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.

 

Tales of Two Sisters: George Eliot, Harriet Beecher Stowe and Middlemarch

This year, Emma and I have spent a lot of time thinking about sisterhood – the kind of literary sisterhood we’ve been exploring here on Something Rhymed, and the ties that bind flesh and blood female siblings.

Jane Austen enjoyed a famously close bond with her sister Cassandra. So did Charlotte, Emily and Anne Brontё; and Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell.

George Eliot by Frederick William Burton – this image is in the public domain.

Unlike these other writers who will feature in our forthcoming book, George Eliot’s relationships with other family members had been brought to an abrupt end some fifteen years before she began her alliance with Harriet Beecher Stowe. In her mid-thirties, Eliot had begun to live out of wedlock with George Henry Lewes. On discovering this, her sister and half-sister had heeded the warnings of their scandalised brother and cut off all contact. This cruel treatment may have made Eliot particularly happy when she received her first letter from Stowe. In this missive of spring 1869, the American author – who Eliot had never met – addressed her both as a ‘dear friend’ and a ‘sister’.

In Emma’s June post, she talked of reading Mrs Dalloway as a teenager with her sister, Lou. This got me thinking about my own sister, Erica, and the novels we enjoyed when we were young.

I remember us both reading Jane Eyre and  Wuthering Heights, and watching a BBC costume drama of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, going to the cinema to see Sense and Sensibility, first encountering A Room of One’s Own.

322px-middlemarch_1
First edition title page – this image is in the public domain.

Back then, we often used to talk about the books we read, sharing recommendations. I couldn’t remember us ever discussing Middlemarch, though. Although Erica is a year younger than me, I had come to Eliot’s work considerably later than her and by the time I read the novel we were no longer both living at home.

As I have recently been re-reading Middlemarch, I thought I would ask Erica about her memories of the book. It was a long time since she’d read it, it turned out, so she remembered the atmosphere far better than the intricacies of the plot. The character she recalled best was Dorothea Brooke – the intelligent, deeply pious young woman, whose story (one of several major interlocking plot lines) opens chapter one.

Dorothea struck Erica – who’d read Middlemarch as a teenager in the 1990s – as an amazingly well-developed character, a young woman who becomes locked into a marriage with a with joyless older man, and whose complex personality Erica found interesting on so many levels. It was with a sense of happiness that she recalled meeting Dorothea on the page for the first time and feeling, she said, that she was reading truly great writing.

Well over a century earlier, the character of Dorothea had also captivated Harriet Beecher Stowe and, like Erica, there was a good deal she admired more generally about the book. But Stowe’s letters to Eliot over the period when she was reading Middlemarch, in serialised form, also express her frustration with what she regarded as Eliot’s high-mindedness and her story’s lack of ‘jollitude’.

Reading this time with Stowe’s criticism in mind, I couldn’t help feeling that the verdict was too harsh. There are more challenging passages to Middlemarch, certainly. The book’s Prelude, for instance, grabbed me far less than the first chapter proper, which introduces Dorothea.  Her tale, too, is often sad, but none the less gripping for that. There are also quite a number of light comic moments, many of which I had forgotten. As Erica said, the main impression she retains of the novel is that of an enormous literary achievement – and one to which, having chatted about it with me, she would like to return.

I would certainly encourage my sister to do that. As I have found, on coming back to Eliot’s novel at the age of thirty-six, Middlemarch absolutely rewards a re-reading. Just as Emma and I found when we returned to Jane Eyre some months ago, scenes that made the greatest impressions on me when I was younger are not always the ones that affected me the most now.

This time round, with sisterhood on my mind so much of late, Dorothea’s relationship with her sister Celia is the one that stayed with me the most in between stints of reading the novel. Dorothea is serious, Celia more lighthearted. Dorothea’s mind is always on study and religious matters, whereas Celia is concerned with the day to day world around her. But despite their seeming differences, the two sisters – Kitty and Dodo as they affectionately call each other – could not be closer.

Eliot and Stowe’s personalities were also markedly different, so different that many biographers have doubted that they could really have been friends. Eliot’s letters to Stowe reveal her as the more rational and measured of the pair. Stowe, by contrast, is impulsive, sometimes careless – occasionally shockingly so.

