How to write a biography

Virginia-Woolf

“My God, how does one write a Biography?” Virginia Woolf wrote in 1938. Her friend Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians (1918) had already overturned accepted conventions that all biographies should be serious, worthy, and long; before that, the Dictionary of National Biography, co-founded by Woolf’s father Leslie Stephen, also introduced a new approach to writing short lives. Today there are lots of inventive and imaginative ways to write a biography. As Michael Holroyd, the great biographer of Lytton Strachey, said in 2011: “People are writing lives backwards; people are writing parts of lives. Look on the bright side: biographies are getting shorter.”

About a year ago I started compiling a list of the biographies that changed my own thinking about what biography and life-writing can do. Now I have put together my personal ‘top twenty’ out of these, in a strand I called ‘Life of the day’: here they are listed in no particular order. At Number 20 is the revived digital edition of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, constantly updated, illustrated and with more focus on women’s lives than ever (available online in public libraries; information about the latest update here). Leslie Stephen might not recognize his original Victorian creation that was published in multiple heavy volumes, but Virginia Woolf would surely approve.

  1. Hermione Lee’s Virginia Woolf (Vintage, 1997), showing new ways of combining scrupulous research,  brilliant writing and inventive structure: “There is no such thing as an objective biography, particularly not in this case.” (Lee)
  2. Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer by Richard Holmes (Harper Perennial, 1985) – a highly influential and inspiring book about travelling in the footsteps of your biographical subject: “If you are not in love with them you will not follow them – not very far, anyway.” (Holmes)
  3. Phyllis Rose’s Parallel Lives: Five Victorian Marriages (1983) is a classic study of love and power, soon to be reissued by Daunt Books: ‘If we managed to suppress marriage, what would we have left to tell?’
  4. A Sultry Month: Scenes of London Literary Life in 1846 (Faber& Faber, 1965) by Alethea Hayter is a pioneering biography that brilliantly evokes the searing personal crises of a group of writers and artists over one suffocatingly hot summer.
  5. A Suppressed Cry by Victoria Glendinning (1969; reissued by Virago with a new introduction in 1995): the heartbreaking story of Newnham College, Cambridge student Winnie Seebohm’s short life. ‘I could, had I waited, have written a longer and different book. It might not have been a more telling one. Too much information can blur the issues.’ (Glendinning)
  6. Marianne Thornton, 1797-1887: A Domestic Biography (1956) by EM Forster. A biography of the great-aunt who helped him to become a writer, and Forster’s only published memoir: my Slightly Foxed essay is here. The Times critic observed that ‘Mr. E. M. Forster, one of the most reticent of authors, has adopted an unusual way to tell us something about himself’
  7. Claire Tomalin’s The Invisible Woman: The Story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens (Penguin, 1990): “This is the story of someone who – almost – wasn’t there; who vanished into thin air.”
  8. Janet Malcolm’s brilliant and acerbic The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath & Ted Hughes (Granta, 1993): “The biographer at work… is like the professional burglar, breaking into a house.”
  9. Ann Thwaite’s Emily Tennyson: The Poet’s Wife (Faber& Faber, 1996) opened my eyes to the fascinating woman overlooked by most of Tennyson’s biographers: ‘I have always been interested in the lives of nineteeth-century women who managed, in spite of the restrictions they suffered, to live full and fulfilling lives.’ (Thwaite)
  10. Frances Spalding’s sensitive, imaginative and scrupulously researched Gwen Raverat: Friends, Family and Affections (Harvill, 2001): ‘running through her work, both her art and her writing, is a deep sense of the importance of life, and a reverence for the texture and fabric of the everyday world.’ (Spalding)
  11. Frances Wilson’s The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth (Faber & Faber 2008): ‘Dorothy walked out of the life that she and others expected of her.’
  12. Janet Browne’s Charles Darwin: The Power of Place (Cape, 2003): ‘Darwin was one of the most human of men … his biography is in part the biography of Victorian family life – of what it was like to make and live with science.’
  13. Grand Pursuits: The Story of Economic Genius by Sylvia Nasar (2010) is about the tragedy and triumph of great economists’ lives 1850-1950 (especially good on Alfred and Mary Paley Marshall and Beatrice Webb).
  14. John Aubrey, My Own Life (Chatto & Windus, 2016) by Ruth Scurr: “Because I chose to write Aubrey’s life in the form of a first person diary, I had to get as close to him as I could, despite the passage of time”
  15. Outsiders: Five Women Writers Who Changed the World (Virago, 2017) Lyndall Gordon’s group biography of Mary Shelley, Emily Brontë, George Eliot, Olive Schreiner and Virginia Woolf: ‘All were readers before they became writers, which is to say each heard the one before her in a chain of making.’
  16. A Secret Sisterhood: The Hidden Friendships of Austen, Brontë, Eliot and Woolf (Aurum, 2018) by Emily Midorikawa and Emma Claire Sweeney is an enjoyable, beautifully written book; I wrote about it here. Virginia Woolf was, Katherine Mansfield wrote, ‘the only woman with whom I long to talk work.’
  17. Jenny Uglow’s delightful, beautifully illustrated Mr Lear: A Life of Art and Nonsense (Faber & Faber, 2017): ‘If we follow him across land and sea, to the borderlands of self, can we see where the art and nonsense are born?’
  18. Combining research, parody, diaries, interviews, lists and wicked gossip, Craig Brown’s Ma’am Darling: 99 Glimpses of Princess Margaret (4th Estate, 2017) is a skilful, experimental and very funny biography.
  19. Alexander Masters’ Stuart: A Life Backwards (HarperCollins 2005), the heartbreaking life of a homeless “chaotic” Cambridge man, told with sympathy and humour: ‘Stuart does not like the manuscript. He’s after a bestseller, “like what Tom Clancy writes.”‘
  20. The revised Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, now in its 58th update with 61,184 articles and 11,724 portraits, researched in partnership with the National Portrait Gallery London. The ODNB has an increasing number entries on women (making up past oversights), and I’m proud to have contributed three of these (about the Ladies’ Dining Society, Caroline Jebb and Mary Martin Ward) in the past three years.

