Successes and Surprises

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We sought permission from Jacaranda Books to use this image.

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.

Nothing New Under the Sun

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.

Shining a light on the hidden web of female literary friendship. Creative Commons License.
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.

Frances Burney and Hester Thrale

When Emily met John Mullan at the Bloomsbury Institute, he suggested that we investigate the friendship between Frances Burney and Hester Thrale. We soon discovered a story full of intrigue and betrayal.

On a summer’s evening in 1778, Frances Burney’s father took her to Hester Thrale’s literary salon at Streatham Park. The grand occasion would have been intimidating indeed for the shy twenty-six-year-old writer, whose identity had only recently been revealed.

Burney had penned her novel, Evelina, at the dead of night and then audaciously published it anonymously without her parents’ consent. When her music-teacher father finally discovered its authorship, however, he astounded his daughter by not only giving his blessing but fizzing with such pride that he divulged the secret to his friend and employer, Hester Thrale.

A painting of Hester Thrale in 1771 by John Singleton Copley [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
A painting of Hester Thrale in 1771 by John Singleton Copley [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
London’s literati flocked to Thrale’s gatherings, attracted by the thirty-nine-year-old hostess’s wealth, ebullience, arrogance and wit. Thrale was delighted to introduce her friends to the mysterious author of the novel that was causing such a stir.

Thrale had literary ambitions of her own. She would go on to write a popular history book that failed to win over critics of the day but is now considered a radical pre-cursor to feminism, and she was a consummate memoirist, letter-writer and diarist. Perhaps envy soured Thrale’s pen that summer’s night in 1778 when she jotted in her journal that Burney’s ‘Conversation would be more pleasing if She thought less of herself’. Or perhaps fame really had gone to the young author’s head for a while. Either way, Thrale did admit that Burney’s ‘Merit cannot as a Writer be controverted’.

Despite Thrale’s mixed first impressions, she nonetheless welcomed Burney into her home, inviting her first for a weeklong visit and later for several months on end. Over the next six years, the pair forged an intense bond cemented by their shared wit and storytelling flair.

‘Irresistible Burney!’ Thrale wrote in one of her daily letters: ‘and who was ever like you for warm affection, cool Prudence, and steady Friendship!’ But this same ‘cool Prudence’, which Thrale once so admired, ended up causing a great rift between the two authors.

During her husband’s final illness, Thrale confessed to Burney her growing tenderness towards one of the musicians she employed: an impoverished Italian singer called Gabriel Mario Piozzi. Thrale felt determined that, after the death of her spouse, she would finally secure a love match.

Although Burney’s own father was a music teacher from a similar social milieu to Piozzi, she was horrified by the thought of her friend marrying a Catholic foreigner of lower social rank, and by what she saw as the emotional and financial abandonment of Thrale’s children. ‘Think a little’, Burney pleaded. ‘The mother of 5 children, 3 of them as Tall as herself, will never be forgiven for shewing so great an ascendance of passion over Reason’.

Thrale married Piozzi in 1784. From then on, Burney’s letters went unanswered and she was no longer welcome at the home of her former friend.

Frances Burney circa. 1784 painted by Edward Francisco Burney (1760-1848) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Frances Burney circa. 1784 painted by Edward Francisco Burney (1760-1848) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
During the next thirty years and more, Burney ‘made every possible overture’ of friendship but Thrale, now Signora Piozzi, could no longer trust the woman she referred to as ‘l’aimable Traitesse’. But her name did continue to appear on the subscription list for Burney’s novels, as, indeed, did that of the young Jane Austen – an ardent fan.

Burney’s persistence may well have been motivated by an increased empathy with her former friend’s predicament. At the age of forty-one, Burney defied her father by marrying a penniless French Catholic and becoming known as Madame D’Arblay.

In 1817, Burney, now sixty-six, dared to call in on the seventy-five-year-old Thrale. ‘At the sound of my name’, Burney wrote immediately afterwards, ‘she came hastily from her Boudoir to receive me in the grand sallon’. But Thrale, suffering from asthma, was so embarrassed and agitated that she could not utter a single word.

