At the Risk of Disapproval

Since the beginning of our friendship in the early 2000s, Emma Claire and I have chalked up many dozens of hours of late-night conversation. Like her, I have happy memories from the period when we were in our early twenties and working as English teachers in Japan: of chatting, just the two of us, at parties.

On these frequent occasions when we slipped away from the crowd, I’m not sure if anyone cared, or even noticed, but I doubt it would have bothered me if they did. In my mind, this was where the real fun was happening: in us sharing revelations and laughter out in someone’s shadowed garden, or gossiping in a corner by the piled-up coats.

Bar in Lisbon - the scene of one of our late-night chats (in 2013).
Bar in Lisbon – the scene of one of our late-night chats (in 2013).

Over the decade and more that has passed since then, we’ve sat up talking well into the night in pubs and cocktail bars in many parts of Britain, and on holidays and writers’ retreats in various European cities.

But the vast majority of our after-dark talk over the years has taken place within the walls of our own homes.

In the days when we lived far away from each other, we would often arrange ‘writing weekends’ at either one of our houses. During these stays – and to the sheer bemusement of some we told about them – we’d spend much of our time, not in conversation at all, but writing in separate rooms. But we’d get together to discuss work-in-progress, and for meals and glasses of wine at the end of the day – times when our talk would meander through countless topics, but invariably keep circling back to writing, as the hours ticked by unnoticed.

Since moving to London a few years back, I now see Em most weeks, so whole weekends spent like this have become less common. But as she is still a frequent guest at the flat I share with my partner, our late-night chats at my place haven’t entirely come to an end.

Amongst the writers we’ve profiled on Something Rhymed, several had spouses or close relatives who seemed to view the time the woman in their life spent with her female friend as a negative thing.

L.M. Montgomery’s husband, for instance, once ‘jokingly’ pointed a gun at her writer pal Nora Lefurgey, and it’s hard to imagine that resentment of some kind wasn’t the cause. Dorothy Wordsworth, one half of this month’s featured pair, was temporarily banned from visiting Mary Lamb by her protective brother Charles (with whom she lived), because he feared that the two’s night-time conversations were depriving his sister from sleep and putting a strain on her fragile mental health. Poets Maxine Kumin and Anne Sexton, too, were so concerned that their friendship could provoke criticism from their husbands that they went as far as installing a secret phone line, so that they could chat to each other without the risk of being discovered.

It is a testament to the bonds of friendship between these pairs of women that they all continued with their literary relationships despite the possibility of more disapproval, and a reminder that it can be done. But I’m thankful that my partner has never voiced any annoyance at my closeness with Em –  even on those occasions when we’ve tied up the (non-secret) home phone line for several hours.

It helps, of course, that he likes Emma Claire too. But he also knows what a support she’s been to me over the years, and that my life would be much the poorer without her as my friend.

A Year of Hidden Friendships

When we first launched Something Rhymed, a year ago now, concerned well-wishers expressed scepticism about whether we’d discover twelve pairs of historic female writer friends to profile each month over the course of 2014.

Thanks to our close-knit community of readers from around the globe, the reverse has in fact been true. You’ve helped us to unearth many more female collaborations than we could possibly have envisaged at the beginning of the year. With such a treasure trove of hidden friendships still to explore, we intend to keep sharing our findings here in 2015.

Old treasure chest
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The collaborations we’ve explored so far were sometimes illicit, scandalous and volatile; sometimes supportive, radical or inspiring. And so, we’ve increasingly found ourselves asking why they have been consigned to the shadows.

To mark the end of Something Rhymed’s first year, here are our top ten ideas on why the friendships between some of our most famous female writers still have a cloak of secrecy about them:

  1. Women writing in the past had more opportunities to converse in the parlour than in the pages of literary magazines.
  • For reasons of propriety, for example, Harriet Beecher Stowe felt that she could not write an obituary in the Atlantic for her long-time friend and confidante, George Eliot.
  1. The marked harmony and lifelong endurance of many of these writing partnerships cost them copy.
  • Charlotte Brontë and Elizabeth Gaskell bonded over their shared experience of infamy since they had both become mired in scandal for daring to pen biting social criticism. However, this enduring friendship often gets written off as a mere acquaintanceship. Could marked harmony also account for why so few of us have heard about the unlikely friendship between Ruth Rendell and Jeanette Winterson?
  1. Friendships between women are often neglected in favour of a female author’s intense or turbulent relationships with men.
  • On January 1st we will reveal an intimate friendship that fits into this category…
  1. The literary status of some of our writer heroines has suffered because their genre, style or subject matter was particularly associated with women.
  1. Some of the pairs shared an alliance so radical that others refused to believe that it could possibly have thrived.
  1. Other collaborations challenged core mythologies about female authors: the well-bred lady; the solitary eccentric; and the suffering genius.
  1. Popular perceptions of female friendship still struggle to allow for the kind of rivalry embraced by some of our writer forebears.
  1. Rumours of lesbian affairs sometimes actually seem easier for commentators to accommodate than the possibility of an intellectual partnership between women.
  1. Close friendships between girls might be all well and good but, after marriage, women have traditionally been expected to devote themselves primarily to their husband and offspring.
  1. Historically, female collaboration was considered subversive and therefore taboo.
  • And yet, the subversive nature of these friendships between women makes them powerful sources of transformation: Maya Angelou’s Nobel party for Toni Morrison, for instance, both celebrated the achievements of a fellow African American author and challenged their government’s failure to do so itself.