 

Beginnings

RBLIn my previous post I wrote about the 1881 Senate vote at the University of Cambridge giving women the right, for the first time, to take final exams. Ida Darwin had written to her sister-in-law Henrietta Litchfield (née Darwin) asking her to encourage her husband Richard Buckley Litchfield to travel to Cambridge to support women’s education there. ( Gwen Raverat’s Period Piece shows him being fussed over by Henrietta) As a former student and tutor of Trinity College he had the right to vote on University matters. As it turned out, the vote was won by a large majority, although Cambridge degrees were still some way in the future for women, who were not admitted to membership of the University until December 1947. The present Queen’s mother was the first woman to be awarded the Cambridge degree of Doctor of Laws (Honorary) in October 1948.

Samantha Evans is author of the excellent Darwin and Women (CUP, 2017) which I reviewed here. In her book Evans describes how Charles Darwin’s ideas were affected by the women scientists he corresponded with, as well as his wife Emma and daughters Henrietta and Bessy’s active engagement in lifelong learning.

Women in their circle, even without raising an particular banner, were extraordinarily active: they learnt mathematics and physics; they hired tutors; they took examinations; they watched debates in the House of Commons from the ladies’ gallery; they attended university lectures if they were open to women. (Evans, p. 210)

Even so, Emma Darwin was not in favour of complete equality. Last week I came across Evans’ fascinating article (see link here) about Emma Darwin’s attitudes to higher education for women. In March 1881 Emma wrote to her son George about the recent vote.

You heard of the triumphant vote for the girls at Cambridge having their places in the exam. made public. Horace went to tell them about it & was received w. clapping. Afterward they put all their candles & lamps in the windows & ended w. a dance. R. thinks it is the beginning of the end & (I believe), that they will turn out as badly as the Russian young lady Doctors at Zurich.’ (DAR 251: 1002 Emma Darwin to G. H. Darwin, 7 March 1881.)

