A Forgotten Author, A Forgotten Town

My research into Margaret Oliphant revealed that she grew up in my home region of Merseyside. History has neglected so very many aspects of Oliphant’s extraordinary life but her northern upbringing has remained especially shrouded in mystery.

She is more often associated with London or Scotland, but, with some digging, I discovered that Oliphant spent the early years of her literary career living just a few minutes’ walk away from my family home. She moved to 24 Kenyon Terrace in 1850, the year after she published her first novel.

Kenyon_Terrace

I’ve learnt so many things while investigating forgotten female friendships, but Oliphant’s residence in my hometown has perhaps moved me most profoundly. At first, I felt rather puzzled by the intensity of my reaction. But then it struck me that I had never before heard of any novelist hailing from Birkenhead.

Despite forever having my head buried in a novel or notebook, the dream of authorship never entered my mind during childhood or adolescence. It’s not that I lacked ambition. When I was a teenager, I aspired to write the blurbs on book jackets. It simply didn’t occur to me that I could become (or even dream of becoming) the woman who actually wrote the books.

And why would it have done? The authors whose novels I devoured did not much resemble me: Jane Austen lived in genteel poverty and was not expected to work outside the home; Virginia Woolf’s annual allowance funded her room of one’s own. Where was the maternal literary line through which I could trace examples of female authors based in industrial northern towns, women who found a way to earn their living by the pen?

These women did exist, I realise now. We’ve profiled some of them on this site: Elizabeth Gaskell and Winifred Holtby spring to mind. I can’t help but wish that I’d known about this tradition, back when I was growing up in Birkenhead. How inspiring it would have been to learn that in 1850 a twenty-two-year-old woman wrote a novel at a dining table less than a mile from the room in which I made my own first tentative attempts to write.

This weekend just gone, I peered through the bay window into this very dining room. My mother at my side, I imagined the young Oliphant entranced by the world she was creating on the page while her own mother sat beside her, absorbed in her cross-stitching. Oliphant’s former home is now divided into bedsits, several wheelie bins crowding around the front steps. On one side, the adjoining house stands derelict, its windows boarded up. But the house on the other side offered more of a glimpse into the middle-class comforts that these buildings would have afforded in Oliphant’s day. Here the residents sat in armchairs, a chandelier illuminating them as they drank their coffees and read their papers.Kenyon_Terrace_3

All of life stands cheek by jowl here, and yet the autumnal streets through which I walked with my mother and sister are radically under-represented in British fiction. It took us some time to find Oliphant’s former home because the street numbers have changed since her day, and there’s no plaque to mark the fact that a great Victorian writer began her literary adventure here: an unsurprising yet poignant ending to a pilgrimage through a forgotten town in search of a forgotten female forebear.

Travellers on the Same Road

Image by Luke Detwiler (Creative Commons Licence).
Image by Luke Detwiler (Creative Commons Licence).

Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers never shared the extraordinary levels of closeness enjoyed by their contemporaries Vera Brittain and Winifred Holtby, who saw each other as literary ‘travelling companions’.

Neither were they spurred on by the kind of highly motivating personal rivalry that fired the bond between modernists Katherine Mansfield and Virginia Woolf, another pair of author friends of a similar generation.

What Christie and Sayers had instead was a solid working friendship, and, for them, this was presumably enough. For Emma Claire and me it never has been, though.

As some of our readers will already be aware, we got to know each other at a time when we were both living carefree lives as young English teachers in rural Japan. It was still some months before we’d admit to anyone else – and each other first – that we had serious ambitions to write, and so, although I remember us sometimes talking about books we were reading, writing was not a big part of our friendship. We spent our time doing other things: travelling the country, going to parties, and sampling the wares of local noodle shops and bars.

Back then, I would have been delighted to be told that, once we’d ‘come out’ to each other as would-be authors, the similar direction in which we’d chosen to travel would allow us to support each other through the years to come: celebrating individual triumphs as a pair, providing each other with a sympathetic ear when necessary, and –  through our mutual interest in female literary friendship – eventually finding a way to write together.

Image by maroubal2. Creative Commons licence.
Image by maroubal2. (Creative Commons Licence).

This would have sounded fantastic, and of course it is. What could be better than your closest co-worker also being one of your closest friends?

The only niggling problem is that recently it began to dawn on us that, bit by bit over time, our whole friendship had become consumed by work. When we went out for the evening, supposedly for fun, our thoughts would soon turn to ideas for feature articles we could write together. When one of us invited the other over for dinner, we’d find ourselves talking about the next literary event we’d be doing together, or our jobs at the universities at which we both teach.

Now that we’ve become aware of this, we’ve started to make a concerted effort to have times when we turn off the ‘shop talk’, although sometimes it can be hard. As I write this, I’m acutely aware that, despite having sent Emma Claire three emails today and talked with her on the phone, each of these conversations was about our various joint projects.

