Eliot Bliss and Jean Rhys

Towards the end of 2014, when we had been running Something Rhymed for just one year, we had the pleasure of interviewing Diana Athill about the literary bond she shared with the late Jean Rhys.

Plaque outside Jean Rhys's former home in London's Chelsea (Creative Commons licence)
Plaque outside Jean Rhys’s former home in London’s Chelsea (Creative Commons licence)

As many others before her had also observed, Athill recalled that Rhys was not someone who made friends easily. On the other hand, the famously temperamental author could be ‘fun to be with’, Athill told us – at least ‘when she was being happy’.

Rhys also knew how to turn on the charm when she needed help. ‘When she was young and a very, very pretty woman’, Athill remembered with a wry smile, ‘she was rescued over and over again by helpful men. When she became older, she was rescued by nice women like me’.

Having so enjoyed our afternoon’s talk back in 2014, Emma and I were delighted to learn of another of Rhys’s female literary alliances.

Although Rhys had written four earlier, highly accomplished novels, she remains best known today as the author of Wide Sargasso Sea, inspired by the plot of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. But almost three decades before the publication of Rhys’s 1966 book, which would bring her the kind of public admiration that she’d always felt she deserved, she became acquainted with Eliot Bliss – like her, a white writer from the Caribbean, Rhys hailing from Dominica whereas Bliss came from Jamaica.

Image used with the kind permission of Michela A. Calderaro, who has published a newly-discovered collection of poems by Bliss.

Eliot Bliss (born Eileen Norah Lees Bliss in 1903), whose pen-name was partially inspired by George Eliot, was the author of the novels Saraband and Luminous Isle. And, like Rhys, her work was highly autobiographical, often focusing on the lush island homes of their youths.

The pair got to know each other while they were both living in London, and Rhys, then in her forties, was enjoying an unusually settled – and therefore happy – period in an often chaotic life. During the summer of 1937, the two met every fortnight to enjoy home-cooked Caribbean dinners washed down with vast quantities of wine.

Such was Rhys’s ability to drink that her poor younger friend always felt ill after these meals. Rhys, too, sometimes ended up so drunk that her husband would have to put both women to bed.

On occasion, Bliss would catch a glimpse of her friend’s stormy temper – for instance, when Rhys drunkenly accused Bliss (the daughter of a colonial army officer) of looking down on her. But when Rhys was sober, according to Bliss, she was always kind-natured and – as Athill, too, would later note – full of fun.

Sadly, in the winter of 1937, Bliss left for America. But the two writers continued to correspond in the decades to come, their letters challenging the common perception of Rhys as constantly difficult-natured and someone who was unable to make friends with other women.

This year…

We are looking forward to profiling many more female writing friendships. If you sent us a recommendation over the past twelve months, when we have been working hard on our forthcoming book, please know that we have not forgotten about it. We welcome all ideas for literary pairs you’d like to see on this site, so if a friendship we haven’t covered yet comes to mind, please do let us know.

Poet and Memoirist, Salena Godden, on Women in Print

At the first Something Rhymed Salon, Salena Godden read from an essay that was originally published on For Books’ Sake – a site that champions writing by women. She has kindly given us permission to re-blog it here.

She originally wrote the piece in 2014 to tie in with the Women in Print campaign by the innovative publisher, Unbound, which tried to tackle the wider gender imbalance in the publishing industry.

 

hero-fbsI feel a little nervous writing about this campaign as I’m only just now in print after over two decades of rejections and near misses. The poetry collection Fishing In The Aftermath poems 1994-2014 came out in July with Burning Eye Books and the childhood memoir Springfield Road was published in October with Unbound.

It wasn’t intentional to publish both books in the same year but that’s the way the cards fell and I followed the bread crumbs up the path to find myself here today.

I began work on Springfield Road in 2006 – but before that I wrote poetry, short stories and songs in my band SaltPeter. Back in the early 1990’s I was idealistic and fearless. I’d been working on a novel and I thought I finally had something worth reading. I boldly booked a meeting with a well-known publisher.

I remember bowling into the glass offices alone, with no manager or agent, just me and my manuscript. I also gave him a beautiful mock-up of the book, complete with images, artwork and layout, which a designer friend had been working on with me. After he’d read it, the publisher was kind about it. Looking back, he was very generous, but then he said something I’ll never forget… he told me it was ‘too brave’ for a first novel.

