which has kept her going as it offers close critical reading and support.

Sarah LeFanuSarah LeFanu, former senior editor at The Women’s Press and one of the three members of Michèle’s writing group, said the issue of gender disparity in publishing has been depoliticised. Nowadays if you complain about it you’re seen as whinging. But the issue remains as political as it ever was. As an example of this she cited last year’s Penguin anthology of short stories, which featured 18 women writers and 30 men! She was concerned that women don’t take up all the space that should be available to them—particularly in this day and age when publishers are so risk averse. She said good writing does not have a gender bias. She also encouraged participants to write about these issues and to talk about why the books they enjoy aren’t being read and reviewed more widely.

Salon Three: Genuine Change

The final salon aimed to come up with solutions, not only in regards to gender disparity but also in regards to ethnicity, class, ability and sexuality. As one speaker put it, our literature should represent our society as a whole, and all the diversity within it.

Varaidzo (1)Varaidzo, arts and culture editor at gal-dem (an online magazine produced by women of colour), said she’s been quite critical about the lack of scope in the British publishing industry. But, in some ways, her own journey has been relatively easy. She attributed this to growing up during the time of the internet and being able to navigate that space and talk to the people she wanted to fairly easily. Regarding the topic of education and children’s books, she noted that very few children’s authors manage to transcend gender—the boys go out and do things while the girls are introspective.

Jill Dawson-2 copyOrange Prize shortlisted novelist, Jill Dawson, who has guest blogged on SomethingRhymed, said the issue is as much about sexuality, class etc. as it is about gender. She said that working class women need more literary role models (currently the women represented in mainstream publishing are mostly from the Oxbridge educated class). As a young woman, she read a lot of African-American women as their writing spoke to her in a way that, for example, Martin Amis’s writing did not. What interested her was that they had a unique vernacular and voice. They too were struggling (Maya Angelou for example), and their words continued to influence Jill when she became a young, single mother. She encouraged people to think about who and what they’re reading, as changing our reading habits and reading more widely is one way of changing the literary landscape.

BWphotoLDFormer Booker Prize judge and Costa Award shortlisted novelist, Louise Doughty, who has also guest blogged on Something Rhymed, spoke to the benefits of the internet age. Since publications can be crowdfunded and there is online publishing, websites etc. For example, VIDA came out of the work of one person. The opportunities for writers now are small but multiple, and while not all ventures will be successful, some will be. While publishers claim to be desperate for new voices, at the same time their (conservative minded) sales and marketing teams are at their backs. These people can only go on what is already selling and are therefore always chasing last year’s successes and unwilling to take risks on new voices.

© Linda BrownleeMelanie Abrahams, the founder of Renaissance One, a literary events company committed to diversity in the arts, said that while there may be a lot of noise made about a title online, that doesn’t necessarily equate to a lot of sales. Traditional publishing has changed very little over the years and the internet doesn’t always affect that. She claimed to know a lot of writers who are successful and don’t use social media at all.

Kendra Olson

During the discussion, an audience member who is a professor at both Goldsmiths and New York University spoke about the fact that she was able to choose her own readings for her students at NYU, but at Goldsmiths she had to teach a pre-devised syllabus. The Art of the Novel course, for instance, included only one or two female authors.

The issue of prizes came up a few times during the salons. In the first salon, Michael Caines wondered if the judging committees of literary awards should be assessed for gender parity. This was an issue which Maggie Gee and Michèle Roberts spoke of as well, recounting how they’d had to argue to get female novelists shortlisted when judging major literary awards.

While I’m still relatively new to the literary scene, I found the salons enlightening, thoughtful and very accessible–a delightful surprise as they could easily have turned out to be somewhat cliquish and depressing. In fact, the organisers did such a wonderful job of creating a welcoming, friendly and supportive atmosphere that I stayed until the end—and am very glad I did as I had lots of lovely conversations afterwards.