Once she recovered, they sat together on a sofa and entered into a political debate. Though spirited, their conversation lacked the affection of old. And yet, they talked on as night fell, quite forgetting about dinner. When Burney finally realised the time and made to leave, Thrale affectionately thanked her for calling in. ‘Much surprised, & instantly touched,’ wrote Burney, ‘I turned back, & held out my hand. She gave me hers, & each hand again pressed the other’. And this late-life reconciliation endured.

Activity

Burney and Thrale often surprised each other. This month, we’ll take the opportunity to reflect on the unexpected things we have learnt while working together on Something Rhymed.

Reading Between the Lines: what we’ve learned from the letters of George Eliot and Harriet Beecher Stowe

Inspired by our reading of Daphne du Maurier’s letters, this month Emma Claire and I have been thinking about what we know and can’t know about the various writer friends we’ve profiled on Something Rhymed.

Last week, Emma mulled over the aftermath of the friendship between Jane Austen and Anne Sharp .This week, I write about the beginnings of the friendship between George Eliot and Harriet Beecher Stowe

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This image is in the public domain.

Something that has always interested me about these two is that they could so easily not have become close friends.

Despite their shared status as the most celebrated female authors either side of the Atlantic, and the level of common understanding this brought with it, the great geographical gulf between Eliot and Stowe meant that they were only ever able to communicate by letter.

It would have been challenging enough to maintain relations, even if they’d previously enjoyed a face-to-face friendship. Doubly so, you would think, since, unlike the other pairs we’ve profiled, Stowe and Eliot’s bond began by letter and was sustained entirely on paper.

Most scholars date the friendship’s beginning from the spring of 1869: the point at which Stowe sat down in her sunny orange grove in Florida to pen the first of their letters. It’s often claimed that when these pages reached Eliot at her north London villa, their arrival was entirely unexpected.

However, their opening line has led Emma and me to wonder whether it was all really quite this simple.

Stowe began her letter by saying that, the previous year, a mutual friend had called on her and passed on ‘a kind word of message’ from Eliot. Unsurprisingly, Stowe didn’t bother to repeat the message, so Eliot’s exact words remain tantalisingly out of reach of readers other than the original recipient.

But this hasn’t stopped Emma and me from wondering what she’d said that encouraged Stowe’s overtures of friendship.

Thinking about Eliot’s earlier admiring review of Stowe’s anti-slavery novel Dred, it’s possible that she might have mentioned that she was a long-time admirer of the American author’s work. But Eliot had found herself drawn to Stowe’s personality too, ever since she’d been shown a letter addressed to the abolitionist Eliza Cabot Follen in which Stowe had caricatured herself as ‘a little bit of a woman, rather more than forty, as withered as dry as a pinch of snuff – never very well worth looking at in my best days, and now a decidedly used up article’.

Eliot, who had always been made to feel painfully self-conscious about her own lack of conventional beauty, was so moved by this passage that she transcribed it to keep. She would remark afterwards that the whole letter by Stowe was ‘most fascinating and makes one love her’.

Stowe would be closer to sixty than forty by the time she reached out to Eliot directly, and perhaps even more interesting than Eliot’s tacit encouragement of an approach is Stowe’s motivation for picking this moment to seek a new literary friendship.

Homing in on the first line of Stowe’s correspondence led us to question the received wisdom that she’d contacted Eliot out of the blue. But stepping back to survey all the correspondence between them allowed us to appreciate the significance of the letter’s date. 1869 was also the year when, five months later in September, Stowe would publish her notorious article in the Atlantic. The piece made public the once only whispered rumour that the now deceased Lord Byron had indulged in incestuous relations with his half-sister.

Byron’s wife, who had also died by this time, had been a friend of Stowe’s. Recent criticisms of Lady Byron by one of her husband’s former mistresses had so incensed Stowe that she was moved to write this spirited defence of the trials her friend had suffered.

Even before the article’s publication, Stowe had privately expressed fears that making such a scandal public would attract widespread criticism – a prediction that would prove right. Therefore, given the timing, it seems feasible that Stowe might have had another more self-serving motivation for getting in touch at this time.

If someone as intellectually respected as Eliot had been willing to support her this would surely have added weight to Stowe’s arguments. But, sadly for Stowe, even in their personal letters, Eliot refused to endorse her, telling Stowe that she ‘should have preferred that the “Byron question” should not have been brought before the public’.

