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 What’s more, we discovered a cache of their unpublished correspondence.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.      

 

A Second Year of Hidden Friendships… and More Unexpected Connections

As 2015 draws to a close, this feels like another good moment to look back on the friendships we’ve profiled on Something Rhymed, and the surprising, often intergenerational, connections between some of our literary heroines.

Daphne du Maurier, whose friendship with Oriel Malet we featured in June, is well-known to have been a fan of Haworth’s most famous sisters. Du Maurier’s most famous novel, Rebecca, has drawn comparisons with Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, and du Maurier also wrote a biography of Charlotte’s troubled brother, Branwell, published in 1960.

On reading du Maurier’s letters to Malet, though, we were surprised to find several references – not just to the Brontës – but also to Katherine Mansfield.

Katherine Mansfield - this image is in the public domain.
Katherine Mansfield – this image is in the public domain.

An admirer of Mansfield’s writing when she grew older, du Maurier’s fascination with the author of The Garden Party went all the way back to her earliest years. As a child, du Maurier used to look out of the night nursery window of her Hampstead home and see a light burning bright in the opposite house. She used to wave at the light each evening and wonder whose lamp it was.

Only years later would she discover that she had been looking in at the window of Mansfield’s bedroom, a place to which she was sadly often confined thanks to the health problems brought on by her tuberculosis.

Noticing these sorts of unexpected links between the different authors we have profiled has been one of the pleasures of our research into their literary friendships. This has been particularly so when we’ve stumbled upon these links by chance, when we were looking for other things.

George Eliot - this image is in the public domain.
George Eliot – this image is in the public domain.

On re-reading the opening of Agatha Christie’s 1926 Murder of Roger Ackroyd while preparing to write our April post on her friendship with Dorothy L. Sayers, we spotted an admiring reference to George Eliot delivered by one of the novel’s principal characters.

And when we were studying the friendship between Elizabeth Bowen and Iris Murdoch the month before, we were delighted to learn that, in the 1940s, Bowen wrote a radio play for the BBC on the life of Jane Austen.

Over the two years that we’ve been running Something Rhymed, we’ve come upon so many of these unanticipated branches between our literary heroines that it’s become difficult to hold them all within our heads. So we’ve set ourselves the challenge this month of creating a ‘family tree’ depicting some of these fascinating connections.

We hope you’ll join us again next week to see the literary ancestral lines that we’ve traced back through the ages.

 

A Motherhood of Writers, a Sisterhood of Readers

My heart sank when Emily challenged me to read The Unicorn by Iris Murdoch.

Although it is hardly in the spirit of Something Rhymed, I considered myself firmly in the Elizabeth Bowen camp. My copy of her Collected Stories accompanied me when I first left for college and has been packed and unpacked so many times since. When I got my first lecturing post, I put it on my syllabus, and nowadays I often quote Bowen to encourage my New York University students to focus on creativity during their time in the UK: ‘Imagination of my kind is most caught, most fired, most worked upon by the unfamiliar’.

My memories of reading Murdoch, on the other hand, are scant and chequered.

My cousin Nic – a voracious and insightful reader – had devoured Murdoch’s novels, and my writer friend Wendy Vaizey had written about Murdoch in her PhD. Nic and I shared a love of Thomas Hardy’s books and Wendy and I had introduced each other to our favourite texts by medieval mystics, so I felt sure that I too would fall in love with Murdoch’s work.

On one of my trips down to stay with Nic in her book-lined cottage in Cornwall, I picked up a copy of Murdoch’s A Severed Head. I read it over Easter, sitting in Nic’s sunlit conservatory – the mugs of tea at my side replaced at dusk by glasses of gin. When Nic got home from work, I’d put down the book and we’d take cliff-top walks or share plates of fish straight from the sea.

There was such a stark difference that week between my external life – full of sunshine and hyacinths and warm conversation – and the world that Murdoch’s novel set up in my mind. Neither the story nor the characters have stayed with me, but the coldness and cruelty of the book have remained.

The Unicorn also has an iciness to it, yet I found it compelling and clever and self-consciously indebted to its literary forebears.

Tree of life. Creative Commons License.
Tree of life. Creative Commons License.