But as the example of Celia and Dorothea reminds us, major differences needn’t be an impediment to friendship. Familial ties were what united the Middlemarch sisters. For Stowe and Eliot, it was the sense that – for all that divided them – they were bonded together by being part of the same literary sisterhood.

Next month

We’ll be discussing Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and the impact it had on her friendship with George Eliot.

We’ll also be running two friendship-themed writing workshops in Spalding and Boston (Lincolnshire), on Saturday 15th and Sunday 16th October respectively. We still have some tickets available, so if you would like to reserve a place, do please get in touch with us at somethingrhymed@gmail.com. More information about the workshops can be found here.

Sarah LeFanu on Women’s Writing: A Small Bit of Recent History

 

In the last of our posts from Something Rhymed salon speakers, Sarah LeFanu, provides some recent historical background. She is particularly well-placed to do so, since she can draw on her experiences as a Senior Editor at The Women’s Press and the editor of several anthologies of new writing.

Throughout the 1980s I worked at the London publishing house The Women’s Press, where we published books by women, for women. The whole venture was informed by a specific political remit, as we explained in a note that was printed in the prelims of the early books. This is how it appears in one of our first books, Cicely Hamilton’s Marriage as a Trade, a reprint of her 1909 analysis of the politics and economics of the domestic, or private, life: The Women’s Press is a feminist publishing house. We aim to publish books which are lively and original and which reflect the goals of the women’s liberation movement.

There was very little space in publishing then for the voices of radical women, for women who wanted to challenge the status quo. We saw that what women had to say about marriage, about domesticity, about sex and sexuality, about the workplace, about anything – that is, what they had to say about being women in a patriarchal society – what they’d said in the past and what they were saying now – was not what the establishment – the publishing establishment and the media – wanted to hear.

Women had to clear a space in which to be heard – and once they’d done that they had to shout loudly. The Women’s Press, Virago, Onlywomen, Sheba, and the magazine Spare Rib provided that space. They were all explicitly feminist. They were all explicitly political.

One of our early titles, published in 1978, was Michèle Roberts’s debut novel A Piece of the Night. I remember a reader writing in to ask us to pass on to Michèle thanks for the richness and the generosity of her prose, for using language as if there were no tomorrow. We went on to publish many works of literary fiction, both contemporary and earlier, and we published literary criticism and theory; again, we were publishing work that explicitly laid claim to a tradition, a heritage of women’s writing that over the years had been distorted if not erased. We published books by feminist scholars, such as Ellen Moers and Carolyn Heilbrun, who wanted to honour our literary foremothers.

In 1984 we published How to Suppress Women’s Writing by Joanna Russ – feminist science fiction writer, critic, and associate professor of literature at the University of Washington. It was a book that she had written for her students. The cover quotes snippets of what has been said over the years about women who dare to write serious, intelligent, challenging and beautiful books: She didn’t write it. But if it’s clear she did the deed … She wrote it, but she shouldn’t have. It’s political, sexual, masculine, feminist. She wrote it, but look what she wrote about. The bedroom, the kitchen, the family. Other women! She wrote it, but she wrote only one of it. Jane Eyre. Poor dear, that’s all she ever … She wrote it, but she isn’t really an artist, and it isn’t really art. It’s a thriller, a romance, a children’s book. It’s sci fi! She wrote it, but she had help. Robert Browning. Branwell Bronte. Her own ‘masculine side’. She wrote it, but she’s an anomaly. Woolf. With Leonard’s help … She wrote it BUT …

You can hear some at least of those sentiments still being spouted today.

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

In the mid-1980s we launched a feminist science fiction list. The thinking was twofold: one motive was pragmatic: I was teaching a course at the CityLit in London on feminist science fiction and there were almost no books available for the students. The writers from America – Joanna Russ, Sally Miller Gearhart, Marge Piercy and so on – weren’t published here, and there weren’t then that many homegrown ones. And the other reason was political, in line with the rest of our publishing. Again, in the first titles we included an explanatory note. From the first page of the prelims of The Adventures of Alyx by Joanna Russ: This is one of the first titles in a new science fiction series from The Women’s Press. The list will feature new titles by contemporary writers and reprints of classic works by well known authors. Our aim is to publish science fiction by women and about women; to present exciting and provocative feminist images of the future that will offer an alternative vision of science and technology, and to challenge male domination of the science fiction tradition itself.

