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.

The Something Rhymed party

From the mad tea party in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland to The Great Gatsby’s  glamorous shindigs to the almost unbearable occasion to mark Blanche’s birthday in A Streetcar Named Desire, literature is full of social occasions that linger on in the minds of its audiences.

In the hands of a writer, the bringing together of a sizable cast of characters can lead to moments of revelation, conflict or panic. In Larry’s Party by Carol Shields, the whole plot builds towards the titular gathering. A devastating mistake made at a party by the timid protagonist of Rebecca signals an important shift in Daphne du Maurier’s novel. A mysterious soirée in A Murder is Announced marks the shocking point at which Agatha Christie’s village mystery truly begins.

Emma Claire and I were hoping for considerably less drama at our party – the first we’d ever organised together – and yet, we wanted it to be an occasion that would remain as a memory, in a good way, for all those who were there.

We decided to make an occasion of it with a traditional British afternoon tea.

We were inspired by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, who once organised a get-together for Zora Neale Hurston, and also a feeling that we wanted to provide an opportunity for female writers we knew to make new writer friends. Owing to the size of my London flat, we were forced to keep things small-scale, so we invited just four writing women and asked each of them to bring along a female writer friend.

Our guests were Susan Barker, Emily Bullock, Ann Morgan, Irenosen Okojie, Yen Ooi, Denise Saul and Zakia Uddin – some of whom will be known to Something Rhymed readers through their guest posts on our blog.

IMG_1153In a written story, it is often the things that go wrong at a party that cement it in the reader’s imagination. We thought we might have a situation like that on our hands when, only five minutes before our first guest turned up, I opened the freezer door to get some ice and suddenly discovered two forgotten bottles of fizz – one smashed to pieces and one that promptly exploded everywhere when Emma Claire eased out the cork.

It’s the sort of incident that, if you’re hosting on your own (or feel that sole responsibility for a party’s success lies with you), can become magnified out of all proportion. In The Garden Party by Katherine Mansfield, though the majority of family members are remarkably untroubled by the genuinely terrible news that arrives halfway through the tale, there is much concern earlier on about the feared disappearance of the little flags for the sandwiches.

But as the two of us struggled to leap out of the way of the flying foam, we found we were unable to stop laughing: a reminder that, having the right friend at your side at moments like these swiftly transforms them from catastrophe to comedy.

Zakia Uddin, Denise Saul and Susan Barker listening to Emily Bullock reading an extract from her forthcoming novel, The Longest Fight.
Zakia Uddin, Denise Saul, Susan Barker and Emily Bullock (reading from her forthcoming novel, The Longest Fight).

Amazingly, too, the sparkling wine down Em’s dress seemed to dry out in record time and had virtually disappeared by the time everyone arrived. We’d wondered earlier – completely unnecessarily as it turned out – if, with a group of people who didn’t really know each other, conversation would be initially stilted. So we’d asked each writer to bring along a sample of her work as a way of introducing herself. In between the sandwiches, cakes and replenishing of glasses, we were treated to extracts from novels and short stories, and some of Denise’s poetry.

We talked about professional issues too. Questions about book launches, ways of spreading the word about our work, and university programmes were just some of the things we discussed. If I had to sum up the occasion in a few words, I’d say it was five hours of warmth and good conversation, and lots of laughter: not the conflict of great literature perhaps, but – for Emma Claire and me, and we hope for all our guests – the stuff of a great party for writers.

The Heroism of the Hostess

In the week that Emily and I will be holding a party for female writers, our conversation has turned to the historical significance of literary gatherings. Katherine Mansfield got to know Virginia Woolf – the fellow author whom she wanted to meet above all others – through their shared connection with Lady Ottoline Morrell. Famed as a society hostess, Morrell was sometimes cruelly lampooned by the very artists she supported. But her salons were more than glittering parties; they were occasions full of creative ferment.

Lady Ottoline Morrell Creative Commons License
Lady Ottoline Morrell
Creative Commons License

Morrell is said to have influenced two of Mansfield’s and Woolf’s best loved works: The Garden Party and Mrs Dalloway. In both texts, parties and hostesses play central roles. Mansfield’s collection of stories came out in 1922, during a period when her relationship with Woolf was especially riddled with misunderstanding. Woolf, afraid that Mansfield’s book would overshadow her own latest novel, admitted to feeling pleased when her friend failed to win the Hawthornden Prize. However, Mansfield’s title story must have exerted a powerful influence on Woolf, who that same year was beginning work on Mrs Dalloway. Both Mansfield’s story and Woolf’s novel invite us into the life of a hostess on the day of her party. In each case, the gathering is interrupted by the news of a man’s death – a man who, due to class division, would never have received an invitation to the heroine’s gathering.

