Mentor or tormentor – Ali Thurm’s thoughts on female friendship in fiction

Back in February, before such gatherings had been put on hold in London owing to the Covid-19 pandemic, the two of us enjoyed attending the launch of the debut novel by a former student of ours.  Ali Thurm’s book, One Scheme of Happiness, is an engrossing read about the close yet unsettling bond between two old school friends who reconnect in later life. We are so pleased to feature this guest post by Ali, in which she shares some thoughts on the subject of female friendship in fiction through the ages.

I’ve always been interested in how childhood friendships influence the choices we make as adults – those moments in childhood that stand out as turning points and that we remember for the rest of our lives. Some of us want a large group of friends and many hanker after a best friend, a soul mate. We want to know how to be a good friend and how to keep these friends, how to achieve a balance between pleasing our friends and being true to ourselves. And what to do if things go wrong, if this fine balance tips over into envy or destructive hatred? As a writer and keen reader, it feels natural to me to look to fiction for answers.

Image by Benjamin White (Creative Commons licence)

In the 19th century novel female friendship is often relatively straightforward: a friend is a good influence or not.

In Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontё, we see an example of how to be a good friend. When Jane goes to Lowood School, the older Helen Burns befriends her. Virtuous, and long-suffering, Helen shows Jane how to overcome the bullying and cruelty of the school through religion and stoicism. When Jane is forced to stand on a stool as a punishment Helen walks past her, inspiring the book’s heroine with the ‘strange light’ in her eyes. ‘It was as if a martyr, a hero, had praised a slave or victim, and imparted strength in the transit.’ This is a friendship in adversity that strengthens Jane’s character.

In Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, Lucy Steele befriends Elinor Dashwood. She is pretty and vivacious and at first Elinor enjoys her friendship; but Lucy is ‘a person who joined insincerity with ignorance’ and not averse to flattery and outright lying to further her marriage prospects. Austen treats her with wit and humour, but Lucy’s ‘little sharp eyes’ cause Elinor great emotional distress. She is a friend to be avoided.

Post Freud, the contemporary novel delves deep into psychology; female friendships endure and aren’t cast off with marriage or by other circumstances. They are complex and complicated. Now that women can choose to have it all, or none of it, friendships are fluid too. And not necessarily nice.

The friendship between Lila and Elena in Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend, set in 1950’s Naples, is intense and often problematic. As the narrator Elena remarks, ‘Lila … immediately impressed me because she was very bad.’ Even when it is Lila who has thrown Elena’s doll into a dark cellar and Lila who constantly dares her to try more and more dangerous games, Elena is devoted to her. Having been dared by her friend to climb a dark staircase, Elena recalls that ‘Lila did something unexpected. She stopped to wait for me, and when I reached her she gave me her hand.’ After this one moment their friendship lasts for decades.

In Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye a middle-aged narrator, Elaine, looks back at childhood friendships – relationships in which her friends also became her torturers. Picturing herself back in those days, she says: ‘They are my friends, my girl friends, my best friends. I never had any before and I’m terrified of losing them. I want to please.’ Elaine never comes to terms with these negative feelings and how her childhood relationships led her to lose all self-respect. The novel focuses on these damaging early experiences and their resulting psychological trauma.

Like Cat’s Eye, my novel, One Scheme of Happiness, is driven by an adult re-evaluation of a friendship. My protagonist Helen has been influenced by caring for her acutely anxious mother, and by her own narrow reading of 19th century novels, Mansfield Park in particular. As a child she is so besotted by the glamorous Vicky that she does whatever Vicky tells her to do to retain her friendship, including  bullying other children. But when the bullying becomes sexual and turns on her, Helen drops Vicky and finds friendship with another quieter girl, Ann.  At the heart of the novel, is the shifting and game-playing between Helen and Vicky, which continues into adulthood.  Ultimately, Helen needs to find the balance between holding onto this relationship and preserving her own sanity. She will have to reappraise the life choices she’s made as a result of her complex and confusing childhood friendship.

For us, Helen’s changing feelings about her personal bond with Vicky are one of the most interesting characteristics of Ali’s novel. They are also a reminder that, despite how often the subject has been tackled in fiction over the centuries, there’s still a great deal to explore afresh in the subject of female friendship.

Ali Thurm’s first novel One Scheme of Happiness is published by Retreat West Books. You can find out more about Ali’s work at alithurm.com. She is also on Twitter @alithurm and Instagram @alithurm.

Muriel St. Clare Byrne and Dorothy L. Sayers

As fans of  The Mutual Admiration Society: How Dorothy L. Sayers and her Oxford Circle Remade the World for Women, we were delighted when its author Mo Moulton agreed to write a post for this blog. Long-time readers of Something Rhymed might recall us profiling Sayers’s literary bond with fellow crime author Agatha Christie back in 2015. Mo, though, focuses on the several-decades-long friendship between Sayers and Muriel St. Clare Byrne. It’s a piece that raises fascinating questions about criticism, collaboration and female friendship, and one that we’re sure our readers will enjoy.

