Overlooked lives

Now that spring seems to be edging slightly closer, I decided to write a brief round-up of some recent books, articles and blogs that throw new light on lives that have been gathering dust in the corners of history. The title is borrowed from the recent initiative by the New York Times that addresses the issue of ‘missing entries’ from the thousands of obituaries it has published since 1851. “The vast majority chronicled the lives of men, mostly white ones; even in the last two years, just over one in five of our subjects were female,” it admits. In its new ‘Overlooked’ section the paper promises to feature the lives of remarkable women that should have been acknowledged long ago. Entries to date include (amazingly) the writer Charlotte Brontë, the pioneering anti-lynching reporter Ida B. Wells, and Mary Ewing Outerbridge, the woman who introduced tennis to America in 1874. Readers are invited to nominate candidates whose lives and achievements should be written about here. It is certainly better late than never, and it would be wonderful if the London Times and others followed suit.

Illuminating books: One Cambridge woman whose achievements have been overlooked on this side of the pond is Mary Paley Marshall. In the 1870s she and her husband Alfred Marshall helped to establish the economics department of the newly founded University of Bristol, with Mary taking on the bulk of the teaching workload. She was an inspirational figure for the women students there (as well as in Cambridge, before and after her marriage), and I am very pleased that she features in The Women Who Built Bristol 1184-2018 by Jane Duffus.

IMG_5346Other promising new books I hope to read soon include The Century Girls, which celebrates the lives of six extraordinary women who were born in 1918 or before. They have all been interviewed by the book’s author, Tessa Dunlop, and together they tell the story of the past hundred years of British history from their own unique perspective. I am particularly looking forward to finding out more about the life of Joyce Reynolds, the Cambridge classicist who still works at Newnham College, and Ann Baer (née Sidgwick) whose great-uncle Henry Sidgwick did so much to promote women’s education at Cambridge – not least co-founding Newnham College itself.

In February I attended a day of talks about British and Irish women’s suffrage at Murray Edwards College, Cambridge. One of the most engaging speakers was the author Jane Robinson, who spoke with passion about the women from all backgrounds who took part in the Great Suffrage Pilgrimage of 1913. She can be heard on Radio 4’s ‘Start the Week’ here. The thousands of non-violent suffragists (male as well as female) have largely been forgotten about in the history of Irish and British women’s suffrage, so I’m delighted that her new book Hearts and Minds throws light on those overlooked lives. The Irish suffragist Mary Ward, a largely self-taught governess who became one of the first Cambridge women students, was one of the leaders of the 1913 Pilgrimage at the age of sixty-two.

lady sybilThe retired publisher Simon Boyd, one of this blog’s followers, became fascinated by his grandmother’s wartime exploits after discovering a battered old travelling trunk in a back room containing letters and diaries covering much of her life. His new book Lady Sybil: Empire, War and Revolution tells the story of how during the First World War she travelled to Russia to help to set up a British Red Cross hospital in Petrograd.

Blogs of others: Letters and diaries are not the only way of uncovering stories of the past. Another reader kindly drew my attention to this fascinating National Archives post by Sally Hughes about how objects as diverse as shopping lists, a scold’s bridle and dinosaur fossils can offer valuable insights when researching ‘unknown’ women’s lives. The British Library blog ‘Untold Lives’ is another very interesting and varied blog based on materials held in their collection. I have also enjoyed a wonderful new blog about (lesser known as well as famous) poets’ houses – many of them are in Cambridge – by John Clegg, a poet and bookseller at the London Review Bookshop. He has some requests for information here.

Reviews news: I recently wrote about two mothers of famous writers who have been not so much overlooked, as rather unfairly dismissed: May Beckett and Eva Larkin. My essay-review in the Dublin Review of Books was also featured on Arts and Letters Daily. Although Freud is hardly a forgotten figure, many of the people who first championed his writings after the First World War in Cambridge are. My take on an excellent new book, Freud in Cambridge, was published last week in the Times Literary Supplement; there is a snippet here. For repeating Lytton Strachey’s joke, I must apologize to Queen Victoria – a woman whose life was certainly anything but overlooked.

