A Secret Sisterhood by Emily Midorikawa and Emma Claire Sweeney

Reviewed by Harriet

Secret Sisterhood Midorikawa SweeneyThe subtitle of this book is ‘The hidden friendships of Austen, Brontë, Eliot and Woolf’, which sounds very promising. I’ll start by saying that I found some of the sections worked better than others, but that might have been a matter of how well-informed I was to start with. Overall, though, this was an excellent idea for a book and very helpful and informative. As the authors point out, male literary friendships are the stuff of legend – Wordsworth and Coleridge, Byron and Shelley, Dickens and Wilkie Collins, Hemingway and Fitzgerald – but female authors are generally ‘mythologised as solitary eccentrics or isolated geniuses’. It was in fact the somewhat unlikely friendship between the two authors themselves, so apparently different from each other on the surface, that inspired them to explore the theme of the book. After all, if Emily and Emma had enjoyed reading each others’ work, exchanging helpful advice and celebrating each others’ successes, was it not possible that the writers they admired might have done the same?

Readers familiar with the Brontës, Eliot and Woolf may already be aware of the links between these authors and their friends and correspondents, but the first section, on Austen, may well take them by surprise – it certainly did so for me, and I thought I was pretty well-informed. The fact that so little is known of the ‘ardent friendship’ between Austen and Anne Sharp, her niece Fanny’s governess, is largely owing to the censorship applied by Cassandra Austen on her sister’s correspondence and the attempts by later family members to cast Jane in respectable light. A governess was not actually a servant, and many were well-born young women whose financial hardships had forced them to work for a living, but she was still not viewed as on a social level with the family she worked for. Anne seems to have aspirations to be a writer, though clearly never on a level with Austen herself. However, the two bonded to the extent of exchanging letters and even planning a joint seaside holiday. The friendship actually began to flourish when Jane was in her unhappiest period, living in Bath after her father’s death, but it continued on into her successful years, when she sent her friend copies of her novels – including a rare presentation copy of Emma – to ask for comments and criticism. Anne was the last person Jane wrote to before she left home for the last time, to spend her final days in Winchester.

Anne Sharp never produced any published writing of her own, but Charlotte Brontë’s school friend Mary Taylor was to produce a feminist novel, Miss Miles (1890), plus some magazine articles and a travel book, Swiss Notes.  The two girls became good friends at school and continued to correspond afterwards. Mary went to a finishing school in Brussels, which according to Charlotte ‘cast oil on the flames’ of her own desire to better herself for a career in teaching, and Mary travelled back to Brussels with the two Brontë sisters. But their friendship was soon destined to be one of letters only as Mary emigrated to New Zealand, where she had family, and remained there for the rest of Charlotte’s life. Charlotte sent Mary a copy of Jane Eyre, and was chided for ‘not having a greater political purpose’, which may, suggest the authors, have encouraged her to write Shirley, which dealt more explicitly with social issues. Difficult though it was to correspond over such a long distance, the two did manage to sustain their ‘politicised friendship’, and Mary’s radical novel, published much later, celebrates the enduring power of female friendship.

While these first two sections deal with friendships between writers whose achievements were very unequal, such is not the case with the two remaining parts of the book. Although Harriet Beecher Stowe has not remained as famous and celebrated as her transatlantic correspondent George Eliot, her 1853 novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin had made her an international celebrity, and its anti-slavery message was even credited with starting the American Civil War. In fact, when her correspondence with Eliot began four years later, she was outselling her English counterpart. But essentially the two were corresponding as equals, and Harriet was notable for her open-minded attitude to Eliot’s unconventional living arrangements – her partner, G H Lewes, was a married man. But the friendship was not without its problems – Harriet became a devotee of spiritualism, which Eliot was compelled to characterise as ‘degrading folly, imbecile in the estimate of evidence, or else as impudent posture’. It looked as if their affectionate correspondence would continue despite this, but long gaps and misunderstandings started to appear, which threatened the friendship considerably.  It staggered on, though, with the two women exchanging books and commenting on each other’s writing right up to Eliot’s unexpected death at the age of just 61, and Harriet’s son Charles, in a memoir of his mother, called her friendship with Eliot one of the ‘most delightful’ experiences of his mother’s life.

The final – and most fascinating – part of the book focuses on two twentieth-century writers, Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield. As with Eliot and Stowe, so Virginia was less celebrated than Katherine in the early days of their friendship. It was to be a friendship fraught with difficulties, as Virginia considered Katherine to be ‘an utterly unscrupulous character’. Nevertheless, the two met quite frequently, and Katherine shared with Virginia some of the more disreputable aspects of her own past, filling Virginia with a mixture of attraction and repulsion. There was a considerable amount of literary rivalry between them, and Katherine upset Virginia by criticising her novel Night and Day for not being political enough (again, as the authors suggest) perhaps leading directly to Virginia’s next novel, Jacob’s Room, confronting the First World War). However, the authors here argue that the two have been misrepresented in literary history as ‘bitter foes’. As Katherine’s health deteriorated (she suffered from TB), Virginia would visit her once a week for a lively literary debate. But things had got shaky between them again by the time Katherine moved to France to live and study with the self-appointed guru George Gurdjieff, and Virginia had no idea how ill her friend was until she got a letter telling her Katherine had died. Katherine’s partner John Murry, wishing to make her appear as a ‘matchless genius’ who relied on no-one for support, excised all mention of Virginia from her posthumously published letters and diaries, and this, together with the attitude of some of Woolf’s early biographers, gave rise to what the present authors see as a close, though not untroubled, friendship.

As with any book that sets out to prove a thesis, some parts of this one work better than others, but the research that has gone into it is impressive, and certainly added something to my knowledge of these important women writers. There’s also a bonus feature in the form of an introduction by Margaret Atwood.

Harriet is one of the editors of Shiny New Books.

Emily Midorikawa and Emma Claire Sweeney, A Secret Sisterhood: The Hidden Friendships of Austen, Brontë, Eliot and Woolf (Arum Press, 2017). 978-1781315941, 320pp., hardback.

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One Comment

  1. Sounds fascinating Harriet – I was aware of the friendship between Mansfield and Woolf and it infuriates me how this has been misrepresented. Some people (men?) really can’t handle close female friendship! 🙂

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