Nancy Hamilton and Helen Keller

Helen Keller was propelled to fame at a young age when she became the first ever deafblind person to be awarded a university degree, and she remains a household name to this day: a saintly figure canonized in Sunday school lessons and picture books.

As well as being a disability rights activist, however, she was also an author and outspoken speaker, whose subjects ranged from woman’s suffrage and the necessity of birth control to a brand of socialism considered so radical that she was monitored by the FBI.

Helen Keller. Image used with kind permission of the Perkins Museum.
Helen Keller. Image used with kind permission from the Perkins Museum.

Her best known relationships are those with her family and paid carers. The story of Anne Sullivan holding the young Keller’s hand beneath a water pump and spelling ‘w-a-t-e-r’ onto her palm has truly become the stuff of legend. But the adult Keller enjoyed the company of a wide circle of friends. While she was studying at Harvard, large numbers of fellow intellectuals flocked to her home, keen to engage in political debate, and she later struck up friendships with the likes of Charlie Chaplin, Martha Graham, Eleanor Roosevelt and Mark Twain.

More subversively, she grew close to her neighbour: the actress and scriptwriter Nancy Hamilton, a ‘gay and chatty bachelor girl’, who boasted of drinking beer for breakfast and described herself as ‘the feminine Noël Coward’.

Hamilton was a writer and performer in the thirties and forties New York musical theatre world. Although she spent her professional life very much in the limelight, she had to keep her personal life shrouded in secrecy.

As a lesbian, she infiltrated the underground ‘sewing circle’ scene so that she could forge romances behind the veil of ‘respectability’. After a fling with the screen icon Katharine Hepburn, she later formed a relationship with the first lady of the American stage, Katharine Cornell. Although they would be lifelong partners, they felt forced to hide behind Cornell’s ‘lavender marriage’ with the gay director Gurthrie McClintic.

Nancy Hamilton (Creative Commons License)
Nancy Hamilton (Creative Commons License)

Keller too was no stranger to sexual taboo and clandestine romance. Decidedly heterosexual, she displayed strong preferences for men from an early age and was eager to be found attractive by the opposite sex.

For her family and carers, though, it was unthinkable that a woman with profound disabilities should desire an erotic life. Sullivan was so disapproving of her charge’s love of romantic novels that Keller had to read her Braille copies in secret. And, when Keller’s mother discovered that a handsome young man was due to invigilate one of her daughter’s university exams, she insisted on a female replacement.

But when Keller was in her mid-thirties, Sullivan fell ill and an emergency ensued. Keller’s mother had to agree to a temporary male replacement, and so the socialist Peter Fagan, a twenty-nine year-old journalist, entered Keller’s household as her private secretary – his job to finger-spell the contents of letters, articles and books onto his employer’s open palm.

The pair soon fell in love and embarked on an intimate romance. Aware of the level of prejudice they faced, they got engaged in secret, filed for a marriage license and planned to elope.

But the newspapers got wind of this and Helen’s mother confronted the couple, her distress so great and her threats so strong that the lovers reluctantly parted ways.

Later in life, Keller had offers from filmmakers as famous as Truffaut all eager to make a documentary based on her autobiographical work. But she chose Hamilton, with her shared experience of illicit love, to write, direct and produce the biopic for which Eleanor Roosevelt would stump up much of the funds. Despite never having made a film before, The Unconquered – which wrote out Keller’s romantic history and contributed to the mythology of her as a saint – won Hamilton an academy award.

The nature of Keller’s disability meant that all her writing projects required her to work with others, making her expert in knowing when to step back and when to take the lead. Far from excluding her from intimacy, therefore, Keller’s disability provided her with some of the vital resources for collaboration, romance, friendship, and mutual support.


Helen Keller gave Nancy Hamilton the chance to try her hand at filmmaking. Inspired by them, this month we will encourage each other to try something new.


Vera Brittain and Winifred Holtby

Testament of Friendship
Image used with the kind permission of Virago.

Since we began asking for recommendations of literary friends for Something Rhymed, one pair has dominated the replies: Vera Brittain, who penned the classic First World War memoir Testament of Youth and Winifred Holtby, the author of South Riding.

Both committed feminists, pacifists and socialists, it’s surprising perhaps that when they met as students at Oxford, these two initially disliked each other. After suffering what she took to be a humiliation by Holtby during a university debate, Brittain was keen to avoid her college mate – this frostiness only being repaired when Holtby called on Brittain, who’d been fighting a cold, with the unexpected gift of a bunch of grapes.

Once they’d got over their initial feelings of distrust, they realised that, despite outward differences – Holtby was tall, blonde and gregarious, whereas Brittain was small, dark and more reserved – they had a great deal in common. They bonded over their shared experiences of war service and mutual aims to make their way as writers.

After university, they decided to move in together, so that they could encourage each other in their ambitions.They also, famously, lived together in later years when Holtby joined the family home that Brittain established with her husband George Catlin, and Holtby became an aunt figure to the couple’s two children.

During their sixteen-year friendship, they continued to actively support each other’s careers. Despite the soar-away success of Brittain’s Testament of Youth, this was very much a friendship between equals. They often critiqued each other’s finished writings (although, interestingly to us, rarely work-in-progress) and helped to shape their thinking on important issues of the day through their conversations and letters.

We find these two particularly fascinating because, like us, they met when they were close to the start of their literary journeys and became each other’s ‘travelling companions’, never afraid to acknowledge the depth of support they had given each other.

After Holtby’s death at the age of 36, Brittain would go on to immortalise their relationship in her book Testament of Friendship, a fitting tribute from the woman once described by her pal as ‘the person who made me’.


Vera Brittain and Winifred Holtby’s friendship nearly failed to get off the ground due to their initial impressions of each other. Hopefully avoiding any risk to our friendship, we’ve set ourselves the challenge this month of casting our minds back to when we met to describe our first take on each other.

As always, we are interested in hearing your suggestions about other writing friendships we could profile on Something Rhymed. You can Tweet us or use the ‘Leave a Reply’ tab below to get in touch.