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 our last post of 2015, one of our readers, Sarah Emsley, offered us the perfect opportunity to re-read Jane Austen’s novel, Emma, for her online celebration of the bicentenary of its publication.
You can see our post about the role of female friendship in the novel as part of the Emma in the Snow celebrations on Sarah’s site.
This gave us the idea to record a conversation about Emma to post on here. We ended up talking about the role of female friendship in the novel, and our different responses to this theme on first reading the book and on re-visiting it now. Our discussion also took us into the territory of Jane Austen’s own life and the female friendships she established off the page.
We do hope that some of you also took the opportunity to re-read Emma exactly two hundred years since the very first readers got their hands on the published book.
Jane Austen jotted down the opinions of her nearest and dearest, so you can read what Anne Sharp and others had to say about it here:
Please do share your thoughts with us by using the comment facility below.
We enjoyed this so much that we have decided to share more literary conversations about female friendship over the coming months. In January, we are challenging ourselves to read The Absentee – a novel by Maria Edgeworth, which we believe Jane Austen enjoyed discussing with her governess and amateur playwright friend, Anne Sharp.
We’ll post up our conversation at the beginning of February and we do hope that some of you will choose to read along with us.
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.
When we realised that we knew all about the great male literary friendships but little of their female counterparts, we both immediately wondered whether Jane Austen had a writer friend. But since so little is known of her life, we weren’t confident of discovering much.
However, after a bit of sleuthing, we found out that Austen did have ‘an excellent kind friend’. What’s more, this support came from an unexpected source: her niece’s governess, Anne Sharp.
This name will be familiar to those of you who’ve been following Radio 4’s 15 Minute Drama, The Mysterious Death of Jane Austen. You might not be aware, however, that Sharp was herself a writer.
Austen was attracted to Sharp’s keen intelligence and wit, combined with independence of spirit – sensibilities that transcended class lines. But Sharp lived an even more financially precarious existence than Austen – something Austen worried about on her friend’s behalf. Rehearsing the match-making role of her heroine, Emma, she dreamt that Sharp might marry a wealthy employer.
Like Austen, though, Sharp never did wed. The demands of fulltime teaching prevented her from pursuing writing professionally. However, she did get to flex her literary muscles by writing plays for her pupils to perform. Austen herself likely acted in one such play (interestingly, cast in the role of governess), and Sharp was known to pen male roles for herself.
Fascinatingly, one of her theatricals was entitled Pride Punished or Innocence Rewarded. Several years later, Austen decided to change the title of one of her novelsfrom First Impressions to Pride and Prejudice, and it’s hard to imagine that she hadn’t been influenced by the work of her friend.
She certainly valued Sharp’s critical faculties, electing her as the only friend to whom she sent one of her precious presentation copies of Emma. The candour with which Sharp answered her request for a critique shows the level of trust between these two writer friends. Sharp pointed out a flaw in one of the sub-plots, ultimately rating this latest novel somewhere between Pride and Prejudice and Mansfield Park.
After Austen’s early death, her sister sent Sharp a lock of Austen’s hair, a pair of clasps, and a small bodkin as mementoes – mementoes of a radical friendship that refused to be bound by the constraints of class, or to be defined by divisions between the professional and the amateur; mementoes of an influential literary alliance, yet one that has been all but forgotten.
This month, we’re going to send each other a trinket accompanied by a note that explains why it should stand as a memento of our friendship. Like the gifts that Anne Sharp cherished, something as small as a hairclip or needle might be all it takes to bring back memories.
As usual, please also share with us any more female writing friendships that you’ve discovered.