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
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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.

The Kind of Friendship that Shores You Up: Susan Barker and Zakia Uddin

A work connection brought Ruth Rendell and Jeanette Winterson together. In this month’s guest blog, novelist Susan Barker and journalist Zakia Uddin tell us about the lucky circumstances that led to their friendship.

Susan

SusanBarker Beijing Photo 3I first met Zakia when we had summer jobs at the Statue of Liberty in 1999. Zakia was working in the gift shop, and I was outdoors in a kiosk selling hot dogs to the tourists. She was 19, I was 20, and we were both wearing unflattering green uniforms.

My first impression of Zakia was that she was pretty (my then boyfriend used to call Zakia ‘the elfin girl’), and very sharp, with a dry sense of humour that unsettled our co-workers at times.

That summer we took cigarette breaks together, and in the evenings we’d hang out at dive bars in the East Village where we weren’t ID-ed. It didn’t take long to establish we had a lot in common. We’d both grown up in Essex, as the children of Asian immigrants, and both had a similar sense of being caught between two cultures, and not fully belonging to either.

But mostly we had books in common. Zakia was a consummate reader, and would lend me her eclectic second-hand book shop finds. Fifteen years later, I still have one of those ‘borrowed’ paperbacks, in my bookcase at home.

Zakia and I reunited in London after that summer, and though I have been living in Asia half the time since then, we have kept in touch. She’s the first person I look up when I am back in the UK, and my favourite person to go to the pub and talk literature with.

For the past decade or so we have also had in common the ritual of locking ourselves away to write fiction (and in Zakia’s case, journalism) and the highs and lows of our vocation to share and commiserate over too.

Zakia is relentlessly interesting, funny and subversive company. A blog post is not nearly enough to describe how fortunate I am to have her in my life.

Zakia

Zakia photoI wanted to be friends with Susan based on her recalcitrant attitude towards customer service. I didn’t know what we had in common until much later, but I thought her tattoo and predilection for vodka and Marlboro Reds was cool.

Our exchange of books happened early. In New York, I read a combination of half-understood theory and old novels. Susan introduced me to contemporary writing that I might have reached by a more winding route, but I’m glad I didn’t.

She lent me Sam Lipsyte’s Venus Drive, and Gwendoline Riley’s Cold Water, which both blew me away stylistically. We don’t always agree on the novels we like (which I love), but she continues to introduce me to technically fascinating writers.

Her genuine, sometimes gruff, encouragement with my writing was a factor in making me come back to fiction periodically, and then finally apply to a creative writing course. I also still think of her description, on a packed night-bus home to North London, of the novel as a ‘will-to-power’ exercise – seeing writing well as a challenge to yourself above anything else. The idea helps me to focus when I get neurotic or needy about ‘success’ or the lack of it.

Our backgrounds played a huge part in why we got along but there was also a shared love of similar music and film, and a tendency to see the comical in most things. We spent a lot of time in clubs, bars, and the kitchens of my various rented houses when she moved to London.

We’ve lived in different countries for a long while now, but the discussions when we sporadically see each other in England feel so much richer with time. What I value equally are the heartfelt, revelatory, honest conversations about work, relationships and the future, which usually make me feel realistic, tough and more hopeful afterwards.

This is the kind of friendship that shores you up.

 

Susan Barker’s third novel The Incarnations was published by Transworld this month.

A selection of Zakia Uddin’s journalism can be read at http://zaktivities.net/

 

Ruth Rendell and Jeanette Winterson

Ruth Rendell and Jeanette Winterson at the Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival 2013 (Copyright Fenris Oswin)
Ruth Rendell and Jeanette Winterson at the Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival 2013 (Copyright Fenris Oswin)

At first glance, the friendship between two of Britain’s best-loved writers, Ruth Rendell and Jeanette Winterson, might seem a tad unlikely. For starters, their fiction is radically different. And then there’s the obvious difference in age.

Now in her eighties, Rendell is almost thirty years Winterson’s senior and, certainly in the friendship’s earliest days, she took on the role of nurturer. Winterson, whose relationship with the woman who adopted her as a baby was famously troubled, writes of Rendell with great affection in her memoir, describing her as ‘the Good Mother – never judging, quietly supporting’.

This side of their friendship, reminded us of the maternal element to the relationship between Charlotte Brontë and Elizabeth Gaskell, despite there only being a six-year age difference in their case.

Rendell took Winterson under her wing from the beginning. Hearing that the younger writer was looking for a place to stay, she invited her to move into her own home while she was abroad. She had no qualms about handing over the keys to someone she’d only just met, claiming to have known ‘at once that she was absolutely trustworthy and honest and honourable’.

Rendell’s nurturing was professional as well as personal, leading Winterson to describe the older author – to whom she has sometimes even turned for writerly advice – as her ‘role model’. When Hammer commissioned Winterson to write a horror novel, she sought out Rendell’s guidance on how to maintain a page-turning plot.

Winterson is keen to reciprocate the generosity in different ways, often for instance, buying Rendell gifts of earrings. But other attempts to treat her friend haven’t always quite gone to plan, thanks to Rendell’s more private nature. Winterson recalls how on the occasion of her pal’s birthday one year she’d thought of taking her out for dinner and champagne. But she says Rendell responded with ‘oh, do I have to?’ and so she ‘went round to her house and cooked scrambled eggs instead’.

This incident, narrated with good humour by Winterson, seems to encapsulate both the differences and the closeness between these two women. It’s a simple memory, but, to us at least, it speaks volumes about an outwardly unusual literary pairing that transcends differences in creative output, age and personality.

Activity

When Ruth Rendell offered Jeanette Winterson a place to stay, it made all the difference to the young author, who was then struggling to find somewhere to write.

This month, we’ll be letting each other know about a time of our own when the help of our friend made all the difference.

Do keep those recommendations for other pairs of writing friends coming in.