‘Did they fight?’

That’s the question I always get when I speak about the Mutual Admiration Society, a writing group founded in 1912 at Somerville College, the University of Oxford, by a group of young women who remained friends and collaborators for life. The answer is yes, of course – if anyone has discovered the secret of decades-long, conflict-free intimacy, it wasn’t them, and it isn’t me. Even the name is a joke rather than a description: future detective novelist Dorothy L. Sayers, a founding member, said they should call themselves a mutual admiration society, before others did.

In fact, the MAS was free with sharp criticism. Sayers’s closest friend in the group was Muriel St. Clare Byrne, who would go on to be a playwright and a historian of Tudor England. Before that, she was editor of the student literary magazine, The Fritillary. Assessing Sayers’s entry to a poetry competition run by the magazine, Byrne wrote that it ‘has some very good lines in it, but has also too many serious lapses to justify the award of a prize’.

After university, Sayers and Byrne were in less frequent contact, as each struggled to find her own way as an independent woman in postwar London. By the late 1920s, however, they had become firm friends again, and Byrne and her partner Marjorie Barber won a cameo appearance as Harriet Vane’s best friends, Sylvia and Eiluned, in the 1929 Lord Peter Wimsey crime novel Strong Poison. (Eiluned, we learn, ‘scorns everything in trousers’, a classic euphemism if ever there was one.)

Strong Poison is based on one of Sayers’s own unhappy love affairs, and it introduces a romantic interest to the Wimsey novels in the person of Harriet Vane. Having created Vane, Sayers seemed unsure what to do with her, writing several more Wimsey novels that fail to advance the romantic plot. Her writerly impasse echoed her real-life dilemmas, which she and Byrne discussed in depth.

In 1933, they took a road trip together. Sayers introduced Byrne to her son, who had been born out of wedlock a decade earlier and was raised in some secrecy by her cousin in Oxford. They drove on through Somerset, and I imagine them in the car, rattling rapidly between high hedges, talking about whether Sayers should divorce her husband, and, probably, what Byrne should do about her own desire to incorporate another partner into her relationship with Barber. 

A year, and no doubt many conversations later, Byrne proposed: why not write a play together, set during the honeymoon of Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane? The result was Busman’s Honeymoon, a comic detective play that nonetheless takes on serious questions about how to reinvent marriage to be egalitarian, honest, and liberating rather than constraining and degrading. Drafts of the play reveal the working process to have been frank and equal, too: Byrne and Sayers debate everything from individual word choices to the big questions of motive and emotional integrity.

Having committed to an on-stage honeymoon, Sayers needed to get her characters engaged to be married, which she did in the novel Gaudy Night. Written after Busman’s Honeymoon was completed, but before it was performed, Gaudy Night is probably Sayers’s most beloved novel, an homage to Somerville College as well as a love story. But Byrne was unconvinced by the version she read in draft, finding it slow-moving and unlikely to appeal to readers.

Is this, finally, the fight that folks want, the dramatic falling-out after collaboration? It is not. Sayers rebutted the criticism but took it in stride. In fact, she looked forward to seeing Byrne again soon so they could have ‘a good argufying evening’.

In the questions about fights, I hear an echo of the stereotypes about women and friendships: that women are competitive, they are jealous and catty, they don’t have real friendships. But, as Sayers and Byrne would go on to argue in a pair of linked essays, women are, after all, just human beings, who loved and fought like any other human beings.

Sayers dedicated the 1937 novel version of Busman’s Honeymoon to Byrne, Barber, and their mutual friend Helen Simpson. In her dedication, she dismisses the stereotypes and celebrates, instead, that ‘friendship of which the female sex is said to be incapable; let the lie stick i’ the wall!’

Sayers and Byrne debated and argued and disagreed, but that was a part of their friendship, which ultimately became a collaboration that transformed them both as writers and thinkers.

Mo Moulton is a historian and writer, and the author of The Mutual Admiration Society: How Dorothy L. Sayers and her Oxford Circle Remade the World for Women. You can find out more at momoulton.com. They are also on Twitter @hammock_tussock. (Photo credit: Holly Revell)

Vita Sackville-West and Violet Trefusis

Especially in such challenging times, Emma and I want to wish all our readers well. We are so thankful for the online community that has grown with this blog since its beginning six years ago, and hope that posts like the one you are about to read will offer some inspiration and interest over the difficult months ahead.

In our co-authored book A Secret Sisterhood: The hidden friendships of Austen, Brontë, Eliot and Woolf, the two of us suggest that physical intimacy between female writers has tended to receive greater attention than their intellectual bonds. Here on Something Rhymed, we’ve therefore focused on the platonic friendships of female writers. Yet archaeologist and historian Rebecca Batley piqued our interest when she pitched a piece on famed lovers Vita Sackville-West and Violet Trefusis. Rebecca explained to us that the relationship between these two aristocratic women was also founded on a mutual literary influence, which endured for a lifetime.

