Sunday 20 August 2017

Written out of history - the secret literary sisterhood

Friendships between male authors down the centuries are roundly celebrated, while female writers are often portrayed as lone wolves. Emily Midorikawa and Emma Claire Sweeney, two writers who've been friends for 16 years, set out to uncover this secret literary sisterhood

Double act: Emily Midorikawa and Emma Claire Sweeney
Double act: Emily Midorikawa and Emma Claire Sweeney
A Secret Sisterhood: The Hidden Friendships of Austen, Brontë, Eliot and Woolf

When Jane Austen died 200 years ago this month, the 41-year-old novelist could afford to leave behind only humble mementoes.

Austen's close friend Anne Sharp inherited a lock of the late author's hair, a pair of clasps and a bodkin from her sewing kit. Like so much that relates to Sharp, a keen amateur playwright, these trinkets have been lost to history. This obscurity would have suited Austen's surviving relatives, who fiercely guarded the novelist's memory.

As Austen's reputation increased during the years following her death, her descendants whitewashed Sharp from their narratives by excluding the friendship from the first biographies. For Sharp hailed from a 'lowly' social position, employed as a governess by the Austen family itself. This class-defying bond overturns the myth of Austen as a genteel lady scribbler, who cared only for kith and kin.

But two of Sharp's possessions have survived, and they shed light on the unlikely friendship between one of the world's most celebrated novelists and a working woman who penned household theatricals in between teaching lessons.

Two years prior to her death, Austen, who had by then enjoyed a decade-long bond with Sharp, gave her friend a rare presentation copy of Emma. And in her dying days, Austen wrote one of the last letters she would ever pen to this beloved confidante.

Despite such closeness, to this day, biographers of Austen rarely devote more than the odd paragraph to her relationship with Sharp.

Such disregard for the creative alliances of female writers is par for the course. While male literary friendships have become the stuff of legend - William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, for instance, or Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley - the female author is still commonly portrayed as a lone wolf.

Austen has traditionally been cast as a cloistered spinster, modestly covering her manuscripts with blotting paper when anyone entered the room. George Eliot is seen as a lofty intellectual, who looked down on fellow female authors. In the collective memory, Virginia Woolf is frozen in time beside the River Ouse, her pockets laden with stones.

It was our own experience, as writer friends, that first led us to question these images of solitary eccentricity and isolated genius. We got to know each other, back in 2001, as young English teachers working in Japan, when - much like Anne Sharp - we were snatching moments to write in between lessons. Over the 16 years since, we have been there for each other during the many uphill struggles of one another's literary journeys, and we have shared the sweet vistas during each other's hard-won moments of success.

We began to look back at the paths to publication trodden by female writers of the past, hopeful that they, too, had enjoyed the support of a fellow woman who wrote.

The key to opening up Austen's friendship with Sharp, we discovered, lay in a stack of unpublished diaries from the early 1800s. These tiny, red, calfskin notebooks contain the jottings of Austen's niece, who Sharp was employed to teach. While transcribing the childish scrawl, we came across references to papers hidden away in pockets at the back of these diaries. As no such documents had ever been catalogued, the archivist warned us that they could not have survived. And so, we were astounded to discover that, 200 years on, these papers had in fact remained intact. Better still, they contained details of the household theatricals written and staged by Sharp - shedding light on the forgotten literary legacy of Austen's unlikely friend.

Charlotte Brontë, well known for the bond she shared with sisters Anne and Emily, also enjoyed a radical friendship with another writer. The literary influence on Brontë of early feminist author Mary Taylor, who she first met at boarding school in 1831, has been hiding in plain sight all along. Ever since their schooldays, Taylor's outspoken, progressive views had widened the horizons of her more socially conservative friend. Not only did Taylor urge the aspiring novelist to earn her living by the pen, she surely inspired much of the radicalism of Jane Eyre. When Brontë died at the age of 38, Taylor made significant contributions to the first biography - written by another friend, Elizabeth Gaskell. However, Brontë's relationship with her more famous sisters has overshadowed Taylor's crucial influence on Charlotte's work.

George Eliot's epistolary friendship with Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom's Cabin, rarely gets more than a passing mention in accounts of these women's lives. Remarkably, given the stratospheric fame they each achieved by the time they first began exchanging letters in 1869, some of their correspondence remains unpublished. We had to travel to a locked library archive in New York to read the missing letters, which reveal a fuller picture of this lively and intimate meeting of minds.

Eliot explored her ideas with Stowe, whom she called a 'fellow-labourer', when she turned her own pen to the subject of racism in Daniel Deronda. But, while Eliot's place in the literary canon is secure, Stowe's has not fared so well. This divergence in their posthumous reputations seems to have thrown recent biographers off the scent, leaving this important friendship woefully under explored.

Unlike these 19th-century pairs, the relationship between Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield, who met during the dark days of World War I, has gone down in history. But it has been remembered for all the wrong reasons. These writers are too often dismissed as bitter opponents, but clues in their diaries and letters reveal that the pair considered themselves dear yet competitive friends. What's more, this rivalry fuelled some of Woolf's best work. Mansfield encouraged her fellow writer to turn her pen to the subject of war, a decision that led to the modernist novels that made Woolf's name. After Mansfield's early death at the age of 34, Woolf found herself struggling to write. "There's no competitor," she lamented, "for our friendship had so much that was writing in it."

While Woolf and Mansfield saw no separation between their competition and their friendship, society is still playing catch-up. No one raises an eyebrow at the rivalry of male writer friends such as F Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, but when ambitious women compete they are too often pitted as foes.

Alliances between successful female authors is something Booker-Prize-winning Margaret Atwood knows all about, since she is the longstanding friend of Nobel Laureate Alice Munro. Some time ago, we approached Atwood, an author we didn't know personally, to let her know about our co-written book which explores these literary friendships. Atwood surprised us with a generous act of support when she agreed to write an introduction to A Secret Sisterhood.

In this foreword, she suggests that celebrated authors "become engravings of themselves" because of the tendency to think of them as "always having been grown-up and respectable". But their formative friendships, Atwood says, allow us to "tap into emotional undercurrents we had not suspected" and "retrace forgotten footsteps".

Surely the time is now ripe to celebrate the power of history's female literary friendships, so that future generations of writing women will know that their own journeys need not be lonely - that with another literary woman at their side, they can help each other find their way to success.

A Secret Sisterhood: The ­Hidden Friendships of Austen, Brontë, Eliot and Woolf by Emily Midorikawa and Emma Claire Sweeney is out now (Aurum Press)

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