Travelling Together: Our Secret Sisterhood book tour of the USA

Regular readers of Something Rhymed will perhaps recall that we’ve sometimes likened our friendship to that of Vera Brittain, author of Testament of Youth, and Winifred Holtby, who penned South Riding.

We find ourselves particularly drawn to this pair because, like us, they met when they were at the very start of their writing journeys and each soon committed to becoming the ‘travelling companion’ of the other.

When Holtby spoke of this, she meant it in a metaphorical sense. But, as young friends in the 1920s, the two also enjoyed more literal travels when they spent a summer holidaying together in Cornwall and another in France and Italy.

The Kiyomizu temple in Kyoto, which we visited together during our early twenties (Image by Martin Falbisoner – Wikipedia Creative Commons licence)

When we were first getting to know each other, while working as English language teachers in Japan, we did a lot of travelling. We look back on our joint-trips with great fondness – not just because they gave us the opportunity to explore new places together, but also because the conversations we had, walking the streets of ancient cities or the rough paths of mountainous regions, really cemented our fledgling friendship.

Although the years we spent working intensively on A Secret Sisterhood have been – all in all – a wonderful experience, we have sometimes lamented the fact that, during this period, it sometimes felt that work had taken over all other aspects of our relationship, and that important events in each of our lives had passed by without much opportunity for sharing them with our friend.

The two-and-a-half weeks we’ve just spent touring the USA together, to mark the American publication of our book, turned out to be just the chance to put all this right.

We began our tour in New York City, with an interview with Kory French for Book Talk on Breakthru Radio, which has recently gone live. This gave us the chance to reflect – as we would many times over – on the highs and lows of writing a book together, including the joys of joint discoveries, and the frustrations of late-night quarrels about turns of phrase and the points we each felt our book ought to be making. All of these, we’re relieved to be able to say, ultimately brought us closer.

Image by Ravi Sunnak

Our first event was at the NYU bookstore, with Kate Bolick, author of Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own.

Next up was a talk at Shakespeare & Co. with Miranda Beverly-Whittemore (writer of novels including Bittersweet and June). This event was organised by the Brontë Society’s American chapter and the Jane Austen Society of North America – NY Metropolitan Region.

Our sell-out event with Miranda Beverly-Whittemore (image by Shakespeare & Co)

We had known Kate and Miranda only through their books before, and so it was a real pleasure to meet them in person. But at our event at Book Passage in San Francisco, it was lovely to collaborate again with Mary Volmer (Reliance, Illinois), who had also chaired the conversation at our northern book launch in the UK, back in June.

At Vroman’s in Pasadena, another dear friend of ours Elizabeth L. Silver (The Execution of Noa P. Singleton and The Tincture of Time) ran a discussion between us and another pair of author-friends Julia Fierro (Cutting Teeth and The Gypsy Moth Summer) and Caeli Wolfson Widger (Real Happy Family).

And finally, it was wonderful to be interviewed at UCLA by Professor Michelle Liu Carriger, an old friend from our Japan days.

With our book on the Houghton Mifflin Harcourt shelves behind us

In between our events, we went to meetings together, saw an interview we’d given to Alexis Coe for Lenny Letter go live, and visited the headquarters of our American publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, in Boston and New York City.

We caught up with mutual friends living in the USA, and worked on book-related feature articles, including this one, recently published in The Millions, and this one just out in TIME – Motto. In the gaps between all these things, we enjoyed a bit of sightseeing, and, perhaps most of all, caught up on all that personal news we’d managed to miss, and just enjoyed each other’s company as friends.

 

 

Sophie Mayer and Preti Taneja: She knew we could be who we are now

Thank you to everyone who has contacted us to send congratulations on the US publication of A Secret Sisterhood. We are enormously grateful for the support of our readers, who did so much to convince us that historical female literary friendship was a subject worth exploring in a book.

Today, we are delighted to bring you a guest post from two more modern-day writer friends, debut novelist Preti Taneja and poet and film critic Sophie Mayer.

Preti

Preti Taneja © Rory O’Bryen

We met twenty years ago. I was applying to be editor of the student newspaper, Sophie was, and still is a poet, activist, the best arts critic in the game. We shared a love of Quark Xpress.