Violet Trefusis – This image is in the public domain.

Violet Trefusis is mostly known today for a slim volume of her published love letters addressed to Vita Sackville-West, aristocratic author of novels such as All Passion Spent (1931) and creator of the famed gardens at her ancestral home of Sissinghurst.

But this wild, lyrical and deeply passionate correspondence is as much a record of a longstanding literary alliance as a chronicle of a love affair. For like Sackville-West, Trefusis was an accomplished author – although her seven novels and two memoirs are now largely forgotten and out of print.

Trefusis and Sackville-West met as children in 1903 at a social gathering, their families moving in royal circles. Sackville-West was brought up in a home bestowed on her family by Elizabeth I. Trefusis’s mother – incidentally, the great grandmother of Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall – was mistress to King Edward VII.

Their schoolgirl attachment was both passionate and literary from the start. Both had creative aspirations from a young age and bonded over their love of books. In their correspondence they frequently quote contemporary works of literature, and recommend authors to each other. To them beauty was God, and the pursuit and creation of it drove all their work.

It is utterly impossible to separate the women’s personal connection from their literary one. The two women were deeply in love and sustained a passionate affair for many years, culminating in an infamous elopement to France. Equally important, though, during this period both women began to write in earnest.

Sackville-West would publish poetry as early as 1909, words that Trefusis alternately inspired and advised upon. The letters between her and Sackville-West during this time are littered with advice, and writing tips are swapped back and forth with great frequency. In August 1918, Trefusis wrote that she discussed ‘these things only with you, my views on religion, Epicureanism, writing, ethics and so forth’. Sadly, her husband would later burn many of the letters from Sackville-West to her, so the extant correspondence does not present a complete picture.

By the 1920’s, however, Sackville-West  was working on her autobiography, which her son Nigel Nicolson would incorporate into his infamous Portrait of a Marriage after both his mother and Trefusis were dead. Here, Sackville-West’s words  chronicle her love affair with Trefusis and her decision to remain married to her husband, Harold Nicolson. In the words of Sackville-West’s son, the book is a remarkable recording of ‘the violence of her passion’ for Trefusis.

Vita Sackville-West – This image is in the public domain.

Trefusis’s most well remembered work is Broderie Anglaise which was written alongside and in response to Sackville-West’s Challenge, a novel that chronicles their love affair in fictional form. While the publication of Challenge was blocked, to Sackville-West’s frustration, by her mother, Trefusis’s Broderie Anglaise was well received at the time, but is today regrettably remembered only for its complex relationship with Sackville-West’s Challenge and Virginia Woolf’s Orlando – a novel that completed their real life ménage à trois.

In Orlando, Trefusis  is portrayed as Sasha, Sackville-West as Orlando. Trefusis had encouraged Sackville-West to explore her perceived androgyny and Woolf transferred this brilliantly into fiction at a time when she was embarking on her own love affair with Sackville-West and feeling cripplingly jealous of her lover’s longstanding passion for Trefusis.

Despite Woolf’s concerns, Sackville-West would not sacrifice her correspondence with Trefusis, with whom she continued to exchange affectionate letters long after their romantic affair had ended – both women using their correspondence as the touchstone of their lives and careers.

This ‘literary encounter’ undeniably developed around the singular relationship sustained by these two remarkable authors, who would time and again explore and dissect their personal relationship in their work.

These two women were, are and became far more than the sum of their romantic relationship, their lifelong literary alliance at turns inspiring and frustrating – both for them and for those who read them today.

 

Rebecca Batley is an archaeologist and historian.  She has been fascinated by the life and works of Violet Sackville-West and Violet Trefusis since stumbling across a book of their letters as a teenager. You can find out more about Rebecca at her blog TheTravellingHistorian. She is also on Twitter @TheTravellingH2.

A final note: Emily is now back from her period of maternity leave and will be taking over the running of Something Rhymed for the next few months while Emma concentrates on some personal writing projects. Emily is extremely grateful to Emma for holding the fort during her absence. As ever, if any of our readers has an idea for a post they’d like to write on female literary friendship, please get in touch via the Contact Us form. Do read the submission guidelines first, which are available here.

Honouring My Friend: Rebecca Mascull remembers Vanessa Lafaye

Today we’re delighted to bring you an interview with Rebecca Mascull, talking about her friendship with the late Vanessa Lafaye. Writers Rebecca and Vanessa first became acquainted by reading each other’s novels. They then connected via social media and soon became firm friends. When Vanessa passed away in 2018, her final book Miss Marley – a prequel to the Dickens classic A Christmas Carol – remained unfinished, and so Rebecca completed it for her friend.

Authors and friends – Vanessa Lafaye (left) and Rebecca Mascull

Both you and Vanessa Lafaye were members of The Prime Writers, a group set up by novelist Antonia Honeywell for writers who published their first book after the age of 40. How did this shared experience affect your friendship and your approach to the publishing industry?

