‘We’re given only a handful of these kinds of friendships’: Lily Dunn and Zoe Gilbert

This month, we’ve been hard at work on final edits for A Secret Sisterhood. As soon as we emerge, we’re looking forward to bringing you a new post about another of the historical literary pairs we’ve come across.

In the mean time, we’re pleased to be able to bring you a guest post by two modern-day writer friends and collaborators. Short story writer Zoe Gilbert and novelist Lily Dunn run London Lit Lab , an organisation that offers creative writing courses and mentoring. They tell us how they got to know each other, and how working as a team of two has changed their friendship, in the most positive of ways…

 

Zoe

Lily and I met when I joined the North London Writers Group as the rogue short story writer amongst novelists. We made an immediate connection through our writing, which was perhaps lucky – at the time, Lily was looking at ways of using sea folklore in her draft novel, and I was working on folk-tale-influenced short stories.

It was also Lily’s humane but incisive approach to critiquing other people’s work that made my ears prick up. Her comments were always the ones I went to first, and found most profound. How lucky I am to work beside her now whilst teaching writers!

I don’t often feel an instinctive, or quick, affinity with other human beings, but becoming friends with Lily came naturally.

Lily Dunn (left) and Zoe Gilbert
Lily Dunn (left) and Zoe Gilbert

As we’ve got to know each other’s writing, and ways of thinking, it’s become clear how very different we are in how we approach fiction, how we use ideas on the page to work out what we think and who we are.

This is a glorious thing: it means I can learn endlessly from Lily as she always has a contrasting perspective on creative work. I marvel at her courage in writing directly from experience, in ways that move me, and I will always admire her writing because I will never fully understand how she does it.

Now we’ve brashly, rashly, started London Lit Lab together, and learned how to run a business in partnership. That’s a big thing, and we’ve done it in a year when both our lives have been distracting enough that business meetings sometimes turn into much needed rants or wine-fuelled counselling sessions.

In Lily, I have a genuine partner through a phase of taking on life with fists raised in gusto, and four fists somehow add up to more than twice two.

 

Lily

I reckon we’re given only a handful of these kinds of friendships – the kind that happens easily, without much effort on either part. It is a gift to be treated with care.

Zoe was a welcome addition to North London Writers. We gushed over her extraordinary stories, so spare yet textured in style, dream-like yet earthy. She was humble to our praise, elegant and understated. But, according to my memory, it wasn’t writing that first bonded us… but cats.

It was my turn to host the writers’ group, and my two Siamese came purring for attention among various group members, disinterested and allergic. I reassured them that they had a place in the midst of literary discussion, no doubt talking ‘cat’. Lost in my private moment, I was delighted to find Zoe laughing beside me. She likes cats! She’s one of ‘my people’!

Writing, I have discovered, is so nuanced and personal. When you love another’s work, you’re embracing that person, too. Zoe and I have that. The trust between us is unspoken. Together we feel at home in our writing self, as we do in our enquiring self, our silly self, too.

London Lit Lab felt like an effortless extension of this. Hard work, yes, but it came together easily.

With no real plan to teach together, we suggested we’d support each other during the first course then alternate, but very quickly we’d formed a dynamic. We sat amongst our students, and discussed ideas and texts, more a fin de siècle salon than the usual teacher/student divide. It turned into a creative act, well planned but open to the magic.

Soon we realised that the magic was in us  – not individually, but together – as well as the students and our combined inspiration. We came out of those classes buzzing. Two female writers, who like each other, and admire each other’s writing, who want to teach together … and … here’s the best bit…. make it work!

 

Shadowing the Sun by Lily Dunn is published by Portobello Books.

‘Fishskin, Hareskin’ by Zoe Gilbert won the Costa Short Story Award in 2014.

Eliot Bliss and Jean Rhys

Towards the end of 2014, when we had been running Something Rhymed for just one year, we had the pleasure of interviewing Diana Athill about the literary bond she shared with the late Jean Rhys.

Plaque outside Jean Rhys's former home in London's Chelsea (Creative Commons licence)
Plaque outside Jean Rhys’s former home in London’s Chelsea (Creative Commons licence)

As many others before her had also observed, Athill recalled that Rhys was not someone who made friends easily. On the other hand, the famously temperamental author could be ‘fun to be with’, Athill told us – at least ‘when she was being happy’.