When I got the top job, she became my theatre editor, but was already on her way to publishing her first collection of poems, winning an Eric Gregory award – showing me that becoming ‘a writer’ was possible – something I had never believed for myself until I met her.

She went to Toronto to do her PhD and I moved to London to train in journalism. I sent her my first fiction pages – she sent me Ursula Le Guin’s ‘Steering the craft’. We began to write letters to each other, and send each other things. There were kama sutra pillowcases. And many blank notebooks – especially important was the one I received after my mother died. Sophie thought I would need it.

The care packages and mix tapes (later, playlists) have continued through years of job applications, journalism, human rights reports, PhD proposal, publishing successes (her) rejections (me) and the drafts of the book that became We That Are Young.

Sophie’s poetic and critical language, the formal risks she instinctively undertakes, teach me about the kind of writer I want to be. Inventive. Fearless. The changing conversation we have been having over many, many years about what constitutes experimental writing, about race, gender, and representation, about who gets published, when and how, has kept my hopes in balance and my determination high. At my book launch, Sophie made sure I had a fresh glass of water next to me before I read.

I think when we first met, she knew we could be who we are now – I just believed her and pushed myself in line with it. The daily practice of our friendship – the texts and talking, tea, book sharing – that are not seen as part of being ‘literary’ – are indelible to our writing lives.

Sophie

From that nervous first interview, Preti struck me as someone who knew how to take the measure of the world and shape it – through hard work, aided by late-night Kit Kats and pun-based hilarity. It was the first time I had seen someone (not on TV) committed to making change through words: it was Press Gang come true, and I still thrill that I got to be part of it.

Sophie Mayer © SF Said

I remember being in the office late on 13 October 1998, when I got an email via an American LGBT listserv, reporting the murder of Matthew Shepard. I pitched a piece to Preti and (overlooking my total inexperience as an op-ed writer), she said, Do it, then took my rage and grief and showed me how to turn it into something others could read.

As a writer, you’re advised to develop an inner editor, the voice that calls bullshit on you; that pulls you back to what matters. If I have one, it has been shaped by Preti, who can give me a look (though she generally waits until dessert), and my whole specious defence of a sloppy argument collapses, and suddenly I’m agreeing that yes, I have to write about God and other traumas if I want to explain what the cinema of Sally Potter risks, and why it matters to me. Because I have learned so much from how much Preti’s writing risks, always.

Her fierce refusal to leave any stone unturned, to confront every injustice and taboo, to witness what others turn away from, enlarges the (and my) world. And she does it in prose that moves with the same amazing grace with which she dances to the beats we’ve shared over the years; I can’t help but (clumsily) join in.

Preti Taneja is a writer, human rights activist and editor of Visual Verse. Her debut novel We That Are Young is out now from Galley Beggar Press.

Sophie Mayer is a poet and feminist film activist; her most recent books are Political Animals: The New Feminist Cinema, published by I.B. Tauris and (O), by Arc Publications. 

Barbara Pym and Elizabeth Taylor

Barbara Pym and her contemporary Elizabeth Taylor knew how it felt to be ignored. Each completed a long literary ‘apprenticeship’, labouring for years without worldly success before a publisher finally said yes to one of their novels.

Even once they were established as authors, their finely nuanced, understated prose often failed to achieve the recognition it deserved.

Barbara Pym – We sought permission to use this image.

In 1963, the publisher of Pym’s six previous novels rejected her next manuscript, citing gloomy sales predictions. Such news could scarcely have arrived at a worse time for the forty-nine-year old, coming soon after she had been burgled twice, which had included the theft of her typewriter. Although Pym picked herself up and began the process of sending An Unsuitable Attachment  to alternative firms, over the next fourteen years her efforts to sell this, and other novels, met with no success.

The 1960s also saw a downturn in Taylor’s literary fortunes. Unlike Pym’s, her writing would continue to make it into print, but her work, which had often received positive reviews in the 1940s and 50s, began to attract the criticism that it was out of step with the times.

Though neither Taylor nor Pym were ever stalwarts of any literary scene, during these difficult years, they could both draw comfort from a handful of writer friends – including each other.

