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’.

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
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.

So Many Unexpected Connections

As we mentioned in our first post of the month, it was one of our blog readers, Sarah Emsley, who told us about the friendship of L.M. Montgomery and Nora Lefurgey.

We’d got to know Sarah through her website and her support of Something Rhymed. Forming this kind of unexpected connection, often across the seas, has been one of the real pleasures we’ve encountered as a direct result of setting up our project.

Since beginning Something Rhymed at the start of this year, we’ve profiled the friendships of eleven pairs of female authors. But, of course, these women’s relationships with other writers didn’t stop with a single friend. Through our research we’ve learned about other important connections between different authors we’ve featured on this site.

Winifred Holtby, lovingly memorialised by Vera Brittain in Testament of Friendship, had earlier written a biography of her own: a book about Virginia Woolf. George Eliot, often believed to have been scornful of Jane Austen’s work, in fact studied the novels of her forebear in preparation for beginning to write her own fiction.

One of this month’s authors, L.M. Montgomery, felt a sense of affinity with Eliot. Mathilde Blind’s early biography of Eliot had such an impact on the then young and aspiring Montgomery that several of its words and phrases found their way into her own journals.

Elizabeth Gaskell was friends, not just with Charlotte Brontë, but also with Harriet Beecher Stowe. Stowe, as we wrote in October, was such an admirer of Charlotte Brontë that she once asked a medium to help her try to make contact with the late author’s ghost.

A planchette - the kind of device once used by Harriet Beecher Stowe, to try and make contact with the ghost of Charlotte Bronte. (Creative Commons licence)
A planchette – the kind of device once used by Harriet Beecher Stowe, to try and make contact with the ghost of Charlotte Bronte. (Creative Commons licence)

One half of next month’s pair of writers was also greatly influenced by Brontë, but she adopted a less other-worldly approach. Jean Rhys’s most famous book Wide Sargasso Sea resurrects the story of Antoinette Cosway, her reimagined version of the character of Bertha Mason, the ‘madwoman’ who’d previously languished in the attic of Brontë’s novel Jane Eyre.

We look forward to sharing more of Rhys’s own story with you in our first post of December, next week, and also continuing to discover many more important links between the great female authors – connections that often transcended their historical eras.

From Literary Protégée to Competition Rival: our interview with Madeline Miller

We were drawn to the friendship between Nora Lefurgey and L. M. Montgomery because it endured despite marked differences in their literary standings: while Anne of Green Gables propelled Montgomery to international fame, Lefurgey’s novel gathered dust in the proverbial drawer.

Of course, the prospect of rivalry does not end when both friends are published. Then there are questions of sales and reviews and awards. We’d been intrigued, therefore, when it was announced that both debut novelist, Madeline Miller, and multi award-winning author, Ann Patchett, had been shortlisted for the 2012 Orange Prize since Madeline had previously been one of a Ann’s protégées.

 

Ann Patchett. Creative Commons License.
Ann Patchett. Creative Commons License.

We met Madeline to ask her about the transition from literary mentorship to competition rivals.

Madeline explains that she had always been a great fan of the established author’s work, and that she counts Truth and Beauty, Ann’s memoir about her friendship with fellow writer Lucy Grealy, as one of her favourite books of all time.

Early in her career, Madeline had been thrilled to receive a glowing blurb from Ann for the publisher’s proof copy of her debut novel, The Song of Achilles. At this stage, Madeline had never met Ann, this novelist who had unexpectedly done her such a good turn. Evidently still touched by the older author’s generosity, she tells us about how they finally came face-to-face.

Fortuitously, Ann had been due to give a reading at Madeline’s local book store, and so Miller bought tickets, intending to introduce herself after the event. When, on the night, an audience member asked for a reading recommendation, Madeline was delighted to hear the celebrated author single out the forthcoming Song of Achilles for praise. She was even more surprised when Ann suddenly looked up, right into Madeline’s eyes, and introduced her to the crowd.

Ann proceeded to share the limelight with the younger author, who couldn’t fathom how she had been recognised. She jokes that she had been ready to put it down to Ann’s magical powers until her fiancé later confessed that he was the one to have pointed her out. ‘But she does have magical powers,’ Madeline laughs, ‘I stand by that!’

Ann’s kindness didn’t stop there. The pair struck up an email correspondence, and Ann generously shared the benefits of her own longer experience as a published author. Madeline is particularly grateful for Ann’s advice to steer clear of reviews, which give an exaggerated sense of both the positive and the negative, encouraging the writer to focus on the outward expressions of literary “success” rather than drawing on internal inspiration. Ann also shared her secret to a fulfilled writing life: There are times for writing and times for living, Madeline remembers Ann once saying, and one feeds the other.