And challenge that tradition it did. It transformed and re-energised it.

At around about this time and throughout the 1990s, by which time I was no longer working at The Women’s Press, I was editing a series of anthologies of original short stories, some of them co-edited with my friend Stephen Hayward, three of which were published by Serpent’s Tail, and one by Lawrence & Wishart. Three of the ones I edited were women-only anthologies, but the rest were mixed. I recently took down copies of them from my shelves in order to check the ratio of women to men. Colours of a New Day: Writing for South Africa: 18 men, 16 women; Obsession: 7 men, 9 women; God: An Anthology of Fictions: 9 men, 10 women; Sex, Drugs, Rock’n’Roll: Stories to End the Century: 7 men, 9 women.

By contrast, last year’s Penguin anthology of modern British short stories, edited by novelist Philip Hensher, gives us almost twice as many men as women: 35 to 19.

I am constantly alert to the danger of women being crowded out by men. I check. I count. Why shouldn’t women writers be equally represented – in anthologies, or on publishing lists, or in review columns, or on shortlists for prizes? No-one believes (these days) that good writing is gender-specific, do they?

I suspect ­– and hope – that discrimination against women writers is not done deliberately. It’s more likely that it’s a symptom of an unconscious bias, an unconscious prejudice. What we need to do is to bring that unconscious prejudice into full consciousness, to name it as an expression of patriarchal culture, and to be unashamedly outfront and explicit about overturning it.

If you have any specific suggestions for ways we can overturn the forces that work to discriminate against women writers, please do share them by using the comments facility below. We will add them to the list we are compiling, which we will be posting up soon.

JANE EYRE: Radical or Reactionary?

We decided to celebrate the bicentenary of Charlotte Brontë’s birth by talking about Jane Eyre – a novel that caused great scandal when it was first published in 1847 but that elicited a very different response from Brontë’s school friend and fellow writer, Mary Taylor

Charlotte Brontё and Mary Taylor

Back in 2014, we profiled Charlotte Brontё’s friendship with the author of Cranford, Elizabeth Gaskell. Theirs was a fascinating bond, but – important though Gaskell was to Brontё – another writer, Mary Taylor, had an even greater influence on her life.

Brontё met Taylor, the future author of the feminist novel Miss Miles, in 1831 when they were teenage boarders at Roe Head School near Huddersfield. Their relationship got off to a rocky start when pretty Taylor told the pale, frizzy-haired new girl that she found her very ugly – a typically outspoken remark, and one from which Brontё would never fully recover.

But the pair’s bookish natures and their love of political argument soon drew them together, with Taylor’s bold and radical views opening Brontё’s eyes to fresh ways of thinking, especially in terms of the place of women in Victorian society.

Charlotte Bronte - this image is in the public domain.
Charlotte Bronte painted by J.H. Thompson – this image is in the public domain.

After leaving school the next year they kept in touch by letter and paid visits when they could to each other’s houses: the now-famous parsonage at Haworth where Brontё lived, and Taylor’s home the Red House at Gomersal.

A decade later when they were in their mid-twenties, Taylor’s encouragement gave Brontё a ‘wish for wings’. The two daringly left their native rural Yorkshire and headed for urban Brussels, to continue their education at separate schools in the Belgian capital.

The Pensionnat de Demoiselles Heger-Parent, where Brontё enrolled, was to become the scene of one of the most infamous episodes of her life – the place where she fell desperately in love with her temperamental tutor, the married Constantin Heger.

Taylor, ever hungry for greater independence, soon moved on to Germany and took a position, controversially, teaching young men. Friendless and alone in Brussels, Brontё eventually realised that her position at the Pensionnat was untenable and returned to Haworth.

Taylor, on the other hand, decided to set-sail for an even more distant destination – New Zealand. On learning that the two would now be separated by thousands of miles, a devastated Brontё remarked that it felt as if ‘a great planet fell out of the sky’.

To most, including herself, it looked as if Taylor was the true adventurer. But Brontё was beginning to break new ground too. While Taylor pushed her literary ambitions into the background – concentrating instead on the daily challenges of her brave new life – safe within her childhood home, Brontё was finally getting the chance to write.

