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

Literary women through the ages: Jane Austen, Virginia Woolf and Charlotte Brontë all enjoyed female friendships which enriched their writing, say Emily Midorikawa and Emma Claire Sweeney. (Getty Images)

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

Two centuries ago, a bereaved Cassandra Austen wrote a barbed note to her late sister’s dear friend Anne Sharp. Jane Austen had loved and been loved by both these intelligent women, who, in their different ways, had supported her literary endeavours. Yet a deep conflict raged between the author’s sister and her close friend.
Cassandra couldn’t resist asserting to Anne her own greater claim to intimacy with Jane. She did acknowledge that the friend was “not ignorant” of Jane’s “merits” but insisted that no one else could possibly “judge how I estimated them”. Worse still, she insisted, “I am much more tranquil than with your ardent feelings you could suppose possible.” Such fierce possessiveness over the ownership of Jane’s memory goes some way to explain why the story of her friendship with Anne is still so little known.
Anne hailed from a lowly background that the Austen family did not want associated with their famous relative. Indeed, Anne, a keen amateur playwright, was employed as the governess of Jane’s niece, Fanny. This friendship exposes the myth pedalled by Jane’s descendants that the novelist only associated with the upper classes.
However, papers hidden deep in library archives still whisper of this governess and the bond she shared with Jane. Fanny, Jane’s niece and Anne’s charge, was a keen letter writer who kept meticulous diary entries from the age of ten. These unpublished papers and pocket books, passed down the generations unscathed, shed light on the deep affection between Fanny’s governess and aunt.
Colour portrait of Jane Austen dated 1810, drawn by her sister Cassandra. (Getty Images)
Colour portrait of Jane Austen dated 1810, drawn by her sister Cassandra. (Getty Images)

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.

The pair might have occupied different social standings, but in the early years of their friendship they shared the lowly status of amateur writer. Everything changed in 1811, however. Having slogged away for 24 years without gaining a readership beyond her own family and friends, Jane finally saw the first of her books published, allowing her to take on the role she’d always desired: that of professional author.
In the years that followed, Jane’s success increased, attracting fans as illustrious as the Prince Regent. Meanwhile, the long hours, daily grind and many restrictions of working as a household governess continued to keep Anne from actively pursuing a career as a writer.
Yet Anne delighted in her friend’s success, and Jane continued to value Anne’s critical faculties, electing her as the only friend to whom she sent one of her precious presentation copies of Emma (1815). The candour with which the governess answered the novelist’s request for a critique shows the level of trust between these two writer friends. Anne rated Emma somewhere between Pride and Prejudice and Mansfield Park, confessing that she did not feel convinced by its portrait of Jane Fairfax, a character who dreads the future mapped out for her as a governess. It’s a telling criticism, since Anne was so well placed to judge.

Charlotte Brontë and Mary Taylor

The whitewashing of Jane Austen’s friendship with Anne left future generations of readers ill-equipped to assess the more radical side of Austen’s life and work. The author Charlotte Brontë, for instance, born just a year before Jane died, perhaps misguidedly regarded her forebear as a well-bred lady lacking in passion and grit – qualities that Charlotte herself rated highly.
Unlike Austen, Brontë has always been remembered as one of a group of literary women. But the accepted image of Charlotte as a devoted sister of Anne and Emily Brontë has overshadowed the other significant female friendships that she sought outside the home. One of the closest relationships Charlotte forged was with sharp-tongued radical Mary Taylor, who would eventually publish her first novel in her 70s.
A painting of the Brontë sisters by their brother Branwell Brontë. The erased male figure – previously covered by a painted pillar – is thought to be that of Bramwell himself. (Getty Images)
A painting of the Brontë sisters by their brother Branwell Brontë. The erased male figure – previously covered by a painted pillar – is thought to be that of Bramwell himself. (Getty Images)

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.