This writers’ collective has become incredibly important to me, as I know it did to Vanessa too. It was the first time in my career (and perhaps even my life?!) when I felt I had finally found my tribe. Here was a group of writers, all around the same age as me or older, all around the same points in our careers, who had started out starry-eyed and naïve and were very quickly learning that the writing business was pretty damn hard on writers, particularly financially. We were there to celebrate each other’s triumphs and commiserate when things didn’t go so well.

We chat everyday via a Facebook group and there is implicit trust there, that we can have a rant and it won’t go further, that we can crow about each other’s good fortune and won’t be seen as being smug! It’s invaluable to a writer, I feel, because so much of what we do is done alone in a room. I have met some of my greatest friends through this group and I’ll always be grateful to it. Also, we make each other laugh a lot, which is always good!

We read that when you were approached to finish Vanessa’s book, you said yes straight away. When you actually sat down to work, how did you find the writing? Were there any particular joys, or challenges? And what did the process of finishing entail? Writing extra chapters? Editing the rest of the draft?

You’re quite right, I did say yes straight away. I knew I would do it, that it was my honour to do it for my friend. When I sat down to write, I had already read through Vanessa’s section and scribbled a few ideas on how I thought the story should end. These were discussed with HarperCollins and agreed upon. So, I did a chapter plan first and then started writing the final chapters.

I wrote the whole lot in a few days. It really did pour out. I didn’t need to think about it too much while writing, as I’d already done the thinking in the planning. It was almost stream of consciousness. I do usually write quite speedily but this was particularly quick for me. I think, looking back, I was in just the right head-space for it at that particular moment. Our editor at HarperCollins, Kate Mills, was quite clear from the beginning that she felt nothing should be changed in Vanessa’s section and I totally agreed. All we did was tweak a couple of very minor details that needed amending, but other than that, it remained largely untouched.

When we were writing our own book A Secret Sisterhood, we were conscious of the need to ensure a single writer’s voice throughout the text. If we had read Miss Marley knowing nothing of its publication history, we would never have guessed that the author’s pen had changed hands part way through. What did you do as a writer to achieve this level of consistency?

Ah, that’s wonderful to hear! I know I’ve done my job if a reader feels that way. Thank you. When I first read through Vanessa’s section, I made lots of notes on her style of writing: imagery she used, sentence structure she preferred, key words and phrases that needed to come up again in the final section. I noticed something she and I had talked about in the past – our styles were actually quite similar already. That’s probably one of the reasons I was asked to do this.

I decided early on not to obsess over the style and analyse as I was going along, as that would be detrimental to the flow. I wanted to simply write it and worry about style later. As it happened, once I’d finished and read back through it, I felt that very little needed to change. And my editor agreed. I’ve never had so little editing done on something I’ve written in my whole career. Extraordinary really. But it was, in every way, an extraordinary thing to be asked to do.

How did your relationship with the memory of Vanessa, and also perhaps your feelings about Charles Dickens, change as a result of working on Miss Marley?

It was a lovely experience but it was bittersweet, of course. I felt very close to her during the writing and then when I’d finished, I had the usual writer’s grief of leaving that world behind, but I also felt the loss of having to leave Vanessa behind too and that was very sad. It was a privilege, though, to have lived inside her head for a few weeks while writing those chapters, as well as to walk through Dickens’s world, one of our favourite authors. So, all in all, it really was a joy to do, as I’m sure it was for Vanessa too.

The moment I finished writing Miss Marley, I felt closer to Vanessa than ever and yet, in that same moment, felt her absence more than ever. I’ll never forget doing it and I’ll always be grateful to have been asked. I’ve no idea if she’d have liked my ending or not, but the key thing was to do what I felt was right and also to allow her final work to be completed. It really was a team effort; HarperCollins did a beautiful job of the design, and the illustrations – based on Vanessa’s own – were super too. Now it’s done, it’s just wonderful to see the finished book out there in the world, Vanessa’s story charming readers everywhere.

In addition to Miss Marley, Vanessa Lafaye is the author of At First Light and Summertime, which was a Richard and Judy Book Club choice in 2015 and was shortlisted for the Historical Writers Award. Vanessa passed away in 2018.

Rebecca Mascull is the author of three novels, including The Wild Air, which made the Not the Booker longlist in 2017. She also writes historical sagas under the name Mollie Walton, and is the author of The Daughters of Ironbridge, forthcoming in 2019. You can follow Rebecca on Instagram @beccamascull and on Twitter @rebeccamascull.

Dorothy Parker and Elinor Wylie

Regular Something Rhymed readers will remember Kathleen Dixon Donnelly’s post on Mabel Dodge and Gertrude Stein (and Alice B. Toklas). For our last post of 2018, Kathleen has written a follow-up piece on another absolutely fascinating literary friendship.

Dorothy Parker purportedly said, ‘The first thing I do in the morning is brush my teeth and sharpen my tongue.’ Well-known for her nasty comments about anyone who had just left the room – sometimes before – she didn’t forge many strong bonds. But she rarely said anything negative about her female friend, poet and novelist Elinor Wylie.

