Margery Kempe and Julian of Norwich

Regular readers may remember the piece on early twentieth century poets Charlotte Mew and May Sinclair written by our youngest contributor, Cambridge University student Jess Molyneux. We were thrilled when her course-mate Cecily Fasham got in touch to propose a piece on two authors whose work we first fell in love with during our own university years. What’s more, this pair lived centuries earlier than any of the writers we’ve yet to profile on Something Rhymed.    

Margery Kempe and Julian of Norwich may have been illiterate, but these two medieval Christian mystics are a strikingly early example of literary female friendship.

With the help of scribes, both women wrote books which play crucial parts in literary history. Julian of Norwich’s Revelations of Divine Love is the earliest surviving book by a woman written in English, and Margery Kempe’s untitled manuscript (known today simply as The Book of Margery Kempe) is considered the first English autobiography.

Fascinatingly, Kempe chronicles a meeting between the two – she stopped by in Norwich to see ‘Dame Jelyan’, and they spent ‘many days’ together in conversation.

Kempe and Julian shared some basic characteristics: both were female English writers; both Christian mystics who believed that they received visions directly from God; both from roughly the same late medieval epoch – they even both came to their spiritual awakenings following periods of serious illness.

They were, however, quite different.

Kempe was a wife and woman about town, mother to at least fourteen children before convincing her husband to become celibate, and decidedly public in her devotional brand, making long pilgrimages around England and all the way to Jerusalem; Julian was an anchoress – a type of religious hermit, living a reclusive spiritual life, walled-up with her cat in a cell attached to a church, with only a small window through which to receive food and speak to visitors. Julian’s renown was posthumous, her book unlikely to have been circulated during her life; Kempe was a medieval celebrity, drawing crowds and attention (sometimes negative – she was tried for heresy several times). Julian has always been known to scholars; Kempe’s autobiography is a recent discovery, contained in a single manuscript discovered in the cupboard of a Derbyshire mansion and identified in 1934 by American scholar of medieval history, Hope Emily Allen.

Julian’s Revelations records the visions she received from Christ following an illness in 1373, and is a highly regarded work of Christian mysticism, notable for its feminine perspective and delicate, evocative analogies, particularly the image of Christ as mother. Kempe’s Book is an account of her life and conversations with Christ. The two have long been associated; in the 1500s, someone wrote ‘Dame Ielyan’ (Julian) in the margin of the only extant manuscript of Kempe’s Book.

While Julian’s writing belongs to an accepted mystical tradition prevalent in the 14th century, Kempe’s style of devotion was counter-cultural. She was brash, loud and unapologetic; she shared with everyone the things God told her, however inflammatory, and frequently broke out into fits of crying, prompted by the Holy Spirit. This spectacular style of devotion won her popularity, but her audaciousness was divisive: she was often rebuked by male authority figures, called ‘a false strumpet’ and a liar by a priest in Leicester, several times accused of being possessed by the devil (rather than, as she claimed, the Holy Spirit), and put on trial for heresy. (She was acquitted.)

An accusation of diabolic inspiration brought Kempe to Julian of Norwich. She was looking for advice and Julian was skilled in ‘discernment’, divining between good and bad spirits. In Chapter 18 of her autobiography, Kempe writes, ‘sche was bodyn be owyr Lord for to gon to an ankres in the same cyte whych hyte Dame Jelyan’ (‘she was bidden by Our Lord to go to an Anchoress in the same city [Norwich], who was called Dame Julian’).

Julian had only encouragement to offer. She counselled Kempe to continue in what she was doing: being obedient to the will of God. Kempe’s tears, Julian said, were signs of God’s spirit working in her soul. ‘The mor despyte, schame, and repref that ye have in the world, the mor is yowr meryte in the sygth of God’ (‘The more despite, shame and reproof that you have in the world, the greater is your merit in the sight of God.’), Julian told her. This wisdom became central to Kempe’s devotion: each insult only increased her belief in her calling and determination to share the Gospel.

Julian and Kempe apparently spent some time together and formed a bond. ‘Mych was the dalyawns that the ankres and this creatur haddyn be comownyng in the lofe of owyr Lord Jhesu Crist many days that thei were togedyr’ (‘Much was the dalliance that the anchoress [Julian] and this creature [Kempe] had by commoning [conversing] in the love of our Lord Jesus Christ [during] the many days that they were together’), as Kempe put it. Talking to one another, in faithful sisterhood (Kempe records them calling one another ‘sister’), brought the two writers closer to God, to ‘dalliance’ (Kempe’s word for direct conversation with Christ).

This dalliance was the basis of their writing, suggesting a devotional, medieval version of female writers bouncing ideas off each other, finding inspiration in conversation. Their bond shows that literary friendship between women is nothing new; it’s a legacy that has been handed down to us through the centuries.

Cecily Fasham
Cecily Fasham

Cecily Fasham is an English student at Cambridge, and is perpetually excited about writing by women, from the 12th to the 21st century. She writes about whatever interesting stuff she meets on her blog, four walls & a pot of jam.

 

Edited by Kathleen Dixon Donnelly, who runs the blog Such Friends, and is working on a book ‘Such Friends’: A Scrapbook Almanac of Writers’ Salons, 1897-1930. You can follow her on Twitter @SuchFriends.

 

If you have an idea for a future Something Rhymed post, please do get in touch. We’re interested in everything about female literary friendship from tenth-century Japanese diarists to contemporary graphic novelists. You can find out more details about submissions here.

 

 

 

 

Sheer Good Fortune

As regular readers of Something Rhymed may have guessed, Emily and I have been busy these past months working on other projects.

I’ve become Director of The Ruppin Agency Writers’ Studio, which offers mentoring by authors and agents to writers of fiction, narrative non-fiction and YA.

Emily has been holed away in the rare books rooms of various libraries, researching a transatlantic group of Victorian clairvoyants for her new book Out of the Shadows, which will be published by Counterpoint Press.

And we’ve both made significant changes in our personal lives too…

When Emily and I launched Something Rhymed back in 2014, we published a post on Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison – writers whose friendship combined from its inception the personal and professional, the celebratory and consolatory.

