In the Hands of Chance?

Image by Angela Monika Arnold (Creative Commons licence)
Image by Angela Monika Arnold (Creative Commons licence)

A chance meeting in the ladies’ lavatory at a wedding marked the start of the friendship between last week’s guest interviewees, Polly Coles and Liz Jensen.

This got us thinking about some of the other unplanned first encounters of writers we’ve featured on Something Rhymed.

Susan Barker and Zakia Uddin, for instance – saw their paths collide back in 1999 at the Statue of Liberty, where they both had summer jobs. Rachel Connor and Antonia Honeywell formed an immediate connection when they happened to be paired as students in advance of their first MA Novel Writing workshop at Manchester University.

Of the monthly profiled writers, some like Charlotte Brontë and Elizabeth Gaskell and Harriet Beecher Stowe and George Eliot knew of each other by reputation before they met. Diana Athill formed a connection with Jean Rhys through her job as an editor at André Deutsch, and the friendship between Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison really blossomed when they both found themselves appearing at the Hay Festival in Wales.

But others, especially those who met early on in their literary careers, got to know each other under circumstances largely governed by happy twists of coincidence.

What would have happened if Vera Brittain and Winifred Holtby hadn’t each passed their university entrance exams and found themselves at the same Oxford college? Or if the teacher’s job in L.M. Montgomery’s hometown on Prince Edward Island had been given to someone other than Nora Lefurgey? Or Anne Sharp hadn’t gone to work as a governess with Jane Austen’s family?

Some might say that, with such similar political views and overlapping fields of work, Brittain and Holtby would likely have met eventually, but one can more easily imagine a life in which Austen had to manage without Sharp’s friendship, and Montgomery never found a kindred spirit in Lefurgey.

And since both Brittain and Holtby were always keen to credit the other for the role they had played in shaping their own success, this raises the question as to whether each woman’s life might have run a quite different course without the help of her valued friend.

Unlike the vast majority of our monthly guest bloggers and featured authors, who were already well on their way with their writing careers by the time they became acquainted, regular readers of Something Rhymed will know that when Emma Claire and I met neither of us had published a single article or story.

In fact, we had been scribbling in secret up until then, and hadn’t had the courage to share our ambitions to write with anyone else.

It’s nice to think that, having so many things in common, we would have found each other, perhaps on-line, eventually – an advantage female writers of today have over those in Montgomery or Austen’s times.

But it’s far nicer to be able to recall the fact that we’ve been there for each other through all the ups and downs of our writing journeys, and to think that, as Brittain once said about Holtby: ‘although we didn’t exactly grow up together, we grew mature together, and that is the next best thing’.

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
Creative Commons License

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.

A Friendship Important in So Many Ways

'A rainbow in somebody's cloud' - Maya Angelou Image taken at the Hay Festival, 28 May 2014)
‘A rainbow in somebody’s cloud’ – Maya Angelou
(Image taken at Hay Festival, 28 May 2014)

We are saddened by the death of Maya Angelou, a writer whose life and work has been an inspiration to people the world over, and a woman from whose great capacity for friendship we’ve learned so much this year.

Regular readers of Something Rhymed will know that we profiled Angelou’s relationship with Toni Morrison back in February. Influenced by their championing of each other’s achievements, we set ourselves the task, on a much smaller scale, to follow their example.

We made lists of the things we admired about each other and developed them into pieces of creative work. Although we’d always considered our friendship to be a very open one, we were surprised by how many of the points we noted down we had never spoken of before.

It made us wonder how long we might have gone on silently appreciating, but never expressing, that we valued these qualities if we hadn’t paid attention to Angelou and Morrison.

When we discovered that Morrison would be appearing at Wales’s Hay Festival this year, we quickly bought tickets to hear her talk. We knew that she and Angelou had bonded years ago at Hay, when both women found themselves far away from home at a time when their mothers were ill. And so it felt particularly poignant that it was during yesterday’s festival session that many audience members (ourselves included) first heard that Angelou had died.

Morrison eloquently gave voice to the gasps that rippled through the vast tent when she spoke of her personal loss. ‘I thought she was eternal,’ she said. ‘I thought she always, always would be there.’

As writer friends ourselves, it is difficult to listen to language like this without wondering how one of us would cope in a similar situation, how we would feel if the person we’d come to rely on to such an extent was suddenly gone from our life.

Morrison, who called Angelou ‘a real original’, was understandably reluctant to say too much about her death. ‘It hurts so much that I have no treasurable, powerful, elegant words to say about that,’ she told the crowd. ‘I need time to talk about Maya. She was important in so many ways.’