Horace, Ida’s husband, was so elated with the good news that he rushed to Newnham to celebrate with them, but his brother-in-law ‘R.’ (Richard Buckley Litchfield) felt very differently. Ida had assumed that Richard shared the Darwins’ liberal attitudes to women’s education, but when it came to his old university it seems that he wanted to keep the status quo. He was worried that by giving women the right to take exams Cambridge had gone too far and it would mean “the beginning of the end” for its continuing success as a university.

In her article, Evans explains that the ‘Russian young lady doctors’ who went to Zurich to study medicine were told in 1873 that they would not be offered appointments in Russia on their return. Effectively, their education would be worthless, and they faced a stark choice of either their country or their work. Richard Litchfield was arguing that there was little point in women trying to get a Cambridge education, because they wouldn’t be allowed into the professions in any case. Yet Litchfield was himself a forward-thinking educator. In 1854 he was one of the group who founded London’s Working Men’s College at 31 Lion Square in Bloomsbury to provide artisans with the chance for an education. It was one of the first adult education institutions, and its nineteenth-century teachers included Ruskin, John Stuart Mill and William Morris. EM Forster and Seamus Heaney were among those who taught there in the twentieth century. There’s an informative UCL history project on the college here.

In 1864, Elizabeth Malleson opened the Working Women’s College just round the corner at 29 Queen Square. She wanted the two colleges to merge, but the council of the male college (including Litchfield, who taught there for many years) resisted. Perhaps he felt it would be the beginning of the end for the institution he had done so much to establish. It was only in 1966 that women were admitted to the college, eight years after the first women gained degrees at Cambridge. Now known as WMC -The Camden College, it provides courses to men and women today, particularly for those who have missed out on traditional educational opportunities, including the unemployed, older adults and refugee learners.

It is wonderful that the WMC has had such a long and successful history, but Litchfield was wrong to fear women students as he did. This year, from 14 October, Cambridge University celebrates beginnings: ‘The Rising Tide’ exhibitions, events and talks will mark 150 years of women at Cambridge, 1869-2019.

© Ann Kennedy Smith, 14 July 2019. All rights reserved.

‘Marianne Thornton’, E.M. Forster’s biography-memoir

Slightly FoxedE.M. Forster’s novels continue to be read and loved around the world. However, his final full-length book, a biography of his great-aunt Marianne Thornton, has been largely overlooked by critics and forgotten by readers since its publication in 1956. That’s a shame, as it shows that Forster was a brilliant writer of nonfiction too. It connects themes familiar from his fiction – including a home loved and lost, forbidden passions, second chances – and its final section is the only published memoir he ever published of his own young life. I’m delighted that ‘Prayers Before Plenty’, my essay on this fascinating book, appears in Slightly Foxed this month. They have kindly given permission for me to reprint it here.

 

Prayers before Plenty       Ann Kennedy Smith

In 1953 the writer E. M. Forster, then aged 74, was sorting through old family papers and thinking about the past. He had recently moved back to King’s College, Cambridge, and the high-ceilinged spacious room where he sat was filled with treasured objects from his previous homes: shelves overflowing with books, framed family portraits on the walls and blue china plates neatly arranged on the mantelpiece. Letters gathered in a drift around his shabby William Morris armchair as he pored over his great-aunt Marianne Thornton’s diaries and recollections. She had died when he was 8, but it was thanks to the money she left him that as a young man he was able to study at King’s and later to travel to Italy. It was Marianne, more than anyone else, who had helped him to become a writer, and now he wanted to tell her story.

When Marianne Thornton, 17971887: A Domestic Biography was published three years later, it was greeted as a literary event. It had been five years since the appearance of Forster’s Two Cheers for Democracy, his collection of critical essays (see SF no. 44), and he had not published a novel since A Passage to India in 1924. Marianne Thornton was widely reviewed, for the most part warmly, although some critics confessed to feeling puzzled by its subject matter. Why, wondered the Spectator, did Forster want to cast his considerable charm on the Clapham Sect, that ‘particularly uncharming clan’? The New York Times critic admitted that only the writer of A Passage to India could have persuaded him to read ‘a conversation piece about English family life among the suburban dynasties’.