In 1847, Brontё tasted success for the first time when the publication of her first novel, Jane Eyre, caused a nationwide sensation.

Mary Taylor (far left), climbing in Switzerland at the age of fifty-seven. We asked the Red House museum for their permission to use this image.

Taylor, who’d continued to correspond with Brontё during her time in New Zealand, returned to Britain in 1860, five years after her friend’s early death. She kept on travelling into her later years. Aged in her fifties, she joined a female mountaineering expedition in Switzerland, which resulted in the jointly-authored book Swiss Notes by Five Ladies.

Owing to the distractions of her intrepid life, her novel Miss Miles wasn’t published until 1890 when Taylor was in her seventies. Like Brontё’s novel, Shirley – for which Taylor provided the inspiration for the plucky character of Rose Yorke – it can be regarded as a book that celebrates the enduring power of female friendship.

This month

Later this month, we’ll be doing another audio interview. This time we’ll be discussing Charlotte Brontё’s novel Jane Eyre, and Mary Taylor’s forthright reaction to the book. If you missed our previous interviews about Jane Austen’s Emma and Maria Edgeworth’s The Absentee, you can catch up on what we talked about then by scrolling down to those earlier posts.

For those who’d like a quick refresher, Jane Eyre is currently BBC Radio 4’s 15 Minute Drama. You can listen to episode one of the adaptation here.

Namesake

Due to family illness, Emily has not yet been able to post about her literary pilgrimage. However, we thought that perhaps those of you who missed it last time might be interested in an excerpt from the piece Emily wrote this time last year about her childhood visit to the Brontë Parsonage in Haworth.  

Title page of an early edition of Jane Eyre, showing Charlotte Bronte's pseudonym Currer Bell. Creative Commons licence.
Title page of an early edition of Jane Eyre, showing Charlotte Bronte’s pseudonym Currer Bell. Creative Commons licence.

I can’t remember a time when I didn’t have some sense of who the Brontë sisters were. My mother had named me Emily, after her favourite of the three, and, once she thought her daughters were old enough to appreciate the atmospheric setting – but some time, I think, before Erica or I had actually read any of the Brontës’ books – she took us to visit the Parsonage Museum at Haworth. This was a place famously popular with Japanese tourists, and somewhere Mum had got to know well herself through her related work for the regional tourist board.

There was a gift shop at the Parsonage, selling brooches bearing the sisters’ images. I, of course, bought an Emily Brontë brooch – thinking that, given my name – this was pretty much a requirement. I also remember feeling momentarily envious that Erica was able to make the choice for herself, by holding the Charlotte and Anne brooches up to the light and trying to decide whose picture she liked the most.

After much chivvying from our parents, who were no doubt keen to get us all outside for our lunchtime sandwiches, Erica finally selected the Charlotte brooch. Later, on the drive home in the car, we sat side-by-side in the back comparing our Brontë sisters. Unlike the dark colours of my miniature portrait of Emily, the Charlotte brooch was all cream and taupe with the merest blush of rose on her cheeks and lips.

There was something not-quite-there about the image, something that hinted at all the elements missing from the artist’s representation of his subject. You couldn’t guess, not from looking at the woman of that picture, that this was someone whose most famous novel had once made her a scandalous figure, because of the way its plot was believed to mount a dangerous challenge to contemporary patriarchal traditions.

Image used with kind permission of Oxford University Press.
Image used with kind permission of Oxford University Press.

Even in the biography written by Elizabeth Gaskell, there are many elements missing in her account of Charlotte’s life because, in order to try and resurrect her friend’s reputation she suppressed evidence, for instance, of her love of the married Constantin Héger, and tended to ignore details that might work against her aims of honouring Charlotte ‘as a woman, separate from her character as an authoress’.

Although later biographies have filled in many of these details, there is something about all three Brontë sisters, in fact, that remains enticingly enigmatic. It explains to me why my mother, a life-long lover of mysteries, should have been so drawn to their stories.

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.

So Many Unexpected Connections

As we mentioned in our first post of the month, it was one of our blog readers, Sarah Emsley, who told us about the friendship of L.M. Montgomery and Nora Lefurgey.

We’d got to know Sarah through her website and her support of Something Rhymed. Forming this kind of unexpected connection, often across the seas, has been one of the real pleasures we’ve encountered as a direct result of setting up our project.