 

Copyright Ann Kennedy Smith 6 April 2018

 

A Secret Sisterhood: the friendship of women writers

‘Here’s the truth: friendships between women are often the deepest and most profound love stories, but they are often discussed as if they are ancillary, “bonus” relationships to the truly important ones’ writes Emily Rapp. ‘Women’s friendships outlast jobs, parents, husbands, boyfriends, lovers, and sometimes children.’ To celebrate women’s friendships in Women’s History Month 2018, I am republishing my review of A Secret Sisterhood by Emily Midorikawa and Emma Claire Sweeney, now available in paperback.

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. As it happens, the men are proved right in the case of Isabella. However, Catherine forms a lasting connection with Eleanor Tilney, and her gradual realization of this friendship’s importance brings its own problems when it comes to writing a letter to her friend. ‘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.’

Secret Sisterhood image.jpg

Letters between friends feature largely in A Secret Sisterhood, a sparkling book (just out in paperback) 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 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 see women as solitary and secluded figures? 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, their 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 indifferent to the literary success which came her way. Midorikawa and Sweeney show her actively cultivating a friendship with Anne Sharp, her niece’s governess, whose critical judgment was so valued by Austen that she sent her a 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 most of their 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 encouraged her to make her novels more political. After Brontë’s early death in 1855, Taylor wanted to ignite public outrage at how her friend’s genius was stifled by society’s expectations, but in her Life Gaskell had to stage-manage her subject’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 and fiercely ambitious 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 friendship through 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.

Virginia Woolf was, Katherine Mansfield wrote, “the only woman with whom I long to talk work. There will never be another.” The friendship which sprang up between them 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 equally, “why can’t I be the only woman who knows how to write?” However, Midorikawa and Sweeney argue that theirs was a healthy rivalry, and Woolf’s envy of Mansfield’s skill as a writer pushed her to find experimental new forms for her own novels.

Through their own considerable skill as writers, Midorikawa and Sweeney immerse us in the very different worlds these women inhabited: it 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. The four separate stories vividly illustrate how difficult it was for women to make their voices heard, from the precarious existence of the single governess to the ever-present domestic responsibilities of the married woman. Each had to deal with society’s expectations of what a woman should be. For Austen, Brontë, Eliot and Woolf, it was their friendship with another women who wrote (in some cases the only other woman writer they knew) that sustained them through difficult times and inspired them to fresh creativity. This warm, engaging and highly readable book shows how important these friendships were in their development as writers.

© Ann Kennedy Smith, 3 March 2018

Isy’s travels: Baroness Eliza von Hügel (1840-1931)

Anatole_von_Hügel_plaqueIn 1913 Cambridge University’s Museum of Archeology and Anthropology opened the doors to its beautiful new building on Downing Street. It is still there today, with over a million artefacts telling ‘countless astonishing stories’ of human civilisation. When the original museum was founded in 1884 its largest collection was 1,500 objects from Fiji, many collected by the man who became the museum’s first curator, Anatole Von Hügel, a Scottish-Austrian Baron of the Holy Roman Empire. A new field-based approach to anthropology was fast developing in the late nineteenth century, with new, ever more far-flung expeditions bringing back objects, photographs and information for close study. The museum’s collection soon outgrew its original Cambridge premises, and Von Hügel turned his energies to raising funds for a new building. His wife, Baroness Eliza von Hügel assisted him in this, and in 1910 she laid the museum’s foundation stone.

