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’.

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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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.

Rachel Connor and Antonia Honeywell: ‘a collaboration to be treasured’

In this month’s guest blog, long-time writer friends Rachel Connor and Antonia Honeywell take up the March challenge to send each other mementoes of their friendship…

Rachel

Antonia and I were connected even before we met: we were paired, in advance of the MA in Novel Writing at Manchester University, to submit work in the same workshop.

From the beginning, friendship and work have been intertwined.  For nearly a decade we’ve spent happy hours talking of books and our children; of our ambitions, hopes and passions.  There’s a geographical distance (I live in the north; Antonia in the south of England) but we snatch time together in person where we can.

When the MA ended, Antonia and I took turns to submit work by email, which was printed off by the other and returned with comments.  This loop of regular submission and feedback has sustained us ever since.

The pressures of work or childcare have sometimes interrupted the pattern but the firm foundation of a working relationship will always be there.  We are, for each other, cheerleader, editor and critical friend.

Antonia's gift for Rachel
Antonia’s gift for Rachel

When I received the beautiful locket Antonia sent me I was immensely touched.  It symbolises space – the space we have afforded each other and the space for development of our creative work.

When I opened it, I was surprised to see that it contains a tiny rose, to represent growth.  I’m not sure whether she thought of it, but the rose is a crucial image in a novel I’m working on right now (which is based on Charles Rennie Mackintosh).  Consciously or subconsciously, she must have picked up on that.

I do miss Antonia’s actual presence but I know that we’ve carved out an emotional and creative space in which we can both grow.  It’s a friendship and a collaboration to be treasured – just like the locket, in fact, which now takes pride of place on the bookshelves next to my writing desk.

Antonia

It’s possible that the early hours of the morning aren’t the best time to write, but on top of four small children, we have chronic illness in the house, a head teacher being an arse, and a cellar pump that keeps failing. Yet here I am, writing.

From the first days of our friendship, Rachel’s faith in my work has given me permission to write even, and especially, when life has conspired to make it impossible. Others know us as mothers, teachers, wives and workers, but to each other, we are writers first.

Rachel's gift to Antonia
Rachel’s gift to Antonia

The little book Rachel sent me symbolises what brought us together, what sustains our friendship and what is produced by it. No Anne Sharp could have been prouder of Jane Austen than I was of Rachel when Sisterwives was published: it felt like a great triumph not only for Rachel, but for the dedication with which we both carved out the time for our regular exchanges of work.

Those exchanges have ebbed and flowed with the vicissitudes of our other lives, but our writing relationship has always been one in which the words ‘I told you so’ hold no negative connotations.

We don’t meet in person very often, but every meeting is an oasis. The next will be on Rachel’s birthday this summer. The last time I was able to celebrate Rachel’s birthday with her in person, too long ago, I confided the seed of the idea that would become The Ship. This time, The Ship will be on the verge of publication.

It began with two women who wanted to write. The rose in the locket is a symbol of the wonders that can happen, when dreams are given a little space.

Rachel Connor’s novel Sisterwives was published by Crocus Books in 2011. Her radio play The Cloistered Soul will be broadcast on Radio 4 on 29th May this year.

Antonia Honeywell’s novel The Ship will be published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson in January 2015.

 Remember

We’re still searching for more famous female writer pals to feature in the upcoming months, so do let us know if there’s a pair you’d like to see profiled.

You can do this by leaving a reply to any of the posts on the site, or Tweeting us at @EmilyMidorikawa or @emmacsweeney.

You can keep up with Something Rhymed by following us via email, by clicking the button on the right of the screen.