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.
This year, Emma and I have spent a lot of time thinking about sisterhood – the kind of literary sisterhood we’ve been exploring here on Something Rhymed, and the ties that bind flesh and blood female siblings.
Unlike these other writers who will feature in our forthcoming book, George Eliot’s relationships with other family members had been brought to an abrupt end some fifteen years before she began her alliance with Harriet Beecher Stowe. In her mid-thirties, Eliot had begun to live out of wedlock with George Henry Lewes. On discovering this, her sister and half-sister had heeded the warnings of their scandalised brother and cut off all contact. This cruel treatment may have made Eliot particularly happy when she received her first letter from Stowe. In this missive of spring 1869, the American author – who Eliot had never met – addressed her both as a ‘dear friend’ and a ‘sister’.
In Emma’s June post, she talked of reading Mrs Dalloway as a teenager with her sister, Lou. This got me thinking about my own sister, Erica, and the novels we enjoyed when we were young.
Back then, we often used to talk about the books we read, sharing recommendations. I couldn’t remember us ever discussing Middlemarch, though. Although Erica is a year younger than me, I had come to Eliot’s work considerably later than her and by the time I read the novel we were no longer both living at home.
As I have recently been re-reading Middlemarch, I thought I would ask Erica about her memories of the book. It was a long time since she’d read it, it turned out, so she remembered the atmosphere far better than the intricacies of the plot. The character she recalled best was Dorothea Brooke – the intelligent, deeply pious young woman, whose story (one of several major interlocking plot lines) opens chapter one.
Dorothea struck Erica – who’d read Middlemarch as a teenager in the 1990s – as an amazingly well-developed character, a young woman who becomes locked into a marriage with a with joyless older man, and whose complex personality Erica found interesting on so many levels. It was with a sense of happiness that she recalled meeting Dorothea on the page for the first time and feeling, she said, that she was reading truly great writing.
Well over a century earlier, the character of Dorothea had also captivated Harriet Beecher Stowe and, like Erica, there was a good deal she admired more generally about the book. But Stowe’s letters to Eliot over the period when she was reading Middlemarch, in serialised form, also express her frustration with what she regarded as Eliot’s high-mindedness and her story’s lack of ‘jollitude’.
Reading this time with Stowe’s criticism in mind, I couldn’t help feeling that the verdict was too harsh. There are more challenging passages to Middlemarch, certainly. The book’s Prelude, for instance, grabbed me far less than the first chapter proper, which introduces Dorothea. Her tale, too, is often sad, but none the less gripping for that. There are also quite a number of light comic moments, many of which I had forgotten. As Erica said, the main impression she retains of the novel is that of an enormous literary achievement – and one to which, having chatted about it with me, she would like to return.
I would certainly encourage my sister to do that. As I have found, on coming back to Eliot’s novel at the age of thirty-six, Middlemarch absolutely rewards a re-reading. Just as Emma and I found when we returned to Jane Eyresome months ago, scenes that made the greatest impressions on me when I was younger are not always the ones that affected me the most now.
This time round, with sisterhood on my mind so much of late, Dorothea’s relationship with her sister Celia is the one that stayed with me the most in between stints of reading the novel. Dorothea is serious, Celia more lighthearted. Dorothea’s mind is always on study and religious matters, whereas Celia is concerned with the day to day world around her. But despite their seeming differences, the two sisters – Kitty and Dodo as they affectionately call each other – could not be closer.
Eliot and Stowe’s personalities were also markedly different, so different that many biographers have doubted that they could really have been friends. Eliot’s letters to Stowe reveal her as the more rational and measured of the pair. Stowe, by contrast, is impulsive, sometimes careless – occasionally shockingly so.
But as the example of Celia and Dorothea reminds us, major differences needn’t be an impediment to friendship. Familial ties were what united the Middlemarch sisters. For Stowe and Eliot, it was the sense that – for all that divided them – they were bonded together by being part of the same literary sisterhood.
