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A Secret Sisterhood: The Hidden Friendships of Austen, Brontë, Eliot and Woolf Paperback – 1 Mar 2018
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About the Author
Emily Midorikawa lectures at City University and at New York University in London. She has taught at the University of Cambridge and the Open University, as well as writing for the Daily Telegraph, the Independent on Sunday, The Times, Aesthetica and Mslexia. Her memoir ‘The Memory Album’ appeared in Tangled Roots. Emily is the winner of the Lucy Cavendish Fiction Prize 2015.
Emma Claire Sweeney has lectured at City University, New York University in London, the University of Cambridge and the Open University. Her work has won Arts Council, Royal Literary Fund and Escalator Awards, and has been shortlisted for several others, including the Asham, Wasafiri and Fish. She writes for newspapers and magazines such as the Guardian, the Independent on Sunday, The Times, and Mslexia. Her debut novel Owl Song at Dawn was published by Legend Press in July 2016 to great acclaim.
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I rarely give five stars but I thought about it. Bravo.
Historically, male literary friendships whether supportive or acrimonious, have been meticulously scrutinised and recorded, with whole volumes devoted to: Hemingway and Scott Fitzgerald, Wordsworth and Coleridge, Verlaine and Rimbaud to name but a few. And, in this traditionally male-dominated society, important friendships between women writers have been consigned to oblivion. Austen is remembered for her place in the family and for her unmarried status; Charlotte Bronte is cast as the devoted older sister, defined by her early death; George Eliot is seen as a solitary figure shunning convention to live with George Henry Lewes, and Woolf has been defined by her mental instability and by her vindictive relationship with Katherine Mansfield.
A Secret Sisterhood turns this ideal of the ‘angel in the house’ on its head. Yes, these women may have had siblings and partners to support them, but they also benefitted from complex and close female friendships that rewarded and challenged them, both emotionally and as writers. Austen valued the friendship of her niece’s governess who wrote dramas; Charlotte Bronte found it in Mary Taylor, an early feminist, and Eliot enjoyed a lengthy correspondence with Harriet Beecher-Stowe, the author of the anti-slavery book Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Woolf’s relationship with Mansfield was precarious, but they recognised in each other the literary genius in the ‘echo coming back to me from her mind’. A Secret Sisterhood shows us how friends and family hid these ‘sisterhoods’ and suppressed documentary evidence of friendships that didn’t fit the image of the ‘lady writer’. I was particularly taken by Charlotte Bronte’s friendship with the feminist Mary Taylor who said of her decision to learn algebra ‘it is odd in a woman to learn it, and I like to establish my right to be doing odd things.’ She also defied convention by travelling to New Zealand as a single woman.
Beginning with their blog Something Rhymed, Emily and Emma have minutely researched the correspondence and diaries of these four writers, as well as bringing to light new evidence, to provide a fascinating exploration of writerly relationships. In their own friendship they have supported and celebrated each other’s literary careers since the first meeting in their early twenties when they admitted to each other that they were writers.
They have a fine eye for period detail, although for any reader already familiar with Victorian and early 20th century novels, it may be unnecessary and indeed occasionally strays into over-writing. But, with a foreword by Margaret Atwood, known for her ability to hold the mirror up to societal norms, A Secret Sisterhood is a much-needed piece of research as well as very readable and accessible. The research is so well integrated that it’s only when you look at the extensive notes and bibliography that you see the detective work that has gone into the book. A Secret Sisterhood also benefits from a beautifully designed and eye-catching cover which would make it a fine present for a book-loving friend.
For a woman, until relatively recently, it was so ‘odd’ both to be a writer and to have female friends that it was largely kept hidden. Emily Midorikawa and Emma Clare Sweeney have done us a great service in bringing the secret out into the open.
The book is very much literary history, focused upon the writers’ lives and mentioning a great deal of other writers and literary trends on the way. It is split into four sections, covering each of the writers named in the subtitle and their relationship with a particular other female writer in their life. Reading it does not require a huge familiarity with each writer, making it accessible to those with an interest in writers, but who don’t necessarily know a huge deal about the lives of the individuals covered already. There is quoting from letters and diaries to give detail of these friendships, but no literary analysis of the writers. Instead, it is very much biography, opening the way for people to look at these and other female literary friendships in the context of their writing and specific elements of their texts.
A Secret Sisterhood is an enjoyable book about lesser known literary history and an important one for showing that female writers do not have to either be reclusive and isolated, or tightly bound to a man without female support.
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