So Many Unexpected Connections

As we mentioned in our first post of the month, it was one of our blog readers, Sarah Emsley, who told us about the friendship of L.M. Montgomery and Nora Lefurgey.

We’d got to know Sarah through her website and her support of Something Rhymed. Forming this kind of unexpected connection, often across the seas, has been one of the real pleasures we’ve encountered as a direct result of setting up our project.

Since beginning Something Rhymed at the start of this year, we’ve profiled the friendships of eleven pairs of female authors. But, of course, these women’s relationships with other writers didn’t stop with a single friend. Through our research we’ve learned about other important connections between different authors we’ve featured on this site.

Winifred Holtby, lovingly memorialised by Vera Brittain in Testament of Friendship, had earlier written a biography of her own: a book about Virginia Woolf. George Eliot, often believed to have been scornful of Jane Austen’s work, in fact studied the novels of her forebear in preparation for beginning to write her own fiction.

One of this month’s authors, L.M. Montgomery, felt a sense of affinity with Eliot. Mathilde Blind’s early biography of Eliot had such an impact on the then young and aspiring Montgomery that several of its words and phrases found their way into her own journals.

Elizabeth Gaskell was friends, not just with Charlotte Brontë, but also with Harriet Beecher Stowe. Stowe, as we wrote in October, was such an admirer of Charlotte Brontë that she once asked a medium to help her try to make contact with the late author’s ghost.

A planchette - the kind of device once used by Harriet Beecher Stowe, to try and make contact with the ghost of Charlotte Bronte. (Creative Commons licence)
A planchette – the kind of device once used by Harriet Beecher Stowe, to try and make contact with the ghost of Charlotte Bronte. (Creative Commons licence)

One half of next month’s pair of writers was also greatly influenced by Brontë, but she adopted a less other-worldly approach. Jean Rhys’s most famous book Wide Sargasso Sea resurrects the story of Antoinette Cosway, her reimagined version of the character of Bertha Mason, the ‘madwoman’ who’d previously languished in the attic of Brontë’s novel Jane Eyre.

We look forward to sharing more of Rhys’s own story with you in our first post of December, next week, and also continuing to discover many more important links between the great female authors – connections that often transcended their historical eras.

The Ghost of Charlotte Brontë

In our first post of October, we mentioned that George Eliot once received a letter from her friend Harriet Beecher Stowe in which she recounted a ghostly visit she’d received from the late Charlotte Brontë. Although Eliot brushed off this tale, telling Stowe that, ‘rightly or not’, she found it ‘enormously improbable’, the strange episode intrigued us. From which of the historic writers we’ve profiled on our website, we wondered, would we most welcome the chance of a visit?

The hardest thing about this month’s activity was making that choice. Katherine Mansfield, for instance, with her Bohemian ways, has always fascinated me. Having spent several months of this year immersed in Eliot’s letters to Stowe, I’ve become more and more interested in the life of the author of Middlemarch, and so I seriously considered writing about Eliot in this post, even though – given her reaction to Stowe – I’m not sure she’d have approved of the exercise.

But in the end I realised that, of all the authors we’ve profiled, it is the same writer that Stowe wrote of so excitedly to her British friend who has most haunted my own imagination over the years.

Title page of an early edition of Jane Eyre, showing Charlotte Bronte's pseudonym Currer Bell. Creative Commons licence.
Title page of an early edition of Jane Eyre, showing Charlotte Bronte’s pseudonym Currer Bell. Creative Commons licence.

Unlike Eliot or Stowe, Austen or Woolf, I can’t remember a time when I didn’t have some sense of who the Brontë sisters were. My mother had named me Emily, after her favourite of the three, and, once she thought her daughters were old enough to appreciate the atmospheric setting – but some time, I think, before Erica or I had actually read any of the Brontës’ books – she took us to visit the Parsonage Museum at Haworth. This was a place famously popular with Japanese tourists, and somewhere Mum had got to know well herself through her related work for the regional tourist board.

There was a gift shop at the Parsonage, selling brooches bearing the sisters’ images. I, of course, bought an Emily Brontë brooch – thinking that, given my name – this was pretty much a requirement. I also remember feeling momentarily envious that Erica was able to make the choice for herself, by holding the Charlotte and Anne brooches up to the light and trying to decide whose picture she liked the most.

After much chivvying from our parents, who were no doubt keen to get us all outside for our lunchtime sandwiches, Erica finally selected the Charlotte brooch. Later, on the drive home in the car, we sat side-by-side in the back comparing our Brontë sisters. Unlike the dark colours of my miniature portrait of Emily, the Charlotte brooch was all cream and taupe with the merest blush of rose on her cheeks and lips.

