Mabel Dodge and Gertrude Stein (and Alice B. Toklas)

Regular readers of this blog will perhaps remember Alice Fitzgerald’s post on the friendship between Pratibha Parmar and Alice Walker, edited by Kathleen Dixon Donnelly. Today, Kathleen writes a post of her own for us, edited this time by Clêr Lewis. We hope you’ll enjoy it as much as we did.

If this inspires you to get more involved with Something Rhymed, please find further details here.

Gertrude Stein by Carl Van Vechten, 1934. (This image is in the public domain.)

Think of ground-breaking writer Gertrude Stein (1874-1946) — a native of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, like me — and you automatically think of her life partner, Alice B. Toklas (1877-1967).

From the moment Stein and Toklas met, in Paris in 1906, their joint biographer, Diana Souhami, writes that they ‘never travelled without each other or entertained separately, or worked on independent projects’.

Very romantic—but, didn’t they have any woman friends?

Both were great friends with many writers—mostly male—who admired Stein’s work, including Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Female acquaintances would come to their salons on the Left Bank in the 1920s, but most were the wives of the writers.

Another American who became well known for her 1920s Greenwich Village salons was Mabel Ganson Evans Dodge Sterne Luhan (1879-1962), daughter of a wealthy Buffalo businessman, widowed and married again before she was 26. Dodge’s first husband was killed in a hunting accident, leaving her with a young son. To pry her away from an affair with a Buffalo gynaecologist, her family sent her to Paris. On board ship she met a rich Boston architect, Edwin Dodge, and they married two years later, establishing a fabulous home, Villa Curonia, in Florence.

MAbel Dodge
Mabel Dodge Luhan by Carl Van Vechten, 1934. (This image is in the public domain.)

In 1911, Dodge visited rue de Fleurus, in Paris, to meet Stein and Toklas. The Dodges in turn invited their new friends to their ornate Italian home, and there Stein began writing A Portrait of Mabel Dodge at the Villa Curonia. She developed an essay technique by adapting what Cezanne and other painters had done in the portraits that she had bought to adorn the walls of her salon. Stein wrote, ‘Pablo (Picasso) is doing abstract portraits in painting. I am trying to do abstract portraits in my medium, words.’

Stein wrote late at night, in her room next to Dodge’s. As Mr Dodge was away, his wife invited her children’s 22-year-old tutor into her bedroom. Stein incorporated overheard sounds into her portrait: ‘So much breathing has not the same place where there is that much beginning. So much breathing has not the same place when the ending is lessening. So much breathing …’ Dodge was thrilled.

Toklas was not.

Dodge had felt Stein warm to her and became a bit flirtatious. As she described in her memoir: ‘Gertrude sitting opposite me in Edwin’s chair, sent me such a strong look over the table that it seemed to cut across the air to me in a band of electrified steel—a smile traveling across on it—powerful—Heaven! I remember it now so keenly! (Alice walked out.) Gertrude gave a surprised, noticing glance … and followed.’ Stein came back to say that Toklas wouldn’t come to lunch as, ‘She feels the heat today.’

Alice B. Toklas by Carl Van Vechten, 1949. (This image is in the public domain.)

From that moment, Dodge felt that Toklas kept them apart. But for the next twenty years Dodge and Stein wrote to each other.

Back in New York, divorced from her husband, holding political salons and having an affair with radical, communist journalist John Reed, Dodge became involved with the organizers of the 1913 Armory Show, the first major exhibition of European and American modern art in the States. Dodge had had a few essays in Alfred Stieglitz’s intellectual photographic journal Camera Work, so the Armory Show’s publicist asked her to write a piece about Gertrude Stein’s avant-garde style for a special issue of Arts and Decoration magazine.

Dodge obliged with ‘Speculations, or Post-Impressionists in Prose’, comparing Matisse and Picasso’s work in paint with Stein’s in print. Stein reacted with delight: ‘Hurrah for gloire! Do send me half a dozen copies … I want to show it to everybody.’

From then on, Stein’s name was associated, both seriously and satirically, with the cubists.

When Reed went off on his communist adventures, Dodge married a painter, Maurice Sterne, following him to Taos, New Mexico, where they established an artists’ colony. By the mid-1920s, Dodge had dumped him and married a Native American, Tony Luhan. They hosted many of the decade’s leading artists and writers, including D. H. Lawrence and his wife Frieda.

