Jill Dawson and Kathryn Heyman: competition and correspondence

When Kathryn Heyman read our profile of the rivalrous friendship between Kathryn Mansfield and Virginia Woolf, she told us about the role of envy in her long-distance friendship with fellow novelist, Jill Dawson. So we decided this week to feature a guest blog from them.

Jill Dawson and Kathryn Heyman
Jill Dawson and Kathryn Heyman

You either want to kill your competitors or become their friends. We chose friendship. But perhaps it’s slightly disingenuous to present it that way: when we feel that competitive spirit, it’s partly because we are attracted to the very qualities which we have – or aspire to have – ourselves.

Like Woolf, who wanted to be a better writer because she believed Mansfield had set a high standard, when one of us is successful it spurs the other on. We have allowed ourselves to be truthful about the role envy plays in our friendship because envy, after all, is a way of discovering what it is that we want.

Because we are in the same field, there are inevitably times of difficulty, of one achieving something the other wants. Award shortlists, film deals, new book deals, invitations to international events: we are, in some ways, competitors, at least if we chose to believe that there is not enough to go around. Both of us would say that we would prefer to be the one winning the Booker Prize in a given year, for instance – but if the other won it the same year, that would be a pretty neat next best thing.

We live on opposite sides of the world now, which causes us some pain. But we talk to each other every week. Our conversations are about writing, gossip, lipstick, what to wear to events, children, husbands, our works-in-progress. We’ve been alongside each other for each of our novels – thirteen between us – and know the stages of writing. ‘I thought it was going so well,’ one of us will say, ‘but now it all seems so flat. I can’t hold it together, it’s going to collapse.’ ‘Yes,’ the other will say. ‘You always say that at precisely this stage, just before you discover something wonderful; remember the last book? And the one before that?’

We write to each other regularly too. Like Woolf and Mansfield, we discuss our novels-in-progress, money matters, the books we are reading, our mutual friends. At one point, the notion of the ideal reader cropped up in our correspondence, the person who we really write for, the one who is capable of understanding the depth and intelligence of our work. And we realised then that we’ve found in each other our ideal reader – the one writer in the world for whom we would value ourselves as a reader as much as a writer. We are extraordinarily blessed that the competitor we most fervently admire is also the friend who we adore.

Kathryn Heyman’s fifth novel, Floodline, was published by Allen and Unwin in 2013.

Jill Dawson’s eighth novel, The Tell-tale Heart, will be published by Sceptre in 2014.

This post is adapted from a longer article by Kathryn Heyman, originally published in Vogue in 2008.

Remember: 

We’d love to hear about the letters you’ve exchanged, or perhaps you would like to share some reflections on the role of envy in your friendship.

We’re still on the look out for famous female writer pals, so do keep them coming too.

Katherine Mansfield and Virginia Woolf

Katherine Mansfield and Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf’s scathing first impression of Katherine Mansfield as ‘a civet cat that had taken to street-walking’ had always led us to put them down as enemies, but when our novelist friend Jill Dawson suggested them for our Times article on female writing friendships we began to question this preconception.

It turned out that Mansfield and Woolf considered themselves dear friends: they sought each other’s opinions on the books they traded; they exchanged gifts of Belgian cigarettes, loaves of bread, coffee beans, and columbine plants; they sent each other umpteen letters; and discussed their work over tea.

The two women were unlikely pals: Mansfield hailed from the far-flung colonies, whereas Woolf’s family was firmly entrenched in the English intelligentsia; Mansfield embraced her youthful desires with bohemian exuberance, whereas Woolf approached intimacy with timidity.

Both women experienced chronic illness, had complex relationships with editor husbands, and felt ambivalent about their childlessness. But it was really their shared literary endeavours that fired their friendship. Indeed, after spending a weekend with Woolf, Mansfield remarked that it was ‘very curious & thrilling that we should both, quite apart from each other, be after so very nearly the same thing’.

Although their friendship was relatively brief – from 1917 until Mansfield’s death in 1923 – its effect on their work was profound. During this time, Mansfield produced most of her celebrated stories (one of which Woolf published), and Woolf forged her trademark style. Although we more readily associate Woolf with the stream of consciousness technique, it was actually Mansfield who tried it out first.

In fact, Woolf seems to have been the more dependent of the pair: she was hurt (but likely also stimulated) by Mansfield’s damning review of her second novel; she worried when her letters failed to elicit a swift response; and references to Mansfield haunt her journal, showing her friend’s continued influence from beyond the grave.

Both friends recognised each other’s literary prowess: Woolf claimed that Mansfield’s was the only prose to have made her jealous, and Mansfield said that reading Woolf made her proud.

We too feel proud of our literary ancestresses – these women whose relationship could accommodate support and rivalry, criticism and praise; who were open to each other’s influence; and whose important friendship we’d been all too ready to write off.

Activity

Katherine Mansfield and Virginia Woolf enjoyed corresponding with each other. In this letter, Woolf describes jotting in her diary ideas she wanted to share with Mansfield. This way, she wouldn’t forget to mention them the next time she wrote to her friend.

This month, we will follow their example. Like Woolf, we will use our notebooks to keep track of the things we’d like to discuss. Then we will write about these ideas in letters that we will post to each other.

We’d appreciate any suggestions of other friendships between famous female writers (living or dead) that you’d like us to feature in future posts.