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.

Successes and Surprises

Butterfly-Fish-204x300
We sought permission from Jacaranda Books to use this image.

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.

Frances Burney and Hester Thrale

When Emily met John Mullan at the Bloomsbury Institute, he suggested that we investigate the friendship between Frances Burney and Hester Thrale. We soon discovered a story full of intrigue and betrayal.

On a summer’s evening in 1778, Frances Burney’s father took her to Hester Thrale’s literary salon at Streatham Park. The grand occasion would have been intimidating indeed for the shy twenty-six-year-old writer, whose identity had only recently been revealed.

Burney had penned her novel, Evelina, at the dead of night and then audaciously published it anonymously without her parents’ consent. When her music-teacher father finally discovered its authorship, however, he astounded his daughter by not only giving his blessing but fizzing with such pride that he divulged the secret to his friend and employer, Hester Thrale.

A painting of Hester Thrale in 1771 by John Singleton Copley [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
A painting of Hester Thrale in 1771 by John Singleton Copley [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
London’s literati flocked to Thrale’s gatherings, attracted by the thirty-nine-year-old hostess’s wealth, ebullience, arrogance and wit. Thrale was delighted to introduce her friends to the mysterious author of the novel that was causing such a stir.

Thrale had literary ambitions of her own. She would go on to write a popular history book that failed to win over critics of the day but is now considered a radical pre-cursor to feminism, and she was a consummate memoirist, letter-writer and diarist. Perhaps envy soured Thrale’s pen that summer’s night in 1778 when she jotted in her journal that Burney’s ‘Conversation would be more pleasing if She thought less of herself’. Or perhaps fame really had gone to the young author’s head for a while. Either way, Thrale did admit that Burney’s ‘Merit cannot as a Writer be controverted’.

Despite Thrale’s mixed first impressions, she nonetheless welcomed Burney into her home, inviting her first for a weeklong visit and later for several months on end. Over the next six years, the pair forged an intense bond cemented by their shared wit and storytelling flair.

‘Irresistible Burney!’ Thrale wrote in one of her daily letters: ‘and who was ever like you for warm affection, cool Prudence, and steady Friendship!’ But this same ‘cool Prudence’, which Thrale once so admired, ended up causing a great rift between the two authors.

During her husband’s final illness, Thrale confessed to Burney her growing tenderness towards one of the musicians she employed: an impoverished Italian singer called Gabriel Mario Piozzi. Thrale felt determined that, after the death of her spouse, she would finally secure a love match.

Although Burney’s own father was a music teacher from a similar social milieu to Piozzi, she was horrified by the thought of her friend marrying a Catholic foreigner of lower social rank, and by what she saw as the emotional and financial abandonment of Thrale’s children. ‘Think a little’, Burney pleaded. ‘The mother of 5 children, 3 of them as Tall as herself, will never be forgiven for shewing so great an ascendance of passion over Reason’.

Thrale married Piozzi in 1784. From then on, Burney’s letters went unanswered and she was no longer welcome at the home of her former friend.

Frances Burney circa. 1784 painted by Edward Francisco Burney (1760-1848) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Frances Burney circa. 1784 painted by Edward Francisco Burney (1760-1848) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
During the next thirty years and more, Burney ‘made every possible overture’ of friendship but Thrale, now Signora Piozzi, could no longer trust the woman she referred to as ‘l’aimable Traitesse’. But her name did continue to appear on the subscription list for Burney’s novels, as, indeed, did that of the young Jane Austen – an ardent fan.

Burney’s persistence may well have been motivated by an increased empathy with her former friend’s predicament. At the age of forty-one, Burney defied her father by marrying a penniless French Catholic and becoming known as Madame D’Arblay.

In 1817, Burney, now sixty-six, dared to call in on the seventy-five-year-old Thrale. ‘At the sound of my name’, Burney wrote immediately afterwards, ‘she came hastily from her Boudoir to receive me in the grand sallon’. But Thrale, suffering from asthma, was so embarrassed and agitated that she could not utter a single word.