In the sixty years or so since Marianne Thornton’s first publication, it has been leafed through by biographers and scholars rather than read. I think this is a shame, and that this book deserves to be better known. In 2000 it was reissued as part of the Abinger edition, and in her introduction Evelyne Hanquart-Turner describes Marianne Thornton as a portrait of a modern Britain in the making, with illuminating glimpses of banking, Parliament and politics, the Church of England and the spread of popular education over nine decades of the nineteenth century. I would add that at a time when British identity is being much discussed, it is a book that seems more relevant than ever.

I discovered it in a King’s College archive, where I was working on a book project last summer. It was just before May Week, that con­fusingly named time in June when the students celebrate after their exams are over, and a marquee was being put up on the front court lawn. The sounds of heavy machinery and men working drifted in through the open window and made it hard to concentrate on hand­written letters, so I took down Marianne Thornton from the shelf and began to read. Within minutes I was transported back to another June day in 1806, and a horse-drawn carriage with election ribbons fluttering, going home to Battersea Rise, the house at the heart of this story.

Marianne was born in 1797, the eldest of nine children of Henry Thornton, a wealthy merchant banker and Member of Parliament, and his wife Mary Ann Sykes. Their home was Battersea Rise, an enlarged Queen Anne house on the north-west edge of Clapham Common in south London. The Thorntons belonged to the ‘Clapham Sect’, a close-knit group of friends that included William Wilberforce, Zachary Macaulay, Granville Sharp and James Stephen, who brought their combined influence, intellect and evangelical zeal to social reform. Their place of worship was Holy Trinity Church on the Common, presided over by the charismatic Reverend John Venn, and their social centre was Battersea Rise, where lively meetings were held in the oval library with a view of a magnificent tulip tree in the garden.

Battersea Rise was a perfect playground for Marianne and her younger siblings. ‘It satisfied in them that longing for a particular place, a home, which is common amongst our upper and middle classes,’ Forster observes: ‘some of them have transmitted that long­ing to their descendants, who have lived on into an age when it cannot be gratified.’ Writing this in his college rooms, he was think­ing of Rooksnest, the cottage in Hertfordshire where he had lived as a child and which he later commemorated in his novel Howards End. He had mourned its loss all his life; King’s College had provided him with somewhere to live, but it did not feel like home.

From the first pages of the book it is plain that Marianne Thornton is as much about Forster as it is about his great-aunt. Threaded through the book are his wry observations, teasing out connections between past and present and poking gentle fun at his illustrious forebears. At times he is combative, reminding us that although the philanthropic Clapham Sect cared passionately about abolishing the slave trade, they were supremely complacent when it came to in-equality within their own society. ‘When the slavery was industrial they did nothing and had no thought of doing anything.’

But this is a domestic biography, Forster reminds us, and the Thorntons did home life exceedingly well. Adored friends such as William Wilberforce – ‘fragile, whimsical, inspired’ – and the intel­lectual ‘bishop in petticoats’ Hannah More regularly dropped in for dinner. ‘Prayers before plenty,’ Forster observes, ‘But plenty!’ Conver­sations around the table ranged from parliamentary politics to missionary work, from economics to education, and little Marianne was encouraged to take part. Her father taught her about finance and brought her along to his election hustings and George III’s opening of Parliament. Despite the constant fear of a French invasion there were long holidays at the seaside, ‘comparable with the jauntings of Jane Austen’ in their elaborate organization. Fear of Napoleon Bona­parte was the only cloud over this sunny childhood, and Marianne vividly pictured him striding into Battersea Rise and chopping down their beloved tulip tree. Nonsense, her young friend the future his-torian Thomas Babington Macaulay assured her: when ‘Old Boney’ came, he would simply stab all the children in their beds.

The world-changing historical events of 1815 were overshadowed for Marianne and her siblings by painful personal loss when both Thornton parents died within the year. Forster skips over the ‘super­abundance’ of long, pious letters from this period and instead describes 19-year-old Marianne’s first trip to France, where she and other British tourists flocked after Waterloo. There she fell in love with all things French, and this gave her, Forster is convinced, her Gallic insouciance towards class differences which lasted for the rest of her life.