Both were born in New Jersey to affluent families, Wylie eight years before Parker.

In the first few years of the 20th century, Parker—then Rothschild— was struggling with guilt over her hated stepmother’s sudden death, and writing poems about dogs to her father. She left Catholic school, later claiming she was fired for insisting ‘that the Immaculate Conception was spontaneous combustion’.

Dorothy Parker.                                      This image is in the public domain.

Meanwhile, Wylie—then Hoyt—eloped with an emotionally unstable Harvard graduate, but soon found herself being followed by an older married Washington attorney, who encouraged her poetry. She abandoned her husband and son to run off to England with the lawyer, where they lived under assumed names.

By the time war broke out in 1914, Wylie’s husband had committed suicide and her new partner’s wife had agreed to a divorce. Returning to the States, the socially ostracised couple moved from city to city, and Wylie suffered two miscarriages, as Parker would later.

Now that Parker’s father had died, she was teaching dance classes on the Upper West Side and sending couplets to the most popular newspaper column in the city, ‘The Conning Tower’ penned by FPA (Franklin Pierce Adams). By 1917 she had talked herself into a job at Vanity Fair, and by the 1920s, she was writing for all the main periodicals, lunching and drinking regularly with the writers of the Algonquin Hotel’s Round Table.

220px-Elinor_Wylie
Elinor Wylie This image is in the public domain.

Wylie had dumped her second husband and moved to New York City with incoming husband number three, who, in his role as founding editor of the Saturday Review of Literature, helped her burgeoning career as a poet. When they married in 1923, she dismissed their friends’ misgivings by saying, ‘Yes, it would be a pity that a first-rate poet [Wylie] should be turned into a second-rate poet by marrying a third-rate poet.’

The women became good friends that same year, and Parker was soon going to the Wylies’ impressive apartment to write. By this time, Parker was free-lancing, and it was Wylie who had now talked herself into a job (as poetry editor) at Vanity Fair.

In May 1925, Wylie and Parker were invited to Connecticut for the wedding of Parker’s mentor and fellow Round Table member, FPA, along with other writers working on the newly established New Yorker magazine. Wylie insisted that all continue the party at her nearby country home. Passed out on the couch, Parker was devastated to wake up to the voices of Wylie and another guest whispering about the scars on Parker’s wrists left by her recent suicide attempt.

At the end of the following year, Wylie had an opportunity to come through for her friend. Parker showed up early one Sunday morning at Wylie’s Greenwich Village townhouse, talking about trying to kill herself again. Wylie calmed her down. This was one of the only times Parker talked to someone about suicide before she tried it.

Wylie’s brother and sister, in addition to her first husband, had also killed themselves. She wrote to her mother, ‘I suppose Dottie thinks we are experts on the subject!’

Fittingly, Parker’s first collection of poetry, Enough Rope, was published the next month, dedicated to Wylie and containing Parker’s most well-known poem, ‘Resumé’.

Wylie’s poetry was totally unlike Parker’s short, witty quips. Wylie favoured more traditional wording and structure, and, obsessed with romantic Percy Bysshe Shelley, she wrote two novels fantasising that he had been reincarnated.

Having suffered from high blood pressure and migraines most of her life, Wylie was staying with her by-then estranged third husband during Christmas 1928. When he brought her some water, she wryly remarked ‘Is that all it is?’ and dropped dead from a stroke at age 43.

On hearing of Wylie’s death, Parker was so distraught that she found herself rendered temporarily mute. But her late friend continued to speak to her through the words of ‘Anti-Feminist Song, For My Sister’ – her poem addressed to Parker, which was published in the New Yorker shortly after Wylie’s death. ‘I am I,’ Wylie had written, ‘and you, my darling;/Someone very like myself.’

A few years later, during Parker’s visit to Venice with friends, Wylie apparently spoke up again from beyond the grave. When the holidaymakers started playing with the latest craze, a Ouija board, a spirit identifying herself as Wylie began talking about such gruesome crimes and poisonings that the group became quite scared – an apt end to a friendship founded on death, despair, and the darkest of wits.

 

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.

How Far Would You Go for a Friend? – An insight into Elizabeth Gaskell’s friendship with Charlotte Brontё

Having featured the literary bond between Charlotte Brontë and Elizabeth Gaskell on this blog, and touched on it in  our book  A Secret Sisterhood, we were delighted to receive a message from Susan Dunne, who is writing the first full-length biography of the friendship between these two authors. If this piece inspires an idea for a future Something Rhymed post, please do get in touch here.

Elizabeth Gaskell (portrait by George Richmond, 1851). This image is in the public domain.

How far should you go to save a friend’s life – risk your own, break the law, face the wrath of family and friends?  It seems that Elizabeth Gaskell would have been prepared to do any of these to save her friend Charlotte Brontё from death caused by pregnancy.

