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.

The Stuff of Legend

It was a question that prompted us to launch Something Rhymed, a question that eluded easy answers: why have so many female writer friends, unlike their male counterparts, failed to make legends of each other?

We wondered whether women had traditionally conducted their relationships privately while men had more opportunities to promote each other in public. Coleridge, for instance, had the freedom to up sticks to the Lakes where he could collaborate with Wordsworth on the Lyrical Ballads. At around the same time, Jane Austen’s abode was entirely at the whim of her family and she still felt she had to publish anonymously.

However, closer investigation showed us that women too have long been attempting to make legends of each other. After all, Charlotte Brontë travelled cross country to stay with Elizabeth Gaskell (a pair we’re sure to profile since so many of you have suggested them), and after Brontë’s early death Gaskell published the first biography of her friend.

This month’s pair, Vera Brittain and Winifred Holtby, emerged very much from this trailblazing tradition, embracing mutual publicity from the start: debating at the Oxford Union, campaigning for their shared social and political causes, publishing prolific amounts of journalism. Indeed, the pair became so entangled in people’s minds that Winifred Holtby was once introduced at a meeting as ‘Miss Vera Holtby’! It is fitting, therefore, that after Holtby’s early death, Brittain edited and promoted her friend’s final novel and then memorialised their relationship in Testament of Friendship.

Question Mark

We took rather longer to expose our friendship to public scrutiny. For the first decade since our initial meeting, we critiqued each other’s work in the privacy of our own homes, and we published entirely separately. But ever since The Times commissioned us to write about female writing friendship, we’ve become far less publicity shy, looking to Brittain and Holtby as our role models.

Our attempts to follow in their footsteps has brought us many unexpected and joyful connections, from drinking Prosecco in Kiliney Castle with writer pals Anne Enright and Lia Mills to gaining our first hits on this site from Korea and Kyrgyzstan. The generous coverage Something Rhymed has received from Slightly Bookist and Women Writers, Women, Books has resulted in particularly strong contingents of blog followers from Canada and the USA, and tweets from the likes of the New York Public Library. Just recently, we received some especially interesting suggestions from our new North American friends, who alerted us to the epistolary relationship between George Eliot and Harriet Beecher Stowe, as well as the friendship that A.S. Byatt managed to forge with her literary heroine, Iris Murdoch.

Murdoch also came up on the back of a connection we’ve forged closer to home. When the Yorkshire Post picked up on Holtby’s (and Emily’s) Yorkshire connections, one of their reader’s got in touch to tell us about Murdoch and the philosopher Philippa Foot, whose extraordinary friendship eventually survived a sexual interlude and even a massive bust-up.

Mercifully, our friendship has not only survived but thrived since we made the decision to follow the example of Brittain and Holtby. But our investigation into female writers and publicity has not yet produced an answer to our initial question. Instead, the question itself has changed. So now we’ve begun to ask ourselves this: why do women’s attempts to make legends of each other tend to get written out of literary lore?

First Impressions: I liked her, right from the start

Looking back on the early days with Winifred Holtby, Vera Brittain would write in her memoir Testament of Friendship that ‘We did not, to begin with, like each other at all’. For my part at least, my first thoughts on Emma Claire couldn’t have been further from those words.

Em and I became friends when we were both working as English language teachers on the island of Shikoku, in rural Japan.

Travelling together in the Japan Alps in May 2002
Travelling together in the Japan Alps in May 2002

We’d gone there as participants on the JET Programme, a Japanese government initiative to place native English speakers in the nation’s schools, but we actually met at the pre-departure orientation in London in July 2001.

I vividly remember stepping outside in a break between sessions and spotting Emma Claire sitting on the grass. She was with a small group of new JETs, all of them swapping stories about the little they knew of the towns and villages to which they were headed.

Of all the people sitting on the lawn that day – most, like us, in their earlier twenties and lacking any previous teaching experience – my feeling was that Emma Claire was someone with whom I had something extra in common.

Why I should have thought this, and from the start, is a lot more difficult to understand.

These days, people take us to be so alike that we have sometimes been confused for sisters, but, other than the fact we were both short and from the north of England, I don’t think we can have appeared particularly similar back then.

We were dressed very differently from each other that day, and my hair, unlike Em’s that flowed freely down her back, was chopped and cut up with streaks of blonde – although this was largely the result of having been accosted in the street just weeks earlier by an enthusiastic trainee stylist from Vidal Sassoon.

OK, you might think, but what about our shared interests? Surely there we would have found common ground. But I don’t remember hitting on a mutual taste in music or films, and I’m not sure either of us thought to mention books or favourite authors. Certainly, we wouldn’t have said anything about wanting to be writers, since at that stage we hadn’t even properly admitted that secret to ourselves.

What I do recall is my sense of disappointment when I realised that, although we’d be living in the same prefecture, Emma Claire would be living a couple of hours away from my house.

Holtby and Brittain, thrown together in their Oxford college, must have had to go out of their way to avoid each other in that early period of distrust. In marked contrast, it was clear to me right away that if Em and I were going to become friends we’d each have to make a special effort.

That summer’s day all those years ago, now seems like such a key moment in our lives that it really is painful to imagine just what we’d have missed out on if one of us, or both of us, had decided that the effort wasn’t quite worth our while.

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.