Bowen’s influence is clear: the faded glory of the Irish country house and the Anglo-Irish cast, which are said to have been inspired by guests Murdoch met at Bowen’s Court.

Yet it was another female author who came to mind when I read the opening of The Unicorn. Its gothic setting and the simultaneous presence and absence of the mistress of the house was redolent with echoes of Rebecca.

It quickly became obvious, however, that Murdoch’s approach to the gothic differed from that of Daphne du Maurier. As I read on, I began to feel that The Unicorn shares more of its DNA with Northanger Abbey. Like Jane Austen before her, Murdoch self-consciously plays with gothic conventions, calling them into question and sending them up.

Even more prominent still, is Murdoch’s engagement with Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre since, like its predecessor, The Unicorn features an imprisoned mistress of the house. But Murdoch makes Hannah Crean-Smith a more central character than Brontë’s Bertha, and the novel investigates the question of her sanity.

Critics have tended to interpret Hannah Crean-Smith as an enchantress: apparently pure but ultimately revealed as an evil manipulator. I see her more as a damaged being, fashioned by the scarring experiences of torture and imprisonment.

I would love to sit beside my cousin in her Cornish conservatory, sipping gin and finding out what she made of Hannah Crean-Smith. But Nic died last year in a sunlit room, our family reading to her right up to the end. When I talk with Wendy and Emily about The Unicorn – and about Murdoch’s other novels, which I will surely now read – my memories of Nic will inform this conversation between my sisterhood of readers, just as Austen and Brontë and du Maurier lived on as Murdoch’s literary mothers.

Can You Help Us?

We’re hoping that one of our online sisterhood of readers might know of a female writing friendship enjoyed by Daphne du Maurier. If so, please could you tell us about it by using the comment tab below or by using the ‘Contact Us’ form. We’d love to profile du Maurier on this site.

Eva Trout: a Woman in Need of a Friend

For this month’s Something Rhymed activity, Emma Claire and I decided to each read something by one of our current profiled authors: Eva Trout by Elizabeth Bowen and The Unicorn by Iris Murdoch. Both of these books are said to have been influenced by the work of one author on the other.

This image is in the public domain.
This image is in the public domain.

I came to Eva Trout afresh, with no prior knowledge of its plot. Since I was going to be reading not only for pleasure but also for this website, I suppose I set out with a preconceived idea that the post I eventually wrote could be about one of the friendships enjoyed by the eponymous heroine.

But that’s the trouble with preconceived ideas. Long before the late stage in the novel when Eva declares ‘I have no friend’, I had been struck by the fact that my original intention wasn’t going to work at all.

The huge gap left by the lack of a true trusted confidante for much of Eva’s life was something I kept turning over in my mind as I moved through the chapters of the novel.

When the reader first encounters Eva at the start of the book, she is a young woman still waiting to come into the fortune left to her by her late father. Despite her personal wealth, Eva has not had an easy start in life. Her mother abandoned her when she was a child, only to be killed in a plane crash soon afterwards. Since her father’s suicide some years later, Constantine Ormeau, a man who appears to have been Eva’s father’s lover, has been her unsympathetic legal guardian.

Constantine regards Eva as a problem, and even Iseult Arble, a former schoolteacher who previously showed a great deal of interest in the girl and has allowed her to move into the home she shares with her husband, has begun to feel increasingly wary towards her youthful lodger.

Eva’s social awkwardness and hard-to-predict behaviour are a puzzle to most of the novel’s other characters, isolating her from those who surround her. As a reader, I don’t mind admitting that I was left somewhat puzzled, not just by the central character but aspects of the novel as a whole.

Certain episodes will undoubtedly live on in my mind – the unbearably stilted conversation that takes place between Mr and Mrs Arble as they wait for Eva to come home one evening; or the restaurant scene during which Iseult tucks into a plate of oysters in a way that is ‘at once methodical and voluptuous’, for instance. But, overall, there was something about the book that I didn’t quite ‘get’ – not in the way that I got  The Death of the Heart, Bowen’s novel from thirty years earlier, or her moving short story ‘The Visitor’ – both of which thoroughly engaged me.

