Some of you may remember that Margaret kindly shared a link to Something Rhymed on social media not long after we first launched. We were particularly touched by this gesture since we know that Margaret understands the importance of female literary friendship first-hand. She is a longstanding friend of Nobel Prize-winner and fellow Canadian, Alice Munro. You might well find more details about their relationship cropping up on our site in the new year…
But how could we possibly get our request to Margaret Atwood? Ironically, given that she is a keen user of new technologies, the answer lay in the lost art of letter writing – something we wrote about in the early days of this blog. We plucked up the courage to slip the handwritten note into Margaret’s hand after a public lecture, and then we waited…
The new addition of Margaret Atwood’s name to the front cover tells you all you need to know for now about her response! Come June 1st, A Secret Sisterhood will be available from bookshops, our stories of female literary friendship coming after Margaret’s wise and funny reflections.
As you can imagine, we are delighted by this generous example of sisterhood, and are truly humbled to be sharing our cover with her.
Sarah: I met Michèle in London in the summer of 1972. I saw her as a warm-hearted woman warrior, a bold feminist, a dragon-slayer. I was a student, with a holiday job as a waitress at a rather dodgy restaurant called Borscht’n’Tears. Michèle, two or three years older than me, had a proper grown-up job at the British Library. Whereas I had timidly attended a couple of student meetings about women’s liberation, held safely inside college doors, Michèle belonged to a group of women who braved ridicule and abuse to perform feminist street theatre.
Michèle: I remember arriving home late one night to find Sarah returned from work, sitting outside on the little balcony eating sausages and drinking cider. She seemed dashing, merry, insouciant, completely able to enjoy herself in the present moment. Very pretty, too, with her delicate face and curly auburn hair.
Sarah: We were thrown together by the spectacular disintegration of the relationship between a couple who lived in the flat that we were both staying in; to get away from the rows and recriminations we would creep out onto the balcony above the front door of the terraced house, and in the warm summer evenings we would sit and talk: about women’s liberation, socialism, books, boyfriends and all points in between. What began as an escape from what was going on behind us, soon acquired its own life.
Michèle: I remember watching Sarah pack her bag for her summer holiday. She wanted to travel light, but on the other hand she wanted to take plenty of books. I was impressed that she threw out clothes to make room for books. As I got to know her better, my sense was confirmed that she really enjoyed a good time: physical and intellectual pleasures both. For example, we would don our 1950s frocks then bicycle back and forth across London, going to parties and dancing most of the night. At the same time we took part in a Marxist study group with other friends, and we founded our own group of two to read Freud.
Sarah: We carried on these discussions by correspondence when I went off to work in Mozambique for two years. We shared a desire to understand the world and, of course, to change it.
In the early 80s, while Michèle was making a name for herself as a novelist and poet, I was working in publishing, at The Women’s Press. We published her first two novels,A Piece of the Nightand The Visitation. In the 90s we began teaching together for Ty Newydd and Arvon. And for nearly fifteen years now we’ve worked together in a writers’ group, along with novelist Jenny Newman (we call ourselves the Group of Three).
All of which is to say that our friendship is centrally concerned with work and writing and reading.
Or perhaps I should say the work of writing and reading.
Or perhaps I should say: the pleasure of it. Right from the early days we’ve done the reading and talking and writing alongside eating, drinking and partying.
Michèle: Sarah and I grew up in an era still overshadowed by Victorian notions of the respectable: teenage girls could go out and have fun but adult women, even if they had jobs, were supposed to make staying at home serving husbands and children their priority. It was radical in those days to assert openly that you were linked to other women, across the bonds of families and marriages, and that when you wanted or needed to you put women first.
Men had higher status. They valued each other highly and us far less. They did not believe we could be true friends with each other, if they even bothered to think about it, as they thought all women competed for male sexual favours.
Men dominated the literary scene, edited the journals, wrote memoirs about each other, created the literary canon, went out to meet each other at night in clubs and pubs, wanted ‘their’ women safely at home giving the children their tea.
Sarah: While I was struggling to write my first book, In the Chinks of the World Machine: Feminism and Science Fiction, Michèle gave me a whole afternoon a week of childcare – a blessed stretch of time – and later, on occasions when I was overwhelmed by domestic drudgery, she would think up ways and means of providing me with periods of release.