Meanwhile, in Paris, Stein and Toklas were welcoming a new generation of Americans who were taking advantage of a cheap franc, cheap food and cheap wine.

Dodge helped Stein get her work published in the States, but Stein didn’t hit it big until, in six weeks in 1932, she wrote The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas because Toklas wouldn’t. American friends encouraged them to come on a US lecture tour, starting at the Algonquin Hotel in Manhattan. When they arrived, newspaper headlines proclaimed: ‘Gerty Gerty Stein Stein Is Back Home Home Back.’

Dodge urged the pair to come to her in Taos. Or they could visit her home in Carmel on the California leg of their trip.

Toklas said no.

When the first volume of Dodge’s memoirs, Intimate Memories, was published in 1927, reviewing it in The New Yorker, Dorothy Parker was underwhelmed: ‘It may be in her forthcoming volume, when she gets into her stride of marrying people, things will liven up a bit.’

In later volumes, Dodge treated her friend Stein well, but described Toklas as sinister, and concluded ‘I missed my jolly fat friend very much.’

 

Written by Kathleen Dixon Donnelly, who runs the blog Such Friends, and is working on a book ‘Such Friends’: A Scrapbook Almanac of Writers’ Salons, 1897-1930. You can follow her on Twitter @SuchFriends.

 

Edited by Clêr Lewis. Clêr has an MA in creative writing from Goldsmiths, University of London, and is  working on her first novel.

More on Mary Taylor and Charlotte Brontë – female friendship and the novel, Miss Miles

We are looking forward to seeing those of you who can make it at our upcoming literary salons at NYU London on Thursday 28 April, Wednesday 4 May and Thursday 12 May. Times: 6.30-9pm.

Tickets are free, but must be booked in advance by emailing somethingrhymed@gmail.com.

In the meantime, as we mentioned at the beginning of this month, we have recently been reading Mary Taylor’s novel, Miss Miles. Emily talks about the book, its author and her close friendship with Charlotte Brontë in this video:

 

Charlotte Brontё and Mary Taylor

Back in 2014, we profiled Charlotte Brontё’s friendship with the author of Cranford, Elizabeth Gaskell. Theirs was a fascinating bond, but – important though Gaskell was to Brontё – another writer, Mary Taylor, had an even greater influence on her life.

Brontё met Taylor, the future author of the feminist novel Miss Miles, in 1831 when they were teenage boarders at Roe Head School near Huddersfield. Their relationship got off to a rocky start when pretty Taylor told the pale, frizzy-haired new girl that she found her very ugly – a typically outspoken remark, and one from which Brontё would never fully recover.

But the pair’s bookish natures and their love of political argument soon drew them together, with Taylor’s bold and radical views opening Brontё’s eyes to fresh ways of thinking, especially in terms of the place of women in Victorian society.

Charlotte Bronte - this image is in the public domain.
Charlotte Bronte painted by J.H. Thompson – this image is in the public domain.

After leaving school the next year they kept in touch by letter and paid visits when they could to each other’s houses: the now-famous parsonage at Haworth where Brontё lived, and Taylor’s home the Red House at Gomersal.

A decade later when they were in their mid-twenties, Taylor’s encouragement gave Brontё a ‘wish for wings’. The two daringly left their native rural Yorkshire and headed for urban Brussels, to continue their education at separate schools in the Belgian capital.

The Pensionnat de Demoiselles Heger-Parent, where Brontё enrolled, was to become the scene of one of the most infamous episodes of her life – the place where she fell desperately in love with her temperamental tutor, the married Constantin Heger.

Taylor, ever hungry for greater independence, soon moved on to Germany and took a position, controversially, teaching young men. Friendless and alone in Brussels, Brontё eventually realised that her position at the Pensionnat was untenable and returned to Haworth.

Taylor, on the other hand, decided to set-sail for an even more distant destination – New Zealand. On learning that the two would now be separated by thousands of miles, a devastated Brontё remarked that it felt as if ‘a great planet fell out of the sky’.