Since beginning Something Rhymed at the start of this year, we’ve profiled the friendships of eleven pairs of female authors. But, of course, these women’s relationships with other writers didn’t stop with a single friend. Through our research we’ve learned about other important connections between different authors we’ve featured on this site.

Winifred Holtby, lovingly memorialised by Vera Brittain in Testament of Friendship, had earlier written a biography of her own: a book about Virginia Woolf. George Eliot, often believed to have been scornful of Jane Austen’s work, in fact studied the novels of her forebear in preparation for beginning to write her own fiction.

One of this month’s authors, L.M. Montgomery, felt a sense of affinity with Eliot. Mathilde Blind’s early biography of Eliot had such an impact on the then young and aspiring Montgomery that several of its words and phrases found their way into her own journals.

Elizabeth Gaskell was friends, not just with Charlotte Brontë, but also with Harriet Beecher Stowe. Stowe, as we wrote in October, was such an admirer of Charlotte Brontë that she once asked a medium to help her try to make contact with the late author’s ghost.

A planchette - the kind of device once used by Harriet Beecher Stowe, to try and make contact with the ghost of Charlotte Bronte. (Creative Commons licence)
A planchette – the kind of device once used by Harriet Beecher Stowe, to try and make contact with the ghost of Charlotte Bronte. (Creative Commons licence)

One half of next month’s pair of writers was also greatly influenced by Brontë, but she adopted a less other-worldly approach. Jean Rhys’s most famous book Wide Sargasso Sea resurrects the story of Antoinette Cosway, her reimagined version of the character of Bertha Mason, the ‘madwoman’ who’d previously languished in the attic of Brontë’s novel Jane Eyre.

We look forward to sharing more of Rhys’s own story with you in our first post of December, next week, and also continuing to discover many more important links between the great female authors – connections that often transcended their historical eras.

The Ghost of Charlotte Brontë

In our first post of October, we mentioned that George Eliot once received a letter from her friend Harriet Beecher Stowe in which she recounted a ghostly visit she’d received from the late Charlotte Brontë. Although Eliot brushed off this tale, telling Stowe that, ‘rightly or not’, she found it ‘enormously improbable’, the strange episode intrigued us. From which of the historic writers we’ve profiled on our website, we wondered, would we most welcome the chance of a visit?

The hardest thing about this month’s activity was making that choice. Katherine Mansfield, for instance, with her Bohemian ways, has always fascinated me. Having spent several months of this year immersed in Eliot’s letters to Stowe, I’ve become more and more interested in the life of the author of Middlemarch, and so I seriously considered writing about Eliot in this post, even though – given her reaction to Stowe – I’m not sure she’d have approved of the exercise.

But in the end I realised that, of all the authors we’ve profiled, it is the same writer that Stowe wrote of so excitedly to her British friend who has most haunted my own imagination over the years.

Title page of an early edition of Jane Eyre, showing Charlotte Bronte's pseudonym Currer Bell. Creative Commons licence.
Title page of an early edition of Jane Eyre, showing Charlotte Bronte’s pseudonym Currer Bell. Creative Commons licence.

Unlike Eliot or Stowe, Austen or Woolf, I can’t remember a time when I didn’t have some sense of who the Brontë sisters were. My mother had named me Emily, after her favourite of the three, and, once she thought her daughters were old enough to appreciate the atmospheric setting – but some time, I think, before Erica or I had actually read any of the Brontës’ books – she took us to visit the Parsonage Museum at Haworth. This was a place famously popular with Japanese tourists, and somewhere Mum had got to know well herself through her related work for the regional tourist board.

There was a gift shop at the Parsonage, selling brooches bearing the sisters’ images. I, of course, bought an Emily Brontë brooch – thinking that, given my name – this was pretty much a requirement. I also remember feeling momentarily envious that Erica was able to make the choice for herself, by holding the Charlotte and Anne brooches up to the light and trying to decide whose picture she liked the most.

After much chivvying from our parents, who were no doubt keen to get us all outside for our lunchtime sandwiches, Erica finally selected the Charlotte brooch. Later, on the drive home in the car, we sat side-by-side in the back comparing our Brontë sisters. Unlike the dark colours of my miniature portrait of Emily, the Charlotte brooch was all cream and taupe with the merest blush of rose on her cheeks and lips.

