New Chapters: From co-authors to creative companions

On the day when our joint book comes out in paperback in North America, it is my great honour to announce that Emily’s new non-fiction book, Out of the Shadows, will be published by Counterpoint Press over there, most likely in summer 2020. And the North American audio rights have been acquired by Recorded Books, who also produced the audio version of A Secret Sisterhood.

In the midst of our celebrations, I reflect on our circular literary journey from a nervous first exchange of drafts to co-authoring and back again.

I first read Emily’s creative writing a decade and a half ago, when she was still in Japan (where we’d met as young English teachers) while I had returned to the UK and was living back with my parents in Birkenhead. The package of word-processed pages, which had wended their way from Emily’s shoebox apartment to my pink-walled childhood bedroom, lay unopened for days on end.

During my shifts front-of-house at a local cinema and in between protracted break-up conversations with my long-term boyfriend, my faraway friend’s unread work kept playing on my mind: what if I didn’t understand it, or couldn’t think of a response, or hated every word?

Part of me regretted our agreement to exchange writing samples. Although we’d been friends for two years, and had known about our shared dreams of publication for the past twelve months, I wondered whether our promise to read and give feedback on each other’s work had been too hasty. With my home, job and relationship all feeling temporary, I held onto writing and friends for stability. Both, I prayed, would remain in my life for the long haul. And yet, I dreaded receiving Emily’s feedback on my fledgling fiction. I wasn’t sure I had much to offer as a critic, either, and I was worried about the strain the discussion might place on us.

But as soon as I read Emily’s story – pen in hand and bolstered by pillows – I felt a sense of hope. The compelling narrative, enigmatic characters and captivating sensuality introduced me to a new side to my friend. I was brimming with ideas and comments and questions. For the first time in a while, I felt confident about the future: here was a friendship that could only be deepened by our daunting literary endeavours; here was someone I sensed would become my constant writing companion and confidante.

Neither of us could have predicted the extent to which we would walk alongside each other during our long, shared journeys to publication: postgraduate degrees in creative writing from the same programme; lecturing jobs at the same universities; thousands of draft pages covered in each other’s scrawl.

When we finally attended each other’s book launches or award ceremonies – having both by then accumulated stacks of rejection slips – the celebrations felt jointly earned. After all, we knew each other’s writing almost as well as our own, detecting behind each published page the ghostly presences of killed-off characters, discarded scenes and amputated lines.

The North American paperback of A Secret Sisterhood, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, is out now.

Back when we first plucked up the courage to exchange our earliest drafts, we’d hardly dared dream of such intense collaboration, let alone the prospect of seeing our names published side-by-side. The first time we enjoyed this privilege was when we pitched a joint idea on female literary friendship to  The Times. And, of course, we would later experience the joy of seeing our names together on the cover of our co-authored book, A Secret Sisterhood: The literary friendships of Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, George Eliot and Virginia Woolf.

Writing together has brought us countless chances to share a creative process that is usually characterized by solitude. Instead, we’ve ferried bulging files of notes between each other’s homes; pored over forgotten manuscripts in far-flung archives; eaten fry-ups together after editing through the night; travelled across the USA on the Secret Sisterhood book tour, knowing that the friend we sat beside on stage was ready to pitch in whenever we needed help.

Even the inevitable difficulties of co-authorship have ultimately enhanced our friendship and our writing lives. We learnt, for instance, that we can get over fiery sleep-deprived arguments, that our literary disagreements invariably challenge us to come up with new and more robust ideas.

Owl Song at Dawn (Legend Press) won the literary category of Nudge Book of the Year 2016

Our joint research for A Secret Sisterhood paved the way for each of our new books. I have become increasingly fascinated by another of Virginia Woolf’s female relationships – one that instilled in Woolf such fear and shame that she suppressed it from accounts of her life. Consigned to the footnotes of literary history, this woman will take centre stage in my novel based on her life.

Fiction writing marks a homecoming for me since my debut, Owl Song at Dawn, was a novel that explored Britain’s little-known history of learning disability through the lives of twin sisters born in Morecambe in 1933. Emily, however, will be deepening her practice as a writer of non-fiction.

During our Secret Sisterhood research trip to the New York Public Library, Emily transcribed a cache of letters from Harriet Beecher Stowe, the American author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, to her British female friend George Eliot. Emily became fascinated by Stowe’s interest in Spiritualism – the belief that the living have the power to communicate with the dead.

Out of the Shadows will be published by Counterpoint Press, most likely in summer 2020.

Through this, Emily discovered a transatlantic community of Victorian women whose clairvoyant claims secured them unprecedented levels of power and celebrity.