But what struck us as we listened was the extent to which each of these women had already made significant efforts to commemorate the life of her friend.

Morrison’s speech in praise of Angelou at the USA’s most recent National Book Awards was a case in point, as was the party Angelou threw for her friend in 1993 – a response to what she saw as a lack of official national acknowledgement when Morrison won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

We are thankful for what we have learned from this literary pair: that it is important to celebrate the lives of our close ones, not just in fine tributes once they are gone, but also when they are still here.

Celebrating Each Other’s Successes

NotebooksUnlike Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison, or Katherine Mansfield and Virginia Woolf, there was a huge disparity in the worldly successes of this month’s featured writers.

Although Anne Sharp wrote plays for her students to perform, and was able to use her sharp critiquing skills to give Jane Austen advice on her work, she has gone down in history as little more than a footnote in the life story of her illustrious friend.

We cannot know whether Sharp ever felt envious of Austen’s achievements, and the fact that her work had the chance to reach an audience far wider than her immediate social circle. Neither would we go as far as speculating that she could have been another Austen-in-the-making if life had dealt her a different hand of cards.

It is interesting to wonder, though, whether the governess might have attempted to pursue any similar ambitions if her family and financial circumstances had been different.

What we do know is that, despite their contrasting levels of commercial success, each woman rated the other. Sharp celebrated the publication of Austen’s novels along with her, but was also ready to tell her friend when she felt there was a flaw in the work – advice that Austen appears to have highly valued.

It’s nice to imagine that her decision to rename her novel First Impressions as Pride and Prejudice was her way of acknowledging in print the crucial support she’d received from Sharp.

It’s a notion that might mean something to last week’s guest bloggers. Antonia Honeywell and Rachel Connor discussed the pride they take, not just in each other’s creative output, but their long-running writing friendship too.

Antonia’s comment on the publication of Rachel’s first novel (ahead of her own book deal with Weidenfeld and Nicholson) was one that really struck home with us. ‘It felt like a great triumph not only for Rachel,’ she recalled, ‘but for the dedication with which we both carved out the time for our regular exchanges of work.’

As we’ve mentioned before on Something Rhymed, our own career trajectories have gone along roughly in tandem so far, but there is bound to be a point when – if only temporarily – one of us will accelerate past the other.

When that happens, we hope we can learn from the example of Antonia and Rachel, and Austen and Sharp too – that we will be able to enjoy this joint success for our writing friendship, rather than focusing on any perceived gulf that divides us as individuals.

Other news

We’re currently enjoying the BBC Radio 4 series Five Hundred Years of Friendship – episodes available to listen to on-line.

We’ll be moving on to the next profiled writers on Tuesday. We were advised to look into the friendship of Vera Brittain and Winifred Holtby by many of our readers, so we particularly look forward to sharing what we’ve discovered about them.

We’re still actively researching female writer pals, so do keep letting us know, by leaving a reply or Tweeting one of us, if there is any particular friendship you’d like to see profiled.

Ten Things Sarah Butler and Tessa Nicholson Love About Each Other

When novelist, Sarah Butler, and screen writer, Tessa Nicholson, posted up pictures of their beautiful letters on Twitter, we were delighted to discover that they were following Something Rhymed and joining us in dedicating 2014 to friendship. Since each chapter of Sarah’s début novel, Ten Things I’ve Learnt About Love, begins with a list, we asked them to share the lists they wrote in response to February’s challenge in this month’s guest blog.

We met, aged 19, at University: both reading English, both slightly overawed by the academia of Cambridge. We were friends from the off – easy in each other’s company, interested in each other’s lives, encouraging of each other’s dreams.

Fifteen years on, we are still firm friends, and now we are both writers. Something Rhymed’s letter writing activity for January helped us to forge another, written aspect of our friendship – which has been especially delightful now that we live in different cities.

Following the example of Ten Things I’ve Learnt About Love, we decided to write a list of ten things we admire about each other.

Sarah on Tess

Ten Things I admire about Tessa

Sarah: It felt like a treat to take the time to really think about what makes Tessa such a great person and friend. As I wrote, certain words jumped out at me: wise, fun, generous, honest, so I decided to make a simple list which emphasised these words. I thought about which colours I associate with Tessa, which, it turns out, are muted pinks, greens and greys, so I used these colours for each key word, using images of tree bark, flowers, leaves and stone. The list’s title is ‘cut out’ of a photo of the college at Cambridge where we first met.

