Katherine Anne Porter and Eudora Welty

Some time ago, Tessa Hadley suggested that we explore one of Eudora Welty’s female alliances. When blog reader Elizabeth Ahlstrom also wrote to us to mention Katherine Anne Porter’s mentorship of Welty – a fellow writer from the Deep South – we were further intrigued.

This literary bond particularly piqued our interest since we have long felt indebted to the authors who took us under their wings when we were starting out. And, more recently, we thanked our lucky stars when Margaret Atwood generously agreed to write the foreword to A Secret Sisterhood: The hidden friendships of Austen, Brontë, Eliot and Woolf.

Katherine Anne Porter’s lifestyle, roaming from place to place and lover to lover, bore little resemblance to that of Eudora Welty, who returned to her family home in her early twenties and remained there unmarried until her dying day.

But, a few years later in the late 1930s, when the middle-aged Porter came across Welty’s short stories in the Southern Review, she knew she had found a kindred spirit in the twenty-eight-year-old.

The two women shared a deep admiration for the work of Jane Austen, Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield, and, as Southern writers, they considered themselves ‘bathers in the same sea’. Here, felt Porter, was a talent to nurture.

Welty never forgot the helping hand she received from the more established writer, looking back with wonder at her first letter from Porter, which seemed to come ‘out of the clear blue sky’. Porter invited the younger woman to visit her in the two-room apartment she shared with her third husband in Baton Rouge, Louisiana – 150 miles south of Jackson, Mississippi, where Welty lived with her mother in their large mock Tudor home.

It took Welty six months to gather the courage to take Porter up on the invitation. She twice got halfway there before turning back. But, one midsummer day in 1938, mutual friends drove her down to Porter’s home, where she enjoyed a convivial evening, the open windows letting in a welcome breeze as she listened intently to the conversation.

True to her word, Porter went out of her way for the modest, young writer, nominating her for a Houghton Mifflin Harcourt award, introducing her work to Ford Madox Ford, and inviting Welty to accompany her to Yaddo – a prestigious artists’ colony in Saratoga Springs, Upstate New York.

Katherine Anne Porter (left) and Eudora Welty (right) at Yaddo in 1941                                                                                    © Eudora Welty LLC; courtesy Welty Collection, Mississippi Department of Archives and History.  All Rights Reserved. The Eudora Welty Foundation.

At Yaddo it became clear that the outwardly shy Welty shared with her glamorous mentor a love of socialising and a knack for friendship. Neither woman got much work done during their two months together because they could not resist the temptations of companionship: Welty tried to teach Porter to drive and they made excursions to view the renovations at the nearby colonial home that the recently-divorced Porter had just purchased.

That summer, Porter did begin work on a foreword to Welty’s first collection of short stories, A Curtain of Green – an act that Porter herself predicted would add $10,000 to the book’s sales. But the gesture was not without its complications. Porter, who had always struggled with deadlines, failed to turn it around on time. Welty chose to postpone the publication date rather than chivvy on her mentor, and the book did eventually come out complete with Porter’s promised foreword.

Their bond would always combine the literary and the social. One of Welty’s abiding memories of Porter was an evening they spent together in the late 1970s. By this stage, both women had been awarded Pulitzer Prizes and Porter would soon honour her protegée by presenting her with a gold medal from the National Institute of Arts and Letters – an occasion for which Porter had prepared months in advance with the purchase of an Italian silk pant suit.

Despite recovering from cataract operations and suffering with a broken hip, the eighty-four-year-old spent all morning cooking for her friend. The pair began with spears of asparagus, butter melting onto their fingers, followed by ‘dainty catfish fingerlings’, which they ate using golden cutlery. They finished up with strawberries and champagne, celebrating and chatting all afternoon.

When Porter died at the age of ninety, Welty took a group of friends out for a crab supper after the memorial service so that they could reminisce in a style that would capture Porter’s spirit. And Welty looked back on her bond with Porter more publicly too. She wrote a tender essay about it for the Georgia Review, and her introduction to the Norton Book of Friendship conjures up the way friends give tribute to one of their group who has passed away: ‘As if by words expressed they might turn friendship into magic, the magic that now, so clearly, it had been.’

An Invitation to our Female Literary Friendship Event at the British Library, July 11 2017, 7.15-8.30pm:

We are honoured to be sharing a stage with novelist Kate Mosse, the founder of the Women’s Prize for Fiction, and her friend, the biographer Rachel Holmes. We will be talking about the friendships that we have explored in A Secret Sisterhood and they will be sharing details of their own literary friendship.