Eliza von Hügel, more often known as ‘Isy’, was born Eliza Margaret Froude in 1840, the daughter of the engineer and naval architect William Froude F.R.S and his wife Catherine (nee Holdsworth). Isy’s uncle J.A. Froude was a historian who became the friend and biographer of Carlisle and she was brought up in Cockington, near Torquay in Devon.  She was 35 when she agreed to marry the 21-year old Anatole Von Hügel, who had moved to Torquay when his father, the Austrian Count Karl Von Hügel, an army officer, diplomat, explorer and plant hunter, retired there in 1867. Anatole and Isy’s shared faith partly explains their decision to marry despite the fourteen-year age gap: Isy and her mother had converted to Roman Catholicism in the late 1850s and were close friends with Cardinal Newman.

As a couple they had more than religious convictions in common. Isy’s mother’s family, the Holdsworths, were traders and collectors in their own right and a number of Polynesian items from Captain Cook’s voyages were gifted to the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology by Arthur Holdsworth, Isy’s cousin. Soon after Isy and Anatole became engaged in 1875, he went abroad for the sake of his health. He chose Fiji originally because of his ornithological interests, but soon realized that because the islands had recently become a British colony, much of its indigenous culture would be lost if he and his fellow explorers did not record and preserve as much of it as they could. He did not return to England for three years, but he and Isy exchanged long letters.

In 1880 they married and moved to Cambridge, where Anatole took up his post as museum curator, the first Catholic to hold a university position at Cambridge. They lived in Croft Cottage on Barton Road and built a chapel at Croft Cottage for Catholic worship soon after they moved to the house, and together they were one of the university’s first ‘power couples’, campaigning to change university rules to admit the first Catholic undergraduates to Cambridge. In 1893 Eliza became the first president of the Children of Mary, a nationwide Catholic teaching organisation, and Croft Cottage was also a social centre for Anatole’s university colleagues and for Isy’s own intellectual discussion groups. These included her friends from the newly founded women’s colleges at Newnham and Girton, and the twelve women who belonged to the Ladies’ Dining Society.

But Isy was not content to pursue her interests in Cambridge alone. After donating much of her own money to found the Museum of Archeology and Anthropology and laying the foundation stone in 1910 she decided that she wanted to discover the world for herself, and in 1912, at the age of fifty-two, she travelled with her niece Mary Froude to Morocco and the Canary Islands. The Museum still contains items from her independent travels, including, as listed in the catalogue, ‘a cowbell made by the last of the descendants of a family made in 1911 at Guimar, Tenerife by the last of the descendants of a family in whom the hereditary right was vested of making cattle bells for the entire group of islands’.

What was Eliza von Hügel like? After she died in 1931, the anonymous writer of her obituary in The Tablet obituary described her as ‘bright to the last’.

Minute in stature and delicately made, she was something of an elf; and her mind flitted here and there —though almost always alighting on a serious topic—like an elf earnestly engaged on good work.

We haven’t yet been able to trace a photograph or painting of Isy, and her contribution to public life has not been fully acknowledged. Like the other women in her circle including Ida Darwin, Mary  Paley Marshall and Louise Creighton,Eliza von Hügel worked unpaid for many years to improve living conditions for others. In September 1914 she launched her own independent campaign to house Belgian refugees in Cambridge, using her own funds and undiminished energies to ensure that families were able to stay together safely for the duration of the war.

By Ann Kennedy Smith and Carolyn Ferguson, with thanks to the Museum of Archeology and Anthropology for access to their special collections

Sources: Eliza von Hügel obituary, The Tablet, 26 December 1931; Museum of Archeology and Anthropology website (accessed 31.12.2017); Hügel Homes for Belgian refugees: Cambridge 1914-19 A. von Hügel (Cambridge, 1920)

Postscript: Eliza von Hügel was one of the group of women who came to Cambridge as Victorian brides and came into their own in later life as activists in their own right. 2018 marks 100 years since the first women obtained the vote in the UK, and all over the country women’s historical contributions will be recognized in campaigns such as ‘Behind Every Great City’. Over the past year and a half I have highlighted the stories of just a few of the women who made a difference in Cambridge, and in 2018 I hope to take up a new challenge which I will let you know more about soon. Meanwhile, have a very Happy New Year and thank you very much for reading this blog.  AKS