There was something not-quite-there about the image, something that hinted at all the elements missing from the artist’s representation of his subject. You couldn’t guess, not from looking at the woman of that picture, that this was someone whose most famous novel had once made her a scandalous figure, because of the way its plot was believed to mount a dangerous challenge to contemporary patriarchal traditions.

Image used with the kind permission of Oxford University Press.
Image used with the kind permission of Oxford University Press.

Even in the biography written by Elizabeth Gaskell, there are many elements missing in her account of Charlotte’s life because, in order to try and resurrect her friend’s reputation she suppressed evidence, for instance, of her love of the married Constantin Héger, and tended to ignore details that might work against her aims of honouring Charlotte ‘as a woman, separate from her character as an authoress’.

Although later biographies have filled in many of these details, there is something about all three Brontë sisters, in fact, that remains enticingly enigmatic. It explains to me why my mother, a life-long lover of mysteries, should have been so drawn to their stories, and even perhaps why Stowe sat down in the dark well over a century ago now and tried to make contact with Charlotte Brontë.

Thinking Back Through Our Mothers

By coincidence, this month Emily and I both recommended authors who were deeply influenced by Charlotte Brontë.

Portrait of Charlotte Brontë by J. H. Thompson  (Creative Commons License)
Portrait of Charlotte Brontë by J. H. Thompson
(Creative Commons License)

I will now treasure the copy of Jean Rhys’s After Leaving Mr MacKenzie, which Emily gave to me. Of course, Rhys’s most famous novel, Wide Sargasso Sea, which was inspired by Jane Eyre, imagines the first Mrs Rochester before she became consumed with madness and locked in the attic.

Rhys’s work, in turn, inspired Emily. She dedicated After Leaving Mr MacKenzie to me with the words: ‘When I first read this book, it changed the way I thought about writing forever’.

Just as Rhys’s descriptions of dingy hotel rooms and low-lit streets have lingered long in Emily’s imagination, I feel as if I have sat at the cocktail bar in A Tiny Speck of Black and then Nothing, Emily’s novel, chatting with the blind barman. There’s a scene in which the heroine searches for her missing friend in the labyrinthine alleyways of Osaka that has become so lodged in my own mind that I could almost mistake it for a memory. Moreover, the melodic quality of Emily’s novel sets up in duet with Rhys’s melancholic song.

 

Jean Rhys in the 1970s (Creative Commons License)
Jean Rhys in the 1970s
(Creative Commons License)

I also chose for Emily a writer whose work I engage with in my own writing. Virginia Woolf, although she famously overturned taboos of madness and sexuality, claimed that ‘one could hardly describe’ the life of her half-sister who was diagnosed with ‘imbecility’.

When I began my novel, The Waifs and Strays of Sea View Lodge, I set out to prove Woolf wrong by writing from the perspective of twin sisters, one of whom has profound learning disabilities. However, I ended up turning back to Woolf’s novels for inspiration on how to write about our flawed yet valiant attempts to read each other’s minds.

Woolf had an ambivalent relationship with Charlotte Brontë, whose genius she felt was hindered by her attempts to ape a male type of writing rather than creating a voice of her own. However, like Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea, it seems to me that Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway also owes a debt of gratitude to Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre.  

Virginia Woolf (Creative Commons License)
Virginia Woolf
(Creative Commons License)

I first read Mrs Dalloway when I was in my late teens, and I still remember the passage that seduced me: ‘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’.

How odd that this depiction of sexual grief so captured my adolescent imagination. I now wonder whether I subconsciously related it back to Bertha, Charlotte Brontë’s ‘mad woman in the attic’, whose story I found even more fascinating than that of Jane Eyre.

‘We think back through our mothers if we are women,’ Woolf claimed in A Room of One’s Own. In Mrs Dalloway and Wide Sargasso Sea we catch a glimpse of two authors doing just that: befriending and confronting their predecessor on the page. This, in turn, has been the founding philosophy of our quest on Something Rhymed. Together, Emily and I are gleaning tips about how to sustain our valuable friendship by thinking back through the successes and mistakes of our literary mothers – a lineage that runs from Brontë to Woolf and Rhys.