Review: A Secret Sisterhood, Emily Midorikawa and Emma Claire Sweeney

As a final read for Brooding about the Brontës, this felt like a perfect pick.  Midorikawa and Sweeney are a pair of female writers and friends who chose to investigate the supportive connections between various well-known writers, including Charlotte Brontë.  This is a fascinating angle to the Brontës since they are typically regarded as such an insular family since the point to Secret Sisterhood is to look into the lives of writers who found commonality outside of their family setting.  Midorikawa and Sweeney examine not only how these women helped each other to find creative impetus but also how they weathered professional rivalry.  With even the most modern pair of friends within the book (Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield) dating from around a century ago, it was also fascinating to see how attitudes towards women writers have shifted and changed over time.  

Margaret Atwood’s foreword describes how female writers traditionally held the role of helpmeets to their male colleagues and even when they were successful, their word was dismissed as that of ‘scribbling women’.  Both Atwood and Sisterhood’s two author lament that while male literary friendships have been championed and celebrated (Wordsworth and Coleridge, Dickens and Collins, Byron and Shelley), those between women have been swept to the sidelines.  Jane Austen’s relations appear to have suppressed evidence of Austen’s friendship with governess Anne Sharp, Charlotte’s bond with her sisters eclipsed her friendship with Mary Taylor for most biographers and the fact that George Eliot and Harriet Beecher Stowe corresponded only via letter meant that the importance of their rapport was marginalised over time.  Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield’s friendship was misinterpreted as rivalry by commentators even while male writers could tear strips from each other and still be classed allies.  Midorikawa and Sweeney’s book was described as an ‘act of literary espionage’ by Financial Times and over the course of the book it becomes clear that this is true – only exceptional research could have revealed these threads of connection in such detailp.

The opening section focuses on Jane Austen and Anne Sharp and is probably the trickiest since there is so little material upon which to draw.  While the two were certainly close and Anne Sharp has even been posited convincingly as the inspiration for Anne Elliot in Persuasion, Anne Sharp herself remains a shadowy figure.  She was governess to Austen’s niece Fanny Knight and seems to have inspired some jealousy in Austen’s sister Cassandra although the two did remain friends for years after Jane’s death.  As the proud Austens tried to expunge any of the more homespun aspects of their famous relative’s life, being friends with a governess was something that did not make the cut.  They also liked to pretend that Jane and her sister never had anything to do in the kitchen either.  This lack of primary evidence means that we only see Anne Sharp through the eyes of subjective third parties rather than hearing her true voice.  This is regrettable because her passion for play-writing and putting on theatricals must have influenced Austen’s writing.

Still, if this is one friendship which feels muffled over time, the other three pairings have far more life.  Mary Taylor has always been one of my favourite figures within the Brontë mythology and her blunt commentary on Charlotte’s life and works is always a welcome contrast to the sycophancy and histrionics of the more well-known Ellen Nussey.  Despite Mary Taylor’s emigration to New Zealand, she and Charlotte kept up their correspondence with Taylor providing an early opinion on Jane Eyre – pretty, but no political purpose.  It seems to have been her who encouraged Charlotte to try the far more political Shirley and indeed there are crossover echoes between it and Taylor’s own novel Miss Miles.  Mary Taylor was that precious friend who loves you but also tells you what you need to hear rather than what you want her to say.  For someone so morbid and prone to indecision as Charlotte, Taylor seems to have been precised the type of companion that she needed.  My favourite quote from Taylor came from her letter to Ellen Nussey though when Nussey was having a meltdown about Charlotte getting married.  Describing Nussey’s protests as ‘wonderful nonsense’, Taylor says stoutly that if it is so unusual a thing for Charlotte to make a decision with her own happiness in view, she ought therefore to make more of a habit of it.  Taylor always seems to have been a woman on a mission and it is unsurprising therefore that she never had a great deal of interest in hitching herself to the Brontë bandwagon and preferred instead to find her own path.  Charlotte Brontë may have had friends with more high profile literary careers (Harriet Martineau and Elizabeth Gaskell are two such examples) but none of them ever pushed her in the way that Mary Taylor did.

George Eliot (or Marian Evans Lewes) never actually met Harriet Beecher Stowe but reached out to her via letter through mutual friends.  There were regular long gaps in their correspondence and Stowe took nearly a year to respond to the first letter but it was clearly of importance to them both.  George Eliot was a ‘fallen woman’ who was ‘living in sin’ with G.H. Lewes meaning that the other female writers of the day were reluctant to have anything to do with her.  There is a sense of Eliot crying out for a creative connection; it is stunning to read of a writer as talented as Eliot confessing her despondency over her own work.  Yet the relationship between them never quite became what the two of them clearly so wanted.  Eliot was hurt when Stowe failed to pass on a message of condolence following the death of Eliot’s stepson, taking nearly two years to write back.  Stowe was similarly offended when Eliot declined to endorse Stowe’s essay about Lord Byron’s incestuous relationship with his sister; clearly the unmarried Eliot felt ill-equipped to comment on other people’s unorthodox personal lives.  Calling the friendship between these two a ‘sisterhood’ feels like a stretch given their physical distance but it nonetheless underlines the need for collaboration and community among writers.  For two women who never met, they were still highly significant in each other’s lives.

Woolf and Mansfield shared a friendship which was more complex still.  Try as I might, I really cannot take to Virginia Woolf and the chapters describing her relationship with Katherine Mansfield did little to alter my opinion.  The bitchiness of the Bloomsbury set means that the two writers often founds themselves picking up unpleasant comments that the one had said about the other and they were both very ready to criticise the other’s output which further complicated the dynamic.  Then there was the incident where Woolf wrote a story which was published to acclaim but which seemed to have pilfered an idea which had originated with Mansfield.  I found myself thinking that I would not particularly want Virginia Woolf to be my friend.  Yet when Mansfield died, Woolf was devastated, even if this was less from true affection as it was from the loss of a creative sounding-board.  Or source of inspiration.  Despite the spikiness of their bond, Woolf had enjoyed the competition and its abrupt end was painful.

Across the chapters though there were further threads of connection between the women.  Charlotte Brontë mused on Jane Austen, spiritualist Harriet Beecher Stowe believed that she had contacted Charlotte Brontë’s spirit during a seance (George Eliot disagreed), Virginia Woolf wrote an essay on George Eliot.  I think of the significance that so many of these writers have had for me personally.  Even outside the bonds of conventional friendship, female writers are naturally drawn together.  Yet for each of the subjects of this book, maintaining friendships was difficult whether due to ill health, jealousy, geography or personal circumstance.  Midorikawa and Sweeney muse on this in the context of their own friendship as two writers, trying to learn from the travails of those who have gone before them to overcome better potential obstacles.  A Secret Sisterhood takes a bird’s eye view on the bonds between women and creative partnerships in particular, making the book far more than biography but also a meditation on female writing, but it catches fire in how it grants a glimpse of these glittering literary giantesses.  We catch sight of them in the intimate moments of friendship which brings them to life again not as the opaque cult figures which they have become but the human women they truly were, filled with a desire to express themselves to the world.

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I received this book for free in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

A Secret Sisterhood: The Hidden Friendships of Austen, Brontë, Eliot and Woolf by Emily Midorikawa, Emma Claire Sweeney, Margaret Atwood
on March 1st 2018
ISBN: 1781317860

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