Like several notable readers I’ve since discovered, I struggled with some of Bowen’s decisions about language and structure, aspects of the book which I felt cut me off from the story and characters – particularly interesting in view of Murdoch’s likely influence on Bowen’s approach.

By the time I reached the final page, my thoughts on the subject of friendship had moved away from wishing for a lasting friend for Eva and onto wishing instead that my friend had read this book, so that we could discuss it together.

So, I suppose that this post has ended up as a request to Emma Claire to do just that, because I know for certain that, whether she agrees with my take on Eva Trout or not,  conversations with her always provide me with interesting new ways to think about literary works. And as I mentioned in one of my posts from last month, this is something I’ve really come to value in our friendship.

Get Involved

Reading Bowen’s novel got me thinking about depictions of female friendship in literature. Anne Shirley and Diana Barry in L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables, Jane and Prudence in the novel of the same name by Barbara Pym, and the women of Amy Tan’s Joy Luck Club, are all examples that popped quickly into my mind. If a female friendship from a story, poem or play has left a lasting impression on you, we’d love to hear about it.

Please get in touch by leaving a comment below, or send a tweet via Twitter using the hashtag #SomethingRhymed.

Elizabeth Bowen and Iris Murdoch

The Anglo-Irish writer, Elizabeth Bowen, is remembered for surrounding herself with the most lauded of literary women.

Elizabeth Bowen
Image used with the kind permission of Vintage Books.

Never allowing her severe stammer to get in the way of her role as a garrulous hostess, she entertained the likes of Carson McCullers, Rosamund Lehman, Eudora Welty and Virginia Woolf.

We were surprised to discover that Iris Murdoch had attended one of the glittering salons at Bowen’s Court since she was twenty years younger than her hostess and has often been mythologised as something of an honorary man. Famously dismissive of her female contemporaries, she refused to read any of Barbara Pym’s novels, despite (or because of) repeated and hearty recommendations from the men in her life.

Iris Murdoch
We sought permission from Harper Collins to use this image.

It turned out that Murdoch and Bowen were first drawn together by their shared Anglo-Irish heritage and admiration for each other’s novels.

The salons at Bowen’s Court, mostly known for their decadence, were, in fact, full of creative ferment. Passages from Murdoch’s The Unicorn are so indebted to Bowen’s style and subject matter that they could almost have been written by the older author. Similarly, Bowen’s Eva Trout is influenced by the ‘demoniac’ subversion that she so admired in the work of her acolyte.

But it was confessions about their romantic relationships that cemented the intimacy of their inter-generational friendship. Murdoch confided her fears about agreeing to wed her lover, the fellow academic, John Bayley: as a married woman, she would be forbidden from continuing in her post as an Oxford don. Bowen, who had felt liberated rather than hemmed in by her own marriage, advised the younger author to embrace the opportunity to spend more time on her novels.

The pair visited each other regularly and commented on each other’s work, developing a deep and mutually influential friendship that lasted for nigh on two decades.

During this time Murdoch’s unconventional marriage endured, in some ways following the example mapped out by the flamboyant Bowen, whose husband was quite an introvert. Indeed, one party guest at Bowen’s Court stumbled into a cupboard in search of the loo only to find him crouched amongst the mops and brooms with a tray of food on his knees. Their successful union was more companionable than erotic, and Bowen sought sexual fulfilment elsewhere – most notably in a thirty year love affair with a Canadian diplomat.

Murdoch was similarly open to extramarital encounters. Most interesting among her affairs, perhaps, was her lesbian relationship, break-up and reconciliation with fellow philosopher, Philippa Foot. And yet, like Bowen, Murdoch was devoted to her husband, as, in both cases, the support of these men helped their creativity to thrive.

Not only did the older author show the younger one how to carve out erotic and creative freedom within a lifelong and nurturing marriage, Bowen also demonstrated by example how to extend wisdom and generosity to the next generation. And so, Murdoch – previously wary of her female contemporaries – ended up taking the young A.S. Byatt under her wing.

Activity

This month, Emma Claire will be reading The Unicorn by Iris Murdoch and Emily will be reading Eva Trout by Elizabeth Bowen.

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?