Reflecting on my own experience, I have to admit that I’ve perhaps read more men than women in the past, but in the last few years this has changed dramatically. These days nearly all of the books I read are by women—not because I’ve made a conscious decision to read more women writers, but simply because I’m lucky enough to benefit from many female literary friendships and I’m interested in getting to know the work of these authors and the work of the writers they enjoy. This is not to say that I’ve stopped enjoying the work of male writers—not at all—but perhaps the circles I move in as an author with a small, independent publisher means that I’m more likely to discover the work of female authors.

What do you think? Are you a woman writer, or do you work in publishing? If so, what has your experience been? Regardless, do you have an idea for accelerating change? Please do leave a comment below.

Our friends at Naked Wines, who kindly provided the wines for our salon series, are offering a special discount even for those of you who couldn't come along in person.
Our friends at Naked Wines, who kindly provided the wines for our salon series, are offering a special discount even for those of you who couldn’t come along in person.

Arifa Akbar to Speak at Second Something Rhymed Salon

At tonight’s Something Rhymed salon,  journalist and literary critic, Arifa Akbar, will be sharing a behind-the-scenes glimpse of her experiences as a literary editor and reviewer.

If you would like to join in the conversation, please nab one of the last spots by emailing SomethingRhymed@gmail.com.

The Independent Arts Correspondant Arifa Akbar.
The Independent Arts Correspondant Arifa Akbar.

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’.

  • Salon Two: So-called Women’s Issues 
  • Wednesday May 4th, 6.30pm-9.00pm 
  • New York University in London, 6 Bedford Square (Gower/Bloomsbury Street side), WC1B 3RA
  • Nearest tube: Tottenham Court Road. Holborn, Russell Square, Goodge Street and Warren Street are also close by.
  • Disabled access and facilities. Please do let us know if you have any access needs.

Our friends at Naked Wines have kindly provided the wines for our salon series, and they are even offering a discount especially for our readers.
Our friends at Naked Wines have kindly provided the wines for our salon series, and they are even offering a discount especially for our readers.

Sarah LeFanu to Speak at Second Something Rhymed Salon

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
Sarah LeFanu

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.

  • Salon Two: So-called Women’s Issues 
  • Wednesday May 4th, 6.30pm-9.00pm 
  • New York University in London, 6 Bedford Square (Gower/Bloomsbury Street side), WC1B 3RA
  • Nearest tube: Tottenham Court Road. Holborn, Russell Square, Goodge Street and Warren Street are also close by.
  • Disabled access and facilities. Please do let us know if you have any access needs.

600 by 150_chalkboard
Our friends at Naked Wines have kindly provided the wines for our salon series, and they are even offering a discount especially for our readers.

 

JANE EYRE: Radical or Reactionary?

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

Jane Austen’s Admiration for Maria Edgeworth

This month, we’ve really enjoyed reading and discussing The Absentee by 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.

‘The authoress of Pride and Prejudice has been so good as to send me a new novel just published, Emma’
‘The authoress of Pride and Prejudice has been so good as to send me a new novel just published, Emma’
Jane Austen
Jane Austen greatly admired the novels of Maria Edgeworth. Both these images are in the public domain.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

Maria Edgeworth's presentation copies of Emma, sent to her by Jane Austen
Maria Edgeworth’s presentation copies of Emma, sent to her by Jane Austen. This image is used with permission from Sotheby’s.
Anne Sharp's presentation copies of Emma, sent to her by Jane Austen. This image is used with permission from Bonham's.
Anne Sharp’s presentation copies of Emma, sent to her by Jane Austen. This image is used with permission from Bonham’s.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

Singing Each Other’s Songs

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.

Revealed today: the cover of Owl Song at Dawn
Revealed today: the cover of Owl Song at Dawn

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.

Copyright: Lucy Cavendish College
Celebrating together (copyright: Lucy Cavendish College)

Emma Claire Sweeney’s novel Owl Song at Dawn will be published by Legend Press in July 2016 and is available for pre-order now.

