We are honoured that Michèle Roberts has agreed to speak about the devaluing of so-called ‘women’s issues’ at tomorrow’s Something Rhymed salon.
Female friendship is at the heart of her writing and feminism – something she reflected on with her own literary friend, Sarah LeFanu, in September’s guest post.
Michèle Roberts has published over twenty books: novels, poetry, essays, memoir, artist’s books. She is Professor Emeritus at the University of East Anglia, a Chavalier dans l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. Her latest publication, with Jenny Newman and Sarah LeFanu, is The Lille Diaries. She currently teaches a Guardian Masterclass (mistressclass?) on novel-writing.
In the meantime, as we mentioned at the beginning of this month, we have recently been reading Mary Taylor’s novel, Miss Miles. Emily talks about the book, its author and her close friendship with Charlotte Brontë in this video:
Back in 2014, we profiled Charlotte Brontё’s friendship with the author of Cranford, Elizabeth Gaskell. Theirs was a fascinating bond, but – important though Gaskell was to Brontё – another writer, Mary Taylor, had an even greater influence on her life.
Brontё met Taylor, the future author of the feminist novel Miss Miles, in 1831 when they were teenage boarders at Roe Head School near Huddersfield. Their relationship got off to a rocky start when pretty Taylor told the pale, frizzy-haired new girl that she found her very ugly – a typically outspoken remark, and one from which Brontё would never fully recover.
But the pair’s bookish natures and their love of political argument soon drew them together, with Taylor’s bold and radical views opening Brontё’s eyes to fresh ways of thinking, especially in terms of the place of women in Victorian society.
After leaving school the next year they kept in touch by letter and paid visits when they could to each other’s houses: the now-famous parsonage at Haworth where Brontё lived, and Taylor’s home the Red House at Gomersal.
A decade later when they were in their mid-twenties, Taylor’s encouragement gave Brontё a ‘wish for wings’. The two daringly left their native rural Yorkshire and headed for urban Brussels, to continue their education at separate schools in the Belgian capital.
The Pensionnat de Demoiselles Heger-Parent, where Brontё enrolled, was to become the scene of one of the most infamous episodes of her life – the place where she fell desperately in love with her temperamental tutor, the married Constantin Heger.
Taylor, ever hungry for greater independence, soon moved on to Germany and took a position, controversially, teaching young men. Friendless and alone in Brussels, Brontё eventually realised that her position at the Pensionnat was untenable and returned to Haworth.
Taylor, on the other hand, decided to set-sail for an even more distant destination – New Zealand. On learning that the two would now be separated by thousands of miles, a devastated Brontё remarked that it felt as if ‘a great planet fell out of the sky’.
To most, including herself, it looked as if Taylor was the true adventurer. But Brontё was beginning to break new ground too. While Taylor pushed her literary ambitions into the background – concentrating instead on the daily challenges of her brave new life – safe within her childhood home, Brontё was finally getting the chance to write.
In 1847, Brontё tasted success for the first time when the publication of her first novel, Jane Eyre, caused a nationwide sensation.
Taylor, who’d continued to correspond with Brontё during her time in New Zealand, returned to Britain in 1860, five years after her friend’s early death. She kept on travelling into her later years. Aged in her fifties, she joined a female mountaineering expedition in Switzerland, which resulted in the jointly-authored book Swiss Notes by Five Ladies.
Owing to the distractions of her intrepid life, her novel Miss Miles wasn’t published until 1890 when Taylor was in her seventies. Like Brontё’s novel, Shirley – for which Taylor provided the inspiration for the plucky character of Rose Yorke – it can be regarded as a book that celebrates the enduring power of female friendship.
Later this month, we’ll be doing another audio interview. This time we’ll be discussing Charlotte Brontё’s novel Jane Eyre, and Mary Taylor’s forthright reaction to the book. If you missed our previous interviews about Jane Austen’s Emma and Maria Edgeworth’s The Absentee, you can catch up on what we talked about then by scrolling down to those earlier posts.
For those who’d like a quick refresher, Jane Eyre is currently BBC Radio 4’s 15 Minute Drama. You can listen to episode one of the adaptation here.