But by this stage, the two had cemented their friendship through their warm and surprisingly candid epistolary conversations. Though the eleven-year correspondence has never been published altogether and in full, were it ever to be gathered into a single volume it would make for a great gift to fans of both of authors.

What we have learned through our studies of Eliot and Stowe’s letters is that, in order to gain the truest picture of their friendship, you sometimes have to get up close to the words, sometimes stand back from them, and sometimes look hardest at the blank surrounding spaces to try to make sense of important things unspoken.

The List: Megan Bradbury and Lauren Frankel

Like many of the writer friends we’ve profiled so far, this month’s guest bloggers Lauren Frankel and Megan Bradbury enjoy tracking each other’s literary progress. But they gave this idea their own twist, thanks to something they call The List.

Lauren

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Image by Rosalind Hobley.

I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that without Megan I wouldn’t be a published writer. Who knows? I might not have a six month old son, either.

Let me explain. Megan and I met on the UEA Creative Writing course some years ago. She was young but fiercely serious, with a great laugh and strong opinions. When other students trashed my writing, she would jump to my defence.

After we left UEA, I doubted that I would ever finish a novel. I was slow as molasses – a procrastinator and a perfectionist to boot. When you’re trying to write your first book, nobody cares whether you finish it or not. You don’t have an editor giving you praise, deadlines, or a bollocking.

Megan and I kept in touch, and hearing about my writer’s despair, she invited me to send her a list of my goals each week by e-mail. She and her friend had been sharing theirs, celebrating one another’s large (and small) achievements. Up until then, I hadn’t dared to give myself weekly targets. I thought it would be too depressing to see myself failing to reach them over and over. But I agreed to try it.

Each week, Megan, her friend Kirsten and I would share by e-mail what we’d achieved in the previous week and what we planned for the current one. Soon other writers were joining us in the e-mail ‘achievement’ chain, which meant that four people now cared how my work was going. As I reviewed their weekly goals and accomplishments, I felt spurred on to aim higher – and also to think more about the long term, a thing which had terrified me previously.

With Megan’s encouragement and the help of my ‘list’ friends, I finally managed to finish my novel. To rewrite it again and again when I wanted to give up.

Hyacinth Girls - cover image
Image used with the kind permission of Crown Publishing.

And as for the baby… well. I never put having a kid on my shared ‘to do’ list. But I made a private list. And he was on it.

Megan

IMG_9123In the autumn of 2011, my partner and I drove 560 miles from Edinburgh to Penzance. We were moving to Cornwall to live with relatives who had offered us a room rent-free for a year – we would now be able to write full-time without distraction.

I was excited but also scared. We had given up our jobs and our home. We had travelled across the country with no plan other than to write.

As we drove into Penzance I visualised myself in twelve months’ time, driving back along the coast with nothing to show for my year – no money, no job, and no novel.

I spoke to my friend, the poet, editor and copy-writer Kirsten Irving, and together we came up with the List.

The idea behind the List is very simple. Every Sunday we write a list of things we plan to do in the week ahead, and when that week is over we review what we did (or didn’t do).

The List can include anything:

  • Write a chapter of the novel
  • Take shoes to be re-heeled
  • Drive mother-in-law to Morrisons

By including non-writing activities, the list makes the act of writing seem less precious. Most importantly, it shows what I have achieved in weeks when I feel I have done nothing. I may feel I have not written well, but I can see I have improved my running times or read an excellent book.

When I first met Lauren, I knew we’d be friends. She always gave superb editorial advice and could be relied upon to recommend interesting books. She made me feel my writing was special. A few years ago, when she mentioned she needed more support with her writing, I told her about the List and asked if she wanted to join.

I’ve been exchanging lists with friends every week now for four years. My fellow Listers pick me up and dust me down every Sunday. They are there for me when things go wrong.

I recently completed my first novel and it’s due to be published in the summer of next year. I know I couldn’t have written it without them.

Megan Bradbury’s debut novel Everyone is Watching will be published by Picador in summer 2016.

Lauren Frankel’s debut Hyacinth Girls, published by Crown, came out this month.

