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.

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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.

Reading Between the Lines: what we’ve learned from the letters of George Eliot and Harriet Beecher Stowe

Inspired by our reading of Daphne du Maurier’s letters, this month Emma Claire and I have been thinking about what we know and can’t know about the various writer friends we’ve profiled on Something Rhymed.

Last week, Emma mulled over the aftermath of the friendship between Jane Austen and Anne Sharp .This week, I write about the beginnings of the friendship between George Eliot and Harriet Beecher Stowe

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This image is in the public domain.

Something that has always interested me about these two is that they could so easily not have become close friends.

Despite their shared status as the most celebrated female authors either side of the Atlantic, and the level of common understanding this brought with it, the great geographical gulf between Eliot and Stowe meant that they were only ever able to communicate by letter.

It would have been challenging enough to maintain relations, even if they’d previously enjoyed a face-to-face friendship. Doubly so, you would think, since, unlike the other pairs we’ve profiled, Stowe and Eliot’s bond began by letter and was sustained entirely on paper.

Most scholars date the friendship’s beginning from the spring of 1869: the point at which Stowe sat down in her sunny orange grove in Florida to pen the first of their letters. It’s often claimed that when these pages reached Eliot at her north London villa, their arrival was entirely unexpected.

However, their opening line has led Emma and me to wonder whether it was all really quite this simple.

Stowe began her letter by saying that, the previous year, a mutual friend had called on her and passed on ‘a kind word of message’ from Eliot. Unsurprisingly, Stowe didn’t bother to repeat the message, so Eliot’s exact words remain tantalisingly out of reach of readers other than the original recipient.

But this hasn’t stopped Emma and me from wondering what she’d said that encouraged Stowe’s overtures of friendship.

Thinking about Eliot’s earlier admiring review of Stowe’s anti-slavery novel Dred, it’s possible that she might have mentioned that she was a long-time admirer of the American author’s work. But Eliot had found herself drawn to Stowe’s personality too, ever since she’d been shown a letter addressed to the abolitionist Eliza Cabot Follen in which Stowe had caricatured herself as ‘a little bit of a woman, rather more than forty, as withered as dry as a pinch of snuff – never very well worth looking at in my best days, and now a decidedly used up article’.

Eliot, who had always been made to feel painfully self-conscious about her own lack of conventional beauty, was so moved by this passage that she transcribed it to keep. She would remark afterwards that the whole letter by Stowe was ‘most fascinating and makes one love her’.

Stowe would be closer to sixty than forty by the time she reached out to Eliot directly, and perhaps even more interesting than Eliot’s tacit encouragement of an approach is Stowe’s motivation for picking this moment to seek a new literary friendship.

Homing in on the first line of Stowe’s correspondence led us to question the received wisdom that she’d contacted Eliot out of the blue. But stepping back to survey all the correspondence between them allowed us to appreciate the significance of the letter’s date. 1869 was also the year when, five months later in September, Stowe would publish her notorious article in the Atlantic. The piece made public the once only whispered rumour that the now deceased Lord Byron had indulged in incestuous relations with his half-sister.

Byron’s wife, who had also died by this time, had been a friend of Stowe’s. Recent criticisms of Lady Byron by one of her husband’s former mistresses had so incensed Stowe that she was moved to write this spirited defence of the trials her friend had suffered.

Even before the article’s publication, Stowe had privately expressed fears that making such a scandal public would attract widespread criticism – a prediction that would prove right. Therefore, given the timing, it seems feasible that Stowe might have had another more self-serving motivation for getting in touch at this time.

If someone as intellectually respected as Eliot had been willing to support her this would surely have added weight to Stowe’s arguments. But, sadly for Stowe, even in their personal letters, Eliot refused to endorse her, telling Stowe that she ‘should have preferred that the “Byron question” should not have been brought before the public’.

But by this stage, the two had cemented their friendship through their warm and surprisingly candid epistolary conversations. Though the eleven-year correspondence has never been published altogether and in full, were it ever to be gathered into a single volume it would make for a great gift to fans of both of authors.