Elizabeth Taylor – image from Wikipedia (terms: fair use)

By the time their work fell out of favour, the pair had known each other for well over a decade, having first met for tea at Fortnum & Mason in 1950. Then each in their late thirties, they soon began a correspondence that lasted close to two decades. They also continued to meet in person, and attended gatherings for the writers’ organisation PEN together – occasions gently satirised by Pym in her 1953 book Jane and Prudence.

Their different literary styles and often polarised beliefs had little bearing on their feelings of kinship. Pym’s social world, and that of her books, is firmly rooted in the Anglican church, whereas Taylor was a committed Atheist. For many years, Taylor was also a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain, joining in the mid-1930s – whereas, in a similar period, Pym had recorded in her diary her disapproval ‘of much that Communism stands for’.

Despite such divergences, the two seem to have felt that a great deal still united them. In their letters, they talked of their admiration for each other’s work, and delighted in the interests they did share – a mutual pleasure in clothes, for instance, especially hats.

Each confided in the other regarding personal matters, too. Taylor told Pym how much she hated her name – shared, of course, with one of the world’s most famous women. On occasion, this led to men writing to Taylor in error, requesting photographs of her in a bikini.  Pym, in turn, let her friend in on the story of one of her doomed love affairs. And when, in her forties, Taylor suffered a miscarriage, she divulged details of this to Pym – including the fact that, out of what seems to have been a sense of shame, she had hidden this trauma from her children.

Throughout their careers, both women fitted writing around domestic commitments, plus, in Pym’s case, the need to earn a living. Taylor, who revelled publicly in her role as a housewife, once told an interviewer that she thought up her novel’s plots over the ironing. Pym, who never married, shared a home for many years with her sister, and worked at the International African Institute in London – another organisation that provided excellent humorous material for her novels.

After Taylor’s death from cancer in 1975, at the age of sixty-three, Pym lamented that –  despite Taylor’s shortlisting for the Booker Prize four years earlier – little public notice had been taken of her passing. But in 1976, not long after the posthumous publication of her novel, Blaming, Taylor was awarded a Whitbread Prize for lifetime achievement. In the 1980s, Virago began to reprint her books, and, more recently, several film adaptations have continued to raise her profile.

As for Pym, her literary life had a famously happy ending when she was ‘rediscovered’ in 1977, after being nominated twice in the same TLS article as ‘the most underrated writer of the twentieth century’.

Her reputation swiftly restored, she published two more books – including the Booker-shortlisted Quartet in Autumn – before also dying of cancer in 1980. Other works were published posthumously. In the years since, a new generation of readers have come to know and love her novels. Perhaps some of them will appreciate her friend’s 1953 assessment that Pym’s writing is ‘Something to remember as one works about the house, something to keep one company’.

 

Over the coming weeks…

We have a few events coming up. We’ll be in conversation with author and Something Rhymed guest blogger Antonia Honeywell at Uxbridge Library this Friday (22 September).

We’ll also be at the Ilkley Literature Festival on Saturday 14 October and the Bloomsbury Festival on Saturday 21 October.

We’ll keep posting future events on the Events Calendar page.

Arifa Akbar and Ayesha Manazir Siddiqi: Bringing Unwritten Ideas into the Light

With the UK edition of our book A Secret Sisterhood now sent off to the printers, we’re glad to be able to give more attention to this blog once more.

Today we have an interview with two modern-day female writers. Some of you will remember Arifa Akbar’s fascinating talk at last year’s Something Rhymed literary salons. You can read it here if you weren’t able to come along that evening. She joins us now with her friend Ayesha Manazir Siddiqi to tell us about their literary friendship.

How did the two of you meet, and can you tell us about your first impressions of each other? 

Arifa: I was invited into a circle of British South Asian writers in 2013 and Ayesha was there. We’d meet once a month to talk about our work. For about a year, I only saw Ayesha at these gatherings so I got to know her through her critical opinions first. The friendship grew through it.

At the time, she was planning on doing a PhD on trauma in literature and I was a journalist at The Independent so we came from different worlds but I loved the way she approached books, how she had the ability to really listen. She was someone who seemed passionate and unafraid in her opinions. I thought that she was a gentle person but filled with a spirit of quiet rebellion.