Emily and I spoke about the relationship between these two texts during our interview with Steve Wasserman on Read Me Something You Love. The connections seemed glaringly obvious to us, and yet we subsequently discovered that they have largely gone unnoticed. Many a tree has been felled, on the other hand, to produce the reams of pages devoted to the influence on Mrs Dalloway of James Joyce’s Ulysses and T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land.

The reason for this imbalance lies, in part, in the differing status accorded to certain subjects. Woolf’s textual conversations with her male peers are most often represented in terms of the impact of war on literature, and representations of the city: both topics that have long been embraced by the literary establishment. Any discussion about the influence of ‘The Garden Party’ on Mrs Dalloway  must emphasise the role of hostess, the domestic space, and the creative act of forging connections between friends. Such feminine spheres of influence fall outside those traditionally deemed valuable by the literary gatekeepers. As Woolf put it in A Room of One’s Own: ‘This is an important book, the critic assumes, because it deals with war. This is an insignificant book because it deals with the feelings of women in a drawing-room’.

We came up against this ingrained double standard when we realised that last month’s challenge had focused on clothing and this month’s involves throwing a party. Any reflection prompted by red dresses and Turkish cheesecakes, we worried, would inevitably be considered trivial. But following in the footsteps of our female forebears, we are encouraged to embrace our own realms of experience and proclaim them as valuable as any other.

Celebrating Female Friendship

When this month’s guest bloggers, Harriet Levin and Elizabeth L. Silver, let us take a look at one of their on-line chats, we felt privileged to be witnesses to a conversation that so clearly conveyed their mutual appreciation of each other’s support.

This has, of course, been a common theme in all of the guest posts this year. Like them, Rachel Connor and Antonia Honeywell, and Sarah Butler and Tessa Nicholson, have gone from living close to their writer friend to being separated by geographical distance. But they all wrote of how they’re still able to rely on their pal’s advice, even though they are physically far apart.

IMG_1146Jill Dawson and Kathryn Heyman, too, who live on opposite sides of the world, told us how their frequent phone conversations, about ‘writing, gossip, lipstick’ amongst other things, keep the relationship going.

Kadija ‘George’ Sesay and Dorothea Smartt spoke of the pleasures of working with each other professionally. Zakia Uddin shared a story about hearing valuable literary advice from Susan Barker on a crowded London night-bus.

Julie Sarkissian and Haley Tanner, and Emily Bullock and Ann Morgan, were keen to emphasise how much they valued having someone with whom they’ve been able to share the struggles and eventual triumphs of their books-in-progress.

We are grateful to all of this year’s guest bloggers for posting these inspiring words about the crucial role that the friendship of another woman has played in their writing lives.

Since launching Something Rhymed at the beginning of the year, we’ve often found ourselves wondering why the literary friendships of our most famous female writers are generally less well-known than those of their male counterparts.

Recently, we’ve been mulling over a number of theories, but one conclusion we’ve come to is that the all-too-common depiction of ambitious women as inevitable jealous rivals could have played a major part in this. Katherine Mansfield and Virginia Woolf are two writers, in particular, whose reputations have suffered in this way. This month’s pair, Maxine Kumin and Anne Sexton, are another, historically later, example.

At Something Rhymed, we’re keen to try and promote some more positive representations of women’s friendship, so with this in mind we’ve just launched our #SomethingRhymed hashtag on Twitter with this tweet: Women’s relationships are too often seen as bitchy & backstabbing. Tell us about a time when a female friend supported you. #SomethingRhymed

We’ll be sharing our own stories (in 140 characters or less!) of helping each other out personally or professionally. Whether you’re a writer or not, we’d love to hear about your positive experiences of female friendship too. If you’re not on Twitter, but would still like to add your voice to the conversation, why not leave a message in the Comments section below?

Remember

You can keep up-to-date with Something Rhymed by following our blog via email. Just type your email address into the box beneath the banner on the right hand side of the screen, and then click on the ‘Follow’ button beneath. On mobile devices, you need to scroll down to the bottom of the page to find the box and ‘Follow’ button.

Emily Dickinson and Helen Hunt Jackson

tumblr_mevs2yhzId1rnvzfwo1_1280
Emily Dickinson (far left) and Helen Hunt Jackson (in purple dress) pictured on the Amherst Community History Mural. The picture is used with the kind permission of Jim Wald

The abiding image of Emily Dickinson is that of a reclusive poet, dressed only in white, and known among her neighbours as The Myth. So we were surprised and delighted to discover that she had been friends with one of the most famous writers of her generation, someone whom Ralph Waldo Emerson described as the best of America’s poets.

