A Year of Hidden Friendships

When we first launched Something Rhymed, a year ago now, concerned well-wishers expressed scepticism about whether we’d discover twelve pairs of historic female writer friends to profile each month over the course of 2014.

Thanks to our close-knit community of readers from around the globe, the reverse has in fact been true. You’ve helped us to unearth many more female collaborations than we could possibly have envisaged at the beginning of the year. With such a treasure trove of hidden friendships still to explore, we intend to keep sharing our findings here in 2015.

Old treasure chest
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The collaborations we’ve explored so far were sometimes illicit, scandalous and volatile; sometimes supportive, radical or inspiring. And so, we’ve increasingly found ourselves asking why they have been consigned to the shadows.

To mark the end of Something Rhymed’s first year, here are our top ten ideas on why the friendships between some of our most famous female writers still have a cloak of secrecy about them:

  1. Women writing in the past had more opportunities to converse in the parlour than in the pages of literary magazines.
  • For reasons of propriety, for example, Harriet Beecher Stowe felt that she could not write an obituary in the Atlantic for her long-time friend and confidante, George Eliot.
  1. The marked harmony and lifelong endurance of many of these writing partnerships cost them copy.
  • Charlotte Brontë and Elizabeth Gaskell bonded over their shared experience of infamy since they had both become mired in scandal for daring to pen biting social criticism. However, this enduring friendship often gets written off as a mere acquaintanceship. Could marked harmony also account for why so few of us have heard about the unlikely friendship between Ruth Rendell and Jeanette Winterson?
  1. Friendships between women are often neglected in favour of a female author’s intense or turbulent relationships with men.
  • On January 1st we will reveal an intimate friendship that fits into this category…
  1. The literary status of some of our writer heroines has suffered because their genre, style or subject matter was particularly associated with women.
  1. Some of the pairs shared an alliance so radical that others refused to believe that it could possibly have thrived.
  1. Other collaborations challenged core mythologies about female authors: the well-bred lady; the solitary eccentric; and the suffering genius.
  1. Popular perceptions of female friendship still struggle to allow for the kind of rivalry embraced by some of our writer forebears.
  1. Rumours of lesbian affairs sometimes actually seem easier for commentators to accommodate than the possibility of an intellectual partnership between women.
  1. Close friendships between girls might be all well and good but, after marriage, women have traditionally been expected to devote themselves primarily to their husband and offspring.
  1. Historically, female collaboration was considered subversive and therefore taboo.
  • And yet, the subversive nature of these friendships between women makes them powerful sources of transformation: Maya Angelou’s Nobel party for Toni Morrison, for instance, both celebrated the achievements of a fellow African American author and challenged their government’s failure to do so itself.

Working together on Something Rhymed this year, we have experienced some of the most jubilant moments in our own friendship (as well as some of the most fraught!). But, from Eliot and Stowe – who taught us the importance of candour – to Mansfield and Woolf – who showed us that rivalry can be a positive force – we are learning how to keep our own collaboration on course. And, with your support, we will continue to celebrate the secret sisterhood between our trailblazing forebears, finally bringing it centre stage.

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.

Maggie Gee and Salena Godden: the Innocence Under the Armour

A shared sense of a female literary tradition fired the epistolary alliance between this month’s profiled writers: the reserved George Eliot and the ebullient Harriet Beecher Stowe. And so we asked authors Maggie Gee and Salena Godden to tell us about their similarities and differences, and the role in their friendship of the written word.

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The Road Across the Wolds 1997, oil on canvas 48 x 60″ by David Hockney Creative Commons License

Maggie Gee

Maggie: When I first met Salena I found her lively and funny but also quite dauntingly and dazzlingly young – she’s a quarter of a century younger than me. When I heard her perform for the first time, reading a piece of short prose that was as much poetry as story, I really sat up. Wow – she could write – my memory of that piece is of a wide golden field: a sort of dizzy sweep of perspective; and realizing that she was unafraid to be lyrical about the world – a risk most writers won’t take in a culture where irony is king.