Michèle: I remember when Sarah got married vowing to myself that I would do my best not to be jealous or possessive, which would have been easy for me to do given how much I loved her. I got to know her husband and got to be fond of him. I was her witness at her wedding (as she was at mine) and she invited me to be godmother to her children. I love and feel close to them. So she helped me go on feeling close to her, feeling I still had a place with her, even though her life had changed so much, having three children and caring for them. She invited me to become involved.
Sarah: Male literary friendships have always been more visible. Men have always felt more entitled to inhabit public spaces – from the 18th century coffee shop to the Soho bars of the 1950s. The romantic idea of a literary friendship is that of two lonely (male) geniuses recognising each other as geniuses and then performing their friendship in front of a star-struck public. But male domination of public space has been, and is being challenged (by feminists then and now), so things are changing.
Michèle: The women’s movement helped to change that. Nowadays the male writers I know and am fond of acknowledge the power of women’s friendships. We know more than we used to about women’s friendships because for the last thirty or so years women have been writing about them, asserting their value and importance and exploring their meaning.
Those books got published because feminist women were working as editors and publishers, commissioning books, championing women writers. So my friendship with Sarah is connected to that history, those politics.
Feminists thought of each other as sisters, we valued each other, tried to listen to each other, tried hard not to obey the patriarchal rule which said that men always had to come first, we lived a public life of going out with each other, not confined to the home.
Sarah: At the same time, I’m going to make a claim for privacy, and the intimacy it allows. It’s more than forty years since Michèle and I met and talked on a balcony in Pimlico, when we cast ourselves off from the noisy goings-on behind us and floated high above the dusty summer streets of London. The intimacy of sailing with Michèle in that stone boat has remained for me an important and nurturing aspect of our long friendship.
Michèle: The Italian expression is: ti voglio bene. I feel Sarah and I wish each other well, at a profound level. Till death us do part.
Emily and I have sometimes envied Vera Brittain and Winifred Holtby their shared university years. If we could defy time and pal up with just one of the pairs of writers that we’ve profiled on this site, I’m pretty sure that we’d both pick these friends: two women who ‘didn’t exactly grow up together’ but ‘grew mature together’ and considered that ‘the next best thing’.
Unlike them, we met after separate and rather different undergraduate experiences: Emily partying hard in London while I pored over books in Cambridge.
In the best possible way, co-running Something Rhymed feels akin to studying together. We now spend hours on end searching the stacks at Senate House Library, and we regularly exchange bulging folders of notes. We’ve created for ourselves a second stab at studenthood – this time together and with a curriculum of our own.
This month I’ve relished the chance to re-read the poetry of Marianne Moore, which I’d first come across as an undergrad. We toyed at first with profiling Moore’s friendship with fellow modernist Hilda ‘H.D.’ Doolittle, who she met in 1905 when they were both studying at Bryn Mawr College, Pennsylvania. But we ended up becoming even more fascinated by a bond that began in 1934 when the middle-aged Moore took final-year undergraduate, Elizabeth Bishop, under her wing.
Both Emily and I have benefited from the wisdom of women writers older and more experienced than us and, as with Moore and Bishop, these mentorships have sometimes blossomed into friendships. Now that we teach ourselves, we’ve had the chance in our own small way to continue this intergenerational sisterhood.
Without ever really discussing it, we must have both come to the conclusion that – in the widest sense – the best students are also teachers; the best teachers, forever students. We each tend to enrol in one writing course per year – sometimes together, sometimes separately – to remind ourselves what it feels like to sit at the other side of the desk. And yet we were surprised (and heartened) to learn that a poet of Moore’s stature had taken this same approach.
Inspired by Moore, this month I’ve been attending Berko Writers’ screenwriting course, taught by Abigail Webber, formerly a commissioning editor and now a script consultant. I have written poetry, fiction and non-fiction over the years, taking my first steps into all of these forms as if entering familiar rooms. But screenwriting has always felt like a closed door – and one on which I felt nervous even to knock. My heart pounded so loudly during the first session at Berko Writers that I promised myself never to underestimate the courage it might take for one of my own students to step into my class.