These legends of American letters grew close when they shared a bill at the Hay Festival in Wales during a time when both women were concerned about their mothers who were ill back home. In the decades since then, these ‘sister friends’ moved seamlessly between the public and private aspects of their friendship, paying tribute to each other’s literary accomplishments at huge official gatherings but also talking about family over dishes of Angelou’s fried chicken or wedges of Morrison’s carrot cake.

It was just such a combination of intimacy and admiration, celebration and consolation that prompted Angelou to help put on an event to honour her fellow author during a period when she knew that Morrison needed to be shown love and comfort following the death of her son.

The event was poignantly titled Sheer Good Fortune after the dedication Morrison had made to her boys at the beginning of her novel Sula: ‘It is sheer good fortune to miss somebody long before they leave you’. And now, in the wake of Morrison’s recent death, such a sentiment feels particularly resonant.

Back at the Hay Festival in 2014, Morrison announced from the stage they’d once shared the sad news that Angelou had died. Emily and I, sitting in the audience side by side, promised each other to follow their example by not only continuing to offer each other solace during dark times but also to celebrate each other privately and publicly, professionally and personally.

Over the years, Emily and I have been there for each other during bereavements and breakups as well as periods of professional and financial uncertainty. This only heightens the pleasure we’ve taken in the sheer good fortune each of us has experienced of late.

I will never forget the excitement in Emily’s voice when she called to let me know that she was expecting a baby. And then, not long afterwards, when we were in a tiny French restaurant in Earl’s Court marking both her pregnancy and her birthday, she shared her news that she and her long-term partner Jack had got engaged on the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral.

A few months later, when I was delivering bourguignons, curries and Spanish stews to Emily’s flat in preparation for the weeks following the approaching birth, I told her about my partner Jonathan’s proposal to me and mine to him on a hillside overlooking a market town in Shropshire. Once I’d stocked up Emily’s freezer, we headed back to Earl’s Court, this time to one of our favourite coffee houses. There, we celebrated my engagement to Jonathan and Emily’s marriage to Jack and her pregnancy alongside a female friend we’ve  known since our days as young English teachers in rural Japan.

Wedding shoes – Emily & Jack getting married
The spot where Jonathan and Emma proposed to each other.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Emily and I had dedicated our co-written book A Secret Sisterhood to Jack and Jonathan – a strange choice, perhaps, for a book on female literary friendship, but it felt fitting to us since our partners had always appreciated the importance of our own writing friendship, and had supported it at every turn. In our Acknowledgements, we thanked Jack and Jonathan for ‘keeping us well fed during long stints in our studies, and, most of all, never failing to be there when we emerged’.

No sooner did Emily and I emerge, however, than we each went back into hibernation – separately this time. Although we are no longer editing at a shared desk, sustained by Jack’s late-night dashes to the local kebab house or breakfasts with Jonathan at the greasy spoon, the four of us have found new ways to offer each other personal sustenance and professional support.

Emily and I have gone back to reading each other’s drafts, for instance, with a freshness and curiosity that was impossible when we’d already pored over the research materials side by side and laboured together over chapter plans.

And, when Jonathan and I set up The Ruppin Agency Writers’ Studio – a development scheme for writers of fiction and narrative non-fiction – Emily was one of the first people I asked to join our nationwide line-up of mentors. I know first-hand, of course, the quality of her feedback and the dedication she shows to other writers. Like me, Emily is originally from the north of England and we’ve both supported friends and family with access needs, so Emily shares our belief in making mentoring accessible across the country in person and via videocall, and she understands why we are committed to offering a free spot to someone of limited means. Like me, back when Emily was unpublished, she benefited from a period of mentoring by a more established author. Now that she is bringing out books on both sides of the Atlantic, she’s as keen as I am to offer other writers similar opportunities.

During a summer spent largely setting up The Ruppin Agency Writers’ Studio and continuing to work on my new novel, my friendship with Emily has offered me the most joyful of excuses to escape from my writing shed. During my first meetings with baby Lola, I have enjoyed rocking her to sleep in the nursery, pushing her pram through the park and chatting with Emily about everything from marriage to mentoring, motherhood to manuscripts. And, over the years to come, I’ll look forward to helping Emily teach her daughter what creative women have always known – that together we are greater than the sum of our parts.

Emily and Lola

Emily will be on maternity leave for the rest of this year, but I will continue to run Something Rhymed after its summer hiatus.  

We are looking for female writing friendships to feature on the site from October onwards. Please do take a look at our submission guidelines and get in touch if you’d like to pitch an idea.

It would also be lovely to hear from any of you who might be interested in the following literary projects I’ll be involved in over the coming months:

You can apply for all the mentoring and editing packages offered by The Ruppin Agency Writers’ Studio via its website, or direct any queries to studio@ruppinagency.com. The deadline for the selective scheme (including the free spot) is 5pm on Monday September 2nd but we accept ongoing applications for all other packages.  

Booking is now open for my one-day novel writing courses at the gorgeous Cambridge Writing Retreat. On Saturday October 19th, we’ll be asking what ‘Show Don’t Tell’ really means. And on Saturday November 23rd, Jonathan will join me in his role as literary agent to help writers work out what steps to take once the crucial first draft is complete.

And do save Saturday October 26th for the University of East Anglia’s Doris Lessing centenary celebration. I’m looking forward to sharing more stories about Lessing’s friendship with Muriel Spark during my conversation on stage with Rachel Cusk and Lara Feigel. This event also includes access to UEA’s Doris Lessing 100 exhibition, which contains archival material on display for the very first time.

 

 

For me she is not dead: playwright Julia Pascal on war correspondent Martha Gellhorn

In the lead-up to Julia Pascal’s new play Blueprint Medea, running at London’s Finborough Theatre from 21 May to 8 June, she lets us into the secret influence of Martha Gellhorn on its most powerful scene.

Some of you might remember that Pascal reviewed our book A Secret Sisterhood: The hidden friendships of Austen, Brontë, Eliot and Woolf for The Financial Times, calling it ‘an exceptional act of literary espionage’. We were delighted to receive this endorsement from a writer whose stage plays we had long admired for their daring representations of female friendship.

It is a particular pleasure, therefore, to welcome Pascal to Something Rhymed.

Who has been my most important female literary friend?

Martha Gellhorn, in later life.

Martha Gellhorn.

