Eliot Bliss and Jean Rhys

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This year…

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

Celebrating Past and Modern-day Writing Friendships

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Susan Barker
Susan Barker

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

Something Rhymed Friendship-Themed Writing Workshops in Lincolnshire

Many thanks to everyone who came along to Saturday’s Margate Bookie talk on the literary friendships of Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, George Eliot and Virginia Woolf. We’ll look forward to sharing more stories about these authors and their friends in our forthcoming book, A Secret Sisterhood.

Emma (left) and Emily talking about female literary friendship (Image by Jonathan Ruppin)
Emma (left) and Emily talking about female literary friendship. Image by Jonathan Ruppin.

 

For our readers based in or near Lincolnshire, or those of you who are able to travel to this part of Britain, we want to let you know about two more Something Rhymed events coming up soon.

Something Rhymed friendship-themed writing workshops

Dates & Times: We will be running the same Printworkshop at two different venues.

South Holland Centre, Spalding: Saturday 15 October, 2-5pm

Fydell House, Boston (Lincolnshire): Sunday 16 October, 2-5pm

With practical writing exercises that can be tackled at different levels, these workshops will be open to experienced and novice writers – and, of course, both men and women.

The workshops have been generously funded by Arts Council England. Places are free but limited and need to be reserved in advance by emailing somethingrhymed@gmail.com, indicating whether you want to attend the Spalding or Boston workshop.

We do hope to see you at one of these events. In the meantime, do look out for the videos of our recent London literary salons. We’ll be sharing these here on Something Rhymed over the coming weeks.

Mrs Dalloway and Me: A Complicated Love Affair

Longstanding readers of Something Rhymed know that Emily and I have been reading or re-reading the works of Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, Mary Taylor, George Eliot, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield. We embarked on this literary marathon as part of the research for our forthcoming book, A Secret Sisterhood, and we have been sharing our conversations with you.

This month I re-read a novel that has perhaps influenced me more profoundly than any other. Below is the letter I sent to Emily, in which I explained the root of my fascination.

Dear Emily,

I’m sending you my copy of Mrs Dalloway, its margins filled with notes in different coloured inks. My fascination with Virginia Woolf predates our friendship by half a decade – the enclosed novel already dog-eared from several readings by the time you and I first met. It seems strange that I’ve never shown you this book, since my interest in Woolf is something I now share with you: the hours we’ve pored over her handwriting; our annual trips to her sister’s farmhouse; that time we forced our way through the crowds to reach her iconic image at the National Portrait Gallery. This well-thumbed novel is my way of introducing you to the Emma who, in 1996, propped herself up with pillows in her childhood bedroom in Birkenhead, breaking the spine of her brand new book.

In the rare quiet of the early morning – last night’s Mersey Beat still ringing in my ears, my hair heavy with nicotine – I struggle over Mrs Dalloway’s opening pages. Self-doubt bloats in the pit of my stomach. In just a week’s time, I will travel south from Liverpool Lime Street to an educational centre that promotes fair access to Oxbridge, and the tutors there will expect me to speak intelligently about this unfathomable book. It crosses my mind that the centre’s admissions team might have been right when they rejected my initial application. Perhaps I shouldn’t have convinced the Head of Sixth Form to write that second reference. As my hands leaf through the pages, my thoughts turn to the other successful applicants. Will they have understood with ease this book that’s defeating me?

Back then, I burned with such a ferocious sense of competition that I’m glad I didn’t meet you until half a decade later. I would learn so much about sisterhood during those intervening years.

Watch me focus once more on my new book, searching for stability amongst its shifting sands. See my concentration lapse as the rest of the house begins to wake. Hear the sounds from upstairs of my fourteen-year-old sister, exuberantly embracing the day: ‘What noise does an owl make? Twit-twoo, I love you true. Who do you love the best, pork pie or custard?’ Like most nights, she has crept into my parents’ bed during the early hours of the morning, lying diagonally across their mattress, forcing them to opposite sides. And, like most mornings, they sing her favourite nursery rhymes until they can no longer fight their fatigue. Listen out then for my dad’s stage whisper: ‘I’m sure Emma would love to play. Why don’t you go and wake her?’

Lou enters my room, cradling one of her noisy toys. After a minute or so of feigning sleep, I admit defeat by lifting my duvet and inviting her in. Partly to distract her from her talking teddy bear, I read to her from my difficult book. Lou clasps my chin and listens intently. I would love to know whether she shares my feeling that this novel marks a departure from those we’ve enjoyed together during the past few years: novels by Jane Austen, the Brontës and George Eliot.  But it’s impossible to tell whether she appreciates simply the tones and tremors or whether she also picks up on some of its sense.

What were you and your sister reading, I wonder, back when I was reciting Mrs Dalloway to Lou? I would love to get a glimpse of you both in your teens, sitting in your home on the outskirts of York, worlds unfurling from the pages of your books. Lou and I were separated from you and Erica by the Pennine hills’ great spine, neither pair of us aware of each other’s existence. But perhaps you sat up in bed with The Collected Stories of Katherine Mansfield while I opened my copy of Mrs Dalloway. I know that you came to the New Zealand author’s work far earlier than I did, but you’ve never told me about your discovery. Did your imagination take flight from your small Yorkshire village, landing in the author’s childhood of wooden verandas, fresh oysters, and aloe trees that flower once in every hundred years? Was it you or Erica who first came across these stories; did you argue over which one you each preferred?