The publisher closed that meeting by suggesting I read Bridget Jones and try writing chick-lit and then come back to him. That was the summer Bridget Jones’s Diary was buzzing like an incessant vibrating lipstick. I have never attempted to write a chick-lit, but that first rejection and those words ‘too brave’ stayed with me.

Springfield Road was initially sold to a major publishing house. After four years we went our separate ways, and now it seems that bravery was what was required. It was frustrating to watch my story chopped to bits in order to try and make it fit into another commercial genre, the misery memoir.

The bravest thing I could do was to take my book back, re-write and publish it my way and to never, ever give up. I think of 2006-2010 and being signed to a major publisher as my writer’s training ground; I learned how to fake that I had a thick skin, I learned some patience. Most importantly I learned to read my own compass and to be sure to stay true and tell my story my way.

Working with Unbound I have the sense of being in a team whilst also still being independent. Writing is hard work, the crowd funding process was hard work and now spreading the word about both books is hard work too.

But I have my Unbound family and editor Rachael Kerr behind me, I adore our working relationship and friendship. Burning Eye’s Clive Birnie has great passion for publishing, Burning Eye Books is boldly setting out to show us that ‘spoken word’ does work on the page.

Springfield_Road_COVERThey also publish an above average number of women. My golden rule has always been to go where the love is, there is a real love for books here.

When I was a little girl I spent much of my time upside down or spinning in circles. I have always had an awareness that there is more, ok to put it bluntly, I have always had an interest in getting out of my head to get into my head. As a teenager I was drawn to literature of a hedonistic nature.

I devoured books like Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S Thompson, the work of William Burroughs, Timothy Leary, the Beats and Jack Kerouac.

I searched high and low for women’s stories, I read Carolyn Cassady’s Off The Road a miserable account of the reality of rent and babies, depression and poverty, whilst her husband Neal Cassady is On The Road with Kerouac enjoying orgies of pot and LSD.

Next I discovered Joyce Johnson’s book Minor Characters about 1950’s New York, she writes about her time with the beats, Allen Ginsberg and William and Joan Burroughs.

Again this is a portrayal of being an observer, of not being of any importance to the party, the movement or the revolution. As for William Burroughs, his wife Joan was shot, it was an accident, a trick that went wrong, but she is now listed as not much more than a footnote in the weird and wonderful Burroughs experiments.

These curious and curiouser worlds of experimentation and hedonism it seems have always been narrated by men and from the male perspective. I want to read about female ejaculation. Ha! Seriously, I want to read books by women about women on the front line and in the trenches.

I want to read books by women about the passion and the sacrifices we make living this writing life, writing this living life. I want to see more places set for women at that great table that is the feast of books.

I believe that if we do not start publishing more women, we only pass on half of our inheritance, half of our heritage, half of the story. If we only hear from the great white shark, we miss all the other diverse voices and fish in the sea.

It is no accident that I mostly read men when I was a teenager, back then it seemed to me that was where the party was. It took me years to stumble upon the great Jean Rhys and her vivid 1930’s boozy Paris.

One of my all-time favourite novels Good Morning, Midnight was hidden from me, overshadowed by the likes of Henry Miller and Louis Ferdinand Celine.

Writing Springfield Road I realise now I was trying to narrate a time and place in childhood, to capture it and hold it up in a jam jar for us to see the wings, as you might a butterfly, and then to set it free and watch it fly. I couldn’t find the book I wanted to read in the library, so I wrote it, to paraphrase Toni Morrison.

I wanted to write a story from how the world looked to me as the half caste kid, the alien with the green eyes in a brown face. Both Fishing In The Aftermath and Springfield Road burn with the frustration of longing to belong, of being invisible, yet pull on strength found in the freedom of being an outsider. I am wary of labels and boxes and lists, I feel they only serve to distract and divide writers.

A writer must only concern herself that what she writes today is better than yesterday, she must compete with the better work of her own making tomorrow. Every morning, man or woman, we surely all begin with the same fight: Writer V’s Empty Page.

Today there are millions of mixed race, cloud bothering, daydreamers, little girls spinning in circles getting dizzy in playgrounds all over Britain – And as I write this I say hail to each and every one of them, may they all be too brave.

If any of you have stories about your struggles to be accepted by the literary establishment, please do share them using the comment facility below.