Inspired by the evolving nature of Margaret Mason and Mary Shelley’s friendship, this month we’re reflecting on the moments of change that we have experienced. As Emily’s post revealed, some long-anticipated forks in the road have ended up continuing to lead us along parallel routes. But we have also stumbled on unexpected cross roads…
Emily and I first became friends when we were both living in Japan: her in a tiny apartment surrounded by carparks and convenience stores; me in a tatami-floored house that looked out onto rice paddies and groves of bamboo. In these very different environments, each of us picked up our pens.
Although we hadn’t yet come out to each other as aspiring writers, Emily and I began at weekends to take the three-hour round trip between her urban flat and my country home. This way, we forged our friendship in both the ice cream parlours of the neon-choked city and in bath houses hidden up dark mountain lanes.
But, after just one short season, we each had to decide in advance whether or not we would stay in Japan the following year. By the time the maple leaves had fallen from the trees, Emily had chosen to continue her unofficial writing apprenticeship in Matsuyama, enduring the chill of a second Japanese winter. I set my sights instead on a long trip with my boyfriend, imagining myself penning stories on sun-bathed verandas in Thailand, Vietnam and Laos.
Many messages pinged between the computer in Emily’s Japanese staffroom and the internet cafés I visited in Chiang Mai and Hanoi and Luang Prabang. On the surface, I was having the time of my life. But, although my boyfriend and I journeyed together all the way from Bangkok to Beijing, our relationship was falling apart.
While Emily was continuing to write fiction in between teaching lessons, I wasn’t jotting down much more than an angst-ridden journal. Looking back on it, I see just how easily I could have retreated into solitude during that time. And so I feel especially grateful that my faraway friend kept on making efforts to remain close.
When Emily and I both moved back to Britain, we continued our friendship – each of us, over the years, travelling thousands of miles across country to meet in Liverpool’s underground bars; riverside cafes in York; the walled garden of Ely cathedral; a Cumbrian bunkhouse; Portobello Market; a field in Herefordshire. More often than not, we’d come laden with drafts of each other’s novels that we had annotated in advance.
During those years of long-distance friendship, we anticipated the literary success of one before the other as a fork in the road, just beyond the line of sight. But, gradually, our writing lives became so intertwined and our vision of ‘success’ so complex and incremental, that jobs and awards and publications no longer felt like junctions that required much navigation.
I was delighted when, in 2011, Emily told me that she’d be moving to London. For the first time in a decade, she would live nearby. What’s more, she would be teaching at the same universities as me, so we’d also get to see each other each week at work.
Not long after Emily’s move, we embarked on co-writing literary journalism, sitting side-by-side at the same desk. I was newly single again, so it was all too easy to lose myself in work – especially work with Emily, which was so convivial, and always punctuated with shared meals: cinnamon buns; home-made soups; late-night dashes to the Turkish take-away for shish kebabs in spicy sauce.
But work, however fun, cannot replace a social life. This struck me one evening after a staff meeting, when Emily and I went off our separate ways. I’d come to miss our long-distance friendship, when we saw each other less often but, perhaps, prized our time together more highly.
When I eventually mentioned this to Emily, she immediately arranged a night out to a jazz bar, and we spent the evening listening to music and drinking cocktails and catching up on all those things we’d forgotten to tell each other while sat at a desk side by side.
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.
Mary Shelley, the celebrated author of Frankenstein, needs little introduction, whereas her friend Margaret Mason may be less familiar.
Born into a wealthy Anglo-Irish family in 1773, Margaret King, as she was then called, spent her childhood years in the neo-Gothic surroundings of Mitchelstown Castle in County Cork.
Fate would set her on the path towards friendship with two of the most famous female authors of her era when a new governess-companion arrived at the castle in 1786.
Mary Wollstonecraft, then in her late twenties, was yet to embark on her illustrious career as an author. She was an instant hit with her teenage pupil, but frictions soon developed between the free-thinking English woman and her young charge’s aristocratic mother.
Unable to hide her disdain for Lady Kingsborough, Wollstonecraft found herself dismissed within the year, but she would leave a lasting impression on her former student. Over the decade that followed – a period during which Wollstonecraft’s radical writings, including most famouslyA Vindication of the Rights of Woman, were causing a stir – the two remained friendly.