Gaskell and  Brontё met in 1850 and formed a lasting friendship based on their experience as fellow novelists.  Both shot to fame with their first published novels, Mary Barton and Jane Eyre, and both endured the dubious pleasures of being northern English women lionized by London society.  They subsequently met just three times but their correspondence shows a deep mutual respect and affection.

Their friendship went beyond their lives as writers:  Gaskell was a married mother of four girls and she actively promoted Brontё’s marriage to her father Patrick Brontё’s curate, Arthur Bell Nicholls, by trying to find him a more profitable position through engaging the help of the influential Yorkshire parliamentarian, Richard Monkton Milnes. Nicholls was offered two curacies, one in Lancashire and one in Scotland but turned both down to remain in Yorkshire, near to Brontё.   It is ironic that following her marriage to Nicholls in June 1854, Brontё’s correspondence with Elizabeth was curtailed due to Nicholls’s High Church proclivities.  Nicholls was intolerant of dissenters, and in particular of Unitarians like the Gaskells whose faith did not recognize the divinity of Christ.  From the start of her engagement, Brontё knew that her continued friendship with Gaskell would not be easy but hoped that the day would come when Nicholls would ‘see both you and Mr Gaskell’.

Charlotte Bronte – portrait by J.H. Thompson. This image is in the public domain.

By the time Brontё began to suspect that she was pregnant in February 1855, she had had no correspondence with Gaskell since October 1854.  Brontё’s pregnancy was confirmed by the local doctors but all was not well – she began to suffer from what is now commonly believed to be hyperemesis gravidarum, a particularly virulent form of pregnancy associated sickness.  Today the condition, which can lead to severe dehydration and kidney failure, can be treated but in Brontё’s time it was likely to prove fatal.  She died in March 1855, her unborn child dying with her.

The only hope of saving the mother’s life in such a case was to abort the child, but the law did not permit this.  The 1803 Ellenborough Act had made it an offence for any person to perform or cause an abortion on a quickening child, punishable by death or transportation for 14 years.  The law was subsequently amended but it remained an illegal act and certainly not one that would have been sanctioned by the church or churchmen like Brontё’s husband and father.

Despite the official legal, moral and religious stance, in an age when pregnancy posed a very real threat, termination either to save the mother’s life or for economic reasons was not uncommon.  Although necessarily a taboo subject, abortion was far from unknown behind closed bedroom doors.

When Gaskell heard from the Haworth stationer John Greenwood that her friend had died as a result of her pregnancy, her response was unhesitating:  “I do fancy that if I had come, I could have induced her, – even though they had all felt angry with me at first – to do what was so absolutely necessary, for her very life”.  She later reiterated to Brontё’s publisher, George Smith, that she might have been able to save Brontё’s life if she had only known.

Unlike Brontё’s other principle friends – Ellen Nussey, Mary Taylor and her old headmistress and former employer, Margaret Wooler who were all unmarried and childless – Gaskell was no stranger to the workings of the female body. She had been through seven pregnancies by the age of 36 and through her charitable works amongst the textile workers of Manchester would have known that unwanted pregnancies were rife.  For the working class, crude methods of getting rid of unwanted children were employed, including sharp instruments, induced falls and, in the most desperate cases,  infanticide following birth.   For  middle class women, information about abortion was at once covert and overt:  newspaper adverts offering pills which should not be taken during pregnancy were widely understood to be advertising abortifacients. It is possibly this which Gaskell had in mind when thinking about inducing Brontё.

Whether Gaskell could have saved Brontё’s life is a moot point.  Brontё was 38 at the time of conception – a very late age then to have a first child – and she was notably small.  She had once told her friend Ellen Nussey that full woman size chemisettes were too big for her.  Moreover, although she had been well since her marriage, Brontё’s physical health was not particularly strong – given the high maternal mortality rates of the time she was at high risk.

The fact that Gaskell was prepared to both break the law and risk the wrath of those around Brontё to save her friend’s life, suggests that theirs was a friendship that went much deeper than that of their shared writing interests.  Unable to save her friend’s life, she was determined to pay homage to her friend and create a lasting legacy by writing The Life of Charlotte Brontё which came out two years after Brontё’s death.  It has never been out of print.

Susan Dunne is a journalist and researcher.  She is currently writing the first full-length biography of the friendship between Elizabeth Gaskell and Charlotte Brontё.  Her memoir, A Pony in the Bedroom was published by Jessica Kingsley in 2015.

 

No Surer Foundation for Friendship: Sophie Butler and Miranda Mills

We first got to know the writer Miranda Mills when she asked us if she could interview us about our book for Tea & Tattle, the podcast she runs with her best friend, academic and writer Sophie Butler. We’ve since enjoyed catching up on their other episodes, and found ourselves particularly fascinated by one discussion in which they talk about the literary beginnings of their long-lasting bond. This week, they explore this subject further in a new piece for Something Rhymed.