It was 1990. I was writing a drama about the Nuremberg Trials. Someone told me Martha Gellhorn had attended them. I knew of her fame as the most important female war journalist of her time but I had no idea that she had seen the architects and perpetrators of the ‘Final Solution’.

I called her, introduced myself and asked her to lunch. I don’t lunch, she told me, I drink.

She invited me to her Eton Square apartment. Everything was white. The sofa, the carpet, her sleek hairstyle.  She immediately harangued me about my wild curls. Can’t you do something with your hair?  We drank whisky. She smoked. She spoke about war, travelling, writing. And, of course, the man she hated being associated with, Ernest Hemingway. After a few meetings, she told me that Hemingway was a lousy lover.  She talked about marriage as a terrible idea. Don’t. You end up quarrelling about the gas bills.

Gellhorn would send me postcards in those days when letters were written and stamps were bought, and I saw her intermittently as I was conducting my own difficult love affair with a man in France.  Yes, we did marry. No, we did not quarrel about the gas bills.

But in other ways I followed her lead. What did she teach me? There were forty years between us. I saw a woman who was unafraid of offending. I saw a woman in her eighties still madly in love with the craft of writing even though her sight was limited by macular degeneration. I learned from others who knew her that she was both feared and admired, and I liked her say-it-as-it-is attitude.

Julia Pascal in the early 1990s, around the time when she first met Martha Gellhorn.

In my new play Blueprint Medea, there is an unexpected female friendship. Set today, Medea, a Kurdish soldier flees imprisonment in Turkey and arrives in Heathrow on a forged passport. She works illegally as a cleaner in a gym where she meets Jason-Mohammed, the son of an Iraqi taxi-driver.  They have a similar Muslim background but their cultures and philosophies are different.  Medea, a Kurdish Muslim, has become politicised by the PKK.  She is an atheist and a feminist. Jason believes himself to be a secular Londoner but, during the action of the play, is sucked back into conservative Middle Eastern values.

When his father forces him to marry his cousin Glauke, Jason is made to believe that Medea, as a Kurd, is the ‘wrong tribe’.  Euripides’ play Medea kills Glauke by sending her a poisoned wedding dress. In my version, Medea deflowers Glauke and, in doing so, suggests that she is freeing her from the strictures of Islamic patriarchy. By placing her finger in Glauke’s vagina is Medea committing violence or freeing Glauke from the Islamic marriage market?

Did meeting Gellhorn provoke me to write this unusual scene?

Gellhorn and I did once connect in the most visceral of ways. I was at her apartment once when I felt menstrual blood seeping through my skirt. I excused myself. But before I could finish cleaning myself up, Gellhorn was forcing me out of her bathroom. Making straight for the toilet, she fished out the tiny offending tampon. As I looked on from the hall, it struck me as extraordinary that the great war correspondent was touching the tampon that had just been inside me, that she was plunging her hand into the essence of my womb.

Her aggressive yet liberating act did not mark the end of our friendship. The last of her communiqués was Come over and tell me how your career is going.

I was busy with a production and did not reply. I did not realise this was her last postcard to me. I did not know that she had been diagnosed with ovarian cancer. It was years after her death that I learned this command was her way of organising goodbyes to friends before her carefully planned suicide.

No longer would I go over to her white flat, taking with me packets of smoked salmon – there was never food in her apartment. No longer would I see her watch television and shout at the injustices of the world or hear about her snorkelling in Eilat with her brother. Until long after her death, I didn’t even know that, like me, she was Jewish. Why did she never mention that?

I was brave when I met Gellhorn: her influence has made me braver. This has led to a kind of wildness in my writing of female friendships. I like to think that Gellhorn would have enjoyed Blueprint Medea and the two huge female characters I have created. I wish she were still alive to be there on the first night.

She would tell me that women don’t behave that way. She was no feminist and female solidarity was not her world. And yet, because of our friendship, my impulse to write strong female characters has intensified.

For me she is not dead.

Julia Pascal is a playwright and theatre director. She was the first woman director at the National Theatre with her adaptation of Dorothy Parker’s prose and poems in the Platform Performance Men Seldom Make Passes. She has been produced in the UK and internationally and is published by Oberon Books. In 2016 she completed her PhD at the University of York. She is a Research Fellow at King’s College, London University. Currently she is researching a new play on a meeting between American philosopher Hannah Arendt and German-Jewish artist Charlotte Salomon in France 1940.

You can book tickets for Blueprint Medea via London’s Finborough Theatre, where it will be running from 21 May to 8 June. We’ve already got our tickets, so do say hello if you spot us there.

If you too have an idea for a future Something Rhymed post, please do get in touch. You can find out more about what we are looking for here.

 

 

 

Jean Webster and Adelaide Crapsey

Late last year, we received an intriguing message from novelist Jennifer Montgomery, who had recently read our book A Secret Sisterhood: The hidden friendships of Austen, Brontë, Eliot and Woolf and then discovered Something Rhymed.

Jennifer told us about a thesis project she’d completed at university about nineteenth and early twentieth-century books for American girls. As she researched, she told us, she kept stumbling upon literary friendships between the women who wrote these books. But since this was tangential to her thesis, she had to set these notes aside – until now.

Jean Webster. This image is in the public domain.

Few writers owe as much to their university experiences as Jean Webster. Not only is her most famous novel, Daddy-Long-Legs, set at a woman’s college much like Jean’s beloved alma mater Vassar, but the main character draws heavily on Jean’s adventures with her best friend at university: her fellow writer Adelaide Crapsey.

Although Jean wrote stories while Adelaide focused on poetry, the two lively, rambunctious young women had much in common. When they weren’t collaborating on plays – in their sophomore year, their gleefully melodramatic comedy won a college drama competition – they careened around the countryside on their bicycles, debated vociferously in favor of women’s rights and socialism, and dreamed of spectacular literary careers.

But their paths diverged after they graduated in 1901. Jean swiftly met success. Her literary reputation built steadily novel by novel, until her seventh book Daddy-Long-Legs catapulted her to literary stardom in 1912. The novel, which is still in print today, is told through a series of letters written by a young woman much like Jean or Adelaide: a sprightly aspiring writer with feminist and socialist sympathies and a well-developed sense of fun.

Meanwhile, Adelaide’s career stalled. Although she continued to write poetry, family troubles and then ill health made it impossible for her to give single-minded attention to her work. Finally she received a devastating diagnosis: tuberculosis.