Ayesha Manazir Siddiqi  (left) and Arifa Akbar (right)

Ayesha: At one monthly group meeting, nobody turned up but she, I, and another writer friend, Kavita Bhanot. In that intimate setting, the conversation turned to personal matters and I brought up an issue I had been grappling with. With the same analytical insight and strong feminist sensibility that she applies to her literary criticism, Arifa listened, really listened, to my dilemma. A spark was lit. Soon, we became close, and began to bring unwritten ideas into the light, glimmers of novels, plays, and essays that we then encouraged each other to embark upon.

You have both worked as reviewers. What kind of problems with gender parity have you come across in the literary and media worlds?  And what are your predictions / hopes for writing by women in 2017 and beyond?

Arifa: What grates for me most is that fiction by women is sometimes treated as if it were a special category within literature. And so often, I notice how many books by men which might otherwise have been labelled as domestic literature or romance are being reviewed as ‘literary fiction’ or even as ‘state of the nation’ novels. Who ascribes these labels?

More generally, I see a disparity in how many books by men and women get review space, the amount of male bylines on reviewing pages compared to female. Its source is rooted in the rest of society so I don’t think you can solve it without addressing gender inequality as a whole, but to be conscious of it is some sort of start and I have begun to see the pattern shift.

Ayesha: I moved to the UK from Pakistan at eighteen. Writing here, in an industry dominated by whiteness, has unique complications: there is the danger of being co-opted or misused, as well as an internal often unconscious impulse to surrender to the dominant narrative, to give in to the demand for ‘easy’, clichéd, or exoticised stories. To find an avenue to the truth in this minefield is not simple, and would perhaps be impossible without my torch-bearers.

In literature, my torch-bearers include Fanon, Baldwin, Dickinson. And in life, they are my two writer friends. As a woman also, it is easy to feel one must not reach too high, for fear of falling or neglecting loved ones. Arifa helps me in this struggle through words and example. Sometimes, she channels her own torch-bearers in doing so: like quoting Virginia Woolf when I was telling her of a difficult moment, exhorting me to ‘To look life in the face, always, to look life in the face’.

Which particular qualities do you admire in each other’s writing?

Arifa: I am often surprised by Ayesha’s plays and short stories. They speak in a voice that is hers but that also reveals a part of her I don’t know, and that had remained hidden for me. The short stories that I’ve read have an air of mysteriousness and unanswered questions. They remind me that so much of life, and relationships, happens beneath whatever is being said or done on the surface. And I like her humour too. I noticed it first when I saw a read-through of a play she’d written for Kali Theatre. I was taken aback by how funny it was and, again, this is something that seemed hidden until then.

 Ayesha: Arifa has a sharp wryness that she manages to transfer on to the page, even in her book reviews. Her fiction, which must be shared one day, is of measured pace and remarkable passion: a difficult combination. I think Arifa has learned through her journalistic career how to transfer her essence into words without pretence or showmanship. It is beautiful to read.

Can you tell us how you ‘workshop’ each other’s writing?

Arifa: Ayesha’s a talented editor. She seems to read on an intuitive level, approaching drafts with an extraordinary degree of sensitivity, curiosity and meticulousness. There have been so many times when I’ve got knotted up and sent her a draft just before a deadline and she has been able to unknot it in no time – suggest where I might be going wrong, see faults in the arrangement of a piece, put me back on track with ideas that I could develop, interrogate the claims I’m making or the story I’m imagining, and more.

It has been the case for both the writing for newspapers and the unpublished fiction. I feel confident knowing that if I send her a piece of writing in progress, it will end up better, always. I don’t think I had ever understood how transformative editing could be to a piece of work before I met Ayesha and it reflects her generosity of spirit that she gives so much to someone else’s work.

Ayesha: Arifa and I edit each other’s work with a brutal honesty that is always embedded in kindness. The editing comes from a place of deep empathy, the kind that not only improves the proofread piece, but also enables real growth.

Does writing form the central aspect of your relationship? Are there other shared interests that bring you together as friends?

 Arifa: Writing and critical thinking was the glue to our friendship at the beginning and maybe it has remained so. Gradually, after the writing circle, we formed a three-way friendship and then it became two, and I feel I have got to know different parts of Ayesha through these stages. We’ve only known each other for four years but the friendship feels deeper and longer than that.