Who Cares?

Someone recently told me that she considered my sister’s life to have no value.

My sister has severe autism and cerebral palsy, so she requires constant support from family, friends and paid carers. I stayed with Lou recently and, during this time, it was me who cut up her food into bite-size pieces, bathed and dressed her, held her hand to help her safely cross the road.

It would seem unthinkable now to dismiss Helen Keller’s life as valueless. And yet, many people must have written off this deaf-blind girl and pitied those who looked after this hot-tempered child.

In fact, Keller’s disabilities enabled her to look at our world from a distinctive vantage point – one that came to be valued by prestigious literary journals, world leaders and the general public alike.

As with many of the literary women we’ve featured on this site, it is difficult to prise apart Keller’s dazzling abilities from her apparent disabilities. Could Emily Dickinson have written such wildly challenging verse if she had conformed to the demands of the outside world? Could Jean Rhys have penned Wide Sargasso Sea without her own feelings of imprisonment? Could Virginia Woolf have rendered Septimus Smith’s shell shock had she not experienced the loosening grip of her own sanity?

The courage, determination and soaring talent of these writers were supported by the care and commitment of their family, friends and employees. Infamously reclusive, Dickinson underwent surgery on her eyes and a recent biographer claims that she may also have had epilepsy. Her writing life was facilitated by her siblings, and she received invaluable support from fellow writer Helen Hunt Jackson during a time when few others recognised the genius of her work – a subject we’ve written about for Shooter Literary Magazine.

Shooter Literary Magazine available from Foyles
Shooter Literary Magazine available from Foyles

During our interview with Diana Athill, she told us that Rhys relied in her youth on ‘helpful men’ to guide her through the trials of everyday life, while in later years ‘she was rescued by nice women like me’. Leonard Woolf – his wife’s most prized reader – helped to nurse her through dark times, never doubting her brilliance.

Throughout her long and dignified life, Keller relied on others night and day. Those who helped her were privileged to glean insights on how to value and be valued by a fellow human being. The support, of course, went both ways. Indeed, when Keller turned down offers from world-famous filmmakers in favour of the inexperienced Nancy Hamilton, she acted out of deep care for her friend.

During the past weeks, while I was helping my sister to bathe and dress and eat, she was looking after me in ways that were subtle but just as significant. Before travelling up to stay with her, I had been feeling uncharacteristically low. By welcoming me into her daily routine, Lou reminded me that joy can be found in all sorts of places: her face would light up when she selected an outfit from the clothes I’d laid out on her bed; in the cinema, she sang along to ‘Tomorrow’ with Annie, clapping her hands above her head; one evening, she dragged me around the marine lake at sunset, forcing me to run against the wind and laughing all the way.

Lou bringing a smile to my face
Lou bringing a smile to my face

Later that night we went to a gig and Lou shook hands with all and sundry, repeating her favourite phrases: ‘What’s your name? You’re a ratbag! I like college.’ In this way, we got chatting to a young man, who – full of despair – had just dropped out of university. Lou reached across me to take hold of the young man, and they sat hand in hand for a long time. I like to think that she was helping him that night just as she was helping me: that her zest for life was rubbing off on him; that he would value – as I did – her reminder that there can be dignity and kindness in seeking and accepting care.

The Ship has set sail

We are delighted to announce that yet another of our guest bloggers has a book out this month. What’s more, Antonia Honeywell’s The Ship asks wise and searching questions about the value of life and what it really means to care.

 

In the Hands of Chance?

Image by Angela Monika Arnold (Creative Commons licence)
Image by Angela Monika Arnold (Creative Commons licence)

A chance meeting in the ladies’ lavatory at a wedding marked the start of the friendship between last week’s guest interviewees, Polly Coles and Liz Jensen.

This got us thinking about some of the other unplanned first encounters of writers we’ve featured on Something Rhymed.

Susan Barker and Zakia Uddin, for instance – saw their paths collide back in 1999 at the Statue of Liberty, where they both had summer jobs. Rachel Connor and Antonia Honeywell formed an immediate connection when they happened to be paired as students in advance of their first MA Novel Writing workshop at Manchester University.