At the time, tuberculosis was considered a poet’s disease: a sign that the creative fires within were burning away the poet’s physical frame. But Adelaide had wanted to be a new kind of poet, just as she and Jean were New Women: robust and hearty, precise and scientific, not at all like the stereotype of the languishing early Victorian maiden or the sickly, emotionally overwrought Romantic poet. The diagnosis flew in the face of the identity she and Jean had built together.

Adelaide Crapsey. This image is in the public domain.

Perhaps for this reason, Adelaide told neither Jean nor her family of her diagnosis. Instead, she joined in the celebrations of Jean’s meteorically successful new book. Their friendship remained strong despite their different life paths: the two friends decided to spend the summer of 1913 together.

They made ice cream, stayed out late (‘Adelaide and I nearly slept out-of-doors the night of the 4th,’ Jean wrote exuberantly), and worked together on a play, just as they had at Vassar. But this time, rather than writing a college drama, they were transforming Jean’s book for Broadway.

But the pace proved too much for Adelaide: she collapsed. Jean rushed her to the hospital, but at first she remained optimistic.‘I think at last – after 4 years of silly tonics and rest & fresh air & everything else that didn’t work – we are going to cure her up!’ she wrote.

But soon Adelaide could no longer hide her fatal diagnosis. Jean let go of dreams of curing her friend, and focused instead on making her last months comfortable: helping her family find a sanatorium, visiting her, and trying to find publishers for her poems. She knew, as only a fellow writer could, what comfort it would give her friend to see at least some of her work in print. When she managed to place Adelaide’s poem ‘The Witch’ in the magazine Century, Adelaide wrote to her in gratitude: ‘the thinnest blade of an opening wedge is the thing that counts now, and the times are all against us’.

The times were even more against them than Adelaide knew; barely a month after Adelaide wrote that letter, Jean rushed from the production of Daddy-Long-Legs to be at Adelaide’s deathbed. After Adelaide’s death, Jean fulfilled her final promise to her friend: she presented Adelaide’s book of poems to her parents. Adelaide had not wanted her parents to see the poems earlier because so many of them dealt with Adelaide’s suffering and approaching death.

Jean hoped to find a publisher for Adelaide’s poems, but within two years she too was dead: felled, like Charlotte Bronte, by complications of pregnancy. Instead, one of Adelaide’s former suitors shepherded the collection into print under the simple title Verse, complete with an introduction that described Adelaide as exactly the sort of sickly romantic poet she scorned.

Despite the inappropriate introduction, critics noticed the brilliant concision of the five-line cinquain form that Adelaide had invented, which she wielded to great effect in poems such as Niagara. Her poems are still reprinted in anthologies, just as Jean’s paean to their college days remains in print to this day. Despite their truncated lives, Jean and Adelaide fulfilled their most important Vassar dream: their words are still read over a century after their deaths.

By day, Jennifer Montgomery works in a library; by night, she writes novels and reads about nineteenth-century novelists.
We’re looking forward to sharing more of Jennifer’s research discoveries over the coming months.
If you too have an idea for a future Something Rhymed post, please do get in touch. You can find out more about what we are looking for here.

Charlotte Mew and May Sinclair

We were delighted when Jess Molyneux got in touch. The youngest contributor to Something Rhymed, Jess first contacted us when she was still a sixth-former. We were impressed and touched that she had traveled from Manchester to Nuneaton to attend the George Eliot Fellowship’s Annual Lecture, which we delivered last year. She has since won a place to study English at Cambridge, and we’re thrilled that she’s continuing our conversation on female literary friendship – this time with her filling us in on the bond between the retiring Charlotte Mew and the more outgoing May Sinclair.

Charlotte Mew is one of the most famously un-famous poets of the early 20th century, the genius remembered for not being remembered. According to her contemporary Thomas Hardy, she was ‘far and away the best living woman poet’. Other admirers included D. H. Lawrence, Siegfried Sassoon, and Ezra Pound. But what of support from female writers?

This image is in the public domain.

Mew seems to have eschewed literary companionship. Whilst Mew herself was deeply unwilling to promote herself (characterized as ‘almost pathologically demure’ by The New York Times), her literary champions wanted to see her succeed. But her reluctance to promote herself (or become a ‘performing monkey’, as she said) led her to withdraw from support offered by fellow literary women.

But Mew did eventually submit to the literary patronage of a sister, and was rewarded with a friendship which, for a time, allowed her an outlet for the passion and sensitivity which pulsate through her poetry.

In 1913, Mew was invited to recite some of her poems at the west London home of Catherine Dawson Scott, literary hostess and founder of PEN International, known to Mew as ‘Mrs Sappho’. Mew’s reading of her innovative and heartfelt verses, including ‘The Farmer’s Bride’ and ‘In Nunhead Cemetery’, impressed her audience, who found their author no less fascinating.

Through Dawson Scott, Mew became familiar with the work of Mary Amelia St. Clair, writing under the name May Sinclair. Disciplined and commercially successful, Sinclair had produced eight books in the previous seven years. She was constantly active, belonged to many groups like the Woman Writers’ Suffrage League, and had first used the term ‘stream of consciousness’ in a literary context.

Mew and Sinclair engaged on a literary level first. Both passionate about the Brontë sisters, Sinclair’s theory of Emily’s ‘virility’ in The Three Brontës (1912) jarred with

This image is in the public domain.

Mew’s ideas about her favourite poet’s ethereal qualities. But Mew wrote to express her admiration on reading Sinclair’s next novel, The Combined Maze (1913). She still avoided an encounter, telling Dawson Scott that she ‘didn’t want to meet clever people’.

Mrs Sappho nonetheless persevered in bringing them together, and her intuition proved right: upon Mew’s recitation of ‘The Farmer’s Bride’, Sinclair was ‘won over’ and the two ‘went away together’, as the deserted Dawson Scott described in a triumphant letter.