To most, including herself, it looked as if Taylor was the true adventurer. But Brontё was beginning to break new ground too. While Taylor pushed her literary ambitions into the background – concentrating instead on the daily challenges of her brave new life – safe within her childhood home, Brontё was finally getting the chance to write.

In 1847, Brontё tasted success for the first time when the publication of her first novel, Jane Eyre, caused a nationwide sensation.

Mary Taylor (far left), climbing in Switzerland at the age of fifty-seven. We asked the Red House museum for their permission to use this image.

Taylor, who’d continued to correspond with Brontё during her time in New Zealand, returned to Britain in 1860, five years after her friend’s early death. She kept on travelling into her later years. Aged in her fifties, she joined a female mountaineering expedition in Switzerland, which resulted in the jointly-authored book Swiss Notes by Five Ladies.

Owing to the distractions of her intrepid life, her novel Miss Miles wasn’t published until 1890 when Taylor was in her seventies. Like Brontё’s novel, Shirley – for which Taylor provided the inspiration for the plucky character of Rose Yorke – it can be regarded as a book that celebrates the enduring power of female friendship.

This month

Later this month, we’ll be doing another audio interview. This time we’ll be discussing Charlotte Brontё’s novel Jane Eyre, and Mary Taylor’s forthright reaction to the book. If you missed our previous interviews about Jane Austen’s Emma and Maria Edgeworth’s The Absentee, you can catch up on what we talked about then by scrolling down to those earlier posts.

For those who’d like a quick refresher, Jane Eyre is currently BBC Radio 4’s 15 Minute Drama. You can listen to episode one of the adaptation here.

Singing Each Other’s Songs

As we mentioned in last week’s post, Margaret Mason’s relationship with Mary Shelley – the daughter of her former governess Mary Wollstonecraft – changed dramatically over the years. Thinking about the change in Mason and Shelley’s relationship prompted us to look back on some of the changes that have affected our own friendship.

It’s my great pleasure to be able to talk of this most recent one now…

Some of our readers – particularly those who follow Emma and me on Twitter – will already know that the first of our novels will be published in 2016. I say ‘our’, but I want to make it clear that this is not a collaborative work of fiction.

Owl Song at Dawn is written by Emma Claire Sweeney. Emma is the one who imagined the characters of twins Maeve and Edie, who grow up together in a seaside boarding house and whose lives later take dramatically different courses. Emma created each sister’s distinctive voice – that of straight-talking Maeve and lyrical Edie, whose musical speech patterns are both enthralling and hard-to-fathom. Emma arranged the modern-day and 1950s story strands until they sang as a pleasing whole.

Revealed today: the cover of Owl Song at Dawn
Revealed today: the cover of Owl Song at Dawn

I cannot take credit for any of these things. And yet, because I have known Emma for so long, and because we have had so many conversations about her novel, I do feel that I am a part of the story behind Owl Song at Dawn.

Over the past few years, I have lived in several different places around Britain, and Emma’s novel-in-progress – like her friendship – has accompanied me from home to home.

I remember cooking dinner in the cramped kitchen of my flat at the time, while Emma – who’d come up on the train from London – stood, sipping wine, close by. Owl Song at Dawn existed only in fragments back then – some of them committed in embryonic form to paper, some still only in her mind. Keen not to give away the plot before she was in a position to show me a full draft, she was sparing with details. But as she talked, and I stirred the pan, I started to fit these snippets together until I began to get a fuzzed sense of the novel’s characters and the intriguing connections between them.

I remember us sitting, surrounded by metal railings and creeping honeysuckle, on the balcony of a different flat, us talking through all the notes I’d made on that first full draft. I remember other drafts in another flat, and later, emails flying back-and-forth between us about submission letters to literary agents, and then the book being sent out to publishing houses.

Back in the very earliest days of our friendship, I think both Emma and I assumed that – although we were already such a big part of each other’s writing lives – moments of success like these would be chiefly for one of us alone. While I’m sure we assumed we’d join in with our friend’s celebrations, I doubt either of us imagined just how collaborative those celebrations would feel.

But when Emma called me up on the phone and told me the wonderful news that Owl Song at Dawn had been bought by Legend Press, I felt the same feeling I’d experienced at this year’s Lucy Cavendish Prize ceremony, just a few months ago: that this was an achievement not just for Emma or for me, but for us both as writer friends.