Several years after leaving Roe Head, Charlotte returned to work there as a schoolmistress – a job she found so restrictive that it led to outbursts in her private writings. She described her pupils as “fat-headed oafs” and bemoaned the “wretched bondage” she felt she suffered as a teacher. Mary, a forward-thinking believer in the importance of financial independence for women, hectored her friend into pursuing an alternative way to earn her keep. From a young age, Mary had admired Charlotte’s way with words, and would one day help to instil in her friend the confidence to make her living by writing.
An 1850 drawing of Charlotte Brontë by George Richmond. (Getty Images)
An 1850 drawing of Charlotte Brontë by George Richmond. (Getty Images)

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.

Just as Charlotte’s novel Villette (1853) fictionalises her time in Brussels with her Belgian tutor, Shirley (1849) reimagines her childhood friend, in the spirited character of Rose Yorke. This book bore the mark of Mary in broader ways too. It’s hard to imagine the conservative schoolgirl who first engaged in political debate with Mary ever coming to pen a work with this radical edge had she not been exposed to the dissenting views of her friend.

George Eliot and Harriet Beecher Stowe

Far from the deceptive image of the closeted community of Brontë sisters, shut away in their father’s Yorkshire parsonage, George Eliot is remembered as an honorary ‘man’ of letters with little need for female company.
And yet it turns out that Eliot extended the hand of friendship to Harriet Beecher Stowe, another celebrated female author of the era. Biographers rarely give this friendship more than passing comment, finding it inconceivable that someone as lofty as Eliot might have shared a sisterly bond with the author of the antislavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1851-2), whose writing is often now dismissed as overly sentimental. But, like Charlotte Brontë, Eliot greatly admired Beecher Stowe’s talents. Indeed, she had reviewed Harriet’s work long before the pair got to know each other, concluding that the American woman was an author of “rare genius”.
George Eliot. (Getty Images)
George Eliot. (Getty Images)

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.

Only once did Harriet’s enthusiasm prove too much for her rational friend. In a letter that has never been published in full, Harriet, who had an interest in spiritualism, excitedly described making contact with the ghost of Charlotte Brontë, a writer both women admired. On this occasion, Eliot replied that “rightly or not” the story struck her as “enormously improbable”.
Harriet Beecher Stowe. (Getty Images)
Harriet Beecher Stowe. (Getty Images)

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

Unlike these female literary alliances forged in the 19th century, the relationship between Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield has gone down in history – but it has been remembered for all the wrong reasons.
Virginia’s scathing first impression of Katherine as “a civet cat that had taken to street-walking” is often quoted as evidence for dismissing the pair as bitter enemies. But in reality Virginia and Katherine considered themselves dear, though rivalrous, friends. They sought each other’s opinions on the books they traded; exchanged gifts of Belgian cigarettes, loaves of bread, coffee beans, and columbine plants; sent each other umpteen letters; and discussed their work over tea.
Katherine Mansfield. (Getty Images)
Katherine Mansfield. (Getty Images)

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.

In 1917 Virginia and her husband set up their own publishing house, and she immediately commissioned a story from Katherine. A few years later, Virginia was understandably hurt when she read a damning review that Katherine had written of her second novel, Night and Day (1919). But Katherine’s complaint that the novel failed to acknowledge the damage wrought by the First World War ultimately inspired Virginia to produce three war novels, which are widely considered among her finest work.
Virginia Woolf photographed during the 1920s. (Getty Images)
Virginia Woolf photographed during the 1920s. (Getty Images)

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.

But commemoration of Virginia and Katherine’s relationship has remained incomplete, like so many alliances between female writers. While male duos have made it into the limelight, bonds between women have been consigned to the shadows. Arguably, a solitary eccentric or one-of-a-kind genius presents less of a threat to patriarchal norms than a community of creative women. But, behind the scenes, literary sisters have long been helping each other to get their voices heard, and the stories of these friendships still speak to us today.
Writer friends Emily Midorikawa and Emma Claire Sweeney are the authors of A Secret Sisterhood: The hidden friendships of Austen, Brontë, Eliot and Woolf, published by Aurum Press. 
This article was originally published by History Extra in July 2017