Sinclair continued to be impressed by the liveliness and depth of Mew’s poems. This mutual admiration cemented their intimacy, giving the withdrawing Mew an emotional and professional outlet for her literary enthusiasm. Despite her ambivalence about Mew’s metrical experiments, which chimed with the emerging modernist style, Sinclair recommended her to Pound, who published ‘The Fête’ in the The Egoist, alongside the serial of James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

But Mew’s intense, potentially erotic love for this friend wasn’t returned in full. After exerting herself to help Sinclair hunt for a new house, Mew was met with pity rather than the hoped-for, warm thanks. Sinclair had in fact casually solicited the help of several friends for the project; Mew had not been singled out. Mew ‘bolted’, by her own admission, to Dieppe, a favourite holiday destination and safe haven, and their intimacy felt fragile when she returned.

Sinclair’s plea for Mew to take their relationship at face value captures her desire for loving friendship without the intensity Mew seemed to demand: ‘And when I say, “I want to walk with you to Baker Street Station”, I mean to walk, and I want to walk with you, and I want to walk to Baker Street Station…Better to take things simply and never go back on them, or analyse them, is it not?’

Whilst their friendship stood in peril, its foundation in literary affinity remained firm. Sinclair was moved when Mew first read ‘Madeleine in Church’ to her, ‘so furiously well’. Likewise, Mew was touched by the attempts at French poetry which Sinclair shared with her.

But what drew them together would break them apart. Mew interpreted the pitying intimacy of the poems as a special communication, returning deep affection. Mew reached out, and a rupture followed. Sinclair later (somewhat cruelly, and probably hyperbolically) claimed to have been chased by Mew up to her bedroom and forced to ‘leap the bed five times’, as Sinclair’s friends reported to one of Mew’s biographers. ‘Charlotte has been bothering and annoying May,’ wrote Mrs Sappho to one of her circle. If Dawson’s curt conclusion that ‘Charlotte is evidently a pervert’ is anything to go by, she appears to have sided with Sinclair.

Years later, Mew refused the invitation to read to Mrs Sappho’s latest initiative, the Tomorrow Club; she evidently felt that something in her relationship with Sinclair, and indeed the whole circle, had been irreparably broken. Perhaps Sinclair regretted the fall from friendship which followed her rejection of Mew. She continued to offer professional advice, but their correspondence never again reached its former intimacy. Sinclair remained a great admirer of Mew’s work; but neither was able to rekindle the flame of mutual esteem, enthusiasm, and love which had burnt so strongly in its short course.

Jess Molyneux is studying English at Jesus College, Cambridge. She enjoys writing about her thoughts on literature, language, feminism, and the intersections between the three on her blog, Jess Writes.

Edited by Kathleen Dixon Donnelly, who posts at Such Friends, and is currently working on a book, ‘Such Friends’: A Scrapbook Almanac of Writers’ Salons, 1897-1930.

 If this has inspired an idea for a future Something Rhymed post, please do get in touch. You can find out more about what we are looking for here.

Beryl Bainbridge and Bernice Rubens

Vicky Grut Photo © Bill Williams

We were thrilled when short-story writer Vicky Grut offered to write a piece on the friendship between Beryl Bainbridge and Bernice Rubens. Ever since 2014, when Emma wrote about an inspirational meeting with Rubens, we have been hoping to profile the friendship she enjoyed with Bainbridge.

 

Beryl Bainbridge (1932 – 2010) and Bernice Rubens (1923 – 2004) were friends for almost thirty years. They met on a British Council trip to Israel in July 1977, the first of many such outings. Describing this trip in the Independent’s How We Met’ column, Rubens recalled: ‘The group was Fay Weldon, William Trevor, Ted Willis, Iris Murdoch, Melvyn Bragg and Beryl, who made an impression on me immediately because she was wearing a hat and was quite clearly out to lunch.’

Bainbridge’s version of the occasion was that she was extremely nervous and the flight was delayed, which meant that she overdid it in the hospitality lounge and had to be wheeled out to the plane on a luggage trolley. ‘I didn’t even get going as a writer until 1971 and Bernice had won the Booker Prize before then,’ Bainbridge remembered. ‘I had read her and was quite in awe of her and the rest of the group.’

Bainbridge and Rubens
Beryl Bainbridge and Bernice Rubens, left to right. Photo courtesy Sue Greenhill.

Bainbridge was hardly a newcomer in 1977. She had been publishing steadily since A Weekend With Claude in 1967. Shortlisted for the Booker in 1974, she had won the Whitbread Prize with her eighth book three years later. But Rubens was six years older and probably did seem more confident and established. She was the first woman ever to win the Booker – in 1970 for her fourth novel, The Elected Member. Today she is perhaps best remembered for her second book, Madame Sousatzka (1962), which became a John Schlesinger film in 1988, starring Shirley MacLaine.

Rubens was the author of 26 books and Bainbridge 24, but neither started out as writers. Bainbridge left school at sixteen to join a theatre company in Liverpool, an experience vividly portrayed in her 1989 novel An Awfully Big Adventure. Rubens initially took a more conventional route: a scholarship to study English at Cardiff University, then marriage and teaching English in schools. She followed this with a career as a documentary film maker and scriptwriter, and the novels came later still, when she was in her thirties, as was the case for Bainbridge.

Physically, Rubens was bulky while Bainbridge was girlishly slight. Rubens was Jewish, Bainbridge a Catholic, and their personalities, too, were radically different. ‘When praised I took refuge in a smirk,’ Bainbridge said, ‘Bernice lashed out. When confronted with tragedy I shed tears and crept away; she made inquiries and organised relief.’

But they had some important things in common. Both came from difficult families. Both were devoted to their children and grandchildren but lived alone. Both believed that if they had been happier they would not have needed to write. They also shared an interest in other art forms. According to Bainbridge’s daughter Jojo Davies, her mother would do a painting each time she finished a book. In the attic room where Rubens worked there was a grand piano and a cello next to her desk so that she could reward herself by playing when the writing went well.

Writing in The Times after Bainbridge’s death, their friend Paul Bailey said of the two of them: ‘Bernice could best be described as a fiery particle, for she blew very hot or cold, especially with those she loved. Beryl, by sweet contrast, never judged anybody.’

This was a quality that Rubens valued greatly. ‘Although I have many friends who are writers, I don’t want to talk about [my work] to any of them except Beryl, because – like the Midland Bank – she listens, and she is terrifically loyal. […] I’ve never heard Beryl talk evilly about anybody.’ In their later years, the two friends met fortnightly for breakfast at the Cafe Delancey, just around the corner from Bainbridge’s house in Camden Town.