Ayesha: Our relationship started off on the basis of writing, but, as it grew into friendship, other matters of the soul rose to the surface. There have in fact been moments of deep crisis and grief that have brought the friendship itself into question. But we’ve faced them with slow perseverance and brutal honesty.

The presence of a firm literary friendship is a gift, one that is sometimes joyously celebrated and at other times patiently nurtured. But always, it is a gift. And to be able to examine the fabric that makes up life in the presence of a loving, understanding other is all that I wish for; Arifa, with her formidable intelligence, empathy, and insight, allows me this.

Arifa Akbar is a journalist, reviewer and is currently working on her first novel.

In addition to her work as a reviewer, Ayesha Manazir Siddiqi is a writer of short stories, essays and plays.

‘We’re given only a handful of these kinds of friendships’: Lily Dunn and Zoe Gilbert

This month, we’ve been hard at work on final edits for A Secret Sisterhood. As soon as we emerge, we’re looking forward to bringing you a new post about another of the historical literary pairs we’ve come across.

In the mean time, we’re pleased to be able to bring you a guest post by two modern-day writer friends and collaborators. Short story writer Zoe Gilbert and novelist Lily Dunn run London Lit Lab , an organisation that offers creative writing courses and mentoring. They tell us how they got to know each other, and how working as a team of two has changed their friendship, in the most positive of ways…

 

Zoe

Lily and I met when I joined the North London Writers Group as the rogue short story writer amongst novelists. We made an immediate connection through our writing, which was perhaps lucky – at the time, Lily was looking at ways of using sea folklore in her draft novel, and I was working on folk-tale-influenced short stories.

It was also Lily’s humane but incisive approach to critiquing other people’s work that made my ears prick up. Her comments were always the ones I went to first, and found most profound. How lucky I am to work beside her now whilst teaching writers!

I don’t often feel an instinctive, or quick, affinity with other human beings, but becoming friends with Lily came naturally.

Lily Dunn (left) and Zoe Gilbert
Lily Dunn (left) and Zoe Gilbert

As we’ve got to know each other’s writing, and ways of thinking, it’s become clear how very different we are in how we approach fiction, how we use ideas on the page to work out what we think and who we are.

This is a glorious thing: it means I can learn endlessly from Lily as she always has a contrasting perspective on creative work. I marvel at her courage in writing directly from experience, in ways that move me, and I will always admire her writing because I will never fully understand how she does it.

Now we’ve brashly, rashly, started London Lit Lab together, and learned how to run a business in partnership. That’s a big thing, and we’ve done it in a year when both our lives have been distracting enough that business meetings sometimes turn into much needed rants or wine-fuelled counselling sessions.

In Lily, I have a genuine partner through a phase of taking on life with fists raised in gusto, and four fists somehow add up to more than twice two.

 

Lily

I reckon we’re given only a handful of these kinds of friendships – the kind that happens easily, without much effort on either part. It is a gift to be treated with care.

Zoe was a welcome addition to North London Writers. We gushed over her extraordinary stories, so spare yet textured in style, dream-like yet earthy. She was humble to our praise, elegant and understated. But, according to my memory, it wasn’t writing that first bonded us… but cats.

It was my turn to host the writers’ group, and my two Siamese came purring for attention among various group members, disinterested and allergic. I reassured them that they had a place in the midst of literary discussion, no doubt talking ‘cat’. Lost in my private moment, I was delighted to find Zoe laughing beside me. She likes cats! She’s one of ‘my people’!

Writing, I have discovered, is so nuanced and personal. When you love another’s work, you’re embracing that person, too. Zoe and I have that. The trust between us is unspoken. Together we feel at home in our writing self, as we do in our enquiring self, our silly self, too.

London Lit Lab felt like an effortless extension of this. Hard work, yes, but it came together easily.

With no real plan to teach together, we suggested we’d support each other during the first course then alternate, but very quickly we’d formed a dynamic. We sat amongst our students, and discussed ideas and texts, more a fin de siècle salon than the usual teacher/student divide. It turned into a creative act, well planned but open to the magic.