Copyright: Lucy Cavendish College
Celebrating together (copyright: Lucy Cavendish College)

Emma Claire Sweeney’s novel Owl Song at Dawn will be published by Legend Press in July 2016 and is available for pre-order now.

Margaret Mason, Mary Shelley and Mary Wollstonecraft

Mary Shelley, the celebrated author of Frankenstein, needs little introduction, whereas her friend Margaret Mason may be less familiar.

Born into a wealthy Anglo-Irish family in 1773, Margaret King, as she was then called, spent her childhood years in the neo-Gothic surroundings of Mitchelstown Castle in County Cork.

Mitchelstown Castle, now demolished. This image is in the public domain.
The former Mitchelstown Castle, now demolished. This image is in the public domain.

Fate would set her on the path towards friendship with two of the most famous female authors of her era when a new governess-companion arrived at the castle in 1786.

Mary Wollstonecraft, then in her late twenties, was yet to embark on her illustrious career as an author. She was an instant hit with her teenage pupil, but frictions soon developed between the free-thinking English woman and her young charge’s aristocratic mother.

Portrait of Mary Wollstonecraft by John Opie. This image is in the public domain.
Portrait of Mary Wollstonecraft by John Opie. This image is in the public domain.

Unable to hide her disdain for Lady Kingsborough, Wollstonecraft found herself dismissed within the year, but she would leave a lasting impression on her former student. Over the decade that followed – a period during which Wollstonecraft’s radical writings, including most famously A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, were causing a stir – the two remained friendly.

Even after Wollstonecraft’s early death in 1797, following complications during the birth of her daughter Mary, Lady Mountcashell – as King had become on marriage  – would remain an occasional visitor to the home of Wollstonecraft’s widower, the philosopher William Godwin.

She was one of the authors who contributed to his ambitious Juvenile Library book series, tellingly adopting the nom de plume Mrs Mason, after the kindly teacher heroine of Wollstonecraft’s Original Stories from Real Life, her only work of children’s literature. Mason’s own books in Godwin’s series bear the influence of the practical, egalitarian teachings of the woman who was once her governess.

The fictional Mrs Mason - William Blakes's illustration for the frontispiece of Original Stories (1791). This image is in the public domain.
The fictional Mrs Mason – the inspiration for Margaret Mason’s name. The illustration is from the frontispiece of Original Stories (1791), engraved by William Blake. This image is in the public domain.

As a child, Mary Shelley must have regarded Mason chiefly as her father and late mother’s friend, but in later years she became close to her herself. That the two women should have bonded is perhaps unsurprising, since both – like Wollstonecraft before them – had a fierce unconventionality in common.

Despite Mason’s Anglo-Irish background, she played a part in the Irish rebellion of 1798; would don male dress some years later in order to study medicine (her six-foot figure allowing her to pass for a man); and, perhaps most scandalously of all, left her husband and eight children to elope to Italy with her Irish lover.

Interestingly, though, when Wollstonecraft’s daughter defied her father by fleeing abroad with the married Percy Bysshe Shelley in 1814, Mason was disapproving.

Following the suicide of Percy’s wife, Harriet, the Romantic poet was eventually able to marry Mary in 1816. Two years later, when the couple visited Mason’s home in Pisa, she introduced them to her social circles and helped them to set up a home in the city

Portrait of Mary Shelley by Richard Rothwell. This image is in the public domain.
Portrait of Mary Shelley by Richard Rothwell. This image is in the public domain.

When Shelley – by then the author of Frankenstein – went through a bout of serious depression following the deaths of her two children, Mason’s support and medical knowledge proved invaluable.

Relations between the two were not always rosy – Shelley, for instance, was saddened by Mason’s apparent coldness after the death of her poet husband – but the two still remained essentially on good terms. In fact, knowing of the widowed Shelley’s unhappiness, Mason counselled her friend to return to England and even supplied her with most of the funds to make the journey – a sum which Shelley could repay, she said, should she ‘ever grow rich’.

The pair continued to correspond by letter until Mason’s death in 1835. Though today Mason’s books are not well-known, she continues to be remembered for the fascinating personal link she provides between two of history’s most significant literary women.