Of the monthly profiled writers, some like Charlotte Brontë and Elizabeth Gaskell and Harriet Beecher Stowe and George Eliot knew of each other by reputation before they met. Diana Athill formed a connection with Jean Rhys through her job as an editor at André Deutsch, and the friendship between Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison really blossomed when they both found themselves appearing at the Hay Festival in Wales.

But others, especially those who met early on in their literary careers, got to know each other under circumstances largely governed by happy twists of coincidence.

What would have happened if Vera Brittain and Winifred Holtby hadn’t each passed their university entrance exams and found themselves at the same Oxford college? Or if the teacher’s job in L.M. Montgomery’s hometown on Prince Edward Island had been given to someone other than Nora Lefurgey? Or Anne Sharp hadn’t gone to work as a governess with Jane Austen’s family?

Some might say that, with such similar political views and overlapping fields of work, Brittain and Holtby would likely have met eventually, but one can more easily imagine a life in which Austen had to manage without Sharp’s friendship, and Montgomery never found a kindred spirit in Lefurgey.

And since both Brittain and Holtby were always keen to credit the other for the role they had played in shaping their own success, this raises the question as to whether each woman’s life might have run a quite different course without the help of her valued friend.

Unlike the vast majority of our monthly guest bloggers and featured authors, who were already well on their way with their writing careers by the time they became acquainted, regular readers of Something Rhymed will know that when Emma Claire and I met neither of us had published a single article or story.

In fact, we had been scribbling in secret up until then, and hadn’t had the courage to share our ambitions to write with anyone else.

It’s nice to think that, having so many things in common, we would have found each other, perhaps on-line, eventually – an advantage female writers of today have over those in Montgomery or Austen’s times.

But it’s far nicer to be able to recall the fact that we’ve been there for each other through all the ups and downs of our writing journeys, and to think that, as Brittain once said about Holtby: ‘although we didn’t exactly grow up together, we grew mature together, and that is the next best thing’.

A Year of Hidden Friendships

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

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

Old treasure chest
Creative Commons License

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

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

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

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

Memories of Jean Rhys: our interview with Diana Athill

We recently wrote to one of this month’s profiled authors to ask if she would be willing to answer some questions about the late Jean Rhys. We were delighted when Diana Athill responded with a charming picture postcard and an invitation to come and visit her. December’s guest blog is the result of our conversation.

Jean Rhys in older age (1970s). Creative Commons licence
Jean Rhys in older age (1970s). Creative Commons licence

Diana Athill, now in her mid-nineties, has often spoken about how much she likes living at this residential home in north London. The greatest wrench she experienced when she moved out of her old flat in Primrose Hill was the need to give up a lifetime’s worth of books.

There is a single tall bookcase to the left of the chair where she is now sitting. Although it holds a great many more volumes than my similarly-aged grandparents had in their entire house, Athill’s collection previously ran into the thousands. In fact, the mammoth task of being forced to reduce it caused her such stress that she ended up spending a night in hospital.

From the chairs she’s instructed us to pull up – warning me apologetically that mine won’t be very comfortable – we count several titles by Jean Rhys, the author whose career Athill helped to resurrect through her work as an editor at André Deutsch.

Readers of our first December post will know what a long wait Athill had in store for her when Rhys told her she could have the final draft of Wide Sargasso Sea in ‘six or nine months’, and of her support and encouragement over the nine years it took for Rhys to finally deliver her manuscript.

Did Athill ever feel frustrated with her, we wonder. ‘I quite often felt frustrated’, she says, ‘but on the hand it became sort of a habit… She was fun to be with, you see, when she was being happy. And she was great as a writer.’

In relation to her writing, Athill remarks that Rhys was ‘steely’. ‘She knew exactly what she wanted and she was always dead right. In relation to ordinary life, I think she got stuck at about the age of eight.’

But because she could be charming, people wanted to come to her aid: ‘When she was young and a very, very pretty woman, she was rescued over and over again by helpful men. When she became older, she was rescued by nice women like me.’

When we ask Athill about her happiest memories of Rhys, she responds with laughter. She recalls the times when she stayed at Rhys’s cottage in Devon, saying that they were ‘hardly happy… but fun’.

Rhys once described the village she lived in as ‘a dull spot which even drink can’t enliven much’. Athill reserves comment on the geographical location, but she was clearly horrified by the small house itself: ‘When I first saw it I thought, how could anybody live here?’

But although she and others spent hours trying to find the author an alternative home, Athill tells us that Rhys would always say, in the end, ‘I think not. Better the devil I know.’