There was something not-quite-there about the image, something that hinted at all the elements missing from the artist’s representation of his subject. You couldn’t guess, not from looking at the woman of that picture, that this was someone whose most famous novel had once made her a scandalous figure, because of the way its plot was believed to mount a dangerous challenge to contemporary patriarchal traditions.

Image used with the kind permission of Oxford University Press.
Image used with the kind permission of Oxford University Press.

Even in the biography written by Elizabeth Gaskell, there are many elements missing in her account of Charlotte’s life because, in order to try and resurrect her friend’s reputation she suppressed evidence, for instance, of her love of the married Constantin Héger, and tended to ignore details that might work against her aims of honouring Charlotte ‘as a woman, separate from her character as an authoress’.

Although later biographies have filled in many of these details, there is something about all three Brontë sisters, in fact, that remains enticingly enigmatic. It explains to me why my mother, a life-long lover of mysteries, should have been so drawn to their stories, and even perhaps why Stowe sat down in the dark well over a century ago now and tried to make contact with Charlotte Brontë.

George Eliot and Harriet Beecher Stowe

Mary Ann Evans, as she was born, did not easily inspire friendship amongst her fellow nineteenth century female novelists. Even before she found fame as an author, George Eliot was firmly entrenched in a London social circle that was unconventional, intellectual and predominantly male.

George Eliot, painted by Aged 30 by the Swiss artist Alexandre Louis François d'Albert Durade (Creative Commons Licence)
George Eliot, painted by Alexandre Louis François d’Albert Durade (Creative Commons Licence)

There was also the matter of her living ‘in sin’ with critic and philosopher George Henry Lewes – a state that kept many ‘respectable ladies’ away from her door. Elizabeth Gaskell, for instance, though she wrote to Eliot to praise her books Adam Bede and Scenes of Clerical Life, couldn’t help lamenting that ‘I wish you were Mrs Lewes’.

But perhaps the greatest obstacle to friendship was her formidable, and intimidating, reputation. Eliot had previously written to Gaskell to congratulate her on Mary Barton and Cranford, but she was often less generous to other female authors of the era.

Withering public pronouncements, for instance in her essay ‘Silly Novels by Lady Novelists’ (1856), can have offered little encouragement to the majority of writing women who might have wanted to get to know her better.

Some, though, were undeterred, including the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe, who first wrote to her in 1869. Though this was their first direct contact, Stowe greeted Eliot as ‘my dear friend’, then quickly moved from opening pleasantries to praise but also bold suggestions about the British writer’s books, which she said she had recently re-read ‘carefully pencil in hand’.

Harriet Beecher Stowe by Gurney & Sons (Bowdoin College Museum of Art) (Creative Commons Licence)
Harriet Beecher Stowe by Gurney & Sons (Bowdoin College Museum of Art) (Creative Commons Licence)

Perhaps surprisingly, given Eliot’s well-known reserve, her response was enthusiastic. It marked the start of an eleven-year friendship that would continue until her death.

At first, it’s difficult to understand what could have drawn these two together. They must have quickly realised they’d never have an opportunity to meet. Although in that first letter, Stowe implored Eliot to visit America, the ill health of Lewes and Calvin Ellis Stowe meant neither felt able to travel far from home.

Their personalities were markedly different too, as were their views on religion. Stowe was a staunch Christian, whereas Eliot had stopped attending church as a young woman when her critical reading had convinced her to abandon her earlier evangelical fervour.

What seems to have cemented the relationship is a willingness to concentrate on areas in which their lives did converge: their status as hugely successful female authors, ‘marriages’ to eccentric intellectuals, and their interest in literature.

Communicating long-distance naturally meant enforced pauses in conversation, allowing Eliot to skirt away from trickier subjects, such as Stowe’s ardent enthusiasm for spiritualism, although she did take her more firmly to task on the occasion when Stowe wrote of being visited by the ghost of Charlotte Brontë, telling her that ‘whether rightly or not’ the account struck her as ‘enormously improbable’.

Their physical separation must also have made it easier than if they’d lived in the same country for Stowe to regard Lewes and Eliot simply as husband and wife. And it turned Eliot into an ideal confidante when on two occasions – Stowe’s notorious essay alleging incest between Byron and his sister, and later, her clergyman brother’s alleged adultery – the American author found herself the subject of explosive social scandal.

Sometimes there were significant gaps in their correspondence, but in each case the pair seems to have picked up the conversation again with little trouble, and the endurance of this unexpected friendship certainly throws a fascinating new light on the intellectual and private lives of these two nineteenth century literary giants.

Activity

George Eliot was far from convinced by Harriet Beecher Stowe’s assertion that she’d been visited by the ghost of Charlotte Brontë. Although we share her scepticism, something about this episode in their letters intrigued us. And so this month we’ll each be asking ourselves from which of the deceased authors we’ve featured on Something Rhymed we’d most welcome the chance of a visit.