I think we share that innocent eye. I do satire but the presiding vision I have is love. I think that’s true of Salena too, in among the outrageous humour and belly laughs. And maybe we recognized that innocence in each other, though we each in our different ways have shells that prevent most people from seeing it. I knew Salena would like the radiant David Hockney Yorkshire landscape show at the Royal Academy in 2012: we went together (it was about the 9th time I had seen it actually!).

Salena Godden 3Salena: I’ll never forget that day we met and went to see that Hockney exhibition, in my memory it is a film. We had a sunny afternoon tea and shared ideas and gossip. Afterwards I remember walking all the way home, through Regents Park and up into Kentish Town, utterly inspired by the colours and the art, but mostly the company, the listening and the sharing and the fantastic conversations we had that afternoon.

I think we share a love of language, colour and light as much as we share a capacity to imagine the worst and the darkest of outcomes. I also think both of us have had to work (and still do work) bloody hard and have hardly ever taken no for an answer. I might be the naughty one or more hedonistic of the two of us, but there is nothing wilder than having an idea and digging your heels in, there is nothing braver than keeping on keeping on, especially when the chips are down or the odds are against you. I think we share an old fashioned sense of fair play, a willingness to fight your corner and a mischief – these are some of the things I’d say we share. If we had gone to the same school I would have probably nicked sweets and pens from Woolworths to give to Maggie to woo her to be my friend and tell me all about writing. 

Maggie Gee

Maggie: How are we different? Well, my father stuck around and gave me different problems to Salena, whose father left. I had more formal educational chances, and she has had more crazy fun. She sang, for heaven’s sake, and had two bands (at least), and ran cool things like The Book Club Boutique! What did I get: degrees. Oh, and she still writes, performs and publishes poetry, whereas my early drive to write poems compressed itself into prose. She’s a fine, bitter-sweet poet – I wish I had written her new collection, Fishing in the Aftermath: it’s intimate and wild and tender, but the words are worked and reworked like a Toledo blade.

Salena Godden 3Salena: My first impression of Maggie was of a sensation of being drawn into her fantastic inquisitive mind, what I mean is, she asks the most interesting questions of her surroundings and coerces people into revealing their mysteries. It is important to question and notice the tiny details in things, but these moments seem to spring golden when you are talking with Maggie.

When we first met back in 2002, I felt I was a rough boozy ruffian next to her, I was in awe. I could tell right away that Maggie was quick and smart, she uses language beautifully, there’s a magnetic pull and a magic in Maggie, she’s a bold heart and a true believer.

Maggie Gee

Maggie: I think we really like each other’s work. I read an early draft of Springfield Road, her brilliant memoir, which has just come out this summer. I was so pleased when she asked me to introduce her at the launch.

Salena Godden 3Salena: I took Springfield Road to Maggie feeling that I could trust her with it. My confidence was pretty shaken at the time, but I knew Maggie would ‘get it’ after I finished reading her beautiful and vivid memoir My Animal Life. Memoir is another kind of writing, you have no armour: you just have your truth and your ghosts.

Maggie Gee

Maggie: We both had problems with the same very big, mainstream publisher. Maybe my cynical view of how big publishers operate was helpful (my being lyrical about human life does not preclude being pretty cynical about most commercial publishing): and I could tell her, hand on heart, that I thought Springfield Road was a stunning piece of writing just as it was.

Salena Godden 3Salena: It was Maggie’s letters and words of encouragement that gave me the confidence I needed to persevere. Then I met John Mitchinson and Rachael Kerr who signed me on the Unbound label and together we all successfully crowd funded Springfield Road. My memoir would still be in a box under my bed if it weren’t for Maggie.

Maggie Gee

Maggie: Looking at the other side of the coin, Salena gave me a shot of new creative life by inviting me into a world of young writers and artists that I loved and felt happy in. Also, when I recently got a slightly demented Guardian review, Salena was the first to tweet in support.