Once she recovered, they sat together on a sofa and entered into a political debate. Though spirited, their conversation lacked the affection of old. And yet, they talked on as night fell, quite forgetting about dinner. When Burney finally realised the time and made to leave, Thrale affectionately thanked her for calling in. ‘Much surprised, & instantly touched,’ wrote Burney, ‘I turned back, & held out my hand. She gave me hers, & each hand again pressed the other’. And this late-life reconciliation endured.

Activity

Burney and Thrale often surprised each other. This month, we’ll take the opportunity to reflect on the unexpected things we have learnt while working together on Something Rhymed.

The Rivalry between Jane Austen’s Sister and Sister-Friend

This pendant is set with what is supposed to have been Jane Austen’s hair. A lock of which was set for Fanny Austen, and another sent to Jane’s dear friend, Anne Sharp.
This pendant is set with what is supposed to have been Jane Austen’s hair. A lock of which was set for Fanny Austen, and another sent to Jane’s dear friend, Anne Sharp.

Cassandra Austen took the time, just four days after her sister’s funeral, to pen a letter and send some treasured mementoes to Jane’s friend, the governess and amateur playwright Anne Sharp. It was the second letter she is known to have written after Jane’s death. The first was to Fanny Knight: the niece whom Anne once taught.

When I first learnt that Anne was the only person outside of the Austen family and household to receive such poignant trinkets, I assumed that the note accompanying Jane’s lock of hair, pair of belt clasps and silver needle would have been infused with a sense of shared love and grief for Jane.

But, when I tracked down Cassandra’s letter, I detected instead a barbed quality that hints at a deep conflict between Jane’s sister by birth and the sister-friend she singled out.

Letter from Cassandra to Anne (2)

I long to read the letter Anne sent to Cassandra, to measure for myself the friend’s ‘ardent feelings’ against the sister’s stoicism. But Anne’s voice has been largely silenced – like that of so many working women of the past.

In her dotage, Cassandra re-read all of Jane’s correspondence one last time. Secretly, she then removed from her cache all those letters she felt might compromise the mythology her family had constructed of Jane as a meek, conservative maiden aunt, who dabbled with storytelling in between chores. And finally Cassandra built up a fire and, one by one, fed her sister’s most personal words to the flames.

But surviving letters, like the one above, and several volumes of unpublished diaries have allowed us to reconstruct something of Jane’s incendiary relationship with a woman of lower social standing – a sister-friend who shared her fieriness, whose ‘ardent feelings’ provided a welcome contrast to her sister’s ‘tranquil’ restraint.

Cassandra’s envy of Anne’s intimacy with Jane emerges in her insistence that ‘What I have lost, no one but myself can know, you are not ignorant of her merits, but who can judge how I estimated them?’ Cassandra could have become close to Anne through their shared bereavement. After all, Jane had drawn both intelligent spinsters into her inner circle. But the sister found the sister-friend’s spirited personality a source of pain during this desolate time.

The letter is freighted with Cassandra’s conflicting emotions: her desire to honour her sister’s highly-valued relationship competing against the dual demands of snobbery and envy. She feels compelled to offer the hand of friendship to the woman her sister so loved: ‘If any thing should ever bring you into attainable distance from me we must meet my dear Miss Sharp’. But she will not go out of her way to visit the woman her sister called ‘my dearest Anne’, nor will she offer any specific hospitality.

So, imagine my surprise when I discovered that Anne stayed in Chawton Cottage with Cassandra for several weeks in 1820 – three years after Jane’s death. We know then that the fraught relationship between sister and sister-friend endured against the odds. But from this answer more questions arise: How did the pair move from competition to compassion? What took them from half-hearted invitations to residing under the same roof? How did their relationship develop and change during this time?

These questions send me back to the diaries, back to the letters that survived the flames, back into the realms of my own imagination where Anne sits beside Cassandra, reminiscing about their beloved Jane, a fire roaring in the grate.

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.

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