Travelling Together: Our Secret Sisterhood book tour of the USA

Regular readers of Something Rhymed will perhaps recall that we’ve sometimes likened our friendship to that of Vera Brittain, author of Testament of Youth, and Winifred Holtby, who penned South Riding.

We find ourselves particularly drawn to this pair because, like us, they met when they were at the very start of their writing journeys and each soon committed to becoming the ‘travelling companion’ of the other.

When Holtby spoke of this, she meant it in a metaphorical sense. But, as young friends in the 1920s, the two also enjoyed more literal travels when they spent a summer holidaying together in Cornwall and another in France and Italy.

The Kiyomizu temple in Kyoto, which we visited together during our early twenties (Image by Martin Falbisoner – Wikipedia Creative Commons licence)

When we were first getting to know each other, while working as English language teachers in Japan, we did a lot of travelling. We look back on our joint-trips with great fondness – not just because they gave us the opportunity to explore new places together, but also because the conversations we had, walking the streets of ancient cities or the rough paths of mountainous regions, really cemented our fledgling friendship.

Although the years we spent working intensively on A Secret Sisterhood have been – all in all – a wonderful experience, we have sometimes lamented the fact that, during this period, it sometimes felt that work had taken over all other aspects of our relationship, and that important events in each of our lives had passed by without much opportunity for sharing them with our friend.

The two-and-a-half weeks we’ve just spent touring the USA together, to mark the American publication of our book, turned out to be just the chance to put all this right.

We began our tour in New York City, with an interview with Kory French for Book Talk on Breakthru Radio, which has recently gone live. This gave us the chance to reflect – as we would many times over – on the highs and lows of writing a book together, including the joys of joint discoveries, and the frustrations of late-night quarrels about turns of phrase and the points we each felt our book ought to be making. All of these, we’re relieved to be able to say, ultimately brought us closer.

Image by Ravi Sunnak

Our first event was at the NYU bookstore, with Kate Bolick, author of Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own.

Next up was a talk at Shakespeare & Co. with Miranda Beverly-Whittemore (writer of novels including Bittersweet and June). This event was organised by the Brontë Society’s American chapter and the Jane Austen Society of North America – NY Metropolitan Region.

Our sell-out event with Miranda Beverly-Whittemore (image by Shakespeare & Co)

We had known Kate and Miranda only through their books before, and so it was a real pleasure to meet them in person. But at our event at Book Passage in San Francisco, it was lovely to collaborate again with Mary Volmer (Reliance, Illinois), who had also chaired the conversation at our northern book launch in the UK, back in June.

At Vroman’s in Pasadena, another dear friend of ours Elizabeth L. Silver (The Execution of Noa P. Singleton and The Tincture of Time) ran a discussion between us and another pair of author-friends Julia Fierro (Cutting Teeth and The Gypsy Moth Summer) and Caeli Wolfson Widger (Real Happy Family).

And finally, it was wonderful to be interviewed at UCLA by Professor Michelle Liu Carriger, an old friend from our Japan days.

With our book on the Houghton Mifflin Harcourt shelves behind us

In between our events, we went to meetings together, saw an interview we’d given to Alexis Coe for Lenny Letter go live, and visited the headquarters of our American publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, in Boston and New York City.

We caught up with mutual friends living in the USA, and worked on book-related feature articles, including this one, recently published in The Millions, and this one just out in TIME – Motto. In the gaps between all these things, we enjoyed a bit of sightseeing, and, perhaps most of all, caught up on all that personal news we’d managed to miss, and just enjoyed each other’s company as friends.



In Praise of the Spinster

When we decided on this month’s challenge, I knew straight away which of our profiled authors I would like to raise from the dead.

Even Jane Austen couldn’t sway me from beyond the grave, although it was a Wordsworth £1 classic edition of Emma that, as a young teenager, initiated me into the world of female authorship. I don’t need to conjure up Austen’s ghost to enjoy her dry humour, and her face – with which everyone in Britain will become intimately acquainted once the new £10 banknote is issued – was recorded for posterity by her sister Cassandra.

Creative Commons license.
Creative Commons license.

Although Austen’s family destroyed much of her correspondence, the writer with whom I would love to make contact is far more of an enigma: all her literary works have been lost and her portrait was likely never painted.

Anne Sharp, the amateur playwright so valued by Austen, has been silenced for centuries. The intelligent, spirited voice of this governess in the employment of the Austen family has survived only in snippets. But when she does speak up across the ages, for example in Austen’s records of Sharp’s feedback, her astute critical faculties make us sit up and take note: here was someone who read with sensitivity and, despite the mighty class divide, felt at liberty to express her thoughts.

Perhaps it was this outspokenness that led Austen’s nephew to describe Sharp as ‘horridly affected but rather amusing’ – a phrase that brings to mind a neighbour’s portrayal of Austen as the ‘silliest, most affected husband-hunting butterfly’.

Like Austen, Sharp never did wed although marriage would have been the surest path to financial security. Unsurprisingly, little was recorded of Sharp’s romantic history. But we do know that her famous friend turned down a proposal from a wealthy man, and engaged in at least two other romantic liaisons. Yet the pernicious myth persists that Austen was too plain to attract suitors.

I once dragged a new squeeze to see the original portrait of Austen during a first date at the National Portrait Gallery. We failed to find anything unattractive in her appearance and I couldn’t help but feel that her alleged plainness would never have caught on had she not remained single. Cassandra actually described Austen as ‘triumphing over the married women of her acquaintance, and rejoicing in her own freedom’ – an image that complicates the prevailing notion of her romantic suffering.

Talking about Jane Austen and Anne Sharp at this year's Ilkley Literature Festival
We talked about Jane Austen and Anne Sharp at this year’s Ilkley Literature Festival

While Sharp’s single lifestyle would also have afforded her certain freedoms, it must have been a hard slog too – much more so than for Austen, whose only household responsibility was the preparation of tea and toast. After years of earning her crust as a governess for various wealthy families, she managed to set up her own boarding school in Everton. She spent the rest of her days in this area, living in York Terrace – a relatively prosperous street with views across the River Mersey to my hometown of Birkenhead.

I would love to learn from this working woman how she managed to do so well from such humble beginnings, and whether she ever considered giving up her independence and her toil for the perhaps easier option of marriage.

Perhaps my subconscious had been trying to tell me something when I dragged that poor date to view the painting of Austen: it was, in part, her independence that allowed her to pen those much-loved novels warning against ill-judged marriages. And it is her friend Anne Sharp – whose portrait I will never see – whose example reminds me that it was possible, even then, for a woman to make her way, ‘rejoicing in her own freedom’.