If you are free, we would love to share the occasion with you too.

Tickets can be reserved by calling +44 (0)1937 546546 or emailing boxoffice@bl.uk

A Secret Sisterhood: in the media

With our book A Secret Sisterhood just out in the UK, it gives us such pleasure to look back on the past three years running Something Rhymed together.

By the time we launched our blog at the beginning of 2014, with this post on Katherine Mansfield and Virginia Woolf, we had been researching the subject of female literary friendship for some time already. But, over the months that followed, it was the enthusiasm of Something Rhymed readers that encouraged us to explore the subject of female literary friendship in far greater detail in a book.

A Secret Sisterhood features the stories of the literary friendships of Jane Austen and amateur-playwright-cum-family-governess Anne Sharp; Charlotte Brontё and early feminist author Mary Taylor; George Eliot and Harriet Beecher Stowe, of Uncle Tom’s Cabin fame; fellow Modernists Katherine Mansfield and Virginia Woolf.

Literary journalists and friends Arifa Akbar and Katy Guest interviewing Emma and Emily during a friendship-themed literary event at New York University London to mark the launch of A Secret Sisterhood© Rachel Gilbertson

We thought you might be interested in the following articles and reviews, which give something of a taster of the book. We’re also hard at work on pieces for the I newspaper, and the TLS, among others, so do look out for those.

Daily Telegraph: Emily and Emma on How Jane Austen’s mystery woman was edited out of history

The Pool: ‘You don’t think you can find out anything new about Jane Austen…’ says Emma. Kate Leaver interviews us.

Yorkshire Post: Emily asks Why are so many female authors portrayed as eccentric, lonely spinsters?

Litro: Emily and Emma discuss The Lost Art of Letter Writing

Foyles: Jonathan Ruppin interviews us about Jane Austen, Margaret Atwood and how to write together and stay friends.

Writers & Artists: Emma and Emily talk about Literary Sisterhood

Women Writers, Women[’s] Books: Emma and Emily on The Art of Co-Authorship

Byte the Book: Rebekah Lattin-Rawstrone reviews A Secret Sisterhood

Islington Gazette: Emily on A Secret Sisterhood: Uncovering the hidden friendships of great literary women

Sarah Emsley: Emily and Emma consider First Impressions: Jane Austen’s radical female friendship

The Writing Garnet: Emma and Emily talk about being Travellers on the Same Road

Annecdotal: Anne Goodwin reviews A Secret Sisterhood

Greenacre Writers: Emily and Emma In Conversation

 

Next week

We have an event coming up at Waterstones Crouch End in London. If you can make it, we’d love to see you. Tickets are £4 and can be purchased in advance here.

Details of our other forthcoming events are listed on our Events Calendar.

This month

We’ll be profiling another pair of female writer friends, suggested to us by one of our readers. If you have an idea for a pair of literary pals you’d like to see featured on Something Rhymed, do please let us know. You can do this by leaving a comment or visiting the Contact Us page.

 

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.

 

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.

Jane Austen’s Admiration for Maria Edgeworth

This month, we’ve really enjoyed reading and discussing The Absentee by Maria Edgeworth. Neither of us had read the Anglo-Irish writer before, but we’d long heard of her as an influence on Jane Austen. This is particularly interesting since Edgeworth held progressive views for her time, her novels exploring issues such as inter-racial relationships, feminism and same-sex desire.

‘The authoress of Pride and Prejudice has been so good as to send me a new novel just published, Emma’
‘The authoress of Pride and Prejudice has been so good as to send me a new novel just published, Emma’
Jane Austen
Jane Austen greatly admired the novels of Maria Edgeworth. Both these images are in the public domain.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Austen singled out for praise one of Edgeworth’s most controversial books, Belinda, in her own novel, Northanger Abbey:

“And what are you reading, Miss –?” “Oh! it is only a novel!” replies the young lady, while she lays down her book with affected indifference, or momentary shame. “It is only Cecilia, or Camilla, or Belinda”; or, in short, only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best-chosen language.”

Austen so prized her fellow novelist’s good opinion that in 1816 she asked her publisher to send a precious presentation copy of Emma to Edgeworth in Ireland.

You might remember that a presentation copy of Emma cropped up in our post on Austen’s radical bond with the family governess and amateur playwright, Anne Sharp. Just as Sharp was the only friend whom Austen singled out to receive these rare volumes, so Edgeworth appears to have been the only professional author.

