Forgotten friendships

My review of A Secret Sisterhood: The Hidden Friendships of Austen, Brontë, Eliot and Woolf by Emily Midorikawa and Emma Claire Sweeney (Aurum Press, 2017)

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What is it about women’s friendships that makes them inherently suspect? ‘“The men think us incapable of real friendship, you know,”‘ says the flighty Isabella Thorpe to Catherine Morland in Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey. Unfortunately in this case the men are proved right, but Catherine will instead go on to form a lasting connection with Eleanor Tilney. Her realization of this friendship’s importance to her brings its own problems when it comes to writing a letter. ‘The strength of these feelings, however, was far from assisting her pen,’ the narrator notes, ‘never had it been harder for her to write than in addressing Eleanor Tilney.’

Letters between friends and complex relationships feature largely in A Secret Sisterhood by Emily Midorikawa and Emma Claire Sweeney, who are friends and writers as well as teachers at New York University’s London campus. The value that both place on their own long-standing friendship as writers made them curious about why, as they put it, ‘misleading myths of isolation’ have grown up around women writers of the past. Why do we celebrate the riotous friendships of male writers and poets, but prefer to see our great women writers of the past as solitary and secluded figures? In this sparkling new book, structured in four separate, page-turning stories, Midorikawa and Sweeney energetically sweep away the dusty myths and throw light on real-life literary collaborations: Jane Austen and her niece’s governess Anne Sharp, an amateur playwright; Charlotte Brontë and her childhood friend, the radical novelist Mary Taylor; George Eliot and the American author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe; Virginia Woolf and the short-story writer Katherine Mansfield.

Considering the fame of Austen, Brontë, Eliot and Woolf, it is surprising, to say the least, that these notable literary collaborations have not been examined in any depth until now. Paradoxically, the authors’ iconic status may be partly responsible. As Margaret Atwood comments in her illuminating preface, after people become famous, ‘their images tend to congeal. They become engravings of themselves’. Nowhere is this more evident than in the case of Jane Austen, whose descendants were keen to preserve a carefully curated image of her as a ‘genteel’ spinster who was decorously indifferent to worldly success. We now know, of course, how ambitious Austen was, and Midorikawa and Sweeney show her actively cultivating a friendship with Anne Sharp, her niece’s governess, the only other woman writer she knew. Sharp’s own circumstances of having to earn a living as a governess meant that she would never become a published writer herself,  but her astute critical judgment was so valued by Austen that she sent Sharp a precious presentation copy of Emma, rather than give it to her brother. However, because of the class differences involved, this important literary friendship was ‘actively whitewashed’ by Austen’s family in the official version of her life, and almost all of the two friends’ correspondence was destroyed.

By contrast, Elizabeth Gaskell sought out the recollections of the independent-minded Mary Taylor, Charlotte Brontë’s lifelong friend, to use in her biography of the writer. Taylor was an adventurous traveller who had continued to correspond with Brontë after moving to New Zealand, and in her letters she encouraged her to make her novels more political. After Brontë’s early death in 1855, Taylor wanted to make public their shared rage at how women’s talents were stifled by society’s expectations, but in her Life Gaskell chose instead to stage-manage Charlotte Brontë’s image and present her as a saintly, patient figure, “a lesson in duty and self reliance” as George Henry Lewes approvingly put it. This did not reflect the politicised, fiercely independent woman Mary Taylor knew, and she ended up pouring her feelings into a feminist novel, Miss Miles, that was published in 1890, and was a passionate protest against the life Charlotte Brontë and other dutiful daughters were expected to live.

George Eliot and Harriet Beecher Stowe never met, but the two most celebrated living female authors established a warm international friendship via an eleven-year long correspondence. They had striking differences of opinion at times – such as Beecher Stowe’s enthusiastic conviction that she was able to talk to Charlotte Brontë beyond the grave – but the more sceptical George Eliot nevertheless appreciated the American’s honest critique of her work. It was ‘a hand stretched forth’ across the Atlantic by one woman writer to another, and the chance for both women to find an unlikely kindred spirit.

Virginia Woolf was, Katherine Mansfield wrote, “the only woman with whom I long to talk work. There will never be another.” The sparky friendship which sprang up between the two writers in 1917 was subject to occasional rivalries and misunderstandings as the two ambitious women competed to be the leading fiction writer of their time. “Damn Katherine!,” wrote Woolf after E.M. Forster had praised them both, “why can’t I be the only woman who knows how to write?” However, Mansfield helped to push Woolf to find experimental new forms for her novels, and their complicated friendship had a lasting influence.

Through their own considerable skill as writers, Midorikawa and Sweeney immerse us in the very different worlds these women inhabited. Reading the stories, we feel as if we had stepped into an elegant drawing room at Godmersham Park, climbed a windy hill in New Zealand or squeezed ourselves into a cramped bedsit in bohemian Chelsea. A Secret Sisterhood vividly  – but never preachily – illustrates how difficult it was for female writers to make their voices heard, by showing us the precarious existence of the governess, the ever-present domestic responsibilities and family duties, and having to conform to society’s strict expectations of women’s roles. For Austen, Brontë, Eliot and Woolf, it was their friendship with another woman who wrote (often the only one they knew) that sustained them through dark times, buoyed them up or challenged them to fresh creativity.

This scrupulously researched and engaging book shows how rare and influential such friendships were. Midorikawa and Sweeney have questioned long-held assumptions about female writers, and unearthed new evidence in the form of letters and diaries to reveal for the first time how significant these sisterly connections were to the women involved. Like Catherine Morland in Northanger Abbey writing to Eleanor Tilney, they knew that the words that they exchanged mattered.

Emily Midorikawa and Emma Claire Sweeney’s blog Something Rhymed celebrates many other female literary friendships.

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