That’s why it was especially good to go out for cocktails and noodles recently. The drinks were fancier than the cans of alcoholic fruit Chu-hi that we used to buy in our twenties. The ramen broth was floating with all sorts of extra ingredients unseen in the traditional joints we used to frequent. But there was something about the night’s holiday atmosphere that took me back to those heady, early days in Japan.

It reminded me that, though a working writers’ friendship is a wonderful thing, to have found someone with whom you can truly ‘travel’ is many, many times better.

Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers

Despite some parallels in their childhoods, and their shared status as ‘Golden Age’ queens of crime, the differences between Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers were far more profound.

Agatha Christie (Creative Commons licence)
Agatha Christie, 1890-1976 (Creative Commons licence)

Agatha Mary Clarissa Miller was schooled largely at home. Her mother had wanted to hold her back from reading until she was eight, but by the age of five the impatient girl managed to teach herself.

While Christie’s learning was relatively ad hoc, and focused ultimately on helping her to find a good husband, the parents of Dorothy Leigh Sayers (who also educated her at home) kept her to a rigorous schedule.

Dorothy L Sayers
Dorothy L. Sayers, 1893-1957 (Image used with the kind permission of the Dorothy L. Sayers Society.)

Sayers eventually won a scholarship to Somerville College at the University of Oxford (also the alma mater of writer friends Vera Brittain and Winifred Holtby) and went on to a series of jobs, most successfully in the advertising industry.

Later in life she would return to academia, her translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy becoming the work of which she felt most proud. But most remember her as the author of the Lord Peter Wimsey novels, and it was this position as a writer of detective fiction that led her into a friendship with Christie.

Both were members of the Detection Club. This group of leading crime writers, who met regularly to socialise and talk shop, had to abide by a strict set of literary rules designed to give the reader a fair chance of guessing the guilty party in their books. They also jointly-penned several mysteries, three of which – the novel The Floating Admiral and two radio serials – included both Christie and Sayers as contributors.

Each woman’s attitudes to these activities illustrate the contrast in their personalities. Sayers devised the club’s elaborate initiation rituals, threw herself into ceremonies with gusto, and took on the formidable task of organising her fellow writers for their collaborations.

The reserved Christie, on the other hand, merely submitted to her initiation. When she accepted the role of president (succeeding Sayers) it was on the condition that someone else be appointed to make speeches and chair events.

When working on the radio serials, she often proved elusive, leading to frantic phone calls and letters between her and Sayers when at last she’d been tracked down. But Sayers also sent notes praising Christie’s recent fiction and divulged her exasperation at what they both saw as unnecessary interference by J.R. Ackerley, their BBC producer.

The feeling, incidentally, appears to have been mutual. Ackerley later recalled that, though Christie was one of his favourite detective fictionists, he believed she was a ‘little on the feeble side’ as a broadcaster – adding that ‘anyone in that series would have seemed feeble against the terrific vitality, bullying and bounce of that dreadful woman Dorothy L. Sayers’.

Able to earn far more from other writing endeavours, Christie’s sense of loyalty to Sayers was probably a major reason why she agreed to take part in even as many of these joint ventures as she did. But Sayers also came to her friend’s aid on several occasions, including joining in with the search for the author during her famous 1926 ‘disappearance’. She also provided a vital supporting vote when disgruntled members of the Detection Club, unhappy with the ‘unfair’ plot of her Poirot mystery The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, called for Christie to be expelled.

It has been said that, partially due to her shyness, Christie had few intimate female friends. But with Sayers she established an important working friendship, and one on which each woman was able to draw for support through the glory years of their success.

Activity

The Detection Club often held their official dinners at London’s Café Royal. This month, we will visit this historic venue for a cocktail or two. Since the Detection Club sometimes wrote collaboratively and also came up with a series of rules to abide by, we will come up with a list of ‘rules’ for the writing we do together.

In the Hands of Chance?

Image by Angela Monika Arnold (Creative Commons licence)
Image by Angela Monika Arnold (Creative Commons licence)

A chance meeting in the ladies’ lavatory at a wedding marked the start of the friendship between last week’s guest interviewees, Polly Coles and Liz Jensen.

This got us thinking about some of the other unplanned first encounters of writers we’ve featured on Something Rhymed.

Susan Barker and Zakia Uddin, for instance – saw their paths collide back in 1999 at the Statue of Liberty, where they both had summer jobs. Rachel Connor and Antonia Honeywell formed an immediate connection when they happened to be paired as students in advance of their first MA Novel Writing workshop at Manchester University.

Of the monthly profiled writers, some like Charlotte Brontë and Elizabeth Gaskell and Harriet Beecher Stowe and George Eliot knew of each other by reputation before they met. Diana Athill formed a connection with Jean Rhys through her job as an editor at André Deutsch, and the friendship between Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison really blossomed when they both found themselves appearing at the Hay Festival in Wales.