Crying Tears of Laughter: Irenosen Okojie and Yvette Edwards

In her work as a reviewer for the Sunday Times, Dorothy L. Sayers often took the opportunity to praise the work of her friend Agatha Christie – calling Murder on the Orient Express, for example, ‘a murder mystery conceived and carried out on the finest classical lines’. Inspired by this, we asked April’s guest bloggers, Yvette Edwards and Irenosen Okojie, to each sing the praises of their writer friend.

They met when they appeared together at a literary event, a couple of years ago. Irenosen takes up the story:

SONY DSCIt was a platform to showcase new writers; at that point the buzz had started to build about Yvette’s writing. When she read, her work immediately captured me. It was evocative, fearless and powerful.

Not only that but she was very warm, generous and humble. She was the star attraction on the bill but she didn’t behave that way and she didn’t distance herself from me or the other writer. She was incredibly chatty, curious about our writing journeys and happy to offer advice.

One of the images I never forget from that evening was Yvvettes’s mother managing her stack of books being the literary equivalent of a roadie. I enjoyed this tiny window into their relationship.

We all exchanged details; afterwards, I bought a copy of her book A Cupboard Full of Coats. It was so engrossing I read it in one sitting. What I really loved was that the female protagonist was complex and darkly drawn, unapologetically so. It is a brilliant debut novel, a heartbreaking read worth every penny.

One of the things I admire about Yvvette is her tenacity. She didn’t have an easy writing journey but she never gave up.

Over the next year, we’d bump into each other at literary gatherings, our friendship developed from there. We’d email back and forth and she’d encourage me to keep writing when things were difficult. Writing can be such an isolating endeavour that friendships and support are invaluable.

My favourite thing about her other than her literary prowess is her humour. She’s one of the most hilarious writers I know and is never without a funny anecdote or encounter. I cry with laughter whenever we meet up. She could have been a stand-up comedian had she not wanted to go into fiction writing. She’s a natural storyteller. When you engage with her, this becomes apparent.

It’s been fun and heartening watching her journey so far being both a fan and a friend.

Yvette says:

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Irenosen is a power ball of energy that continually amazes me. She is always busy, is always writing as well as juggling various projects, passionate about everything literary, from the craft itself to championing events, interviewing other authors, getting involved in awards and prizes, reading, judging, spreading the word.

I think her website is a perfect reflection of her as a person and as a creative.  It is warm, full, interesting, regularly updated, filled with information about her own work as well as the projects she’s involved in.

It is vast and varied and quirky. You could pop in, intending only a short visit and a quick browse, and hours later still be clicking into tabs and links, discovering fabulous pics, astute observations and confident commentary, writing that’s rich, humorous, profound. It’s impossible to sum up either Irenosen or her website with a mere handful of words.

And that’s what her writing is like. It defies strait-laced and simple definition.  It doesn’t slip into any pre-packaged boxes or notions or expectations.  You can never exactly anticipate the journey she’ll take you on, or the destination you’ll reach, but you can be confident it will be interesting, that there will be surprises in store, that you will be challenged and entertained along the way, that you’ll emerge from your journey both heady and giddy, like stepping off a super roller coaster at a different place to where your journey began.

And if you do decide to take the matter up with her, there is every possibility she’ll hug you, throw her head back and laugh.

A Cupboard Full of Coats (Oneworld) by Yvette Edwards was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, and shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize.

Irenosen Okojie’s first novel, Butterfly Fish, and a collection of short stories, Speak Gigantular, will be published in June 2015 by Jacaranda Books.

Louise Doughty and Jacqui Lofthouse: Tortoises Rather Than Hares

A Class Act

Jacqui: I first met Louise twenty years ago, at the University of East Anglia, on a photo shoot for the Sunday Telegraph. We had both studied there, for our MA in Creative Writing under Malcolm Bradbury, but in different years.

Class Act
Jacqui Lofthouse (middle in black) and Louise Doughty (behind her to the left in polka dots).

It’s a moody photograph (the photographer told us ‘don’t smile, you’ll look stupid’) but the actual mood was celebratory. Louise was wearing a sleeveless polka dot dress and had a brilliant suntan. She looked very stylish and cool. We were both excited about the publication of our first novels. Louise’s was already out and mine was about to appear. I still couldn’t quite believe that I was about to be published by Hamish Hamilton and was mixing with other published authors.

