Great Literary Friendships by Janet Phillips

Reviewed by Harriet

When you see the title of this book, you may think, as I did initially, that it was going to be about friendships between writers (Pope and Swift, Wordsworth and Coleridge, Charlotte Bronte and Elizabeth Gaskell, T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound.…). But no – that would be an interesting book for someone else to write, but Janet Phillips’ subject is friendships between characters in literature.  This enables her to traverse a wide range of eras and genres, with works by authors from Shakespeare to JK Rowling and beyond. 

Phillips places the birth of the idea for this book in the ‘pandemic era’, when many people, unable to visit their friends, turned to books, especially the classics, as solace:

This should really come as no surprise, since throughout these much-loved and perennially popular works of fiction, close friendships abound. These are the intimate best friends of childhood, student days, romance, hard times or even a lifetime. They are entirely different from the social media networks of the twenty-first century; often it is just one companion who supports the hero or heroine on their journey through life’s troubles and triumphs.

She goes on to say that her inspiration for the book was variations on the phrase ‘I’ll come with you’ which, she says, sums up the role of a friend – they may not be able to solve the problem or advise you what to do, but they can be by your side on whatever your journey may be. Friendships can of course sometimes be tested, most notably when two girls fall in love with the same man, but if the friendship is a true one, it will survive.

The book is divided into thematic chapters. The first, Childhood, contains several examples of children who are orphaned, a common trope in literature aimed at young people: Jane Eyre, Anne of Green Gables, Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn and of course Harry Potter. In all these cases, friends are vital to fill the void and comfort loneliness. The chapter also features Winnie the Pooh and Piglet, whose parentage is unknown, but  who nevertheless rely on each other’s help and support. Their relationship is summed up by Piglet who, finding himself alone, gives a very long sigh: ‘I wish Pooh were here. It’s so much more friendly with two’.

The next chapter, Students and Apprentices, naturally finds its young protagonists trying to make sense of the world and their place in it. In several cases this is precipitated by the need to fit into a social level higher than the one you were born into: Pip, in Great Expectations, is coached by his friend Herbert Pocket; Charles Ryder in Brideshead Revisited,  grows very attached to his upper-class friend Sebastian, wishes to emulate him, and then struggles unsuccessfully to rescue him from alcoholism; and Richard Papen, in The Secret History, steps far outside the borders of morality in his desperation to be accepted by his rich, sophisticated friends. 

Romantic plot lines are the subject of  Heart to Heart. Young women in love need friends to open their hearts to, as Rosalind does to her cousin Celia in As You Like It. Bridget Jones, an unwilling singleton, needs the support of her friends in the face of the ’smug marrieds’ who look down on her single state.  But it’s here that friendships can be severely tested, as in the case of Maggie Tulliver, in Mill on the Floss, who is drawn into a relationship with the man her beloved cousin Lucy is in love with. Jane Austen’s Emma is an interesting case: Phillips argues that her potential friendship with Jane Fairfax is threatened, and possibly destroyed, by the fact that Jane is secretly engaged to a man who Emma thinks may be her prospective husband.

Adventure is the title of the fourth chapter. Adventure narratives often provide the protagonist with a loyal supporter to see them through the various challenges that await them. The classic example of this is Don Quixote, who sets off on a crazy search for adventure accompanied by his loyal, though not always uncritical, servant Sancho Panza. Then of course there’s Frodo, who rather unwillingly starts out on his epic quest to return the One Ring accompanied (and sometimes even carried) by his enthusiastic and loving servant and companion Sam. On a lighter note, Ratty and Mole in The Wind in the Willows  support each other as they venture forth together to rescue Toad. Finally, Holmes has Watson, who accompanies him on all his cases and records them for posterity, of course, and the brilliant detective clearly values his more solid and unimaginative friend.  

The final chapter, Hard Times, unsurprisingly deals with protagonists in situations of great hardship. Here are to be found George and Lennie, in Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men: George, tough and strong, supports and cares for Lennie, whose learning disabilities would otherwise prevent him from working for a living. In the tragedy that ensues, he will perform a drastic final act to save Lennie from a worse fate. Celie, in The Color Purple, learns to shake off her terrible life and find inner strength and an occupation through the friendship of Shug and Sofia. And, in Elena Ferrante’s four-volume Naples series, the reader follows Elena and Lina from their childhoods in the poorest part of Naples through adolescence, work, marriage and motherhood. Theirs is a far from uncomplicated relationship but they look out for each other through all the many challenges that confront them.

I’m not entirely sure who this book is aimed at. I found it enjoyable and interesting as it drew together seemingly disparate literary works and showed often unexpected connections between them. But I was familiar with virtually all the books and plays that are featured here – there are more than I’ve singled out here – and I wonder how much it would appeal to readers for whom many of the works referred to were unknown. It’s not strictly an academic book, though students could find it useful if they were studying any of the authors included. I suppose the main audience would be the informed and well-read general reader, and it’s none the worse for that. 

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Harriet is co-founder and one of the editors of Shiny New Books.

Janet Phillips, Literary Friendships (Bodleian Library, 2022). 978-185124, 208pp., hardback.

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