Sophie Butler (left) and Miranda Mills

Miranda: 
Whenever I think about my friendship with Sophie, I think of one of my favourite quotes by P.G. Wodehouse: ‘There is no surer foundation for a beautiful friendship than a mutual taste in literature.’ I have certainly found this to be true.

Nowadays, the fact that we began our acquaintance as thirteen-year-old pen-pals, scribbling letters to each other that flew weekly across the Atlantic Ocean, is hard to imagine. No Whatsapp, no Facebook – we didn’t even email! But from the very first letter that I exchanged with Sophie, where we described our mutual love for the Chalet School  books by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer, I knew I’d found what I’d been searching for since reading Anne of Green Gables – a kindred spirit.

It never fails to come as a small shock to me to realise that Sophie and I have always been
long-distance friends; perhaps because it feels as though, from those first hastily torn open envelopes, we’ve never stopped talking. Books have always been a common theme in our friendship. As undergraduates, we’d plan out trips to our favourite book shops: when Sophie visited me in London, we made the rounds of Persephone Books, Daunt and Foyles. Weekend jaunts of mine to Oxford would culminate in blueberry muffins and gossip at Blackwells. Many of our favourite authors were read in sync: Jane Austen, Nancy Mitford, P.G. Wodehouse, Dorothy L. Sayers

Today, our conversations about life and the books we’re reading are broadcast to thousands of listeners around the world, through our podcast, Tea & Tattle. I can only imagine how thrilled our thirteen-year-old selves would be if they knew.

Sophie:

Throughout my teenage years, suffering from M.E. and being home-schooled, much of my interaction with the world came through the written word. Confined to the house for long periods, my bookshelves became increasingly important, allowing me to travel anywhere from the Austrian classrooms of the Chalet School series to the country-houses of Bertie Wooster and his friends. If only I had someone with whom to discuss my discoveries!

I remember my excitement when I read the first letters Miranda sent me from America, responding to my appeal for pen-pals in a Chalet School appreciation society newsletter. Not only did she like and dislike the same Chalet School characters as I did (vitally important for a thirteen-year-old school story fan), but (what amazement!) she had read The Tenant of Wildfell Hall and preferred it to Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights. With such markers of good taste, how could we fail to become firm friends?

Together, we explored the works of our mutual favourite, Jane Austen, recommending biographies to one another and delving into collections of Austen’s letters to discuss them in our own. I’ve no doubt that it was through these discussions, taking place across hundreds of sheets of paper and thousands of miles, that I began my journey towards becoming a University Lecturer in English Literature.

Through these epistolary conversations, I discovered my interest in exploring a literary subject in its historical context, the fun of following up literary leads, and, most of all, the joy of analyzing literature – and so much else – with a like-minded friend. But much as I treasure my collection of old letters, I’m rather glad that Miranda and I now don’t need to put pen to paper whenever we want a chat!

Miranda Mills and Sophie Butler co-host the Tea & Tattle podcast, which celebrates female friendship and creativity. This incorporates Tea Reads, for which they discuss some of their favourite short reads (none of which should take longer than the time it takes to drink a cup of tea).

Miranda blogs at Mirandasnotebook.com. You can also follow her on Instagram: @mirandasnotebook and @mirandasbookcase.

In her work as an English Literature academic, Sophie’s writing focuses on the Renaissance period. You can follow her on Instagram:  @sophie_perdita

A New Paperback… and a new direction for Something Rhymed

We’re very excited to let you know that, here in the UK at least (as well as various other Commonwealth countries) the paperback of A Secret Sisterhood is out in shops today.

As regular Something Rhymed readers will know, it tells the stories of the literary friendships of Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, George Eliot and Virginia Woolf. To celebrate, we’ve arranged a blog tour, which will take place over the next couple of weeks and feature reviews of our book. The first stop on the tour is A View from the Balcony. The full tour schedule is below:

 

Also look out for upcoming reviews on Lonesome Reader, Cornflower Booksthe Literary SofaNorthern ReaderJess Writes and Crocus Connect Books.

If you or anyone you know would be interested in reviewing the paperback on their blog, please do get in touch via the ‘Contact Us’ page and we will arrange for a copy to be sent out by return of post. Of course, we are also hugely appreciative of any feedback on Amazon (regardless of where the book was purchased).

We hope you’ll enjoy following the tour, especially since we could never have written A Secret Sisterhood without the support and encouragement of all of you. When we began this blog in January 2014, we imagined that it would be a year-long web project. We never anticipated where it would take us. Writing for Something Rhymed has been a wonderful experience, and we have been delighted to forge so many new friendships of our own with readers all over the world.

It’s always been important to us that Something Rhymed remains an advert-free, not-for-profit blog. We run this site in our spare time and it has become increasingly tricky to find enough hours in the day to keep generating new content, in addition to writing our books, teaching, journalism and doing events.

Now that we are both embarking on new writing projects, we have begun to turn our minds to the future of Something Rhymed. And, as such, we’d love to hear from you.

Open call for submissions

Would you like to write for Something Rhymed? If so, please send a short pitch via our Contact Us page, letting us know who you are and what you would like to write about.