What we have learned through our studies of Eliot and Stowe’s letters is that, in order to gain the truest picture of their friendship, you sometimes have to get up close to the words, sometimes stand back from them, and sometimes look hardest at the blank surrounding spaces to try to make sense of important things unspoken.

Daphne du Maurier and Oriel Malet

We wonder how many young writers have dreamed of an older, more experienced author taking her under her wing. Well, this was Oriel Malet’s luck one evening in the early 1950s.

oriel_malet_1
Oriel Malet (image used with the kind permission of Persephone Books).

Auriel Rosemary Malet Vaughan, born into an aristocratic family in 1923, was hardly a novice. She had written her first book Trust in the Springtime when she was seventeen, been a winner of the John Llewellyn Prize for Young Novelists, and enjoyed international success. The party at which she would meet Daphne du Maurier was being hosted by Ellen Doubleday, the wife of both authors’ American publisher.

But despite these early achievements, Malet still considered herself something of an outsider to the capital’s literary scene. When she arrived to find the hotel suite address locked-up and silent, she felt relieved at the excuse it provided for beating a hasty retreat.

But just then she heard a voice close by, and turned to see another woman also waiting alone. The two soon fell into easy conversation, passing over small talk for enthusiastic discussions about ‘books, the theatre, Paris, Life’. Neither one seems to have felt the need to introduce herself by name, and so by the time Doubleday arrived – full of apologies and ushering in a brigade of waiters carrying silver dishes of food and buckets of iced champagne – Malet remained unaware that she had been talking to the celebrated Daphne du Maurier.

When the young woman discovered the truth, she was embarrassed. Fearing what faux pas she might make next, she decided to try to creep out of the party unnoticed. She’d almost made it to the door when she saw that du Maurier was doing exactly the same thing.

Downstairs, the pair escaped in a taxi and ended up going to du Maurier’s London flat, on the King’s Road in Chelsea. When they said goodbye later that evening, Malet, found herself feeling sorry that her path was unlikely to cross again with du Maurier’s.

But not long afterwards, while riding the motorcycle she’d bought with her John Llewellyn Prize winnings, Malet crashed into a closed gate which ‘should have been open but was mysteriously closed’. When word reached du Maurier about what had happened, she invited the young author to recuperate at Menabilly, the grand country house where she lived in Cornwall, and the inspiration for her most famous novel Rebecca.

This marked the start of a friendship spanning over thirty years, and one that came to an end only with du Maurier’s death in 1989. Over the period, they wrote to each other regularly, and du Maurier’s half of the correspondence – later collected and published by Malet in Letters From Menabilly charts the development of their literary relationship.

Letters From Menabilly
Daphne du Maurier, within the cover of Oriel Malet’s book. (Used with the kind permission of Rowman & Littlefield.)

In its earliest days, du Maurier signed off using ‘Daphne’, but switched to the nicknames ‘Bing’, ‘Tray’ or ‘Track’ as the pair grew closer. She wrote about her family and friends, her reading and writing, and sent advice to Malet on literary matters. The names of other authors crop up frequently in her letters – both those of contemporaries and the forebears who inspired her, Katherine Mansfield, Elizabeth Gaskell, and the Brontë sisters in particular.

Du Maurier would eventually write a biography of the Brontës’ brother Branwell, and she and Malet made a pilgrimage to the Parsonage in Haworth in the 1950s – still a quiet spot in those days, not yet on the tourist trail.

Although du Maurier’s is, as one would expect, the voice that dominates the book’s pages, Malet’s frequent interjections do much more than put the letters in context. They give a sense of the younger woman’s loyalty, her inquisitive nature, and most of all her enormous affection for her friend du Maurier.

Special thanks

We are grateful to two of our readers, Anne Hall and Jenny McAuley, who answered our open request for information about a literary friend of Daphne du Maurier’s by letting us know about Oriel Malet.