After the publication of Wide Sargasso Sea and republication of her earlier novels brought her greater financial stability, Rhys’s friends arranged for improvements to be made to the house, which resulted in it becoming warmer. The shed beside the building was converted into a spare room.

‘The funniest time really’, Athill laughs, was ‘when I went there and I was staying in this awful little shed’. It was a windy night and the surrounding bushes were banging against its outer walls. She woke up thinking: ‘Oh goodness, it’s making even more of a noise, and so I opened my eyes and what did I see? My handbag flying through the air out of the window!’

It would turn out that a thief with a hook on a long wooden rod had whisked her bag away. Athill leapt out of bed, but the boy vanished immediately.

First page of the introduction to Smile Please by Diana Athill, Jean Rhys's unfinished autobiography.
First page of Diana Athill’s introduction to  Smile Please, Jean Rhys’s unfinished autobiography.

When she told Rhys about the incident the next morning, the author’s reaction was: ‘“Oh good!” Because she’d been telling people that she’d heard suspicious people creeping about outside at night and they’d all told her she was imagining it.’

Rhys was famously paranoid – something she herself admitted. ‘Victim’ is another term readily associated with her, although this was something that used to make her angry. ‘There was a lot of violence in Jean’, Athill says. ‘She used to get very, very cross when people said she was a victim because she knew perfectly well, in her heart of hearts, that she was pretty fierce.’

Rhys’s literary ferocity combined with her helplessness in everyday matters created the circumstances for her collaboration with Athill – one of the most important in recent literary history.

Diana Athill’s collection of short stories Midsummer Night in the Workhouse is published by Persephone Books. Her selected memoirs Life Class is published by Granta Books.

A True Story

Emily and I have vivid memories of the moment when we first admitted that we were both secretly writing: the bowls of garlicky spaghetti we were eating; the acquaintance who unexpectedly showed up at the restaurant, putting a stop to our conversation; the way we picked up where we’d left off as we wandered through a shopping mall on our way home.

That discussion revealed some differences in our main motivations. Emily was driven by a desire to tell gripping stories whereas – ridiculously, in retrospect – that didn’t much interest me. My imagination was more fired by the psychology of characters and the cadences of individual lines.

A year later, when we gathered the courage to swap drafts, Emily sent me a fully formed story, while my pages comprised a series of vignettes with no discernible narrative. I still remember the first scene I read from Emily’s pen: a girl hunched over a sink in a drab Parisian hotel room, rinsing blood from her clothes while her boyfriend looked on. I still remember the tension that mounted as I turned the pages, the male character metamorphosing into a mosquito. The story ended with two possibilities hanging in the balance: perhaps the transformation had been real or perhaps it was the product of the girl’s unhinged mind.

Emily’s fiction has become increasingly stamped with her own unique style while still containing traces of those early literary influences: Jean Rhys, Haruki Murakami and Daphne du Maurier. But even those first efforts contained the beginnings of the melodic elegance and taut precision that I have come to so admire in Emily’s work. Many of her characters have lingered long in my mind: Loll, the Western nightclub hostess in Ōsaka’s Moonglow bar, who mixes cocktails for breakfast and wears long platinum blond wigs over her dark razor-cut hair; Nigel, the nylon-suited twenty-seven year-old, who is devoted to his elderly wife ‘Mrs Brewster’; Violet Wyndham, long-time principal of the Wyndham School of Ballet and Modern Dance, who wears stage makeup, dyes her hair flame red and cuts a controversial figure in the local town.

Creative Commons License
Creative Commons License

From Emily I learned that characters and cadences can only be enhanced by a good, old-fashioned, page-turning plot. But, much as she loves a great story, in her non-fiction she never gives way to the temptation to embellish or distort. ‘Is that quite right?’ Emily often asks when we are co-writing a literary feature, ‘Do we really believe that?’

When I came to write my PhD, I could often hear Emily’s voice in my head: ‘Is that a claim you’re prepared to stand by?’ she would ask. So, although she hasn’t read a word of my thesis, her influence is imprinted on every page.

The best story, Emily has taught me, is always the true story. It is the job of the non-fiction writer to draw out its inherent intrigue, tension and significance – something we endeavour to do on this site each and every time we unearth one of the hidden friendships of the women who went before us.