The course has opened up that locked door, and screenplays no longer feel to me like a forbidden wing in literature’s house. Emily’s acting background and her storyteller’s skill lead me to suspect that she might one day turn her hand to scripts and that I might get to share with her the tips that I’ve recently gleaned.
Emily’s storytelling skill and lyricism were recognised last night at the awards ceremony for the prestigious Lucy Cavendish Fiction Prize 2015. Emily’s shortlisting opened up for her – and for me as her guest – the usually closed doors of the dining hall at this Cambridge College. Here we had the chance to chat over dinner with its president, Professor Janet Todd – a feminist heroine of ours. In the hall at Lucy Cavendish, among its students and fellows, I enjoyed the great privilege of cheering on my friend as she was announced the winner. As I sat there, watching her receive her prize, it dawned on me that this shared moment of celebration more than made up for our separate university years. Growing mature together is, in fact, the very best thing.
Although it is hardly in the spirit of Something Rhymed, I considered myself firmly in the Elizabeth Bowen camp. My copy of her Collected Stories accompanied me when I first left for college and has been packed and unpacked so many times since. When I got my first lecturing post, I put it on my syllabus, and nowadays I often quote Bowen to encourage my New York University students to focus on creativity during their time in the UK: ‘Imagination of my kind is most caught, most fired, most worked upon by the unfamiliar’.
My memories of reading Murdoch, on the other hand, are scant and chequered.
My cousin Nic – a voracious and insightful reader – had devoured Murdoch’s novels, and my writer friend Wendy Vaizey had written about Murdoch in her PhD. Nic and I shared a love of Thomas Hardy’s books and Wendy and I had introduced each other to our favourite texts by medieval mystics, so I felt sure that I too would fall in love with Murdoch’s work.
On one of my trips down to stay with Nic in her book-lined cottage in Cornwall, I picked up a copy of Murdoch’s A Severed Head. I read it over Easter, sitting in Nic’s sunlit conservatory – the mugs of tea at my side replaced at dusk by glasses of gin. When Nic got home from work, I’d put down the book and we’d take cliff-top walks or share plates of fish straight from the sea.
There was such a stark difference that week between my external life – full of sunshine and hyacinths and warm conversation – and the world that Murdoch’s novel set up in my mind. Neither the story nor the characters have stayed with me, but the coldness and cruelty of the book have remained.
The Unicorn also has an iciness to it, yet I found it compelling and clever and self-consciously indebted to its literary forebears.
Bowen’s influence is clear: the faded glory of the Irish country house and the Anglo-Irish cast, which are said to have been inspired by guests Murdoch met at Bowen’s Court.
Yet it was another female author who came to mind when I read the opening of The Unicorn. Its gothic setting and the simultaneous presence and absence of the mistress of the house was redolent with echoes of Rebecca.
It quickly became obvious, however, that Murdoch’s approach to the gothic differed from that of Daphne du Maurier. As I read on, I began to feel that The Unicorn shares more of its DNA with Northanger Abbey. Like Jane Austen before her, Murdoch self-consciously plays with gothic conventions, calling them into question and sending them up.
Even more prominent still, is Murdoch’s engagement with Charlotte Bronte’sJane Eyresince, like its predecessor, The Unicorn features an imprisoned mistress of the house. But Murdoch makes Hannah Crean-Smith a more central character than Brontë’s Bertha, and the novel investigates the question of her sanity.
Critics have tended to interpret Hannah Crean-Smith as an enchantress: apparently pure but ultimately revealed as an evil manipulator. I see her more as a damaged being, fashioned by the scarring experiences of torture and imprisonment.
I would love to sit beside my cousin in her Cornish conservatory, sipping gin and finding out what she made of Hannah Crean-Smith. But Nic died last year in a sunlit room, our family reading to her right up to the end. When I talk with Wendy and Emily about The Unicorn – and about Murdoch’s other novels, which I will surely now read – my memories of Nic will inform this conversation between my sisterhood of readers, just as Austen and Brontë and du Maurier lived on as Murdoch’s literary mothers.
Can You Help Us?
We’re hoping that one of our online sisterhood of readers might know of a female writing friendship enjoyed by Daphne du Maurier. If so, please could you tell us about it by using the comment tab below or by using the ‘Contact Us’ form. We’d love to profile du Maurier on this site.