Soon we realised that the magic was in us  – not individually, but together – as well as the students and our combined inspiration. We came out of those classes buzzing. Two female writers, who like each other, and admire each other’s writing, who want to teach together … and … here’s the best bit…. make it work!

 

Shadowing the Sun by Lily Dunn is published by Portobello Books.

‘Fishskin, Hareskin’ by Zoe Gilbert won the Costa Short Story Award in 2014.

Eliot Bliss and Jean Rhys

Towards the end of 2014, when we had been running Something Rhymed for just one year, we had the pleasure of interviewing Diana Athill about the literary bond she shared with the late Jean Rhys.

Plaque outside Jean Rhys's former home in London's Chelsea (Creative Commons licence)
Plaque outside Jean Rhys’s former home in London’s Chelsea (Creative Commons licence)

As many others before her had also observed, Athill recalled that Rhys was not someone who made friends easily. On the other hand, the famously temperamental author could be ‘fun to be with’, Athill told us – at least ‘when she was being happy’.

Rhys also knew how to turn on the charm when she needed help. ‘When she was young and a very, very pretty woman’, Athill remembered with a wry smile, ‘she was rescued over and over again by helpful men. When she became older, she was rescued by nice women like me’.

Having so enjoyed our afternoon’s talk back in 2014, Emma and I were delighted to learn of another of Rhys’s female literary alliances.

Although Rhys had written four earlier, highly accomplished novels, she remains best known today as the author of Wide Sargasso Sea, inspired by the plot of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. But almost three decades before the publication of Rhys’s 1966 book, which would bring her the kind of public admiration that she’d always felt she deserved, she became acquainted with Eliot Bliss – like her, a white writer from the Caribbean, Rhys hailing from Dominica whereas Bliss came from Jamaica.

Image used with the kind permission of Michela A. Calderaro, who has published a newly-discovered collection of poems by Bliss.

Eliot Bliss (born Eileen Norah Lees Bliss in 1903), whose pen-name was partially inspired by George Eliot, was the author of the novels Saraband and Luminous Isle. And, like Rhys, her work was highly autobiographical, often focusing on the lush island homes of their youths.

The pair got to know each other while they were both living in London, and Rhys, then in her forties, was enjoying an unusually settled – and therefore happy – period in an often chaotic life. During the summer of 1937, the two met every fortnight to enjoy home-cooked Caribbean dinners washed down with vast quantities of wine.

Such was Rhys’s ability to drink that her poor younger friend always felt ill after these meals. Rhys, too, sometimes ended up so drunk that her husband would have to put both women to bed.

On occasion, Bliss would catch a glimpse of her friend’s stormy temper – for instance, when Rhys drunkenly accused Bliss (the daughter of a colonial army officer) of looking down on her. But when Rhys was sober, according to Bliss, she was always kind-natured and – as Athill, too, would later note – full of fun.

Sadly, in the winter of 1937, Bliss left for America. But the two writers continued to correspond in the decades to come, their letters challenging the common perception of Rhys as constantly difficult-natured and someone who was unable to make friends with other women.

This year…

We are looking forward to profiling many more female writing friendships. If you sent us a recommendation over the past twelve months, when we have been working hard on our forthcoming book, please know that we have not forgotten about it. We welcome all ideas for literary pairs you’d like to see on this site, so if a friendship we haven’t covered yet comes to mind, please do let us know.

Celebrating Past and Modern-day Writing Friendships

Especially over the past year, when we have been hard at work on our joint-book, we have been focusing mostly on historical literary friendships on this blog.

Reading the novels and stories of Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, George Eliot, Virginia Woolf and their friends has given us much to think about, as have our conversations about these important literary relationships.

We’ve often been struck by how relevant the issues faced by these authors of the past still feel to female writers today – particularly in terms of the need to balance the desire to write with other pressing responsibilities.

Austen’s great friend and governess to her brother’s children, Anne Sharp, had time to pen her theatricals only in the hours in between teaching lessons.

Before the tremendous success of her first published novel, Jane Eyre, Brontë faced similar struggles.

But just as Sharp benefited from the support of Austen, who did her best to improve her friend’s work life, Brontë was lucky to have the future feminist author Mary Taylor to encourage her literary efforts.