Principles into practice: Millicent Fawcett

Millicent FAwcettLast month, the London Mayor Sadiq Khan announced that a statue of Millicent Fawcett by the Turner prize-winning artist Gillian Wearing will be erected on Parliament Square in 2018, in time for the celebrations marking 100 years since women first secured the right to vote. Millicent Garrett Fawcett was just nineteen when she organized the first petition for women’s suffrage in 1866, even though she was too young to sign it herself. Looking back at her life in later years, she found it hard to say at what age she decided that her life would be dedicated to the fight for women’s rights. “I cannot say I became a suffragist”, she wrote. “I always was one, from the time I was old enough to think at all about the principles of Representative Government”.

One of the principles of ‘representative government’ currently under debate is how it can adapt and become a more accurate reflection of British society. The Fawcett Society, which continues the work begun by Millicent Fawcett 150 years ago and today campaigns for gender equality and women’s rights, is currently supporting the possibility of two people sharing the job of MP, as discussed in a recent article in the Huffington Post. This would enable more parents with children, carers, and disabled people to be elected (there is a marked ‘motherhood gap’ in the Commons and there are only six disabled MPs). Job-sharing for MPs is an idea supported by a range of cross-party MPs including Caroline Lucas, Dame Margaret Hodge, Sarah Wollaston and Tom Brake, who are convinced that it would help to make parliament more plural and progressive by enabling a wider range of voices to take part in debates.

Last month I went to the House of Commons to attend a committee meeting organized by the Fawcett Society. The discussion was held on the first day after the summer recess, and the high-ceilinged lobbies and halls of Westminster echoed with the shouts and laughter of MPs and others catching up with old friends and colleagues. As I walked along the oak-panelled corridor leading to the committee room, a group of dark-suited men strode by, and it was hard not to be reminded of confident senior prefects at a boys’ boarding school.

The meeting room, with its red flock wallpaper and vivid red and green carpet, was quieter, and overlooked a rainy Thames river. The host was Heather Stewart, herself a job-sharing pioneer as Political Editor of The Guardian with Anushka Asthana. The event marked the launch of the Fawcett Society pamphlet Open House? Reflections on the Possibility and Practice of MPs Job-sharing, available as a free download here. The editors of the publication, Prof Rosie Campbell and Prof Sarah Childs (both Birkbeck) were present, and discussed how their research demonstrated how MPs job-sharing could help to address, if not entirely overcome, the existing representational deficiencies in the UK House of Commons.

Also present was Clare Phipps, whose 2015 bid to stand for the Green Party, as a job-share with Sarah Cope, was rejected by Basingstoke. They took the matter to the High Court, but were not permitted to proceed with the case because the judge felt that the decision involved “important practical repercussions which this court is not equipped to evaluate”. So the responsibility was passed back to Parliament to decide how job-sharing would be done.

The House of Commons does not adapt to change easily, and there is resistance to the idea, perhaps because of the practical issues involved (although it is notable that the majority of objectors are male). “Not long ago there was a shooting range here,” Rosie Campbell reminded us. “A crèche was only introduced in 2010.” Many cite the idea as unworkable, but as Sam Smethers, the head of the Fawcett Society, pointed out at the meeting, many MPs already have other roles such as being a minister or work in another profession outside Parliament: “Stretching one person into several roles seems to me to be more challenging in terms of their performance than dividing up that role between two people.” There is plenty of evidence that job-sharing among high positions can work, and others at the meeting shared their own positive experiences.