Louise: Jacqui struck me immediately as enviably calm and serene.  We swapped notes on being students on the UEA MA and how neither of us felt regarded as the stars of our year – we laughed about that, and about how we were tortoises rather than hares.

The Polymath and the Will of Steel

Jacqui: Louise has been more focussed than me over the years, in terms of her writing, whereas I’ve been more distracted by entrepreneurial ventures, such as setting up my business coaching writers, but also by other art forms, returning to my love of drama and even having an interlude training to be a drama teacher. Right now, for example, I’m developing the business, finishing a second draft of a play, in discussion with a filmmaker and attending screen acting classes. Louise is focusing on her latest novel full-time. Some of this relates to financial decisions, but I think it’s also about our character types. She has a will of steel and I can’t stop myself diversifying.

Louise: Jacqui is more of a polymath than me: she’s much more plugged in to social media, has trained as a coach and run her own business.  I’ve focused very much on the novels and although that’s paid off to a certain extent I think her life is more interesting and varied than mine.

The Unrest Cure

Jacqui: One dinner that particularly stays with me was the night when I told Louise I was planning to train as a secondary school drama teacher. In the end, it was only a two year interlude, but it felt hard breaking the news that I was going to do something so different and apparently out of character. I was ready for a change, what Saki calls the ‘unrest cure’. I wanted to give something back to young people, to be more ‘out in the world’ but I remember, at that time, also feeling somewhat jaded with the literary world and saying ‘but what would you do?’ I don’t think Louise had an answer but I imagine she was thinking ‘I’d rather starve in my garret than do something as crazy as that!’ But she was gracious enough not to try to hold me back from something that I so clearly wanted to do. Those two years, in fact, served to remind me how vital writing is in my life; how impossible it is for me to do without it.

Girl Novelists’ Dry Martini Club

Louise: At one point, just for a laugh, we formed something called the Girl Novelists’ Dry Martini Club.  There were five of us and an agreement that whenever one of us signed a book deal, we would all go out for martinis.  It started out as just an in-joke between a group of friends but it got picked up by the media – I think I mentioned it on Radio 4’s Midweek – and the next thing we knew it was mentioned in articles and we received letters from women asking if they could join.  I thought it was a hoot when the Club made it into Jacqui’s satirical novel The Modigliani Girl.  Almost every aspect of writing and the writing world gets satirised in that book.

Silent 3

Jacqui: Louise introduced me to the novelist Charles Palliser at a reading we did together. I was awestruck because an old beau of mine had bought me a copy of Charles’ novel The Quincunx so it was clearly the book to have! Meeting Charles, who had real literary kudos, made me feel incredibly grown up, but more importantly, he is now a genuine friend, whose devotion to writing and books never fails to inspire. In turn, Charles introduced me to a number of other writers and we still meet for an annual dinner each January at Louise’s home and talk about the year we’ve had, sharing the ups and downs of the writing life – and indeed, of life beyond writing.

Louise: This writing group is Silent 3 (don’t ask me why it’s called that, no idea), which was set up by Robert Irwin, a renowned Arabic scholar who also writes science fiction. The group used to be very large and meet in a pub in central London once a month but has shrunk to a hard-core now and every January we all have dinner at my house and review our writing years – another member brings the food and I do the long table etc.

Louise Doughty and Jacqui Lofthouse
Louise Doughty and Jacqui Lofthouse

Rollercoaster

Louise: When I look back over the twenty years I’ve been publishing, it strikes me just how essential my writing friends have been: my other close writing buddy is the novelist Jill Dawson, but along with her and Jacqui there is a wider circle of writing friends, mostly women but not exclusively, who I feel I have really grown up with.  Those friends are incredibly important, partly because you know each other’s personal and domestic lives as well, but also because you know that the successes are hard-fought for and well-earned and the disappointments often arbitrary.  A writer’s life is such a rollercoaster of success and disappointment that it’s invaluable having friends that will understand and support you whatever part of the ride you are on.  Friends are far more important, at the end of the day, than finding an agent or a publisher.

Louise Doughty is the author of seven novels including Apple Tree Yard and Whatever You Love, which was shortlisted for the Costa Novel Award and longlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction. She is also a critic and cultural commentator and broadcasts regularly for the BBC.

