Rich and revealing portraits of four literary friendships.
Because female authors are so often “mythologized as solitary eccentrics or isolated geniuses,” Midorikawa and Sweeney (Owl Song at Dawn, 2016), both teachers at New York University in London, set out to uncover overlooked friendships. As Margaret Atwood puts it in the foreword, the authors successfully “retrace forgotten footsteps, and tap into emotional undercurrents.” The close relationship between Jane Austen and Anne Sharp would be lost if it wasn’t for Jane’s niece, Fanny, whose writings included much information about her governess, Anne, who liked to pen theatricals. It turns out Jane had “deep affection” for Anne, her “most treasured confidante.” Over the years, on and off, they “would find all sorts of ways to support each other’s endeavors.” Jane “treated Anne as her most trusted literary friend.” Charlotte Brontë and the pioneering feminist writer Mary Taylor were “good friends” despite quite differing personalities. Taylor was energetic and political while Charlotte was quiet and diffident. So when Mary wrote to her that Jane Eyre was “so perfect as a work of art,” she also criticized it “for not having a greater political purpose.” Despite disagreements and debates, they found a “space for themselves in the rapidly changing Victorian world.” When George Eliot heaped great praise upon Harriet Beecher Stowe (whose bestselling fame was greater than Eliot’s) for Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Eliot received an unexpected letter from Stowe, which praised Eliot’s works, and a friendship was born. Until, that is, Eliot shockingly learned of Stowe’s published criticism of Byron for his incestuous relationship with his sister. It created a “frostiness” in their relationship, but it endured. Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield played a literary cat-and-mouse game with each other thanks to social differences and creative rivalry, but they remained friends.
Despite occasional fictional flourishes, these forgotten friendships, from illicit and scandalous to radical and inspiring, are revelations.