800px-Henry_Fawcett;_Dame_Millicent_Garrett_Fawcett_(née_Garrett)_by_Ford_Madox_Brown

Sam Smethers gave a historical example of one inspiring job-sharing couple: Millicent Fawcett and her husband Henry. Henry Fawcett was a Liberal MP as well as the Professor of Political Economy at Cambridge University. Millicent Garrett was just eighteen when they met; he was 14 years older than her and completely blind, but they had a “perfect intellectual sympathy” according to Millicent’s biographer. While she was ‘his eyes’, helping him with his work, Henry Fawcett also encouraged Millicent’s own budding writing and public speaking career as a suffragist. They worked together as a team, jointly dealing with practical matters as job-sharers do, although Ford Madox Brown gives their relationship a rather more sentimental aspect in his 1872 double portrait, seen here.

Next year Millicent Fawcett’s statue will be the first woman among the eleven men already present in Parliament Square. It’s a long-overdue recognition of her lifetime’s work dedicated to giving women a voice in the democratic process. Meanwhile, the process of enabling more diversity within Parliament itself continues. As Sam Smethers says, “Let’s move on to discussing how we can make this work.”

Ann Kennedy Smith October 2017 (all rights reserved). 

Notes: “I cannot say I became a suffragist…” in ‘Dame Millicent Garrett Fawcett’ by Janet Howarth in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography; David Rubinstein, A different world for women: the life of Millicent Garrett Fawcett (1991); The Fawcett Society at http://www.fawcett.org.uk; Ford Madox Ford’s portrait is at the National Portrait Gallery, London.

Ida, Lily and Eddie

On Ida Darwin’s friendship as a young woman with the governess Lily Whichelo and an aspiring architect, Edward Forster.

Ida Darwin was born Emma Cecilia Farrer in London in 1854: she was always known as Ida. Her father Thomas (later Lord) Farrer was a wealthy and influential civil servant whose interest in plant breeding led to his friendship with the great scientist Charles Darwin. Her mother Frances (née Erskine) was a gifted singer who died when Ida was fifteen. Four years later, in 1874, Lily Whichelo came to work for the Farrer family as a ‘nursery governess’, teaching Ida’s younger brother Noel. Lily, 19, came from a large, lower-middle-class family in London. After her drawing master father died, she had been taken under the wing of a wealthy, unmarried woman called Marianne Thornton who attended the same church, Holy Trinity on Clapham Common, as her family. Thanks to Marianne, Lily had spent a year at an expensive finishing school in Brighton, where she gained social assurance and the chance to be a governess in well-connected circles.

Lily was a charming and intelligent young woman, and she was welcomed into the Farrers’ social circles. She and Ida became close friends, sharing a lively interest in books, music (Lily played the piano; Ida sang, like her mother) and the current debates about feminism and women’s access to higher education. They were the same age, although because Ida was three months older, Lily jokingly called her ‘Grandmother’ and asked her for advice. The Farrers divided their time between their mansion overlooking Hyde Park and their country house at Abinger in Surrey, and Lily went with them, apart from occasional visits home to her mother’s boarding house in West Kensington. Marianne’s nephew Edward Forster was a family friend and a frequent visitor to Abinger Hall. Eddie was a bright, ambitious young trainee architect who worked for Arthur Blomfield in London and had a biting, sardonic wit. He, Ida and Lily spent much time together: walking over the hills on the Abinger estate, sitting by the fire after dinner, talking and making each other laugh.

In June 1876 Lily left her position at the Farrers. Noel would be going away to Eton soon, and she had decided to become a daily governess in London and live, not at home with her mother and younger siblings, but independently in lodgings in Clapham. Ida knew that Lily took the profession of being a governess seriously, and valued her independence, something that Ida herself may well have envied. Her higher social position meant that she was expected to live at home until she married, and could not pursue a career or attend one of the new women’s colleges in Oxford and Cambridge as she longed to do.