Even after Wollstonecraft’s early death in 1797, following complications during the birth of her daughter Mary, Lady Mountcashell – as King had become on marriage – would remain an occasional visitor to the home of Wollstonecraft’s widower, the philosopher William Godwin.
She was one of the authors who contributed to his ambitious Juvenile Library book series, tellingly adopting the nom de plume Mrs Mason, after the kindly teacher heroine of Wollstonecraft’s Original Stories from Real Life, her only work of children’s literature. Mason’s own books in Godwin’s series bear the influence of the practical, egalitarian teachings of the woman who was once her governess.
As a child, Mary Shelley must have regarded Mason chiefly as her father and late mother’s friend, but in later years she became close to her herself. That the two women should have bonded is perhaps unsurprising, since both – like Wollstonecraft before them – had a fierce unconventionality in common.
Despite Mason’s Anglo-Irish background, she played a part in the Irish rebellion of 1798; would don male dress some years later in order to study medicine (her six-foot figure allowing her to pass for a man); and, perhaps most scandalously of all, left her husband and eight children to elope to Italy with her Irish lover.
Interestingly, though, when Wollstonecraft’s daughter defied her father by fleeing abroad with the married Percy Bysshe Shelley in 1814, Mason was disapproving.
Following the suicide of Percy’s wife, Harriet, the Romantic poet was eventually able to marry Mary in 1816. Two years later, when the couple visited Mason’s home in Pisa, she introduced them to her social circles and helped them to set up a home in the city
When Shelley – by then the author of Frankenstein – went through a bout of serious depression following the deaths of her two children, Mason’s support and medical knowledge proved invaluable.
Relations between the two were not always rosy – Shelley, for instance, was saddened by Mason’s apparent coldness after the death of her poet husband – but the two still remained essentially on good terms. In fact, knowing of the widowed Shelley’s unhappiness, Mason counselled her friend to return to England and even supplied her with most of the funds to make the journey – a sum which Shelley could repay, she said, should she ‘ever grow rich’.
The pair continued to correspond by letter until Mason’s death in 1835. Though today Mason’s books are not well-known, she continues to be remembered for the fascinating personal link she provides between two of history’s most significant literary women.
Margaret Mason’s relationship with Mary Shelley changed significantly over the course of their lives, as Shelley matured from a girl into a woman. This month, we will each look back on a significant change that has affected our own friendship.
We met regularly in Oxford, and it was so useful, I kept going even after I moved to London. When we needed a new member, our mutual friend Toby recommended Lucie. She joined, and stayed even after she too moved to London to work for a literary agent. During that time we read and commented on what became her first novel, The House at Midnight.
I remember being really impressed by Lucie’s description and characterisation, as well as her determination and professional approach (I had graduated from waitressing to temping). She also cast her eye over the contract for almost the first piece of writing I got published and paid for: a one-act play for Samuel French called Half-Life. I was writing a very long dystopian sci-fi road narrative and she patiently read each chapter, though it ended up stuffed firmly in the bottom drawer.
Lucie has critiqued my work, written recommendations and given me quotes (including one that helped get me onto the UEA Creative Writing MA), and since she moved to New York in 2011, we’ve emailed. In some ways she has a big-sisterly role of doing everything first: publishing her first book, having a baby, and so I’ve always felt I can turn to her for advice both professional and personal. I’m always vicariously proud when I see her latest novel on the bestseller charts at Smith’s or picked as another book club choice (both Channel 4/Specsavers and Richard & Judy so far!).
Finally, I can honestly say that without Lucie’s example to give me a hard kick up the arse, I probably wouldn’t have finished my debut novel, The Whores’ Asylum (now The Unpierced Heart). At her launch party, I saw up close what I was aiming for and how worthwhile all the late nights, hard work, pernickety editing sessions and bouts of self-doubt would one day be.
If I’ve done everything first, it’s likely because I’m older…
Together, Katy and I show how there’s no one way to approach a writing career. If she was impressed by my professionalism and jobs in publishing, I admired her single-mindedness. In her company, I often guiltily felt that I was hedging my bets. (Not that I missed out on waitressing – I have fond memories of my time lugging plates at Café Rouge. Best upper-arm definition I’ve ever had).