Activity

Margaret Mason’s relationship with Mary Shelley changed significantly over the course of their lives, as Shelley matured from a girl into a woman. This month, we will each look back on a significant change that has affected our own friendship.

Through the Good Times and the Bad – George Eliot and Harriet Beecher Stowe

In last week’s post on Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Mary Russell Mitford, Emma and I set ourselves the challenge to reflect on the role of consolation in other literary friendships that we have profiled on Something Rhymed.

We’ve decided to do something a bit different this month and post our responses by video instead. This week, I talk about consolation – and an instance of the lack of it – in the friendship of George Eliot and Harriet Beecher Stowe.

 

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

fountain-pen-447576_640
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.

Crying Tears of Laughter: Irenosen Okojie and Yvette Edwards

In her work as a reviewer for the Sunday Times, Dorothy L. Sayers often took the opportunity to praise the work of her friend Agatha Christie – calling Murder on the Orient Express, for example, ‘a murder mystery conceived and carried out on the finest classical lines’. Inspired by this, we asked April’s guest bloggers, Yvette Edwards and Irenosen Okojie, to each sing the praises of their writer friend.

They met when they appeared together at a literary event, a couple of years ago. Irenosen takes up the story:

SONY DSCIt was a platform to showcase new writers; at that point the buzz had started to build about Yvette’s writing. When she read, her work immediately captured me. It was evocative, fearless and powerful.

Not only that but she was very warm, generous and humble. She was the star attraction on the bill but she didn’t behave that way and she didn’t distance herself from me or the other writer. She was incredibly chatty, curious about our writing journeys and happy to offer advice.

One of the images I never forget from that evening was Yvvettes’s mother managing her stack of books being the literary equivalent of a roadie. I enjoyed this tiny window into their relationship.

We all exchanged details; afterwards, I bought a copy of her book A Cupboard Full of Coats. It was so engrossing I read it in one sitting. What I really loved was that the female protagonist was complex and darkly drawn, unapologetically so. It is a brilliant debut novel, a heartbreaking read worth every penny.

One of the things I admire about Yvvette is her tenacity. She didn’t have an easy writing journey but she never gave up.

Over the next year, we’d bump into each other at literary gatherings, our friendship developed from there. We’d email back and forth and she’d encourage me to keep writing when things were difficult. Writing can be such an isolating endeavour that friendships and support are invaluable.

My favourite thing about her other than her literary prowess is her humour. She’s one of the most hilarious writers I know and is never without a funny anecdote or encounter. I cry with laughter whenever we meet up. She could have been a stand-up comedian had she not wanted to go into fiction writing. She’s a natural storyteller. When you engage with her, this becomes apparent.

It’s been fun and heartening watching her journey so far being both a fan and a friend.

Yvette says:

iphone pics 202

Irenosen is a power ball of energy that continually amazes me. She is always busy, is always writing as well as juggling various projects, passionate about everything literary, from the craft itself to championing events, interviewing other authors, getting involved in awards and prizes, reading, judging, spreading the word.

I think her website is a perfect reflection of her as a person and as a creative.  It is warm, full, interesting, regularly updated, filled with information about her own work as well as the projects she’s involved in.

It is vast and varied and quirky. You could pop in, intending only a short visit and a quick browse, and hours later still be clicking into tabs and links, discovering fabulous pics, astute observations and confident commentary, writing that’s rich, humorous, profound. It’s impossible to sum up either Irenosen or her website with a mere handful of words.

And that’s what her writing is like. It defies strait-laced and simple definition.  It doesn’t slip into any pre-packaged boxes or notions or expectations.  You can never exactly anticipate the journey she’ll take you on, or the destination you’ll reach, but you can be confident it will be interesting, that there will be surprises in store, that you will be challenged and entertained along the way, that you’ll emerge from your journey both heady and giddy, like stepping off a super roller coaster at a different place to where your journey began.

And if you do decide to take the matter up with her, there is every possibility she’ll hug you, throw her head back and laugh.

A Cupboard Full of Coats (Oneworld) by Yvette Edwards was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, and shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize.

Irenosen Okojie’s first novel, Butterfly Fish, and a collection of short stories, Speak Gigantular, will be published in June 2015 by Jacaranda Books.