Maria Edgeworth's presentation copies of Emma, sent to her by Jane Austen
Maria Edgeworth’s presentation copies of Emma, sent to her by Jane Austen. This image is used with permission from Sotheby’s.
Anne Sharp's presentation copies of Emma, sent to her by Jane Austen. This image is used with permission from Bonham's.
Anne Sharp’s presentation copies of Emma, sent to her by Jane Austen. This image is used with permission from Bonham’s.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In our recorded conversation, we talk about Edgeworth’s and Sharp’s wildly different responses to Austen’s gift and their respective reactions to the novel itself. We also share our reasons for believing that Edgeworth’s The Absentee played a crucial and illuminating role in the unlikely friendship between Austen and Sharp.

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.

 

On Re-Reading Jane Austen’s EMMA

As we mentioned in our last post of 2015, one of our readers, Sarah Emsley, offered us the perfect opportunity to re-read Jane Austen’s novel, Emma, for her online celebration of the bicentenary of its publication.

You can see our post about the role of female friendship in the novel as part of the Emma in the Snow celebrations on Sarah’s site.

This gave us the idea to record a conversation about Emma to post on here. We ended up talking about the role of female friendship in the novel, and our different responses to this theme on first reading the book and on re-visiting it now. Our discussion also took us into the territory of Jane Austen’s own life and the female friendships she established off the page.

We do hope that some of you also took the opportunity to re-read Emma exactly two hundred years since the very first readers got their hands on the published book.

Jane Austen jotted down the opinions of her nearest and dearest, so you can read what Anne Sharp and others had to say about it here:

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

Please do share your thoughts with us by using the comment facility below.

Activity

We enjoyed this so much that we have decided to share more literary conversations about female friendship over the coming months. In January, we are challenging ourselves to read The Absentee  – a novel by Maria Edgeworth, which we believe Jane Austen enjoyed discussing with her governess and amateur playwright friend, Anne Sharp.

We’ll post up our conversation at the beginning of February and we do hope that some of you will choose to read along with us.

A Forgotten Author, A Forgotten Town

My research into Margaret Oliphant revealed that she grew up in my home region of Merseyside. History has neglected so very many aspects of Oliphant’s extraordinary life but her northern upbringing has remained especially shrouded in mystery.

She is more often associated with London or Scotland, but, with some digging, I discovered that Oliphant spent the early years of her literary career living just a few minutes’ walk away from my family home. She moved to 24 Kenyon Terrace in 1850, the year after she published her first novel.

Kenyon_Terrace

I’ve learnt so many things while investigating forgotten female friendships, but Oliphant’s residence in my hometown has perhaps moved me most profoundly. At first, I felt rather puzzled by the intensity of my reaction. But then it struck me that I had never before heard of any novelist hailing from Birkenhead.

Despite forever having my head buried in a novel or notebook, the dream of authorship never entered my mind during childhood or adolescence. It’s not that I lacked ambition. When I was a teenager, I aspired to write the blurbs on book jackets. It simply didn’t occur to me that I could become (or even dream of becoming) the woman who actually wrote the books.

And why would it have done? The authors whose novels I devoured did not much resemble me: Jane Austen lived in genteel poverty and was not expected to work outside the home; Virginia Woolf’s annual allowance funded her room of one’s own. Where was the maternal literary line through which I could trace examples of female authors based in industrial northern towns, women who found a way to earn their living by the pen?

These women did exist, I realise now. We’ve profiled some of them on this site: Elizabeth Gaskell and Winifred Holtby spring to mind. I can’t help but wish that I’d known about this tradition, back when I was growing up in Birkenhead. How inspiring it would have been to learn that in 1850 a twenty-two-year-old woman wrote a novel at a dining table less than a mile from the room in which I made my own first tentative attempts to write.

This weekend just gone, I peered through the bay window into this very dining room. My mother at my side, I imagined the young Oliphant entranced by the world she was creating on the page while her own mother sat beside her, absorbed in her cross-stitching. Oliphant’s former home is now divided into bedsits, several wheelie bins crowding around the front steps. On one side, the adjoining house stands derelict, its windows boarded up. But the house on the other side offered more of a glimpse into the middle-class comforts that these buildings would have afforded in Oliphant’s day. Here the residents sat in armchairs, a chandelier illuminating them as they drank their coffees and read their papers.Kenyon_Terrace_3

All of life stands cheek by jowl here, and yet the autumnal streets through which I walked with my mother and sister are radically under-represented in British fiction. It took us some time to find Oliphant’s former home because the street numbers have changed since her day, and there’s no plaque to mark the fact that a great Victorian writer began her literary adventure here: an unsurprising yet poignant ending to a pilgrimage through a forgotten town in search of a forgotten female forebear.