Tessa: Reading Sar’s list made me realise how lucky I am to have her as a friend. It is very fitting that this exercise was Sar’s suggestion – from our early days at university I was struck by her discipline and work ethic. Living beside her from the day we were able to choose rooms, I strove to work as hard and as productively as she did – and definitely failed. Today she continues to inspire me – doggedly carving a name for herself among the literati! Am so proud of her. And of our friendship. Her list felt like a big reassuring hug and an encouraging hand on my back pushing me up the hill.

Ten Things I Admire About Sarah

Tess on Sarah

TessaThere are many things to admire in Sar, so I had to be selective when putting it down on paper. First of all, I thought I would write my list by hand – but my writing is messy and difficult to read. So then I had what I thought was a better idea, to cut the letters out of the paper (the Guardian and Grazia Magazine to be precise). I now have a lot of respect for kidnappers because ransom notes really take forever. I berated a lot of journalists during the process but am now up to date on current affairs and Victoria Beckham’s rise from Spice Girl to haute couture.

Sarah: I want a wall-sized version of Tessa’s list in my office! It’s funny – I was half-hoping Tess would handwrite the list because I love her handwriting so much, but I love the ransom note – beautiful, colourful, quirky, just like her. I was touched by all of it, but especially number 3: ‘you make me feel at home’ – which links so beautifully to Maya Angelou’s essay ‘Home’ in Letter to my Daughter.

Sarah Butler’s novel, Ten Things I’ve Learnt About Love, was first published by Picador in 2013 and is just out in paperback.

Tessa Nicholson writes for PORT Magazine and the culture-vulture digital site Nowness.

Remember:

We’d love to hear about the things you admire in your friend. And if, like Tessa and Sarah, you’d like to send us a picture of your response to February’s challenge, then please email it to somethingrhymed@gmail.com or post it on Twitter along with #SomethingRhymed.

We’re on the look out for famous female writer pals to feature next month, so do let us know who you’d like to see profiled.

Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison

Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison at the My Sheer Good Fortune event at Virginia Tech. (Photo used with their kind permission.)
Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison at the Sheer Good Fortune event at Virginia Tech. (Photo used with their kind permission.)

When Maya Angelou was honoured at the USA’s 2013 National Book Awards, it was Toni Morrison who presented her with the Literarian Award for Outstanding Service to the American Literary Community.

At the ceremony, Morrison spoke with clear emotion of her ‘personal pleasure’ at being able to hand over the prize to a friend who ‘inspires delight as well as awe’.

Now both in their eighties, it wasn’t the first time that one of these grandes dames of American letters had taken the opportunity to lavish praise on the other in public. The previous year, Angelou was a member of an all-female trio who hosted an event called Sheer Good Fortune in honour of Toni Morrison.

The title was inspired by the dedication from the author’s novel Sula, ‘It is sheer good fortune to miss somebody long before they leave you’, and this sentiment is clearly something that her friend has taken to heart for some time. When Morrison won the Nobel Prize for Literature back in 1993, Angelou decided to throw her a party because, as she would later recall, she felt it was something the United States should have done.

As two African Americans, two women, two writers of a similar age, these two have sometimes found themselves grouped together for the crudest of reasons. Morrison in particular has sometimes been keen to distance herself from Angelou in a literary sense – describing the author of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings as a very different writer from her.

Nonetheless, they clearly have the greatest respect for each other, both as artists and women. As Angelou says they have been ‘sister friends’ for decades, and have been able to call on each other over the years for personal as well as public support.

They especially enjoyed being able to bond with each other at a past book festival at Wales’s Hay on Wye, when both were far away from home at a time when their mothers were ill. And, as Morrison recalled in her recent awards tribute speech for her friend, when her son died one Christmas, Angelou was the very first non-family member to call her up on the phone with what she describes as ‘that unmistakable voice of sheer balm’.

Activity

In Toni Morrison’s recent speech to honour her friend, she described Maya Angelou’s many attributes, which range from the artistic to the personal to the culinary. As she says, ‘Maya can cook.’

This month we’re challenging ourselves to make lists of all the things we admire in each other and then we’re going to do something creative with it. Maybe we’ll polish up the wording and mount it on a card or, like Morrison, we might turn it into a crafted prose piece, or perhaps a poem. Or we could come at things from a different angle entirely, working parts of our lists into a painting or collage, even icing them onto a cake.

We’ll be letting you know what we decide to do and showing you something of what we produce.

We are interested in hearing recommendations of other female writing friendships that we could showcase on this site. If you know of a literary pair of women, past or present, who have supported each other’s work, do please get in touch.

 

Goodbye to Mansfield and Woolf

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until Saturday then…