Growing Mature Together

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.

book stacks

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.

Emily Midorikawa is announced the winner of the Lucy Cavendish Fiction Prize 2015
Emily Midorikawa is announced the winner of the Lucy Cavendish Fiction Prize 2015

 

A Motherhood of Writers, a Sisterhood of Readers

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

Although it is hardly in the spirit of Something Rhymed, I considered myself firmly in the Elizabeth Bowen camp. My copy of her Collected Stories accompanied me when I first left for college and has been packed and unpacked so many times since. When I got my first lecturing post, I put it on my syllabus, and nowadays I often quote Bowen to encourage my New York University students to focus on creativity during their time in the UK: ‘Imagination of my kind is most caught, most fired, most worked upon by the unfamiliar’.

My memories of reading Murdoch, on the other hand, are scant and chequered.

My cousin Nic – a voracious and insightful reader – had devoured Murdoch’s novels, and my writer friend Wendy Vaizey had written about Murdoch in her PhD. Nic and I shared a love of Thomas Hardy’s books and Wendy and I had introduced each other to our favourite texts by medieval mystics, so I felt sure that I too would fall in love with Murdoch’s work.

On one of my trips down to stay with Nic in her book-lined cottage in Cornwall, I picked up a copy of Murdoch’s A Severed Head. I read it over Easter, sitting in Nic’s sunlit conservatory – the mugs of tea at my side replaced at dusk by glasses of gin. When Nic got home from work, I’d put down the book and we’d take cliff-top walks or share plates of fish straight from the sea.

There was such a stark difference that week between my external life – full of sunshine and hyacinths and warm conversation – and the world that Murdoch’s novel set up in my mind. Neither the story nor the characters have stayed with me, but the coldness and cruelty of the book have remained.

The Unicorn also has an iciness to it, yet I found it compelling and clever and self-consciously indebted to its literary forebears.

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

Bowen’s influence is clear: the faded glory of the Irish country house and the Anglo-Irish cast, which are said to have been inspired by guests Murdoch met at Bowen’s Court.

Yet it was another female author who came to mind when I read the opening of The Unicorn. Its gothic setting and the simultaneous presence and absence of the mistress of the house was redolent with echoes of Rebecca.

It quickly became obvious, however, that Murdoch’s approach to the gothic differed from that of Daphne du Maurier. As I read on, I began to feel that The Unicorn shares more of its DNA with Northanger Abbey. Like Jane Austen before her, Murdoch self-consciously plays with gothic conventions, calling them into question and sending them up.

Even more prominent still, is Murdoch’s engagement with Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre since, like its predecessor, The Unicorn features an imprisoned mistress of the house. But Murdoch makes Hannah Crean-Smith a more central character than Brontë’s Bertha, and the novel investigates the question of her sanity.

Critics have tended to interpret Hannah Crean-Smith as an enchantress: apparently pure but ultimately revealed as an evil manipulator. I see her more as a damaged being, fashioned by the scarring experiences of torture and imprisonment.

I would love to sit beside my cousin in her Cornish conservatory, sipping gin and finding out what she made of Hannah Crean-Smith. But Nic died last year in a sunlit room, our family reading to her right up to the end. When I talk with Wendy and Emily about The Unicorn – and about Murdoch’s other novels, which I will surely now read – my memories of Nic will inform this conversation between my sisterhood of readers, just as Austen and Brontë and du Maurier lived on as Murdoch’s literary mothers.

Can You Help Us?

We’re hoping that one of our online sisterhood of readers might know of a female writing friendship enjoyed by Daphne du Maurier. If so, please could you tell us about it by using the comment tab below or by using the ‘Contact Us’ form. We’d love to profile du Maurier on this site.

Conversations Spoken and Unspoken

Creative Commons License
Creative Commons License

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.

 

The Uncompetitive Gymnast

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.

Emma Claire and Lou
Emma Claire and Lou

 

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.