There are many anecdotes about Rubens sweeping in to avert disaster for Bainbridge, the most dramatic being A. N. Wilson’s assertion that when her publisher Duckworth ran into financial difficulties, the head of the company Colin Haycraft, whom she adored, came to see her and suggested that she sign her house over to them. ‘For a few hours she seriously considered this monstrous demand. Then the steely common sense surfaced – helped by her friend Bernice Rubens shouting from the sidelines.’

Bainbridge once talked about the nurturing quality of their friendship. Remembering that they had never quarrelled, and had ‘no rivalry’, she said, ‘If one of us is miserable then we ring the other. I got drunk at one of her dinner parties and she rang me the next day because she knew I’d be feeling remorse, to tell me I behaved beautifully, which wasn’t true.’ If one of them saw a bad review about the other, she added, then they would ‘ring and not refer to it directly, but support the other in a roundabout way’.

What more could anyone ask of a friend?

Beryl and Bernice google
Bainbridge and Rubens, left to right, at a publication party, 1988. Photo courtesy of Sue Greenhill.

LiveShow_thumbnailVicky Grut’s short fiction has appeared in anthologies published by Picador, Granta, Duckworths, Serpent’s Tail and Bloomsbury. Live Show, Drink Included: Collected Stories is published on October 5, 2018, by Holland Park Press. Find her on Twitter @VickyGrut.

 

Edited by Kathleen Dixon Donnelly, who posts at Such Friends, and is currently working on a book, ‘Such Friends’: A Scrapbook Almanac of Writers’ Salons, 1897-1930. Follow Kathleen on Twitter @SuchFriends.

 

It has been a particular pleasure to feature Vicky’s post on a historical pair of female writer friends today since tonight she will be celebrating the publication of Dear Evelyn by her own close writer friend, Kathy Page. On October 5th, Vicky and Kathy will be letting us into the secrets of their long-standing friendship to mark the publication of Vicky’s book, a short story collection called Live Show, Drink Included

If this has inspired an idea for a future Something Rhymed post, please do get in touch. You can find out more about what we are looking for here.

 

 

Hannah Croft and Fiona Pearce: Still Friends Above All

Comedians Hannah Croft and Fiona Pearce became friends at school, followed each other to Oxford and then on to drama school before starting to write and perform sketch comedy together as  Croft & Pearce. Their synchronicity didn’t end here – they even became pregnant in the same week!

We asked Hannah and Fiona about their experiences of writing and female friendship.

Hannah Croft (front) and Fiona Pearce (back)

What were your first impressions of each other?

Hannah: We first met in sixth form when Fi joined my school. I remember seeing a geeky-looking new girl sitting alone in the common room and thinking ‘look at that friendless loser…I think I’ve found a kindred spirit!’

Fiona: Hannah didn’t seem to have many friends despite having been at the school for five years, which was ideal for me. I remember she was very colour co-ordinated – her top matched her necklace which matched her belt which matched her eye shadow – so my first impression of her was ‘purple’.

How did you come to write and perform comedy together?

Hannah: Having discovered this new friendship we clung to it with all our might and followed each other to Oxford and then on to drama school. It was when we were trying and failing to forge our careers as the greatest classical actresses of our generation that we took a step back and began to laugh at ourselves and at the world.

Fiona: I had some friends who were running a sketch comedy night in a basement below a pub on London’s Great Portland Street and they offered us a three-minute set, which we thought would be too short and ended up being around two and a half minutes too long.

Describe your co-writing process?

Hannah: It has chopped and changed over the years as we’ve found our feet, but on the whole we each allow ourselves to be inspired by the everyday and we each make notes separately of things that have made us laugh. Then we put our heads (and lists) together and start to develop the ideas.

Fiona: We tend to come to each other with what we think are completely amazing ideas, and then work them up together and gradually realise they’re flawed, and then very slowly make them better. We improve ideas and start writing from there, either in a room together (normally with tea, coffee and cake that Hannah has made) or over Skype.

Hannah: Our benchmark for a good idea is whether it makes us laugh or not. If it passes that test we deem it worthy of being tested out in front of an audience. You get very direct feedback in comedy, so we tend to let the audience be our script editors.

How do you manage the personal and professional aspects of your relationship?

Hannah: We’ve discovered over the years that our friendship is a very powerful procrastination tool and we tend to kick off each writing session chatting away as friends until we finally give into the inevitable and begin to work, work, work, usually hurrying to make up for lost time. We never learn. But I find it such a joy to have this great excuse to spend so much time hanging out with my best friend and I prize our relationship above all else.

Fiona: Yes, we are still friends above all, which makes it all so much more fun when things are going well, and so much more manageable when we encounter setbacks.

What have been the most significant changes in your writing friendship?

Hannah: We have gradually eased into becoming much more direct with each other as time has passed. In the early years we’d try to be very tactful with each other and humour (no pun intended) each other’s less promising ideas, whereas now, with evermore projects to juggle at the same time, we’ve become less pussyfooty.

Fiona: Yes, less pussy, more footy. At the same time we’ve become more relaxed and playful with our ideas and willing to try things out that we’re not sure will work, which comes from having lots of experience with different audiences on tour.

What are your hopes for your writing and performing careers, together and separately?

Hannah: We’d love to get ourselves on more comedy writing teams – even some in LA where they have comedy writers’ rooms…hell, why not put that out there! – and the big dream is to have our own show on TV.

Fiona: Everyone says it’s hard to get a show commissioned but we are still naive enough to believe in our dreams. It was a great experience to write our own series for BBC Radio 4 and we’d love to make something for TV. We’ve been lucky to be taken under the wing of some great comedy writers already and we’d love to work with other experienced comedy greats like Armando Iannucci and Tina Fey…Hell, why not put that out there!

Croft & Pearce won a 2014 Edinburgh Spirit of the Fringe Award and in 2015 they were a BBC Next Big Thing Act. Their episode of BBC Radio 4’s Sketchorama was nominated for Best Scripted Comedy at the BBC Audio Drama Awards and this led to the commission of their first solo sketch show for BBC Radio 4, The Croft & Pearce Show, which was broadcast in March 2016. Following a Total Sell-Out run at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2016, they launched a podcast with their hit characters June & Jean, and embarked on their second UK tour.

Croft and Pearce will be taking their new show, Double Take, up to the Edinburgh Fringe this year. You can find out more about their show here.