Without Katy, I might have been sidetracked by agenting. I loved working with writers, talking books, reading manuscripts. She was an anchor for my creative side, a reminder that all my life, I’d wanted to write.
Practically, she was essential, too. She’s given me many great opportunities but her invitation to the writing group was a game-changer. Not only was I compelled to produce regular work in my cocktail-enhanced twenties but being critiqued by writers of such calibre catalyzed an enormous technical improvement in my work. Katy is fiercely clever and her comments were always – sometimes painfully – on the nail.
But above all, she is an extremely talented writer and that’s inspiring. When I heard that Penguin had bought The Whores’ Asylum, my first thought was, At last. I’ve long known that Katy is brilliant and when I see her on TV on Booker night, I’ll be doing a dance here. (And by the way, K, that dystopian sci-fi road novel deserves out of that drawer).
We’ve decided to do something a bit different this month and post our responses by video instead. This week, I talk about consolation – and an instance of the lack of it – in the friendship of George Eliot and Harriet Beecher Stowe.
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 Emily and I set up Something Rhymed, we were keen to find out whether Jane Austen enjoyed the support of a fellow writer. Perhaps she got to know Frances Burney or Maria Edgeworth, older authors whom we knew she admired. Sadly, we found no evidence of her meeting either of these novelists. But, in the pages of Claire Tomalin’s biography of Austen, we came across a fleeting reference to a rather more surprising literary friend: Anne Sharp, a governess employed by Austen’s brother, who penned plays in between teaching lessons.
Among the thousands of books about Britain’s favourite author, we felt sure that another biographer or academic would have delved deeper into the history of this unexpected relationship. After ploughing through every single book on Austen in Senate House Library, however, we discovered only a little more. Ever optimistic, we cast around for monographs, journal articles and papers delivered at the annual Austen society conferences. Again, we came across only a few more morsels of knowledge.
Finally, we consulted the surviving letters and diaries of Austen, her family and friends. We didn’t honestly expect to find much in these papers since most of them have already been scoured over by Austen experts. There surely couldn’t be anything new to say about a novelist on whom millions of pages had already been written.
But, much to our surprise, we found a cache of unpublished material that contains plenty of references to Sharp. And even the well-consulted documents reveal far more about this transgressive friendship than we could have predicted: a story full of rebellion and subterfuge.
Playing the part of literary detectives, we worked out that Austen’s family disapproved of the friendship between employer and employee. What’s more, we began to suspect that Austen had gone behind the backs of her relatives – putting her friend’s needs above their wishes.
We plan in the future to write in greater detail about this defining moment in their friendship, and our quest to uncover it. But here’s a potted history of our version of events:
Two years into her employment at Godmersham Park, Sharp began to receive unwanted advances from Austen’s brother. The governess risked divulging this information to her friend in the hope that Austen might put their bond above her sisterly loyalty.
Together, the women hatched a plan. Austen secretly wrote a reference for Sharp to help her get a job elsewhere. The governess told her employer that ill-health prevented her from continuing to work – a story that no one overtly questioned despite Sharp immediately taking up an equivalent post elsewhere. But Austen’s sister-in-law must have smelt something fishy since she later recruited an elderly widow to replace the young, attractive Sharp.
Despite the Austen family’s resistance, the friendship between the two writers endured. And Austen even managed to persuade her mother and sister to welcome Sharp into their home for extended visits. We were particularly taken by the community of women that Austen battled to create, because ever since setting up Something Rhymed we too have felt grateful to belong to a sisterhood of readers and writers – albeit online.
I must admit that, back when we set up this site, I was rather sceptical about whether friendships could really be forged in cyberspace. The warm sense of support and lively exchange we’ve enjoyed with so many of you from around the globe – people who were strangers just eighteen months ago – has caused me to rethink this assumption.
When Emily won the Lucy Cavendish Prize, for instance, one of the unexpected joys of her success was getting to share it with all of you. Neither of us could have realised just how much the online celebrations would deepen the joy we’d both felt at the awards ceremony. But perhaps it shouldn’t have come as such a surprise that our site dedicated to friendship should have extended our own circle of friends.