Dickinson’s celebrated friend was Helen Hunt Jackson – a name that, to our shame, we found unfamiliar. Although her reputation as a poet has failed to stand the test of time, she is still well remembered in the USA as a campaigner for the rights of Native Americans, and her novel Ramona has never been out of print.

Like Mansfield and Woolf, theirs was an unlikely friendship. Jackson was a social animal, whose successful career stood in stark opposition to that of Dickinson – an intensely private poet.

Indeed, during Dickinson’s lifetime, she saw only a handful of her poems go to press. Jackson actually shepherded one of them to publication, cajoling her into this by saying that: ‘It is a cruel wrong to your “day and generation” that you will not give them light’.

Dickinson also held Jackson’s work in high esteem, once claiming that – with the exception of George Eliot – she considered Jackson’s poems stronger than those of any woman since Elizabeth Barrett Browning.

Thomas Wentworth Higginson, who acted as a literary mentor to both writers, introduced Dickinson and Jackson to each other’s work. However, the two women had actually known each other since childhood. They both came from the small town of Amherst, Massachusetts but, whereas Jackson had roamed far and wide, Dickinson had stayed firmly put. Once they’d reconnected, Jackson visited Dickinson on her return trips to Amherst. So – unlike many of Dickinson’s friendships – the two writers conversed in person as well as through letters.

Their friendship even influenced some of their work. Jackson acted on occasion as muse, commissioner, and recipient of poems by Dickinson. And, for her part, Dickinson is widely thought to have inspired the central character in Jackson’s first novel: a woman who wears only white, and who writes strange and dazzling poems.

Activity

Helen Hunt Jackson once commissioned Emily Dickinson to write her a poem about an oriole – an orange-breasted blackbird common in the north east of America. Dickinson responded with ‘The Hummingbird’.

This month, we will be commissioning each other to write about a particular topic – although, like Dickinson, we reserve the right to go on a bit of a tangent!

As always, we’d be grateful for suggestions of other female writer friends you’d like us to research.

Celebrating Each Other’s Successes

NotebooksUnlike Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison, or Katherine Mansfield and Virginia Woolf, there was a huge disparity in the worldly successes of this month’s featured writers.

Although Anne Sharp wrote plays for her students to perform, and was able to use her sharp critiquing skills to give Jane Austen advice on her work, she has gone down in history as little more than a footnote in the life story of her illustrious friend.

We cannot know whether Sharp ever felt envious of Austen’s achievements, and the fact that her work had the chance to reach an audience far wider than her immediate social circle. Neither would we go as far as speculating that she could have been another Austen-in-the-making if life had dealt her a different hand of cards.

It is interesting to wonder, though, whether the governess might have attempted to pursue any similar ambitions if her family and financial circumstances had been different.

What we do know is that, despite their contrasting levels of commercial success, each woman rated the other. Sharp celebrated the publication of Austen’s novels along with her, but was also ready to tell her friend when she felt there was a flaw in the work – advice that Austen appears to have highly valued.

It’s nice to imagine that her decision to rename her novel First Impressions as Pride and Prejudice was her way of acknowledging in print the crucial support she’d received from Sharp.

It’s a notion that might mean something to last week’s guest bloggers. Antonia Honeywell and Rachel Connor discussed the pride they take, not just in each other’s creative output, but their long-running writing friendship too.

Antonia’s comment on the publication of Rachel’s first novel (ahead of her own book deal with Weidenfeld and Nicholson) was one that really struck home with us. ‘It felt like a great triumph not only for Rachel,’ she recalled, ‘but for the dedication with which we both carved out the time for our regular exchanges of work.’

As we’ve mentioned before on Something Rhymed, our own career trajectories have gone along roughly in tandem so far, but there is bound to be a point when – if only temporarily – one of us will accelerate past the other.

When that happens, we hope we can learn from the example of Antonia and Rachel, and Austen and Sharp too – that we will be able to enjoy this joint success for our writing friendship, rather than focusing on any perceived gulf that divides us as individuals.

Other news

We’re currently enjoying the BBC Radio 4 series Five Hundred Years of Friendship – episodes available to listen to on-line.

We’ll be moving on to the next profiled writers on Tuesday. We were advised to look into the friendship of Vera Brittain and Winifred Holtby by many of our readers, so we particularly look forward to sharing what we’ve discovered about them.

We’re still actively researching female writer pals, so do keep letting us know, by leaving a reply or Tweeting one of us, if there is any particular friendship you’d like to see profiled.

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.