Salena Godden 3Salena: As for that review, it missed the point, the romance, beauty and comedy in the book. I loved the concept of Virginia Woolf In Manhattan. I ate it all up, loving every imaginative word and page, it made me laugh and cry out loud. I mean imagine getting drunk with Virginia Woolf, what a wicked and wonderful dream that is…

Maggie Gee

Maggie: At significant moments in life, I have received wonderful long emails from Salena that are full of the texture of her days. They probably took a few seconds to write, read as naturally as breathing and are cousins of her confessional poems. Then I’ll write back in a kind of mirror writing. I notice my emails always reflect the style of the email that comes to me. Yes, Salena’s a very stylish lady, as well as a sweet one.

Salena Godden 3Salena: Maggie’s letters are a light beaming out of my inbox. She is a true comrade. It’s a funny old game writing, as you know, it is a lonely and competitive sport. Maggie has been so generous. I don’t know what I would have done without her this past decade or so. Some people bring out the best in you, they make you want to do good and aim high and dream bigger and Maggie Gee is that person to me.

Maggie Gee’s latest novel, Virginia Woolf In Manhattan, was published by Telegram Books.

Salena Godden’s latest book is a memoir, Springfield Road, published by Unbound. Her monthly event, The Book Club Boutique, will be launching its new residency at Vout-O-Reenee’s with a Burning Eye Books party on November 5th.

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.

The Stuff of Legend

It was a question that prompted us to launch Something Rhymed, a question that eluded easy answers: why have so many female writer friends, unlike their male counterparts, failed to make legends of each other?

We wondered whether women had traditionally conducted their relationships privately while men had more opportunities to promote each other in public. Coleridge, for instance, had the freedom to up sticks to the Lakes where he could collaborate with Wordsworth on the Lyrical Ballads. At around the same time, Jane Austen’s abode was entirely at the whim of her family and she still felt she had to publish anonymously.

However, closer investigation showed us that women too have long been attempting to make legends of each other. After all, Charlotte Brontë travelled cross country to stay with Elizabeth Gaskell (a pair we’re sure to profile since so many of you have suggested them), and after Brontë’s early death Gaskell published the first biography of her friend.

This month’s pair, Vera Brittain and Winifred Holtby, emerged very much from this trailblazing tradition, embracing mutual publicity from the start: debating at the Oxford Union, campaigning for their shared social and political causes, publishing prolific amounts of journalism. Indeed, the pair became so entangled in people’s minds that Winifred Holtby was once introduced at a meeting as ‘Miss Vera Holtby’! It is fitting, therefore, that after Holtby’s early death, Brittain edited and promoted her friend’s final novel and then memorialised their relationship in Testament of Friendship.

Question Mark

We took rather longer to expose our friendship to public scrutiny. For the first decade since our initial meeting, we critiqued each other’s work in the privacy of our own homes, and we published entirely separately. But ever since The Times commissioned us to write about female writing friendship, we’ve become far less publicity shy, looking to Brittain and Holtby as our role models.

Our attempts to follow in their footsteps has brought us many unexpected and joyful connections, from drinking Prosecco in Kiliney Castle with writer pals Anne Enright and Lia Mills to gaining our first hits on this site from Korea and Kyrgyzstan. The generous coverage Something Rhymed has received from Slightly Bookist and Women Writers, Women, Books has resulted in particularly strong contingents of blog followers from Canada and the USA, and tweets from the likes of the New York Public Library. Just recently, we received some especially interesting suggestions from our new North American friends, who alerted us to the epistolary relationship between George Eliot and Harriet Beecher Stowe, as well as the friendship that A.S. Byatt managed to forge with her literary heroine, Iris Murdoch.

Murdoch also came up on the back of a connection we’ve forged closer to home. When the Yorkshire Post picked up on Holtby’s (and Emily’s) Yorkshire connections, one of their reader’s got in touch to tell us about Murdoch and the philosopher Philippa Foot, whose extraordinary friendship eventually survived a sexual interlude and even a massive bust-up.

Mercifully, our friendship has not only survived but thrived since we made the decision to follow the example of Brittain and Holtby. But our investigation into female writers and publicity has not yet produced an answer to our initial question. Instead, the question itself has changed. So now we’ve begun to ask ourselves this: why do women’s attempts to make legends of each other tend to get written out of literary lore?