Jacqui Lofthouse is the author of four novels including Bluethroat Morning and The Modigliani Girl. She runs a mentoring and literary consultancy service for writers The Writing Coach.

 

Elizabeth Bowen and Iris Murdoch

The Anglo-Irish writer, Elizabeth Bowen, is remembered for surrounding herself with the most lauded of literary women.

Elizabeth Bowen
Image used with the kind permission of Vintage Books.

Never allowing her severe stammer to get in the way of her role as a garrulous hostess, she entertained the likes of Carson McCullers, Rosamund Lehman, Eudora Welty and Virginia Woolf.

We were surprised to discover that Iris Murdoch had attended one of the glittering salons at Bowen’s Court since she was twenty years younger than her hostess and has often been mythologised as something of an honorary man. Famously dismissive of her female contemporaries, she refused to read any of Barbara Pym’s novels, despite (or because of) repeated and hearty recommendations from the men in her life.

Iris Murdoch
We sought permission from Harper Collins to use this image.

It turned out that Murdoch and Bowen were first drawn together by their shared Anglo-Irish heritage and admiration for each other’s novels.

The salons at Bowen’s Court, mostly known for their decadence, were, in fact, full of creative ferment. Passages from Murdoch’s The Unicorn are so indebted to Bowen’s style and subject matter that they could almost have been written by the older author. Similarly, Bowen’s Eva Trout is influenced by the ‘demoniac’ subversion that she so admired in the work of her acolyte.

But it was confessions about their romantic relationships that cemented the intimacy of their inter-generational friendship. Murdoch confided her fears about agreeing to wed her lover, the fellow academic, John Bayley: as a married woman, she would be forbidden from continuing in her post as an Oxford don. Bowen, who had felt liberated rather than hemmed in by her own marriage, advised the younger author to embrace the opportunity to spend more time on her novels.

The pair visited each other regularly and commented on each other’s work, developing a deep and mutually influential friendship that lasted for nigh on two decades.

During this time Murdoch’s unconventional marriage endured, in some ways following the example mapped out by the flamboyant Bowen, whose husband was quite an introvert. Indeed, one party guest at Bowen’s Court stumbled into a cupboard in search of the loo only to find him crouched amongst the mops and brooms with a tray of food on his knees. Their successful union was more companionable than erotic, and Bowen sought sexual fulfilment elsewhere – most notably in a thirty year love affair with a Canadian diplomat.

Murdoch was similarly open to extramarital encounters. Most interesting among her affairs, perhaps, was her lesbian relationship, break-up and reconciliation with fellow philosopher, Philippa Foot. And yet, like Bowen, Murdoch was devoted to her husband, as, in both cases, the support of these men helped their creativity to thrive.

Not only did the older author show the younger one how to carve out erotic and creative freedom within a lifelong and nurturing marriage, Bowen also demonstrated by example how to extend wisdom and generosity to the next generation. And so, Murdoch – previously wary of her female contemporaries – ended up taking the young A.S. Byatt under her wing.

Activity

This month, Emma Claire will be reading The Unicorn by Iris Murdoch and Emily will be reading Eva Trout by Elizabeth Bowen.

Taking a Closer Look

Inspired by profiled writers Nancy Hamilton and Helen Keller, this month we each decided to introduce our friend to something new…

I must admit that when Emma Claire first suggested we visit a snowdrop trail together, I had my doubts that this was quite in the spirit of the challenge we’d set ourselves.

True, we’d be going to a new location for me, London’s Chelsea Physic Garden. But as for the snowdrops themselves, well, I thought I was already well-acquainted with those white-petaled flowers that emerge each year out of the coldest winter chill.

IMG_1186I could understand why Emma Claire was keen to go to this event. Snowdrops play a part in her novel, The Waifs and Strays of Seaview Lodge, but, recalling that I’d been able to identify one of these plants since the age of three or four, I wondered whether our planned morning would really provide me with enough new material on which to base this post.

Of course, as Emma Claire must have anticipated thanks to her research for her novel, the snowdrop varieties on show at the garden extended far beyond the Common and Double types with which I was familiar.

IMG_1183Some grew taller than any I’d previously seen; some had distinctive green markings; or uneven surfaces; or petals that extended outwards like wings. And without the accompanying signage, I’m not sure I would have recognised some of them as snowdrops at all.