Emily’s book proposal for Out of the Shadows introduced me to the mysterious world of seances, trance lecturers and former child mediums, who spoke up about female suffrage and draconian lunacy laws, delivered powerful political oration, advised Wall Street brokers, and even, in one case, stood as the first female presidential candidate of the United States.

I know that Emily has been spending hours on end in the library, and that her draft chapters are stacking up, but I have only caught glimpses so far of the stories they might contain. Soon, I hope, Emily will send them to me for feedback.

Fifteen years ago, when we first exchanged work, I felt almost paralyzed by the unknown territory contained in Emily’s word-processed pages. Now, I will pick up my pen straight away, curious to see where my friend’s research has taken her, impatient to read her words once more. On this journey back from co-authoring to writing separately, it is this renewed sense of mystery that I most relish – the opportunity to be taken somewhere entirely unexpected, led every step of the way by a trusted friend.

A Secret Sisterhood: The literary friendships of Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, George Eliot and Virginia Woolf is out in paperback in North America today.

Beryl Bainbridge and Bernice Rubens

Vicky Grut Photo © Bill Williams

We were thrilled when short-story writer Vicky Grut offered to write a piece on the friendship between Beryl Bainbridge and Bernice Rubens. Ever since 2014, when Emma wrote about an inspirational meeting with Rubens, we have been hoping to profile the friendship she enjoyed with Bainbridge.

 

Beryl Bainbridge (1932 – 2010) and Bernice Rubens (1923 – 2004) were friends for almost thirty years. They met on a British Council trip to Israel in July 1977, the first of many such outings. Describing this trip in the Independent’s How We Met’ column, Rubens recalled: ‘The group was Fay Weldon, William Trevor, Ted Willis, Iris Murdoch, Melvyn Bragg and Beryl, who made an impression on me immediately because she was wearing a hat and was quite clearly out to lunch.’

Bainbridge’s version of the occasion was that she was extremely nervous and the flight was delayed, which meant that she overdid it in the hospitality lounge and had to be wheeled out to the plane on a luggage trolley. ‘I didn’t even get going as a writer until 1971 and Bernice had won the Booker Prize before then,’ Bainbridge remembered. ‘I had read her and was quite in awe of her and the rest of the group.’

Bainbridge and Rubens
Beryl Bainbridge and Bernice Rubens, left to right. Photo courtesy Sue Greenhill.

Bainbridge was hardly a newcomer in 1977. She had been publishing steadily since A Weekend With Claude in 1967. Shortlisted for the Booker in 1974, she had won the Whitbread Prize with her eighth book three years later. But Rubens was six years older and probably did seem more confident and established. She was the first woman ever to win the Booker – in 1970 for her fourth novel, The Elected Member. Today she is perhaps best remembered for her second book, Madame Sousatzka (1962), which became a John Schlesinger film in 1988, starring Shirley MacLaine.

Rubens was the author of 26 books and Bainbridge 24, but neither started out as writers. Bainbridge left school at sixteen to join a theatre company in Liverpool, an experience vividly portrayed in her 1989 novel An Awfully Big Adventure. Rubens initially took a more conventional route: a scholarship to study English at Cardiff University, then marriage and teaching English in schools. She followed this with a career as a documentary film maker and scriptwriter, and the novels came later still, when she was in her thirties, as was the case for Bainbridge.

Physically, Rubens was bulky while Bainbridge was girlishly slight. Rubens was Jewish, Bainbridge a Catholic, and their personalities, too, were radically different. ‘When praised I took refuge in a smirk,’ Bainbridge said, ‘Bernice lashed out. When confronted with tragedy I shed tears and crept away; she made inquiries and organised relief.’

But they had some important things in common. Both came from difficult families. Both were devoted to their children and grandchildren but lived alone. Both believed that if they had been happier they would not have needed to write. They also shared an interest in other art forms. According to Bainbridge’s daughter Jojo Davies, her mother would do a painting each time she finished a book. In the attic room where Rubens worked there was a grand piano and a cello next to her desk so that she could reward herself by playing when the writing went well.

Writing in The Times after Bainbridge’s death, their friend Paul Bailey said of the two of them: ‘Bernice could best be described as a fiery particle, for she blew very hot or cold, especially with those she loved. Beryl, by sweet contrast, never judged anybody.’

This was a quality that Rubens valued greatly. ‘Although I have many friends who are writers, I don’t want to talk about [my work] to any of them except Beryl, because – like the Midland Bank – she listens, and she is terrifically loyal. […] I’ve never heard Beryl talk evilly about anybody.’ In their later years, the two friends met fortnightly for breakfast at the Cafe Delancey, just around the corner from Bainbridge’s house in Camden Town.