You can follow them on Twitter @croftandpearce

Pratibha Parmar and Alice Walker

In March, we announced that Something Rhymed would, for the first time, be open to submissions. It is a particular pleasure that the first profile post we received from our call for submissions came from former City University student Alice Fitzgerald. As she celebrates the publication of her debut novel, Her Mother’s Daughter, she wrote for Something Rhymed about the friendship of her literary heroines Pratibha Parmar and Alice Walker

We also spread the word that we were looking for people to help us out with the editorial and administrative side of things. It was wonderful to hear back from Kathleen Dixon Donnelly, who we knew of through her fascinating blog, Such Friends, which explores the early-twentieth century literary salons of the Irish Literary Renaissance, the Bloomsbury Group, the Americans in Paris, and the Algonquin Round Table. Our thanks to Kathleen for editing this post. 

If you would like to get more involved with Something Rhymed, please find further details here.

You might know Alice Walker as the author of groundbreaking novel, The Color Purple. This would make sense; it was off the back of this book that she made history as the first African-American woman to win a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, as well as the National Book Award, in 1983, gaining more fame when the novel was made into a film directed by Steven Spielberg in 1985. In fact, Walker is a prolific writer, having penned everything from poetry and essays to short fiction and novels.

Born in 1944, the eighth child to sharecropper parents in Georgia during a time of racial segregation, she is also an activist, best known for her work with civil rights, women’s equality and peace campaigns. She coined the term ‘womanism’ in 1979 to describe a black feminist or feminist of colour.

British filmmaker Pratibha Parmar, meanwhile, was born just over a decade later in Kenya to a family who had emigrated from India to East Africa during the period of the British Empire, and migrated again to England in a group that the British media then termed ‘East African Asians’. Hailing from a persecuted people who had travelled across three continents, Parmar’s work is embedded in political complexity, examining themes such as gender, identity, LGBT issues, race and feminism.

It was Walker’s political beliefs and prominent role as an activist that first brought her and Parmar together. Having written Possessing the Secret of Joy, a novel which touches on female genital mutilation, Walker hoped to make a film on this controversial practice of female circumcision. She wanted to put her words into something more visual and accessible, and Parmar was happy to make that a reality.

The 1994 documentary, Warrior Marks, went on to win awards, and ‘that harrowing journey both triggered and cemented our mutual respect and trust’, Parmar told E. Nina Rothe in 2013 of her relationship with Walker. The two women soon went on to co-publish the book, Warrior Marks: Female Genital Mutilation and the Sexual Blinding of Women.

Alice Walker (left) and Pratibha Parmar (right) by Shaheen Haq, the producer of Alice Walker: Beauty in Truth.

Their friendship now stretches over more than 25 years. Like most of us, they communicate over email. Parmar is now based in San Francisco and Walker has a house in Mexico. There have been more fruits of their friendship, too. In 2013, Parmar made a documentary film about Walker’s life. ‘Two exceptional women, talking about one exceptional woman’s life, with the help of a few really exceptional friends’, writes Rothe in her Huffington Post article.

Parmar’s love, respect and admiration for her friend are clear throughout the beautifully-shot documentary, called Alice Walker: Beauty in Truth, which is Parmar’scontribution to filling this gaping abyss of on screen representations of women as history makers and shapers, women as public intellectuals and visionary leaders’.

As with any friendship that spans a length of time, one has seen the other change and grow. Speaking of Walker, Parmar told Bernard Boo in a 2013 interview on Way Too IndieShe’s gone through so many different experiences over the last few decades that I’ve known her, I’ve seen her grow, I’ve seen her suffer, I’ve seen her speak out about things even when she knows it won’t make her popular with people. Through all of that, I would say that there is an essence that’s never changed. She has a very strong inner core and will that’s powered her through her life.’

There have been hard times, too; Warrior Marks earned them criticism for not being African women. But Walker had wise words for her friend. Pratibha. Teflon,’ Walker told Parmar. She said I had to develop a skin like Teflon. She’s had to have done that to survive’, explains the filmmaker.

HERMOTHERSDAUGHTERWritten by Alice Fitzgerald, whose debut novel Her Mother’s Daughter is out now with Allen & Unwin. You can follow her on Twitter @AliceFitzWrites

 

 

    Edited by Kathleen Dixon Donnelly, who posts at Such Friends, and is  currently          working on a book, ‘Such Friends’: A Scrapbook Almanac of Writers’ Salons,                 1897-1930.

Companions, mentors, fairy godmothers: Alice Fitzgerald, Margarita Gokun Silver and Nicola Prentis

When one of Emma’s former City University students, Alice Fitzgerald, shared the good news about securing a publisher for her debut novel, Her Mother’s Daughter, we asked her to write about the female writers who have influenced her own literary journey.

It is with great pride and pleasure that we celebrate today’s launch of Her Mother’s Daughter with Alice’s post on her own writer friends. And we will follow up soon with her piece on the bond between her literary heroines Alice Walker, author of The Colour Purple, and British filmmaker, Pratibha Parmar.

If you would like to write for Something Rhymed, or help in other ways, please find further details here.

Alice’s debut novel, launched today by Allen & Unwin.

You have school friends, university friends, work friends, going-out friends, and then you have writer friends. There is something particularly nourishing about writer friends. They get you in a way others don’t. They understand the loneliness, the lows – which feel so low and so all-encompassing when they come – and the highs – just as high and all-encompassing when they (allbeit more rarely) come.

They dedicate time to reading your work, whether it be an essay, or an article, or the first draft of your novel, or the second, third or tenth draft… They are by your side, even if you don’t live in the same city any more, and are at the end of the WhatsApp group on your phone. When you get nervous and disillusioned because the writing process is so hard, and then the publishing process is equally as hard, and brings with it its very own anxiety show, they are there with an ear, and with wise words that make you feel instantly better.

I met Margarita and Nicola at a writer’s group in Madrid six years ago. I didn’t know then that our friendship would become among the most important, and most fruitful, to me. It has happened slowly and gradually. They have been my companions, accompanying me through writing and editing my first novel, then pitching to agents, then through the quest of finding a publisher. They have both encouraged me and pushed my writing in equal measure.