Thinking about the morning afterwards, I remembered that when Emma Claire first suggested we consider profiling Helen Keller on Something Rhymed I’d had a similar reaction.

Although I was vaguely aware that this legendary deafblind woman had written an autobiography, I wasn’t sure whether that was enough to place her in the same category of ‘literary heroine’ as the other women whose friendships we’d been considering on this website.

But it turned out that the rather sugar-coated impression I’d had of Keller was formed almost entirely from a single book that I’d treasured as a child. Encouraged by its author, I can recall closing my eyes and blocking up my ears with my fingers to try and gain an inkling of how Keller experienced the world. From these pages, I’d learned of her amazing achievements, personally, and as a campaigner for others with disabilities.

But I had gleaned next to nothing about Keller’s wider political activism, as a socialist and supporter of women’s suffrage for instance. I didn’t know about her style of writing, or the spirited voice that shines through in essays like this one. Other than her student-teacher relationship with Anne Sullivan, who famously spelled out the word ‘water’ on the young Keller’s hand – I was in the dark about Keller’s other female friendships.

IMG_1197Over the years, Emma Claire’s influence has encouraged me to take a closer look at many things I’d once thought I understood. I have returned to books I disliked purely on the strength of her enthusiasm. I’ve adjusted my views on all sorts of subjects thanks to the back-and-forth of our conversations.

But until we went to see those snowdrops together, I don’t think I had truly noticed that this was one of the aspects I most value about our friendship. So, perhaps in the end, this was the real ‘something new’ I experienced as a result of this month’s challenge.

In the Hands of Chance?

Image by Angela Monika Arnold (Creative Commons licence)
Image by Angela Monika Arnold (Creative Commons licence)

A chance meeting in the ladies’ lavatory at a wedding marked the start of the friendship between last week’s guest interviewees, Polly Coles and Liz Jensen.

This got us thinking about some of the other unplanned first encounters of writers we’ve featured on Something Rhymed.

Susan Barker and Zakia Uddin, for instance – saw their paths collide back in 1999 at the Statue of Liberty, where they both had summer jobs. Rachel Connor and Antonia Honeywell formed an immediate connection when they happened to be paired as students in advance of their first MA Novel Writing workshop at Manchester University.

Of the monthly profiled writers, some like Charlotte Brontë and Elizabeth Gaskell and Harriet Beecher Stowe and George Eliot knew of each other by reputation before they met. Diana Athill formed a connection with Jean Rhys through her job as an editor at André Deutsch, and the friendship between Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison really blossomed when they both found themselves appearing at the Hay Festival in Wales.

But others, especially those who met early on in their literary careers, got to know each other under circumstances largely governed by happy twists of coincidence.

What would have happened if Vera Brittain and Winifred Holtby hadn’t each passed their university entrance exams and found themselves at the same Oxford college? Or if the teacher’s job in L.M. Montgomery’s hometown on Prince Edward Island had been given to someone other than Nora Lefurgey? Or Anne Sharp hadn’t gone to work as a governess with Jane Austen’s family?

Some might say that, with such similar political views and overlapping fields of work, Brittain and Holtby would likely have met eventually, but one can more easily imagine a life in which Austen had to manage without Sharp’s friendship, and Montgomery never found a kindred spirit in Lefurgey.

And since both Brittain and Holtby were always keen to credit the other for the role they had played in shaping their own success, this raises the question as to whether each woman’s life might have run a quite different course without the help of her valued friend.

Unlike the vast majority of our monthly guest bloggers and featured authors, who were already well on their way with their writing careers by the time they became acquainted, regular readers of Something Rhymed will know that when Emma Claire and I met neither of us had published a single article or story.

In fact, we had been scribbling in secret up until then, and hadn’t had the courage to share our ambitions to write with anyone else.

It’s nice to think that, having so many things in common, we would have found each other, perhaps on-line, eventually – an advantage female writers of today have over those in Montgomery or Austen’s times.

But it’s far nicer to be able to recall the fact that we’ve been there for each other through all the ups and downs of our writing journeys, and to think that, as Brittain once said about Holtby: ‘although we didn’t exactly grow up together, we grew mature together, and that is the next best thing’.