We’ll be discussing Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and the impact it had on her friendship with George Eliot.
We’ll also be running two friendship-themed writing workshops in Spalding and Boston (Lincolnshire), on Saturday 15th and Sunday 16th October respectively. We still have some tickets available, so if you would like to reserve a place, do please get in touch with us at firstname.lastname@example.org. More information about the workshops can be found here.
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.
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,
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.
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.
We’ll soon be following up on last month’s conversation about Jane Austen’s Emmawith 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.
We’ve decided to do something a bit different this month and post our responses by video instead. This week, I talk about consolation – and an instance of the lack of it – in the friendship of George Eliot and Harriet Beecher Stowe.
Last week, I had the pleasure of attending the book launch of one of our former guest blogger’s debut novels. Butterfly Fish by Irenosen Okojie has just been published by Jacaranda Books.
I first got to know Irenosen through her work as a Prize Advocate for the SI Leeds Literary Prize, an award that celebrates the writing of Black and Asian female writers, and for which I was delighted to be a runner-up in 2012. I am grateful to Irenosen for the support she’s given me with my writing, and so it was great to be able to go along last Wednesday to give my support to her.
It is this kind of reciprocity that takes a relationship away from a purely work-based arrangement and into the realms of friendship. Of the writer pairs we’ve profiled on Something Rhymed, some – like Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison, or George Eliot and Harriet Beecher Stowe – enjoyed similar phenomenal levels of literary success. Others – such as Jane Austen and Anne Sharp, or Emily Dickinson and Helen Hunt Jackson in their day (Dickinson being the unknown one) – were poles apart professionally. But what they all had in common was a high regard for their friend’s opinions and talents, and, in almost all cases, a desire to celebrate their successes with them.
Prior to beginning Something Rhymed, Emma Claire and I were not at all sure that we’d be able to find so many heartening examples of female solidarity – not necessarily because we doubted these kinds of relationships existed through history, but because we feared that the evidence might no longer be there.
So it was good to learn about Jane Austen and Anne Sharp. While Austen’s books enjoyed great popularity during her lifetime, the plays of her friend Sharp remained unperformed outside the home. Nonetheless, a level playing field always remained between the two when it came to discussions of their work. After the publication of her novel, Emma, Austen sought out Sharp’s critical opinions. Sharp expressed admiration for the book, but she wasn’t afraid to let Austen know that she found the character of Jane Fairfax – inspired in part by Sharp herself – insufficiently complex.
Emily Dickinson’s extrovert friend, Helen Hunt Jackson, author of the novel Ramona, made several attempts to even things out professionally between the two of them by raving about Dickinson’s writing in her own literary circles and encouraging her reclusive friend to publish her poems. Although Dickinson largely resisted these efforts, such an endorsement must surely have done wonders for her confidence and perhaps even had an impact on her prolific output, which totalled nearly 1800 poems.
As Emma Claire mentioned in last week’s post, over the many months during which we have been researching female literary friendships, we have been surprised by the historical sources that do indeed exist, and how often they have been overlooked or misinterpreted.
Just as unpublished material in the Austen family’s papers revealed new insights into her friendship with Sharp, the close transatlantic bond between George Eliot and Harriet Beecher Stowe was illuminated for us by the letters between them – letters that have too often been dismissed as a correspondence between mere acquaintances. Going back to the diaries of Virginia Woolf allowed us to see that Katherine Mansfield was her greatest literary confidante rather than her bitterest foe.
These last two were not always willing to share in the joy of each other’s achievements, and occasionally even revelled in their friend’s disappointments. But they were ready to lavish praise when they felt it was due, and even collaborated together on Mansfield’s Prelude, published by Woolf through her Hogarth Press.
Setting every single letter of her friend’s story with the wooden blocks of her hand-press was a drawn-out and laborious process. For me, this image stands as a strong symbol, not just of the value Woolf accorded to Mansfield’s work, but also of one woman helping another – as a friend and a fellow writer.