Rhys also knew how to turn on the charm when she needed help. ‘When she was young and a very, very pretty woman’, Athill remembered with a wry smile, ‘she was rescued over and over again by helpful men. When she became older, she was rescued by nice women like me’.

Having so enjoyed our afternoon’s talk back in 2014, Emma and I were delighted to learn of another of Rhys’s female literary alliances.

Although Rhys had written four earlier, highly accomplished novels, she remains best known today as the author of Wide Sargasso Sea, inspired by the plot of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. But almost three decades before the publication of Rhys’s 1966 book, which would bring her the kind of public admiration that she’d always felt she deserved, she became acquainted with Eliot Bliss – like her, a white writer from the Caribbean, Rhys hailing from Dominica whereas Bliss came from Jamaica.

Image used with the kind permission of Michela A. Calderaro, who has published a newly-discovered collection of poems by Bliss.

Eliot Bliss (born Eileen Norah Lees Bliss in 1903), whose pen-name was partially inspired by George Eliot, was the author of the novels Saraband and Luminous Isle. And, like Rhys, her work was highly autobiographical, often focusing on the lush island homes of their youths.

The pair got to know each other while they were both living in London, and Rhys, then in her forties, was enjoying an unusually settled – and therefore happy – period in an often chaotic life. During the summer of 1937, the two met every fortnight to enjoy home-cooked Caribbean dinners washed down with vast quantities of wine.

Such was Rhys’s ability to drink that her poor younger friend always felt ill after these meals. Rhys, too, sometimes ended up so drunk that her husband would have to put both women to bed.

On occasion, Bliss would catch a glimpse of her friend’s stormy temper – for instance, when Rhys drunkenly accused Bliss (the daughter of a colonial army officer) of looking down on her. But when Rhys was sober, according to Bliss, she was always kind-natured and – as Athill, too, would later note – full of fun.

Sadly, in the winter of 1937, Bliss left for America. But the two writers continued to correspond in the decades to come, their letters challenging the common perception of Rhys as constantly difficult-natured and someone who was unable to make friends with other women.

This year…

We are looking forward to profiling many more female writing friendships. If you sent us a recommendation over the past twelve months, when we have been working hard on our forthcoming book, please know that we have not forgotten about it. We welcome all ideas for literary pairs you’d like to see on this site, so if a friendship we haven’t covered yet comes to mind, please do let us know.

Celebrating Past and Modern-day Writing Friendships

Especially over the past year, when we have been hard at work on our joint-book, we have been focusing mostly on historical literary friendships on this blog.

Reading the novels and stories of Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, George Eliot, Virginia Woolf and their friends has given us much to think about, as have our conversations about these important literary relationships.

We’ve often been struck by how relevant the issues faced by these authors of the past still feel to female writers today – particularly in terms of the need to balance the desire to write with other pressing responsibilities.

Austen’s great friend and governess to her brother’s children, Anne Sharp, had time to pen her theatricals only in the hours in between teaching lessons.

Before the tremendous success of her first published novel, Jane Eyre, Brontë faced similar struggles.

But just as Sharp benefited from the support of Austen, who did her best to improve her friend’s work life, Brontë was lucky to have the future feminist author Mary Taylor to encourage her literary efforts.

The two of us have been teachers for about a decade now and have thankfully never found it as limiting as Brontë, or even Sharp, did. We have been lucky in that, rather than teaching a broad curriculum, we are teachers only of writing – a subject in which we naturally have a genuine interest.

Nonetheless, there have been times in both of our pasts when, being short of money or eager to get a foot in the door at a particular institution, we’ve taken on too many classes and our own writing has suffered as a result.

This need for authors to try and find the right balance been writing and other aspects of their lives came up at our recent Writing Friendships event at City, University of London, made possible by the generous support of Arts Council England.

Susan Barker
Susan Barker

We were joined by writers Susan Barker, Ann Morgan and Denise Saul – all also former guest bloggers for Something Rhymed. The feeling among the group seemed to be that, although teaching (and teaching writing especially) can provide inspiration for an author, it’s important to fiercely guard your own writing time.

But we all also felt that it was equally important not to cut yourself off from other people. In the talks by Susan, Ann and Denise, audience members were treated to insights about the literary friendships of each woman on the panel.