Just a week after I fell in love with this compassionate novel about a shell-shocked soldier returned from the front, I discovered something that filled me with the same kind of fury that Katherine had once felt. Imagine me if you can, Emily, nineteen years ago, sitting in a darkened seminar room in that educational centre in Oxfordshire, flush with hatred for Virginia Woolf. My new classmates and I are watching a film about Modernist literature, and Virginia’s diary entry for January 9th, 1915 has just appeared on the screen:

On the towpath we met & had to pass a long line of imbeciles. The first was a very tall young man, just queer enough to look twice at, but no more; the second shuffled and looked aside; & then one realised that every one in that long line was a miserable ineffective shuffling idiotic creature, with no forehead or no chin; or an imbecile grin, or a wild suspicious stare. It was perfectly horrible. They should certainly be killed.

I now know that Virginia was on the verge of a shattering breakdown when she made this note in her diary, and that ‘imbecile’ was the official terminology of the time. But pause for a while with the sixteen-year-old me, wounded by Virginia’s vehemence. Would this author have described my sister with such vitriol: Lou, who had climbed into my bed, our bodies still warm with sleep, whose palm had felt the vibrations of Mrs Dalloway, whose ears had delighted in its music – would Virginia have condemned her to death?

Together, Lou and I had come under Mrs Dalloway’s incantatory spell: ‘Like a nun withdrawing, or a child exploring a tower, she went upstairs, paused at the window, came to the bathroom. There was the green linoleum and a tap dripping. There was an emptiness about the heart of life; an attic room.’ I’m still at a loss to explain the magic of these lines, but they have continued to enchant me, even during the moments when I’ve doubted the sisterliness of their author.

Search with me, Emily, the faces of my fellow students, studying them for signs of solidarity. Share in my confusion at the endurance of my love for Mrs Dalloway and, by extension, its creator – a complicated love affair with a complex book, which I now want to share with you.

With love and friendship,

Emma x

Next month Emily and I will be talking about ‘Prelude’ – a long short story by Katherine Mansfield, which Virginia Woolf commissioned for her newly-formed Hogarth Press.

Right now, we are looking forward to reading Everyone is Watching, the debut novel by Something Rhymed guest blogger, Megan Bradbury, which is out on 16 June.

Booker Prize-Shortlisted Novelist, Michèle Roberts: The Division Runs Deep

Michèle Roberts spoke engagingly at the second of our Something Rhymed salons about the historical and political contexts of gender discrimination in the literary world.

She has generously written up her notes for us to post up here. If you missed the chance to hear her in person, please do take a look. Or perhaps you were there on the night and would like to recap.

To start with something cheerful: women invented the novel. The novel in England could not have existed without the work of Aphra Behn, Fanny Burney, Maria Edgeworth, Jane Austen, the Brontes, George Eliot.

However, men’s views have dominated culture generally. Men have dominated the institutions of education and hence the creation of the literary canon – it’s only fairly recently that women were awarded university degrees and only in the 1970s that women generally began to run literary pages and journals and work en masse as publishers, editors and agents. Their work can still go unacknowledged. For example, D.J. Taylor, in his recent study (published in 2016) The Prose Factory: Literary Life in England Since 1918 discusses just a few women writers and critics and many, many male ones.

Women’s work still has lower status than men’s. This goes back to the Victorian division between work at home – women’s work – and work outside the home – seen as men’s work, though of course masses of poor women toiled alongside men in factories. Women’s lower status can be traced further back, to the ideas of the modern self propounded in the seventeenth century continuing the split between men being equated with mind/soul, and women being equated with the body, because of their role as childbearers. This split was founded in Greek culture and continued by the Christian Church. The body (femaleness) was viewed ambivalently because of its connection to sex, hence to childbirth and ultimately to death. Women got the blame for death’s existence. Patriarchal cultures, fearing death and female sexuality, seek to control and denigrate women as a result.

So the problem, the division, we are discussing tonight runs very deep.

This image is in the public domain.

Our capitalist culture, in which books are commodities valued only by numbers of copies sold, in which writers are brands producing these commodities, relies on gender division for marketing purposes. Men are still named as the pre-eminent intellectuals producing great literature, high art, whereas women are mostly relegated to a middlebrow ‘feminine’ category, a few exceptions simply proving the rule. No wonder some women writers still feel the need to deny their gender. Women do better writing about men and ‘male’ subjects. Women writing about domesticity, for example, can be written off as producing Aga sagas whereas men writing about domesticity ‘rescue’ the subject and can be hailed as sensitive geniuses.

The problem is a political one.

Perhaps you have some political solutions to suggest? Please share them using the comment facility below.

Our book: A Secret Sisterhood

Having blogged about the subject of female writers’ friendships for the past two years, we’re delighted to have now been given the chance to explore this fascinating subject in much greater depth.

Our book, A Secret Sisterhood, will look at the literary bonds between Jane Austen and amateur playwright, Anne Sharp; Charlotte Brontë and feminist author, Mary Taylor; George Eliot and Harriet Beecher Stowe; and Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield.

A Secret Sisterhood will be published, by Aurum Press in the UK and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in the USA, in late 2017. The year coincides with the bicentenary of Jane Austen’s death.

An announcement appears in the Bookseller today, and we’ll look forward to sharing more details about these trailblazing relationships with our readers over the coming months.

As many of you know, it was our own writing friendship that first sparked our interest in these historical creative pairings. But it was the support we’ve received from Something Rhymed readers that encouraged us that there would be an audience for this book and convinced us to start writing it together.

So, thank you. We are both extremely grateful to all our Something Rhymed friends.

Remember

We’ll soon be following up on last month’s conversation about Jane Austen’s Emma with a new post on The Absentee by Maria Edgeworth – a novel that Austen enjoyed discussing with her friend, Anne Sharp. Over the coming months, we’ll look forward to sharing our thoughts on other books by, or associated with, the authors we’ll write about in A Secret Sisterhood.