From Austen & Brontë to Woolf: literature’s forgotten female friendships
While many male writing duos have become the stuff of legend, female literary collaborations have largely been consigned to the shadows. Writing partners Emily Midorikawa and Emma Claire Sweeney debunk the myth that the English-speaking world's most celebrated female authors were isolated geniuses
In the collective memory, William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge tramp the Lakeland Fells together, and F Scott Fitzgerald shares yet another drink with Ernest Hemingway in an all-night Parisian bar. But misleading myths of isolation have attached themselves to women who write. Jane Austen is cast as a modest spinster, Charlotte Brontё confined to her parsonage home, George Eliot presented as an aloof intellectual, and Virginia Woolf a melancholic bohemian.
Here, the authors of A Secret Sisterhood: The Hidden Friendships of Austen, Bronte, Eliot and Woolf challenge these popular misconceptions and reveal the unexplored friendships of some great female authors…
Jane Austen and Anne Sharp
Jane was attracted to the keen intelligence, sharp wit and independence of spirit that shone from this woman who penned plays in between teaching lessons. The demands of full-time teaching may have prevented Anne from pursuing writing professionally, but she did flex her literary muscles by devising dramas for her pupils to perform. Jane herself acted in one such household theatrical, cast in the role of teacher, while Anne took on various male roles.
Charlotte Brontë and Mary Taylor
The pair met in 1831 as adolescent boarders at Roe Head School in Yorkshire. They got off to a rocky start when Mary, a strikingly pretty girl, bluntly told Charlotte she was “very ugly”. This slight imparted a bruise on Charlotte that would never fully heal. But Mary’s forthright opinions would also influence Charlotte in more positive ways, which proved to be just as enduring. Mary, who hailed from a progressive family, helped the then socially-conservative Charlotte to look at the world in new ways. Charlotte, a traditional Tory who idolised the Duke of Wellington, found her eyes opened to the restricted position of Victorian women.
Ever the adventurer, Mary had other suggestions too. She persuaded Charlotte to join her in exchanging the Yorkshire moorlands for the Belgian capital of Brussels, where both ended up going to further their education. In Brussels, Charlotte would fall for her tutor, a married man named Constantin Heger. This life-changing experience of forbidden love inspired much of Charlotte’s future creative endeavour – and would also overshadow Mary’s influence on her friend’s work.
George Eliot and Harriet Beecher Stowe
Correspondence between the pair began in 1869. It was warm and candid from the start, with the allegedly reserved Eliot confiding in Harriet about her debilitating periods of depression. Meanwhile, the ebullient Harriet (who was eight years Eliot’s senior) offered unsolicited advice on how the lauded British writer might further improve her novels.
Though scattered across museum and library archives, a wealth of information exists about this enthralling friendship. But their differences, which the women themselves took in their stride, has led their great bond to be written out of literary lore.
Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield
The two women were unlikely friends: Katherine hailed from the far-flung colonies, whereas Virginia’s family was firmly entrenched in the English intelligentsia; Katherine had embraced her youthful desires with bohemian exuberance, whereas Virginia approached intimacy with timidity. Both women experienced chronic illness, had complex relationships with editor husbands, and felt ambivalent about their childlessness. But it was really their shared literary endeavours that fired their friendship.
After Katherine’s early death from tuberculosis at the age of 34, her literary influence on Virginia persisted from beyond the grave. When Virginia finished both Mrs Dalloway (1925) and To the Lighthouse (1927), she wondered what Katherine would have made of these novels. Eight years after Katherine’s death, in the summer of 1931, Virginia reported that the late author had uttered words of reconciliation to her in a dream. Before waking, Virginia reached for her rival’s palm one last time, responding to the hand of friendship that Katherine seemed to have extended from beyond the grave.