The next time the pair met in person, it was on Ann’s instigation: she invited Madeline to read at Parnassus Books – the independent store that she co-owns in Nashville, Tennessee. It was there the two novelists discovered that they’d both made it onto the short list for the 2012 Orange Prize (now the Baileys Women’s Prize) – an award that recognises the work of female novelists.

It could have been a situation fraught with stress: although a game-changer for the debut author, Madeline now found herself pitted against her mentor.

But, instead, Ann, who had already won the prize back in 2002, took great pleasure in the opportunity this time to share the limelight with her protégée. When the date of the prize ceremony was announced, Ann realised that she couldn’t make it over to Britain at that time. She was glad that Madeline would be able to attend, and she even loaned her competitor one of her own outfits that she felt might be particularly suitable for the Orange Prize do: a beautiful dress of tangerine silk.

Madeline Miller wearing the dress she loaned from Ann Patchett.
Madeline Miller wearing the dress she loaned from Ann Patchett.

When the judges revealed that they were awarding the prize to Madeline Miller for The Song of Achilles, the young writer keenly acknowledged her indebtedness to her mentor in her acceptance speech. ‘I got to go and help represent her book as well,’ she says.

The competition seems to have actually strengthened their relationship. In fact, Madeline tells us that Ann was not the only one eager to congratulate her. The award, she says, ‘fostered a sense of collegiality’ amongst all its female nominees.

The friendship of Lefurgey and Montgomery taught us that creative rivalry can be endured, while the example of Miller and Patchett shows that it can even be enjoyed.

A shorter version of this interview was originally included in our feature in Mslexia Issue 57. 

Nora Lefurgey and L.M. Montgomery

Anne-Green-Gables-fr-cover-180x295
Image used with the kind permission of ARose Books.

As girls, we were both great fans of the Anne of Green Gables series. Though we grew up in different towns on opposite sides of the Pennines, L.M. Montgomery’s fictional Canadian community of Avonlea was a haven we each knew well.

It was after we began Something Rhymed at the start of this year that we began to look back on those books. We remembered feisty Anne’s longing for a ‘kindred spirit’ and ‘bosom friend’, and wondered whether there was a real-life Diana Barry in her creator’s life.

We have one of this blog’s readers, Sarah Emsley, to thank for putting us on to this particular friend. Knowing of her interest in all things Montgomery, we asked Sarah if she had any ideas. She was kind enough to come up with a couple of possibilities, although it was Lefurgey that really captured our interest.

L.M. Montgomery (left) and Nora Lefurgey in 1903
L.M. Montgomery (left) and Nora Lefurgey in 1903. Image used with the kind permission of the Archival and Special Collections, University of Guelph Library, and Heirs of L.M. Montgomery Inc. L.M. Montgomery is a trademark of Heirs of L.M. Montgomery Inc.

She and Montgomery became pals in 1902, when Lefurgey was a young schoolteacher working in Cavendish, on Prince Edward Island, where Montgomery had spent most of her childhood and recently returned to care for her grandmother.

This was still some time before the publication of the novel that would catapult her to stardom, but her short stories were being regularly published by then and her literary earnings were beginning to grow.

Unlike Maud – as she was called by those who knew her – Lefurgey was not a professional writer. But she did produce an unpublished novel, belong to a writers’ club, and, like her new friend, keep a journal throughout her life. Most thrillingly for us, over a five-month period, when she’d left her previous lodgings to board with Montgomery and her grandmother, the two women kept a collaborative diary.

Whereas Montgomery’s personal journal entries of that time were often melancholic in tone, a very different side of her emerges in her lighthearted published writings of the era, and another side again in this joint-diary.

Here, she and Lefurgey indulge in tales of flirting with young men, and exaggerated neighbourhood gossip. They often use their separate entries to tease each other, seemingly in anticipation of how the other will react when she takes up the story. They decorated the book’s cover with interlocking hearts, perhaps a reference to their shared closeness or to the giddiness of the heightened romantic contents within.

A more naturally gregarious personality than Montgomery, Lefurgey seems to have filled a void in the life of an author who’d experienced a sometimes lonely childhood living under the strict care of her grandparents.

Her early impressions were that Lefurgey was ‘a positive godsend’. Although they were forced to part when Lefurgey left Prince Edward Island to be married, she re-emerged in Montgomery’s life twenty-four years later, and soon established herself as the main confidante of a woman who was by then one of Canada’s best-loved authors.

Activity

In their diary entries, L.M. Montgomery and Nora Lefurgey often reported on the same incidents from their differing points of view. This month, we’ll recall a day spent together and each write it up in our own style.