Working together on Something Rhymed this year, we have experienced some of the most jubilant moments in our own friendship (as well as some of the most fraught!). But, from Eliot and Stowe – who taught us the importance of candour – to Mansfield and Woolf – who showed us that rivalry can be a positive force – we are learning how to keep our own collaboration on course. And, with your support, we will continue to celebrate the secret sisterhood between our trailblazing forebears, finally bringing it centre stage.

Celebrating Female Friendship

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Same Material, Different Approaches

Red is a colour I rarely wear in hot climates, since my skin tends to flush in the sun.

I am also prone to smatterings of heat rash and mosquito bites. When I lived in Japan, other women at the school where I worked used to voice concern at my freckled complexion, and recommend I confine myself largely indoors during the warmest months.

Still, I was inspired by the clothes swapping of writer friends Maxine Kumin and Anne Sexton to borrow a red dress from Emma Claire just before a week’s trip to the Spanish island of Mallorca, and so I ended up fitting the outfit carefully into the top of my suitcase just before I zipped up the bag.

IMG_1144Em had told me she’d previously worn this red dress for a successful PHD interview, but, even when I first tried it on in the cooler temperatures of my London bedroom, I knew I’d never have worn it for an important academic meeting.

When I lifted it from my bag after my arrival at our villa, I found that feeling magnified by the sun’s bright light pouring in through the windows.

Of course, I am only thinking of this as an outfit for myself here; Emma Claire will have looked thoroughly professional on the date in question. But owing to differences in our figures, I had to compensate for gaps that opened in its button-up seam with several strategically-placed safety pins that I’d have feared might show – further proof if it was needed that this was very much a holiday outfit for me, rather than something I’d wear to an interview.

IMG_2701
About to buy marmalade in Deià

Despite the skirt also soon getting all scrunched in the heat of the car, I had a wonderful time wearing Em’s dress for a day out with my partner, exploring the remoter reaches of the island.

Walking along dusty hilltop lanes, breathing in the scents of bright vine flowers, it struck me how the same material can be so vastly altered by placing it in a new context or hanging it on the frame of another person.

This is, in fact, a familiar feeling. When Emma Claire and I first sit down to write a feature article together, or plan a forthcoming joint talk, we’ll sometimes find that, though we come to the table with the same basic ideas, we each envisage the end result from quite separate angles.

This has been known to lead to heated discussions – occasions when I’m not necessarily as measured as Em might have it – but we’ve come to really value this way of working.

The process challenges each of us to stop sticking to our usual approaches, but to break out and try on our friend’s way of doing things. And it’s turned out to be incredibly helpful in developing a distinct voice and style for the pieces we write together.

Maxine Kumin and Anne Sexton

We considered featuring the brief friendship between Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton, poets who are sadly as famous for their suicides as for the brilliance of their work.

But when we dug deeper, we discovered a longer lasting and more nurturing friendship. At around the same time that Sexton was meeting with Plath for martinis in the Ritz, she joined a local writing group where she got to know another female poet, Maxine Kumin.

When Sexton first set eyes on Kumin, she considered her ‘the most frump of the frumps’. While Kumin admired Sexton, who was ‘a little flower child, the ex-fashion model…totally chic’, she also found her terrifying. Certainly, Sexton’s more flamboyant style was reflective of her fiery nature, while Kumin was far more restrained and stable.

Anne Sexton (left) and Maxine Kumin (right)  at a creative writing workshop With kind permission from Nancy K. Miller.
Anne Sexton (left) and Maxine Kumin (right)
at a creative writing workshop. Every effort has been made to obtain permission to reproduce this photograph, credited to Doris Holmes Eyges.  

Perhaps because of these dissimilarities, Kumin and Sexton soon found in each other a deep creative support. They started to attend poetry readings together, hearing the likes of Marianne Moore and Robert Frost, and they reassured each other that their own work showed promise. Later, they even came up with titles for each other’s poetry collections.

It would be easy to assume that Kumin was the more nurturing of the pair, especially since she postponed moving to the country because she felt Sexton needed her close by. But Kumin was always keen to emphasise the mutual nature of their support. Sexton dropped everything, for example, to read Kumin’s novel draft when, during a trip to Rome, she received an airmail packet from her friend. Moreover, Kumin claims that Sexton ‘pulled me out of my shell’ and ‘made me see that the cerebral really needed a strong admixture of the visceral’.

As well as meeting up in person at least twice per week, they got into the habit of making regular calls, sometimes talking for hours on end, and even critiquing each other’s drafts over the phone.

During a period when both women had won prestigious fellowships at Harvard, and so were feeling ‘flush and important’, they went so far as to install a secret second phone line. They would sometimes keep their call linked for hours on end, interrupting their poetry discussions to make dinner or hang out the laundry, and then they would whistle into the receiver when they were ready to resume. Their illicit phone line allowed them to work together without having to worry about their husbands’ disapproval.

Indeed, the pair kept their mutually supportive friendship intensely private for many years.

Kumin, whose formal, reticent poetry won her a Pulitzer in 1973, had been represented by critics as the rival of Sexton, whose wild, confessional style had won her the same prize six years earlier.

Curiously, the pair felt so ‘ashamed’ of their friendship that they had allowed this myth of rivalry to continue for years before finally announcing that they were actually the closest of friends.

Their relationship would have felt more legitimate and less clandestine, they felt, if the women’s movement had existed when they first met. They were the women’s movement, they joked, they just hadn’t realised it.

Activity

After Sexton’s death, Kumin reminisced that ‘one of the joys of our relationship was the ease with which we traded dresses back and forth’, admitting that they practically fought over certain outfits, such as a red and white polyester dress that they both adored.

This month, we will follow in their footsteps by choosing outfits from each other’s wardrobes and then we’ll post about our experiences of wearing them.