There are many anecdotes about Rubens sweeping in to avert disaster for Bainbridge, the most dramatic being A. N. Wilson’s assertion that when her publisher Duckworth ran into financial difficulties, the head of the company Colin Haycraft, whom she adored, came to see her and suggested that she sign her house over to them. ‘For a few hours she seriously considered this monstrous demand. Then the steely common sense surfaced – helped by her friend Bernice Rubens shouting from the sidelines.’

Bainbridge once talked about the nurturing quality of their friendship. Remembering that they had never quarrelled, and had ‘no rivalry’, she said, ‘If one of us is miserable then we ring the other. I got drunk at one of her dinner parties and she rang me the next day because she knew I’d be feeling remorse, to tell me I behaved beautifully, which wasn’t true.’ If one of them saw a bad review about the other, she added, then they would ‘ring and not refer to it directly, but support the other in a roundabout way’.

What more could anyone ask of a friend?

Beryl and Bernice google
Bainbridge and Rubens, left to right, at a publication party, 1988. Photo courtesy of Sue Greenhill.

LiveShow_thumbnailVicky Grut’s short fiction has appeared in anthologies published by Picador, Granta, Duckworths, Serpent’s Tail and Bloomsbury. Live Show, Drink Included: Collected Stories is published on October 5, 2018, by Holland Park Press. Find her on Twitter @VickyGrut.

 

Edited by Kathleen Dixon Donnelly, who posts at Such Friends, and is currently working on a book, ‘Such Friends’: A Scrapbook Almanac of Writers’ Salons, 1897-1930. Follow Kathleen on Twitter @SuchFriends.

 

It has been a particular pleasure to feature Vicky’s post on a historical pair of female writer friends today since tonight she will be celebrating the publication of Dear Evelyn by her own close writer friend, Kathy Page. On October 5th, Vicky and Kathy will be letting us into the secrets of their long-standing friendship to mark the publication of Vicky’s book, a short story collection called Live Show, Drink Included

If this has inspired an idea for a future Something Rhymed post, please do get in touch. You can find out more about what we are looking for here.

 

 

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?

Katherine Mansfield and Virginia Woolf

Katherine Mansfield and Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf’s scathing first impression of Katherine Mansfield as ‘a civet cat that had taken to street-walking’ had always led us to put them down as enemies, but when our novelist friend Jill Dawson suggested them for our Times article on female writing friendships we began to question this preconception.

It turned out that Mansfield and Woolf considered themselves dear friends: they sought each other’s opinions on the books they traded; they exchanged gifts of Belgian cigarettes, loaves of bread, coffee beans, and columbine plants; they sent each other umpteen letters; and discussed their work over tea.

The two women were unlikely pals: Mansfield hailed from the far-flung colonies, whereas Woolf’s family was firmly entrenched in the English intelligentsia; Mansfield embraced her youthful desires with bohemian exuberance, whereas Woolf approached intimacy with timidity.

Both women experienced chronic illness, had complex relationships with editor husbands, and felt ambivalent about their childlessness. But it was really their shared literary endeavours that fired their friendship. Indeed, after spending a weekend with Woolf, Mansfield remarked that it was ‘very curious & thrilling that we should both, quite apart from each other, be after so very nearly the same thing’.

Although their friendship was relatively brief – from 1917 until Mansfield’s death in 1923 – its effect on their work was profound. During this time, Mansfield produced most of her celebrated stories (one of which Woolf published), and Woolf forged her trademark style. Although we more readily associate Woolf with the stream of consciousness technique, it was actually Mansfield who tried it out first.

In fact, Woolf seems to have been the more dependent of the pair: she was hurt (but likely also stimulated) by Mansfield’s damning review of her second novel; she worried when her letters failed to elicit a swift response; and references to Mansfield haunt her journal, showing her friend’s continued influence from beyond the grave.

Both friends recognised each other’s literary prowess: Woolf claimed that Mansfield’s was the only prose to have made her jealous, and Mansfield said that reading Woolf made her proud.

We too feel proud of our literary ancestresses – these women whose relationship could accommodate support and rivalry, criticism and praise; who were open to each other’s influence; and whose important friendship we’d been all too ready to write off.

Activity

Katherine Mansfield and Virginia Woolf enjoyed corresponding with each other. In this letter, Woolf describes jotting in her diary ideas she wanted to share with Mansfield. This way, she wouldn’t forget to mention them the next time she wrote to her friend.

This month, we will follow their example. Like Woolf, we will use our notebooks to keep track of the things we’d like to discuss. Then we will write about these ideas in letters that we will post to each other.

We’d appreciate any suggestions of other friendships between famous female writers (living or dead) that you’d like us to feature in future posts.