The two of us have been teachers for about a decade now and have thankfully never found it as limiting as Brontë, or even Sharp, did. We have been lucky in that, rather than teaching a broad curriculum, we are teachers only of writing – a subject in which we naturally have a genuine interest.

Nonetheless, there have been times in both of our pasts when, being short of money or eager to get a foot in the door at a particular institution, we’ve taken on too many classes and our own writing has suffered as a result.

This need for authors to try and find the right balance been writing and other aspects of their lives came up at our recent Writing Friendships event at City, University of London, made possible by the generous support of Arts Council England.

Susan Barker
Susan Barker

We were joined by writers Susan Barker, Ann Morgan and Denise Saul – all also former guest bloggers for Something Rhymed. The feeling among the group seemed to be that, although teaching (and teaching writing especially) can provide inspiration for an author, it’s important to fiercely guard your own writing time.

But we all also felt that it was equally important not to cut yourself off from other people. In the talks by Susan, Ann and Denise, audience members were treated to insights about the literary friendships of each woman on the panel.

Ann Morgan - image by Steve Lennon
Ann Morgan – image by Steve Lennon

Ann, the first speaker of the evening, talked about the important bonds she’d forged through her web project and non-fiction book, Reading the World. Susan spoke about the invaluable advice and support she’d received from Liang Junhong, a friend she met while she was living in China and working on her novel The Incarnations. Denise talked about collaborating with other artists as part of a video poem project, Silent Room: a Journey of Language.

Denise Saul - image by Amanda Pepper
Denise Saul – image by Amanda Pepper

Audience member, Rosie Canning, has written up a fuller account of the evening, which you can read here.

We are grateful to Rosie for commemorating the event in this way, and to everyone who came along to support us. We’re sure to be running more Something Rhymed events in the new year, so do keep an eye on our blog for more details.

 

A Legend in Her Time: Harriet Beecher Stowe and Uncle Tom’s Cabin

Here we discuss the final book in this year’s female-friendship-inspired reading list,   Harriet Beecher Stowe’s anti-slavery novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

By the time Stowe extended a figurative hand of friendship across the waves to George Eliot, in 1869, the American author had already made her name with this controversial book – the runaway bestseller of the day. Please click on the video below to hear us talking about what Eliot might have found so inspiring.

All of the female writer writers we’ve discussed in this series of posts and audio interviews – Jane Austen and Anne Sharp, Charlotte Brontë and Mary Taylor, George Eliot and Harriet Beecher Stowe, Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield – will feature in our forthcoming book. We’re still hard at work on A Secret Sisterhood, which will come out in the UK in June 2017 and in the US in the autumn of that year.

We’ll update you on this, and our plans for Something Rhymed in 2017, in next week’s post.

Writing Friendships event at City, University of London

Emma and I have just returned from an enjoyable weekend in Lincolnshire, where some of our readers may recall I used to live in the early years of our friendship.

We’d gone there to teach two friendship-themed writing workshops together. It was fun to be able to take Emma to a few of the places I used to know well, to introduce her to some of my former evening class students, and also for us to meet plenty of other people for the first time.

For those of you who couldn’t make these sessions, we’re delighted to be able to let you know that we have another event coming up next month, this time at City, University of London, where both of us teach on the Novel Studio programme.

city-uol-logo-rgb-dk1aWriting Friendships at City, University of London

As long-term friends who’ve supported each other’s careers from the beginning, we know just how important building strong links with other writers can be. We’ll be joined by Something Rhymed guest bloggers Susan Barker, Ann Morgan, Irenosen Okojie and Denise Saul, who’ll be sharing their own experiences of literary friendship and offering practical advice to new and advanced writers on ways in which they can forge and develop meaningful writing relationships of their own.

Once again, this event has been generously funded by Arts Council England.

When: Wednesday 16 NovemberPrint

Doors open 6.15pm, event runs from 6.30-8pm, followed by drinks reception – a chance to make new writer friends

Where: The Northampton Suite C, City University of London, Northampton Square, London, EC1V 0HB. Details of how to reach the venue appear on this page.

Tickets: Places are free but limited for this event and must be booked in advance through the City, University of London website. You can do this here.

We are grateful to City, University of London and Arts Council England for helping to make this event possible. We hope to see you there.

 

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.