Margarita, particularly, has played a bit of a fairy godmother when it comes to the publication of my novel. She found my agent and pointed me in her direction, because she liked ‘dark’ writing. Later, she had a helping hand in the manuscript getting into the hands of the publisher that picked it up.

For their part, they have both continued to carve out careers as freelance writers/journalists, with enviable bylines and accomplishments. Nicola published her novel and is currently working between journalism, ELT, and copywriting (lots of strings…). Margarita’s own novel came out in the US in 2015. Since, she has written a memoir in essays and is currently burrowing away at a new project. We’ve also seen her branch out into journalism, at which she is a dab hand.

From the left: Margarita, Alice, Nicola, and another writer friend, Julia, in Madrid.

There is the personal side, too, of course. Since I’ve known her, Nicola has had her first and then second child. When I had mine, we traded stories and knowledge on breastfeeding and baby weight gain. Margarita, whose daughter is on the cusp of going to university, serves as a reminder that we must enjoy every minute. While we’re in the midst of nesting and the beauty and madness of raising young children, she finds her nest is free of its fledgling.

They have both moved cities – one now lives in Girona, and the other in Athens. But our mobile chat group keeps the line open, and our weekly call, when we talk through ideas, projects, goals, and anything else happening in our lives, is great encouragement and really eggs me on to edge forward.

And forward we go, coming together every now and then when our paths cross, for some pizza and face-to-face discussions when one may ask the other what it’s all about?, or for a glass of wine and a bout of banter – light and literary-free.

Alice Fitzgerald’s debut novel Her Mother’s Daughter is published today by Allen & Unwin. She’s on Twitter as @AliceFitzWrites.

Nicola Prentis is a double award-winning fiction writer with books for English language learners. She also writes about parenting, travel, food and the English language for various places including Quartz, Cosmo and WSJ.

Margarita Gokun Silver is a writer and artist living in Athens, Greece. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, BBC, The Guardian, Oprah, and The Atlantic, among others. You can find her on twitter @MGokunSilver.

 

Doris Lessing and Muriel Spark

Since this month marks the centenary of Muriel Spark’s birth, we were keen to investigate whether the famed author of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie turned to another female writer for support. We instinctively felt that she might have found something in common with fellow grande dame of post-war British literature, the Nobel Prize-winning author of The Golden Notebook, Doris Lessing.

A recent memoir by a male friend of Spark confirmed our hunch, but mentioned the friendship only in passing. Other biographies miss out the relationship altogether. Turning instead to the words of Lessing and Spark themselves, we were delighted to find that they mention each other in print. What’s more, we discovered a cache of their unpublished correspondence. The Doris Lessing collection is held in the British Archive for Contemporary Writing at the University of East Anglia, and a letter and telegram to her friend are currently on show at the National Library of Scotland, home to the Muriel Spark Archive.

Both diminutive women with immense intellects, Doris Lessing and Muriel Spark seem destined to have crossed paths. Born just a year apart into a world ravaged by the First World War, they would each grow into outspoken women who dared to question convention.

Such a destiny could hardly have been predicted when, at nineteen, both girls married older men and immediately fell pregnant. However, while each of these young wives cradled their new-borns with one arm, they attempted to write with the other. Lessing – who grew up in Southern Africa – had already published stories in local magazines, and Edinburgh-born Spark was now winning local prizes for poetry. During this period, unbeknown to each other, these two future literary stars were both living in Zimbabwe, then known as Rhodesia.

Muriel Spark in 1940. Photo by G H Addecott. Every effort has been made to obtain permission to reproduce this photograph

Looking back on this time, they’d each feel that their lives would have been easier if they had met during these inter-war years. The newly married Spark had felt horrified by the casual racism she encountered in Southern Africa, and her husband proved an unstable, violent man, prone to shooting his revolver indoors. The Second World War had broken out by this stage, trapping a frightened, lonely Spark thousands of miles from her Scottish home. ‘How I would have loved to have someone like Doris to talk to’, she later recalled.

By the early 1940s, Lessing, too, had begun to feel disturbed by Rhodesia’s race relations, and disappointed by her marriage. She threw herself into literature and politics, joining a communist book club, ordering novels from London and getting her hands on New Writing magazine, which championed working-class writers alongside their middle-class contemporaries. When Lessing later discovered that Spark had also treasured this wartime publication, she found herself wishing she had known of this other female writer on her doorstep. Long conversations about their shared reading, she felt, could have offered much solace during that difficult time.

But their paths were not fated to cross until they had divorced their husbands and relocated to London. Each woman would remain forever dogged by her choice to forge a new life for herself: Lessing had left her two eldest children with their father in Southern Africa, and Spark had placed her son in a Rhodesian boarding school for a year before he was brought to Scotland to be raised by her parents.

Doris Lessing with her cat, Black Madonna. Every effort has been made to obtain permission to reproduce this photograph

These women, who had so much in common, finally met in the mid-1950s. But, by then, Lessing was known as the celebrated author of The Grass is Singing, which had come out when she was in her early thirties, whereas Spark was a few years off publishing her first novel at the age of thirty-nine. Describing their early years of friendship in an essay, Lessing – who had been part of a cash-strapped crowd of bohemians and communists – recalled her surprise at her new friend’s traditional furniture and tasteful clothes.

Their unpublished correspondence reveals, however, that their similarities far outweighed their differences. During their enduring friendship, the pair reminisced about Rhodesia; celebrated literary successes and commiserated about professional frustrations; and shared the glare of the media spotlight – trained so often throughout their long years of fame on their controversial decisions to leave the upbringing of their children to other relatives.

The surface-level differences in their novels – Spark’s much-praised acerbic wit versus Lessing’s radical politics – bely deeper similarities. Like that of their mutual friend Iris Murdoch, both women’s work was shaped by an interest in philosophy and religion – subjects they discussed. While Spark credited her development as a novelist to her conversion in 1954 to Roman Catholicism, Lessing turned her back on communism and in the mid-1960s immersed herself in Sufism, a mystical strand of Islam. Yet they both remained anti-establishment at heart – two fiercely forthright authors who dared to point out hypocrisy and absurdity whenever and wherever they found it.

We are looking forward to the UK paperback publication on March 1st  of our co-written book, A Secret Sisterhood: The hidden friendships of Austen, Brontë, Eliot and Woolf, which is available for pre-order now.