We are honoured that Michèle Roberts has agreed to speak about the devaluing of so-called ‘women’s issues’ at tomorrow’s Something Rhymed salon.
Female friendship is at the heart of her writing and feminism – something she reflected on with her own literary friend, Sarah LeFanu, in September’s guest post.
Michèle Roberts has published over twenty books: novels, poetry, essays, memoir, artist’s books. She is Professor Emeritus at the University of East Anglia, a Chavalier dans l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. Her latest publication, with Jenny Newman and Sarah LeFanu, is The Lille Diaries. She currently teaches a Guardian Masterclass (mistressclass?) on novel-writing.
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.
Jacqui: I first met Louise twenty years ago, at the University of East Anglia, on a photo shoot for the Sunday Telegraph. We had both studied there, for our MA in Creative Writing under Malcolm Bradbury, but in different years.
It’s a moody photograph (the photographer told us ‘don’t smile, you’ll look stupid’) but the actual mood was celebratory. Louise was wearing a sleeveless polka dot dress and had a brilliant suntan. She looked very stylish and cool. We were both excited about the publication of our first novels. Louise’s was already out and mine was about to appear. I still couldn’t quite believe that I was about to be published by Hamish Hamilton and was mixing with other published authors.
Louise: Jacqui struck me immediately as enviably calm and serene. We swapped notes on being students on the UEA MA and how neither of us felt regarded as the stars of our year – we laughed about that, and about how we were tortoises rather than hares.
The Polymath and the Will of Steel
Jacqui: Louise has been more focussed than me over the years, in terms of her writing, whereas I’ve been more distracted by entrepreneurial ventures, such as setting up my business coaching writers, but also by other art forms, returning to my love of drama and even having an interlude training to be a drama teacher. Right now, for example, I’m developing the business, finishing a second draft of a play, in discussion with a filmmaker and attending screen acting classes. Louise is focusing on her latest novel full-time. Some of this relates to financial decisions, but I think it’s also about our character types. She has a will of steel and I can’t stop myself diversifying.
Louise: Jacqui is more of a polymath than me: she’s much more plugged in to social media, has trained as a coach and run her own business. I’ve focused very much on the novels and although that’s paid off to a certain extent I think her life is more interesting and varied than mine.
The Unrest Cure
Jacqui: One dinner that particularly stays with me was the night when I told Louise I was planning to train as a secondary school drama teacher. In the end, it was only a two year interlude, but it felt hard breaking the news that I was going to do something so different and apparently out of character. I was ready for a change, what Saki calls the ‘unrest cure’. I wanted to give something back to young people, to be more ‘out in the world’ but I remember, at that time, also feeling somewhat jaded with the literary world and saying ‘but what would you do?’ I don’t think Louise had an answer but I imagine she was thinking ‘I’d rather starve in my garret than do something as crazy as that!’ But she was gracious enough not to try to hold me back from something that I so clearly wanted to do. Those two years, in fact, served to remind me how vital writing is in my life; how impossible it is for me to do without it.
Girl Novelists’ Dry Martini Club
Louise: At one point, just for a laugh, we formed something called the Girl Novelists’ Dry Martini Club. There were five of us and an agreement that whenever one of us signed a book deal, we would all go out for martinis. It started out as just an in-joke between a group of friends but it got picked up by the media – I think I mentioned it on Radio 4’s Midweek – and the next thing we knew it was mentioned in articles and we received letters from women asking if they could join. I thought it was a hoot when the Club made it into Jacqui’s satirical novel The Modigliani Girl. Almost every aspect of writing and the writing world gets satirised in that book.
Jacqui: Louise introduced me to the novelist Charles Palliser at a reading we did together. I was awestruck because an old beau of mine had bought me a copy of Charles’ novel The Quincunx so it was clearly the book to have! Meeting Charles, who had real literary kudos, made me feel incredibly grown up, but more importantly, he is now a genuine friend, whose devotion to writing and books never fails to inspire. In turn, Charles introduced me to a number of other writers and we still meet for an annual dinner each January at Louise’s home and talk about the year we’ve had, sharing the ups and downs of the writing life – and indeed, of life beyond writing.
Louise: This writing group is Silent 3 (don’t ask me why it’s called that, no idea), which was set up by Robert Irwin, a renowned Arabic scholar who also writes science fiction. The group used to be very large and meet in a pub in central London once a month but has shrunk to a hard-core now and every January we all have dinner at my house and review our writing years – another member brings the food and I do the long table etc.
Louise: When I look back over the twenty years I’ve been publishing, it strikes me just how essential my writing friends have been: my other close writing buddy is the novelist Jill Dawson, but along with her and Jacqui there is a wider circle of writing friends, mostly women but not exclusively, who I feel I have really grown up with. Those friends are incredibly important, partly because you know each other’s personal and domestic lives as well, but also because you know that the successes are hard-fought for and well-earned and the disappointments often arbitrary. A writer’s life is such a rollercoaster of success and disappointment that it’s invaluable having friends that will understand and support you whatever part of the ride you are on. Friends are far more important, at the end of the day, than finding an agent or a publisher.
Louise Doughty is the author of seven novels includingApple Tree Yard and Whatever You Love, which was shortlisted for the Costa Novel Award and longlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction. She is also a critic and cultural commentator and broadcasts regularly for the BBC.