If you’re a regular reader of this blog, there’s every possibility you’ve also come across another brilliant blog about women writers: Something Rhymed. Something Rhymed is the work of writers Emily Midorikawa and Emma Claire Sweeney. It looks at friendships between women writers. A Secret Sisterhood is the book that grew out of that blog.
A Secret Sisterhood looks at the friendships of a number of well-known writers. In some of the pairings, both writers are famous, as in George Eliot and Harriet Beacher-Stowe as well as Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield, while for Jane Austen and Charlotte Brontë they’re the well-known halves of their pairings.
The book is structured in chronological order beginning with Jane Austen. Austen’s featured friendship was with a governess in her brother’s house, a woman called Anne Sharp who wrote plays. Midorikawa and Sweeney reconstruct how the friendship might have played out from unpublished letters and notebooks, ‘largely unmined by literary critics’ written by Fanny, Austen’s niece and Sharp’s charge. This friendship is particularly fascinating as it crosses the class divide and no doubt made Austen’s brother uncomfortable. I can’t discuss this section of the book without mentioning one sentence in particular; it refers to Anne Sharp whose mother died in 1803, the year before she began her employment for the Austen’s. I’ll just leave it here for your delight:
In the early nineteenth century, a single woman in her position, without affluent male relatives to support her, would have faced the unenviable task of securing a respectable way to earn her keep.
Charlotte Brontë’s friendship was with Mary Taylor, author of the feminist novel Miss Miles, although they were schoolchildren when they first met. They did not hit it off immediately:
The girl looked miserable and antiquated to Mary – a sharp contrast with the fashionable young ladies of the school. Like the newcomer, Mary and her boisterous sister Martha were far from stylish. The blue cloth coats they wore outdoors were too short for them, their black beaver bonnets only plainly trimmed. They even had to take the extra precaution of stitching over new pairs of gloves to try to make them last. But, rather than empathising with Charlotte, Mary scorned the girl’s outdated dress and cowed demeanour. Why, she noted to herself, she looks like ‘a little old woman’.
They bonded instead over intelligence and common interests – politics and literature – the best type of female friendships, I find.
George Eliot and Harriet Beacher Stowe’s friendship is particularly interesting as they never actually met. It seems some literary scholars have underestimated the strength of their friendship on the basis that they were pen pals. Despite this, the two confided in each other about their families and their work.
Despite marked differences in their temperaments – Harriet being the livelier and more impulsive of the two – their shared experiences as the most celebrated living female authors either side of the Atlantic immediately drew them close. That the pair shared this extraordinary status makes it all the more surprising that their friendship has not gone down in history.
Finally, the friendship between Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield is revealed to be a friendship, rather than the mere rivalry it’s been painted to be.
At their best, both women recognised that when ‘afflicted with jealousy’, as Virginia would put it, ‘the only thing is to confess’. This lesson allowed these two ambitious women to benefit from their creative competition – a process that proved as valuable to their shared art as that experienced by better-mythologised male writing duos.
The book is well-written and curated, turning historical documents into something between recreation and critique. My only criticism is that I would’ve liked more – more pairings, specifically including a wider demographic of women, the choices are very white, anglo-centric. However, I do recognise what a difficult sell this book would have been and am glad it exists.
A Secret Sisterhood is an engaging look at the little written about female friendships of significant women writers. It’s a delight to see women as the focus of this type of work; here’s hoping there’s a sequel!
Thanks to Emily Midorikawa, Emma Claire Sweeney and Jessie Sullivan for the interview and the proof of the book.