Inspired by our reading of Daphne du Maurier’s letters, this month Emma Claire and I have been thinking about what we know and can’t know about the various writer friends we’ve profiled on Something Rhymed.
Something that has always interested me about these two is that they could so easily not have become close friends.
Despite their shared status as the most celebrated female authors either side of the Atlantic, and the level of common understanding this brought with it, the great geographical gulf between Eliot and Stowe meant that they were only ever able to communicate by letter.
It would have been challenging enough to maintain relations, even if they’d previously enjoyed a face-to-face friendship. Doubly so, you would think, since, unlike the other pairs we’ve profiled, Stowe and Eliot’s bond began by letter and was sustained entirely on paper.
Most scholars date the friendship’s beginning from the spring of 1869: the point at which Stowe sat down in her sunny orange grove in Florida to pen the first of their letters. It’s often claimed that when these pages reached Eliot at her north London villa, their arrival was entirely unexpected.
However, their opening line has led Emma and me to wonder whether it was all really quite this simple.
Stowe began her letter by saying that, the previous year, a mutual friend had called on her and passed on ‘a kind word of message’ from Eliot. Unsurprisingly, Stowe didn’t bother to repeat the message, so Eliot’s exact words remain tantalisingly out of reach of readers other than the original recipient.
But this hasn’t stopped Emma and me from wondering what she’d said that encouraged Stowe’s overtures of friendship.
Thinking about Eliot’s earlier admiring review of Stowe’s anti-slavery novel Dred, it’s possible that she might have mentioned that she was a long-time admirer of the American author’s work. But Eliot had found herself drawn to Stowe’s personality too, ever since she’d been shown a letter addressed to the abolitionist Eliza Cabot Follen in which Stowe had caricatured herself as ‘a little bit of a woman, rather more than forty, as withered as dry as a pinch of snuff – never very well worth looking at in my best days, and now a decidedly used up article’.
Eliot, who had always been made to feel painfully self-conscious about her own lack of conventional beauty, was so moved by this passage that she transcribed it to keep. She would remark afterwards that the whole letter by Stowe was ‘most fascinating and makes one love her’.
Stowe would be closer to sixty than forty by the time she reached out to Eliot directly, and perhaps even more interesting than Eliot’s tacit encouragement of an approach is Stowe’s motivation for picking this moment to seek a new literary friendship.
Homing in on the first line of Stowe’s correspondence led us to question the received wisdom that she’d contacted Eliot out of the blue. But stepping back to survey all the correspondence between them allowed us to appreciate the significance of the letter’s date. 1869 was also the year when, five months later in September, Stowe would publish her notorious article in the Atlantic. The piece made public the once only whispered rumour that the now deceased Lord Byron had indulged in incestuous relations with his half-sister.
Byron’s wife, who had also died by this time, had been a friend of Stowe’s. Recent criticisms of Lady Byron by one of her husband’s former mistresses had so incensed Stowe that she was moved to write this spirited defence of the trials her friend had suffered.
Even before the article’s publication, Stowe had privately expressed fears that making such a scandal public would attract widespread criticism – a prediction that would prove right. Therefore, given the timing, it seems feasible that Stowe might have had another more self-serving motivation for getting in touch at this time.
If someone as intellectually respected as Eliot had been willing to support her this would surely have added weight to Stowe’s arguments. But, sadly for Stowe, even in their personal letters, Eliot refused to endorse her, telling Stowe that she ‘should have preferred that the “Byron question” should not have been brought before the public’.
But by this stage, the two had cemented their friendship through their warm and surprisingly candid epistolary conversations. Though the eleven-year correspondence has never been published altogether and in full, were it ever to be gathered into a single volume it would make for a great gift to fans of both of authors.
What we have learned through our studies of Eliot and Stowe’s letters is that, in order to gain the truest picture of their friendship, you sometimes have to get up close to the words, sometimes stand back from them, and sometimes look hardest at the blank surrounding spaces to try to make sense of important things unspoken.