But others, especially those who met early on in their literary careers, got to know each other under circumstances largely governed by happy twists of coincidence.

What would have happened if Vera Brittain and Winifred Holtby hadn’t each passed their university entrance exams and found themselves at the same Oxford college? Or if the teacher’s job in L.M. Montgomery’s hometown on Prince Edward Island had been given to someone other than Nora Lefurgey? Or Anne Sharp hadn’t gone to work as a governess with Jane Austen’s family?

Some might say that, with such similar political views and overlapping fields of work, Brittain and Holtby would likely have met eventually, but one can more easily imagine a life in which Austen had to manage without Sharp’s friendship, and Montgomery never found a kindred spirit in Lefurgey.

And since both Brittain and Holtby were always keen to credit the other for the role they had played in shaping their own success, this raises the question as to whether each woman’s life might have run a quite different course without the help of her valued friend.

Unlike the vast majority of our monthly guest bloggers and featured authors, who were already well on their way with their writing careers by the time they became acquainted, regular readers of Something Rhymed will know that when Emma Claire and I met neither of us had published a single article or story.

In fact, we had been scribbling in secret up until then, and hadn’t had the courage to share our ambitions to write with anyone else.

It’s nice to think that, having so many things in common, we would have found each other, perhaps on-line, eventually – an advantage female writers of today have over those in Montgomery or Austen’s times.

But it’s far nicer to be able to recall the fact that we’ve been there for each other through all the ups and downs of our writing journeys, and to think that, as Brittain once said about Holtby: ‘although we didn’t exactly grow up together, we grew mature together, and that is the next best thing’.

A Year of Hidden Friendships

When we first launched Something Rhymed, a year ago now, concerned well-wishers expressed scepticism about whether we’d discover twelve pairs of historic female writer friends to profile each month over the course of 2014.

Thanks to our close-knit community of readers from around the globe, the reverse has in fact been true. You’ve helped us to unearth many more female collaborations than we could possibly have envisaged at the beginning of the year. With such a treasure trove of hidden friendships still to explore, we intend to keep sharing our findings here in 2015.

Old treasure chest
Creative Commons License

The collaborations we’ve explored so far were sometimes illicit, scandalous and volatile; sometimes supportive, radical or inspiring. And so, we’ve increasingly found ourselves asking why they have been consigned to the shadows.

To mark the end of Something Rhymed’s first year, here are our top ten ideas on why the friendships between some of our most famous female writers still have a cloak of secrecy about them:

  1. Women writing in the past had more opportunities to converse in the parlour than in the pages of literary magazines.
  • For reasons of propriety, for example, Harriet Beecher Stowe felt that she could not write an obituary in the Atlantic for her long-time friend and confidante, George Eliot.
  1. The marked harmony and lifelong endurance of many of these writing partnerships cost them copy.
  • Charlotte Brontë and Elizabeth Gaskell bonded over their shared experience of infamy since they had both become mired in scandal for daring to pen biting social criticism. However, this enduring friendship often gets written off as a mere acquaintanceship. Could marked harmony also account for why so few of us have heard about the unlikely friendship between Ruth Rendell and Jeanette Winterson?
  1. Friendships between women are often neglected in favour of a female author’s intense or turbulent relationships with men.
  • On January 1st we will reveal an intimate friendship that fits into this category…
  1. The literary status of some of our writer heroines has suffered because their genre, style or subject matter was particularly associated with women.
  1. Some of the pairs shared an alliance so radical that others refused to believe that it could possibly have thrived.
  1. Other collaborations challenged core mythologies about female authors: the well-bred lady; the solitary eccentric; and the suffering genius.
  1. Popular perceptions of female friendship still struggle to allow for the kind of rivalry embraced by some of our writer forebears.
  1. Rumours of lesbian affairs sometimes actually seem easier for commentators to accommodate than the possibility of an intellectual partnership between women.
  1. Close friendships between girls might be all well and good but, after marriage, women have traditionally been expected to devote themselves primarily to their husband and offspring.
  1. Historically, female collaboration was considered subversive and therefore taboo.
  • And yet, the subversive nature of these friendships between women makes them powerful sources of transformation: Maya Angelou’s Nobel party for Toni Morrison, for instance, both celebrated the achievements of a fellow African American author and challenged their government’s failure to do so itself.

Working together on Something Rhymed this year, we have experienced some of the most jubilant moments in our own friendship (as well as some of the most fraught!). But, from Eliot and Stowe – who taught us the importance of candour – to Mansfield and Woolf – who showed us that rivalry can be a positive force – we are learning how to keep our own collaboration on course. And, with your support, we will continue to celebrate the secret sisterhood between our trailblazing forebears, finally bringing it centre stage.

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?