Activity

When we read Daphne du Maurier’s words ‘Dearest Oriel, Your great long letter arrived this morning’, we wished we were able to tell exactly what Malet had said. Over the time we’ve been running Something Rhymed, we’ve often speculated about the gaps that remain, through lack of solid evidence, in what we can know about the friendships we’ve profiled. This month, we will each take a look at just a few of these gaps. We’ll write about what draws us to these particular mysteries, and the stories we think we can piece together.

Goodbye to Mansfield and Woolf

If we’re honest, we both felt some trepidation on 31 December 2013. On the day before we launched Something Rhymed, each of us had the same questions. Would anyone, other than our nearest and dearest, want to visit this website? Is the subject of female literary friendships one that interests other people?

We’ve been delighted to discover that it has struck a chord with so many of you: 3000 hits on the site so far, the majority from the UK, USA, Canada, Ireland and Australia, but from other corners of the globe too. We’ve heard from emerging and established authors, readers, academics, literary bloggers, editors at publishing houses and literary magazines, agents, publicists, owners of writing retreats and more.

The Independent on Sunday featured our website in their Between the Covers column, and Book Oxygen, Books by Women and Writers’ Centre Norwich all asked us to talk more about Something Rhymed in the guest blogs we wrote for them this month.

There have been hundreds of tweets about the site, and many more of you have got in touch, by sending a message or leaving a comment, to add your thoughts to the discussions we’ve started and to recommend pairs of writer pals we could profile.

Some suggestions focused on friendships we’d already heard something about, but others were entirely unknown to us. We’re keen to explore all of your ideas, so do please keep them coming in.

We were also delighted to learn that some of you had joined us in this month’s letter writing activity.

Elaine, who wrote to to her long-standing friend Frieda, seems to have shared some of the same feelings that we encountered, noting that ‘In these days of e-mail and Facebook we have instant if rushed communication on tap, but my rambling missive penned whilst enjoying traditional afternoon tea on a winter’s Sunday afternoon, gave me a chance to experience a much less frequent pleasure nowadays’.

Novelist Sarah Butler and screenwriter Tessa Nicholson used their letters to talk about the business of writing itself and to give each other advice. Sarah told us how much she appreciated her friend’s wisdom, singling out two tips in particular: ‘Your competitive streak is like a motor. Don’t be ashamed of it’, and ‘You’ll have to learn to put your blinkers on and write more for you’.

Tessa Nicholson's response to January's challenge with this a letter to her friend Sarah Butler
Tessa Nicholson’s response to January’s challenge – a letter to her friend Sarah Butler

Others said that they were already in regular correspondence, including Jill Dawson and Kathryn Heyman, the authors of last week’s wonderful guest post.

It seems that, for some of this blog’s readers at least, letter writing is not such a lost art after all. As author and journalist Erina Reddan pointed out in a comment on the site, ‘Letters pull you down and into a place that conversation does not take you’.

On Saturday, we’ll be saying goodbye to Katherine Mansfield and Virginia Woolf and letting you know about the next pair of famous writing pals.

Sarah Moore was the first to mention Maya Angelou when she left a response to our first post of the year, which mentioned the author’s friendship with Jessica Mitford.

But this was followed by separate suggestions on Twitter from the writers Wendy Vaizey and Salena Godden. They cited Angelou too, but it was another one of her friendships that they thought we should consider.

And so, after much deliberation, we’ve decided to go with that duo next: Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison. If you return here on 1 February, you’ll find lots more information about that relationship and also details of the month’s activity. And if you have any thoughts you’d like to share about this pair, do please get in touch. As always, we’d love to hear from you.

Don’t forget, if you want to make sure you don’t miss out on any Something Rhymed updates, you can sign up to follow us via email using the tab on the right of the screen.

Until Saturday then…

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.

Letter Writing in Modern Times

Emily's letter envelope
Addressed envelope all ready to go, with the origami windmill

When the letter from Emma Claire arrived last week, I brewed myself a pot of tea and sat down in an armchair to read it again.

I’d already sneaked a look at its contents on-line, when Emma Claire posted images of its eight pages here, but a postal delivery of this kind is such a rarity these days that I wanted to make more of an occasion of it, away from my computer screen.