Ann Morgan - image by Steve Lennon
Ann Morgan – image by Steve Lennon

Ann, the first speaker of the evening, talked about the important bonds she’d forged through her web project and non-fiction book, Reading the World. Susan spoke about the invaluable advice and support she’d received from Liang Junhong, a friend she met while she was living in China and working on her novel The Incarnations. Denise talked about collaborating with other artists as part of a video poem project, Silent Room: a Journey of Language.

Denise Saul - image by Amanda Pepper
Denise Saul – image by Amanda Pepper

Audience member, Rosie Canning, has written up a fuller account of the evening, which you can read here.

We are grateful to Rosie for commemorating the event in this way, and to everyone who came along to support us. We’re sure to be running more Something Rhymed events in the new year, so do keep an eye on our blog for more details.

 

A Legend in Her Time: Harriet Beecher Stowe and Uncle Tom’s Cabin

Here we discuss the final book in this year’s female-friendship-inspired reading list,   Harriet Beecher Stowe’s anti-slavery novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

By the time Stowe extended a figurative hand of friendship across the waves to George Eliot, in 1869, the American author had already made her name with this controversial book – the runaway bestseller of the day. Please click on the video below to hear us talking about what Eliot might have found so inspiring.

All of the female writer writers we’ve discussed in this series of posts and audio interviews – Jane Austen and Anne Sharp, Charlotte Brontë and Mary Taylor, George Eliot and Harriet Beecher Stowe, Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield – will feature in our forthcoming book. We’re still hard at work on A Secret Sisterhood, which will come out in the UK in June 2017 and in the US in the autumn of that year.

We’ll update you on this, and our plans for Something Rhymed in 2017, in next week’s post.

Tales of Two Sisters: George Eliot, Harriet Beecher Stowe and Middlemarch

This year, Emma and I have spent a lot of time thinking about sisterhood – the kind of literary sisterhood we’ve been exploring here on Something Rhymed, and the ties that bind flesh and blood female siblings.

Jane Austen enjoyed a famously close bond with her sister Cassandra. So did Charlotte, Emily and Anne Brontё; and Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell.

George Eliot by Frederick William Burton – this image is in the public domain.

Unlike these other writers who will feature in our forthcoming book, George Eliot’s relationships with other family members had been brought to an abrupt end some fifteen years before she began her alliance with Harriet Beecher Stowe. In her mid-thirties, Eliot had begun to live out of wedlock with George Henry Lewes. On discovering this, her sister and half-sister had heeded the warnings of their scandalised brother and cut off all contact. This cruel treatment may have made Eliot particularly happy when she received her first letter from Stowe. In this missive of spring 1869, the American author – who Eliot had never met – addressed her both as a ‘dear friend’ and a ‘sister’.

In Emma’s June post, she talked of reading Mrs Dalloway as a teenager with her sister, Lou. This got me thinking about my own sister, Erica, and the novels we enjoyed when we were young.

I remember us both reading Jane Eyre and  Wuthering Heights, and watching a BBC costume drama of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, going to the cinema to see Sense and Sensibility, first encountering A Room of One’s Own.

322px-middlemarch_1
First edition title page – this image is in the public domain.

Back then, we often used to talk about the books we read, sharing recommendations. I couldn’t remember us ever discussing Middlemarch, though. Although Erica is a year younger than me, I had come to Eliot’s work considerably later than her and by the time I read the novel we were no longer both living at home.

As I have recently been re-reading Middlemarch, I thought I would ask Erica about her memories of the book. It was a long time since she’d read it, it turned out, so she remembered the atmosphere far better than the intricacies of the plot. The character she recalled best was Dorothea Brooke – the intelligent, deeply pious young woman, whose story (one of several major interlocking plot lines) opens chapter one.

Dorothea struck Erica – who’d read Middlemarch as a teenager in the 1990s – as an amazingly well-developed character, a young woman who becomes locked into a marriage with a with joyless older man, and whose complex personality Erica found interesting on so many levels. It was with a sense of happiness that she recalled meeting Dorothea on the page for the first time and feeling, she said, that she was reading truly great writing.

Well over a century earlier, the character of Dorothea had also captivated Harriet Beecher Stowe and, like Erica, there was a good deal she admired more generally about the book. But Stowe’s letters to Eliot over the period when she was reading Middlemarch, in serialised form, also express her frustration with what she regarded as Eliot’s high-mindedness and her story’s lack of ‘jollitude’.

