Friday 8 December 2017

A Secret Sisterhood: The hidden friendships of Austen, Brontë, Eliot and Woolf - Emily Midorikawa and Emma Claire Sweeney

Emily Midorikawa and Emma Claire Sweeney delve into the archives to explore the literary friendships of four of our most beloved female authors. They believe that female literary friendships are greatly under-researched, especially when compared to the fame of many of the male equivalents. What becomes apparent throughout however, is that this is often due, in part at least, to a lack of evidence, often the result of deliberate actions of the custodians of their memories. 

This is certainly true of the first of their examples: Jane Austen and Anne Sharp, for which they explain ‘Jane’s family actively whitewashed the friendship from the official version of her life’. This results in a heavy reliance on Austen’s niece, Fanny, who Annie was employed to teach as a governess. It is the snippets and passing comments in her diaries that form the basis of this section. It often feels as though we are merely being told about their two separate lives with a few nods to interactions between them. This is natural from friends who were separated so frequently and whose letters no longer exist for the most part.

Charlotte Brontë and Mary Taylor’s friendship, which started at school and lasted through their lives, also relied heavily on the exchange of letters as Taylor spent a number of years living in New Zealand. A radical, independent woman, Taylor provided Charlotte with intellectual stimulation and challenged her to be more overtly political in her writing. Their closeness naturally ebbed due to the time in which it took their letters to reach each other, but the opinion of Taylor remained important to the end.  After Taylor’s disappointment at Gaskell’s biography of her long term friend she was not overly eager to help other biographers, meaning that it was their kinder childhood friend, Ellen Nussey, who had more control over how Charlotte was remembered.

George Eliot and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s friendship also had to contend with the challenges of overseas friendship. Indeed, they never met in person, but remained important figures in each other’s lives, offering criticism and advice, and avoiding topics from their personal lives that would have caused contention. They weren’t without their fallings out however, especially in times of deep sadness for Eliot, when Stowe was unable to provide the support she needed.

Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield are somewhat unique in this group in that they enjoyed a similar level of success. History has not forgotten their association but rather twisted it into a bitter rivalry, missing the connection they shared. This was exacerbated by their membership of the Bloomsbury and Garsington groups which encouraged snide comment. Midorikawa and Sweeney don’t deny that they were envious of each other’s talent and openly cutting of their work, but also highlight the importance of the helpful criticism they exchanged and the way in which Mansfield encourage Woolf to explore new forms of the novel after the War.

An interesting and unusual book, they shed light on the importance of female literary friendship, shattering the idea of the solitary female author and challenging misconceptions passed down through history. You will notice similarities between the four friendships, the challenges they faced, and ultimately the value they placed on their literary friends. A great insight into the lives of these most famous authors. 

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