What struck me as I sat there, the paper bending and rustling between my fingers, was how rewarding it can be to give your full attention to a letter. Time seems to slow as you focus only on your friend’s voice in your head. It’s a different sort of experience from opening an email on a busy day, when you find yourself painfully aware, even as you read, of the dozens of other messages building up in your inbox.

Prior to hearing from Emma Claire, I had already started jotting ideas in my notebook about things I wanted to discuss with her. These included:

  • Memories of our time in Japan, and how it kick-started our writing
  • Some things I admire about her prose style
  • Recurrent themes I’ve noticed in her work
  • Her influence on me as a writer
  • The Persephone Book of Short Stories, which I planned to recommend

Not all of these things made it into my reply. Influenced by the issues Emma Claire raised in her own letter, I found that I wanted to discuss some of them in more detail instead.

I ended up talking about the many ways in which I value her friendship, about memory itself, the similarities and differences in how each of our minds had preserved important recollections, and how I hoped we would correspond like this again. I also told Emma Claire about an earlier letter she once wrote to me, which I read again a few days ago, and the images of the past it immediately brought back.

I was inspired by the beauty of the stationery Emma Claire sourced, but was unable to find anything I liked as much myself. And so I took some plain sheets and decorated them with strips of coloured origami paper – something that seemed apt, considering how our time in Japan featured heavily in both of our letters

From one of the leftover scraps, I made a simple miniature windmill and added it to the envelope. If you are interested in having a go at this origami yourself, instructions can be found here.

As Emma Claire did in her last post, I’ve included pictures of the pages I wrote, which you can click and zoom in on below.

Emily's letter 1 Emily's letter 2Emily's letter 3Emily's letter 4

Emily's letter 5Emily's letter 6Emily's letter 7

Don’t forget

We’d love for you to join us in this activity by writing a letter of your own to a friend. Please use the ‘Leave a Reply’ facility below to let us know about the kinds of things you wrote in your letters.

Click here to find out about this month’s challenge in more detail.

The Lost Art of Letter Writing

Letter to Emily

Emily and I are lucky to live nearby these days – a luxury that, until recently, we hadn’t re-experienced since we first became friends back in 2001.

As we now get to see each other regularly, I tried to include in my letter some things that we might not discuss in person because of embarrassment, fear, or simply the deviations of conversation.

In a loose way, I was also influenced by the kinds of things Woolf wrote about in her letter to Mansfield: reflections on writing, reading, gender, friends.

Here are the ideas I jotted down to include in my letter to Emily:

  • Recommend The Faraway Nearby by Rebecca Solnitt
  • Are there no societal rules for friendship?
  • Is friendship between women still somehow considered subversive?
  • Unexpectedly autobiographical roots to certain aspects of our novels
  • The themes we keep circling around
  • Getting lost

I’ve included pictures of the letter itself so you can click and zoom to see how I ended up exploring these ideas.

There was something comforting about using the fountain pen that Emily bought for me a few years back – the half-forgotten rub of the nib against paper, paper I bought in San Francisco when I visited one of our mutual friends.

The letter itself became a kind of meditation on the lost art of letter writing: the way in which the pen can explore ideas too difficult for the tongue; the eye can receive ideas too difficult for the ear.

Getting lost has itself become a lost art now that so many of us have satellite navigation systems in our cars and GPS on our phones. Through writing to Emily, I realised just how much I valued my many experiences of getting lost with her – most recently in Notting Hill on the way back from Book Slam; but also last year in Bayswater on the way to Porchester Spa; and once when we were stranded at a remote station in Cumbria with no idea of our hostel’s address.

In this letter, I reminisced about the times we first got lost together in rural Japan – joyful occasions when we began to realise just how much we shared – and, as I wrote, it occurred to me that the experience felt surprisingly like being found.

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Over to you:

Please use the ‘Leave a Reply’ facility below to let us know about the kinds of things you wrote in your letters. We can’t wait to hear.

Click here if you’d like to be reminded of this month’s challenge.