Reading this time with Stowe’s criticism in mind, I couldn’t help feeling that the verdict was too harsh. There are more challenging passages to Middlemarch, certainly. The book’s Prelude, for instance, grabbed me far less than the first chapter proper, which introduces Dorothea.  Her tale, too, is often sad, but none the less gripping for that. There are also quite a number of light comic moments, many of which I had forgotten. As Erica said, the main impression she retains of the novel is that of an enormous literary achievement – and one to which, having chatted about it with me, she would like to return.

I would certainly encourage my sister to do that. As I have found, on coming back to Eliot’s novel at the age of thirty-six, Middlemarch absolutely rewards a re-reading. Just as Emma and I found when we returned to Jane Eyre some months ago, scenes that made the greatest impressions on me when I was younger are not always the ones that affected me the most now.

This time round, with sisterhood on my mind so much of late, Dorothea’s relationship with her sister Celia is the one that stayed with me the most in between stints of reading the novel. Dorothea is serious, Celia more lighthearted. Dorothea’s mind is always on study and religious matters, whereas Celia is concerned with the day to day world around her. But despite their seeming differences, the two sisters – Kitty and Dodo as they affectionately call each other – could not be closer.

Eliot and Stowe’s personalities were also markedly different, so different that many biographers have doubted that they could really have been friends. Eliot’s letters to Stowe reveal her as the more rational and measured of the pair. Stowe, by contrast, is impulsive, sometimes careless – occasionally shockingly so.

But as the example of Celia and Dorothea reminds us, major differences needn’t be an impediment to friendship. Familial ties were what united the Middlemarch sisters. For Stowe and Eliot, it was the sense that – for all that divided them – they were bonded together by being part of the same literary sisterhood.

Next month

We’ll be discussing Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and the impact it had on her friendship with George Eliot.

We’ll also be running two friendship-themed writing workshops in Spalding and Boston (Lincolnshire), on Saturday 15th and Sunday 16th October respectively. We still have some tickets available, so if you would like to reserve a place, do please get in touch with us at somethingrhymed@gmail.com. More information about the workshops can be found here.

Out Now! Owl Song at Dawn by Emma Claire Sweeney

In the midst of turbulent times here in Britain, it is good to have things to look forward to.

 

As many of our readers will know, throughout the two-and-a-half years that we have been running Something Rhymed, and more recently writing a non-fiction book together, Emma has also been working on a novel.

I have written before about the joys of being able to follow the progress of Owl Song at Dawn – a project that has been a real labour of love for Emma.

As a reader, I quickly fell in love with its story too, even in its earliest, least polished drafts. For what feels like a very long time now, I have been waiting for the day when readers beyond Emma’s family and friends will be able to share in her wonderful book.

Owl Song at Dawn is a warm and deeply evocative novel. Its indomitable protagonistMaeve Maloney – the octogenarian proprietor of the Seaview Lodge boarding house – has spent a lifetime in the seaside town of Morecambe, trying to unlock the secrets of Edie, her exuberant yet inexplicable twin. These are characters who will move you, and stay with you long after you’ve finished reading.

When Emma called me up to tell me that the publishing house Legend Press had acquired the rights to Owl Song at Dawn, it was a wonderful moment for both of us. While we’ve been hard at work on our joint book since then – and with Emma’s publication date creeping ever closer – it’s been fun to remain somewhat involved with her novel too.

We’ve talked a lot about early drafts of book covers, for instance, and the literary events Emma has planned for this summer. Recently, I was privileged to be able to get a special preview of a short story of hers, which will be coming out at around the same time as the book.

Now, finally, on the first of July 2016, the launch day of Owl Song at Dawn has arrived. And, not as Emma’s friend, but simply as someone who loves good writing, I urge you to buy a copy.

The novel is available to order here. It has, in fact, been available for pre-order for several months but I confess that I haven’t ordered it myself.

You see, ever since I first read a page of Owl Song at Dawn, I have looked forward to the day when I will be able to pick up a printed and bound copy from a bookseller’s display, glance at Emma’s name on the cover and then hand over my money with the lovely, satisfied feeling that my friend wrote this.

After waiting all this while, how could I deprive myself of that?

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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