In September Lily started teaching for two London families, the Rollers and the Knowles, travelling back to her mother’s house each day for lunch. She asked Ida for advice about how she should teach girls of different ages together, help them with their appalling French and which textbooks she should buy to correct their lack of knowledge. Lily did not get on well with her first landlady, so was persuaded by her friend Maimie Synnot, the widow of Marianne Thornton’s nephew Inglis, to come and live with her in her spacious terraced house on the new Lillieshall Road in Clapham. Maimie was kind, gentle and devoutly religious and Lily was very fond of her. They spent their evenings together playing the piano, sewing bonnets for ‘paupers’ and discussing Temperance matters, Lily told Ida. A life of good works, governessing, and sisterly sainthood seemed assured.

Their evenings were more lively when Eddie Forster came to call. He had recently qualified as an architect and was drawing up plans for his first commission, a cottage for his sister Laura on the Farrer estate at Abinger. He had been close to his cousin Inglis, and he presented Maimie with a house-warming gift: an ornately carved, tall oak mantelpiece that combined the then fashionable Victorian ‘Gothic revival’ style with ideas Eddie had borrowed from the churches he had visited and sketched on his frequent visits to Italy. In November Eddie and Lily called on Ida at the Farrers’ house overlooking Hyde Park to tell her that they had become engaged. Lily was incandescent with happiness and Ida was delighted at the prospect of seeing her friend more often now that she would be the wife of someone from a higher social class. Lily and Eddie married in London in January 1877, before setting off on what would turn out to be a rather unhappy honeymoon on a bitterly cold and windswept Isle of Wight.

On their wedding certificate under ‘rank or profession’, where Eddie has put ‘architect’ Lily has left hers blank. No longer being a governess was an indication of Lily’s enhanced social status as a married woman, but it also marked the end of something: her precious and long-held independence.

By Ann Kennedy Smith (all rights reserved)

There is a photograph of the mantelpiece in my article ‘Room with a view’ about the mantelpiece and E.M. Forster in the Times Literary Supplement, 28 July 2017. For more about Lily, see the King’s College, Cambridge archive:

http://www.kings.cam.ac.uk/archive-centre/exhibition/alice-clara-lily-forster.

The ascent of women at Cambridge

 

9781107158863When women were given the right to take examinations at Cambridge University in February 1881 Charles Darwin, aged 72, rejoiced. ‘You will have heard of the triumph of the Ladies at Cambridge’, he wrote from his home in Kent to his son George. ‘Horace was sent to the Lady’s [sic] College to communicate the success & was received with enthusiasm.’ Darwin is not usually celebrated for his feminist sympathies. In Descent of Man (1871) he stated that ‘the average standard of mental power in man must be above that of women’. As Dame Gillian Beer writesin regard to women Darwin ‘failed to observe in this one field the pressures of environment that were elsewhere fundamental to his arguments.’ She has contributed the foreword to a revealing new book, Darwin and Women by Samantha Evans (my review of it is here). This selection of lively letters from the team behind the Cambridge Darwin Correspondence Project shines light on many of the remarkable women with whom Darwin corresponded with interest and intellectual involvement over his lifetime.

Many of the women scientists, journalists and writers who wrote to the great scientist were involved in the promotion of women’s education. Although Darwin’s daughters Henrietta and Elizabeth (Bessy) did not have the opportunity to enrol at the new women’s colleges at Oxford and Cambridge, they attended lectures at London University and shared a keen interest in education with their friends. ‘Women in their circle, even without raising any particular banner, were extraordinarily active’, Evans writes, ‘they learnt mathematics and physics; they hired tutors; they took examinations; they watched debates in the House of Commons from the ladies’ gallery; they attended university lectures if they were open to women.’ Darwin’s daughter-in-law Ida Darwin (married to Horace) was a keen supporter of Newnham, the ‘Lady’s College’ that Darwin refers to, and a future daughter-in-law, Ellen Crofts Darwin, studied and lectured there.

The ‘triumph of the ladies’ at Cambridge in 1881 was short-lived. Although women had won the right to sit for final exams, there was to be no membership of the university, no degrees and not even the right to attend lectures for many years to come.

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.