Literary friendships between male writers are well-documented: the companionship of Wordsworth and Coleridge, for example, and the rivalry between Shelley and Lord Byron. Until recently women were thought to be incapable of serious literary endeavours. Those who succeeded were often described through stereotypes – Jane Austen the conservative maiden aunt, for example, or Virginia Woolf the depressive. Their friendships were often viewed with disdain. The influence of males on their work was more likely to be recorded than that of other women.
Emily Midorikawa and Emma Claire Sweeny, themselves friends and writers, set out to redress the balance by looking at the closest female friendships of four writers. Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, George Elliot and Virginia Woolf.
Jane Austen’s friendship with Anne Sharp was edited out of her life history by her relatives. Maybe this was because it was seen as inappropriate that a woman of Austen’s social class would mix with a governess, but there is possibly more to the story. The main source of information comes from a child’s diary. Certain details, such as why Anne’s employment was abruptly terminated, are not available. Although I was intrigued by the idea of Anne, details about her friendship with Austen never got beyond their shared love of writing and the dates at which they crossed paths.
The influence of the Bronte siblings on each-other’s works is well known, but the popular myth of Charlotte Bronte as part of this tight-knit group of siblings has overshadowed the influence of her schoolfriend. It was Mary Taylor who encouraged Bronte to persue a path which would allow her more time for writing. Taylor also suggested that Bronte use her writing to challenge the political status-quo. Taylor’s own work, not published until later on in life, was ahead of its time in its exploration of women’s lives.
George Eliot and Harriet Beecher Stowe were both established literary figures when their correspondence began. While Eliot was honoured to correspond with Beecher Stowe, their differences in political and religious temperament came between them. Nevertheless, they respected the other’s literary opinions, and tempered their own personalities because of their friendship. These friends were shaped by their differences as much as their similarities.
The friendship between Woolf and Mansfield was the only friendship I had come across prior to reading A Secret Sisterhood. I was pleased to see their competitiveness re-examined. Whatever they thought of each other, Woolf and Mansfield acknowledged each other’s ability.
A Secret Sisterhood is written in an intelligent and engaging style. The section on Austen is padded out with general detail about the author’s lives, but I was still interested to know about Anne Sharp. The other three sections are concise and informative. I am pleased to see female literary friendships given a study of their own. It is clear from the details about the author’s own lives that they understand the difference between a friendship and a literary friendship, and that they know the joys and trials which can come of offering each other criticism. I would recommend this to anybody with an interest in writing or literature. It would make a lovely present between friends.
Thanks to Arum Press and the authors for my copy of A Secret Sisterhood. Opinions my own.