In the past, articles on Something Rhymed have included:

  • Posts that profile the friendship of a well-known or unjustly forgotten, usually historical, female literary pair – 500 to 800 words. (For examples of former profile posts, please click on the links on this page and scroll down to the earliest post listed under each link.)
  • Posts that deal more generally with the theme of female literary friendship – 500 to 800 words. (See this, this and this example but we’d also be open to all sorts of new approaches.)
  • ‘Guest posts’ that profile a writer’s own literary friendship – 500 to 650 words. (For examples of former guest posts, please click on the links on this page.)

Please note that if you would like to send us a pitch for a guest post, we ask that you do this as part of a pitch for two articles – one of which should not be about your own literary friendship.

We are open to other ideas too, as long as they fall within the general theme of female literary friendship.

Editorial / administrative volunteers

We’re also looking for people who might be interested in volunteering to help out with the editorial and administrative side of things. Over the years we’ve been running Something Rhymed, as well as writing blog posts ourselves we have solicited and edited guest posts from other writers, organised site logistics (such as timings of posts, image rights, design issues), publicised posts on social media, managed contact lists etc.

Doing these kinds of things has helped us to develop valuable skills while also building our profiles and expanding our literary contacts. We’d love now to give some of these opportunities to others who might find them similarly helpful. If you are interested in helping out with editorial and admin, please do get in touch with us via our Contact Us page.

We’ll look forward to hearing from anyone with ideas for submissions and / or interested in volunteering with editorial and admin.

We’re really hoping that in this way we can keep building the Something Rhymed community, and expand the site as a resource for anyone who values female literary friendship.

 

Judy Brown and Katrina Naomi: ‘Loyal to the letter’

When poet Katrina Naomi wrote to let us know about the role that the regular exchange of poems by letter plays in her friendship with fellow poet Judy Brown, we felt sure that Something Rhymed readers would be interested to hear about it too. Here, they share their thoughts in our last guest post of 2017…

If the stamp escapes franking, an increasingly shabby envelope can travel between us for months, ferrying cargoes of new poems, images and a letter.

We met a dozen years ago in London, bonding over confessions of how much we wanted our poems to be good – and to publish. For years we met monthly to share vegan cakes, new work and discuss what we were reading. When Katrina moved to Cornwall in 2014 we reluctantly gave up the cakes but added the Post Office into the familiar mix – along with an agreement to write a brand-new poem each month in response to one written by the other.

Judy Brown – image by Colin Francis

We quickly became addicted to the process. We found it so fruitful that we added a second, more visual, conversation in which we exchange images to write from, again on a monthly cycle. We also critique a batch of each other’s poems each month. The envelopes keep getting fatter, and tattier.

We’re loyal to the letter, only using email when we’re abroad. Plotting the trajectories of our poem exchanges would require a moderately complex SkyMap: Japan (Katrina has just returned from an Arts Council-funded project); Grasmere (Judy spent a year as Poet-in-Residence at Dove Cottage); Hong Kong (Judy’s old home); Katrina’s residency at the Arnolfini (Bristol) and the Brontë Parsonage (Haworth); and our residences at Gladstone’s Library and Hawthornden Castle (but at different times) – plus London, Derbyshire and Cornwall.

Katrina Naomi -image by Tim Ridley

We were both committed letter writers before we met, but our poems and our processes differed considerably. They still do, despite the transference of ideas such a long-term collaboration catalyses. Yet if something gets skimped from the envelope, it’s the letter not the poems.

This is partly because the poem exchange is also an exchange of information. And it’s exciting – not just because of time pressure and the surprising (and often uncomfortable) triggers, but also because of anticipation about what the other will come up with. Sometimes what our poems have to say is pure trickery or excitement about technique. They may spin off of current preoccupations or whatever we’re trying to hit in our own process.

It’s great to have a trusted recipient for this, but even better to have one who lobs back something fresh and alive in answer to our own puzzles, poetic and personal. It can be a refutation or refusal of a technique, a subject or a pronoun – you never know what’s coming! But you know you have to respond to the other’s poem and visual image, whatever you’ve made of it, mostly because of our shared urgency to write but also because we promised.

Both our recent second books contain many poems which have emerged from this deadly serious game.

Deep familiarity with each other’s process and the differing ways we transform material has increased our respect for each other’s work but our critiques aren’t soft. As friends, we may know a little too much about the underlying raw material, but that too helps us see what’s a real poem and what’s just diarising.

Sometimes the line blurs for us – is this two women talking or something more impersonal, two poems talking to each other? Do we care? Not really, as long as we get a proper meet-up once in a while and can go to the pub or on a walk, have a dance or a curry, leaving the poems behind for – well, at least for a couple of hours.

Crowd SensationsJudy Brown’s most recent poetry collection, was published by Seren in 2016.

Katrina Naomi’s most recent collection, The Way the Crocodile Taught Me,  was also published by Seren in 2016.

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.