Her brother Henry, three years younger, was more straitlaced, but brother and sister ran the Thornton family as a team. Together they fought to save the bank where he was a partner when it was hit by a financial crisis in 1825: told through Marianne’s recollections, the story is as exciting and dramatic as any novel. Henry coped less well when their younger sister Laura fell in love with a poor Irish clergy­man. ‘Money must marry money, as it had always done hitherto,’ Forster observes drily, and he cheers when, thanks to a particularly spiky letter from a bishop, love wins the day. Laura married the Reverend Charles Forster, and among their ten children brought up in a ‘happy insanitary’ rectory in Essex was Eddie, the future father of the writer.

Marianne remained unmarried and devoted herself to Battersea Rise and to Henry’s three children after he was widowed. The young Forsters often came to visit, and the garden was filled with the sounds of laughter and games. Even sensible Henry occasionally entertained the family with his favourite trick before setting off for work at the bank: after setting fire to a newspaper, he would place it on the seat of his leather armchair then sit down firmly to put the flames out. ‘The vision of that substantial extinguisher descending cheers me,’ Forster writes: ‘the sun comes into the library again, the trees wave freshly on the lawn, tiny cousins collide and jump . . .’

Then Henry fell in love with Emily, his unmarried sister-in-law, and everything changed. Their marriage was not sanctioned under existing British law (the Marriage Act of 1835 made it illegal for a man to marry the sister of his deceased wife) and the ensuing scandal broke the Thornton family apart. The law would remain unchanged until the twentieth century, and writing in Cambridge in the 1950s, when homosexual love was still outlawed in Britain, Forster’s anger flashes off the page. It was, he writes, ‘yet another example of the cruelty and stupidity of the English Law in matters of sex’. Victorian disapproval did what Bonaparte and the banking crisis had failed to do: it destroyed Battersea Rise.

Marianne Thornton immerses us in a lost nineteenth-century world and, as Forster asks, ‘Where else could we take such a plunge?’ It is an invitation to enjoyment, demonstrating Forster’s brilliance as a non-fiction writer and providing us with links to our personal, cultural and national past that otherwise would be lost. Marianne’s story unfolds against a rich historical background, from Georgian England to Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee, in which the Thorntons played an active role.

However, I think that this warm and engaging book is about more than British history and the decline and fall of an influential suburban dynasty. By choosing Marianne as his subject, and telling her story in the way that he does, Forster stresses the importance of personal relations, and the life of the heart and mind rather than public life. He connects his own story to his great-aunt’s, and the book’s delightful final section is both a memoir of his young life and a love letter to Rooksnest, his childhood home. ‘I took it to my heart,’ he writes, ‘and hoped, as Marianne had of Battersea Rise, that I should live and die there.’ It was not to be, but by writing his great-aunt’s story he was able to see that kindness and love were what mattered in the end, and to let go of the past. King’s College was his last home, and he was among friends there.

Battersea Rise was swallowed up long ago, and the lawn on which the tulip tree once stood is now covered by houses and streets. Holy Trinity Church still stands on a corner of Clapham Common though, and I went there recently, carrying my copy of Marianne Thornton. With its high steeple surrounded by tall, waving trees, the church looks much as it did in the Thorntons’ time, and as I approached the imposing portico, the sound of south London traffic seemed to fade away. On an outside wall a stone plaque scarred by Second World War shrapnel commemorates the evangelical and abolitionist work of the Clapham Sect. Then, as I arrive, there is the human touch. A friendly notice on the porch welcomes rough sleepers, and inside a caretaker is boiling a kettle. On a far wall a small brass plaque to Marianne Thornton glints in the shadows.

Ann Kennedy Smith lives in Cambridge and is working on her first biography. She is not related to the Kennedy dynasty, so far as she knows.

© Ann Kennedy Smith, Slightly Foxed: The Real Reader’s Quarterly, Issue 58, Summer 2018.

This article first appeared in Slightly Foxed: The Real Reader’s Quarterly, Issue 58, Summer 2018.

The independent-minded quarterly that combines good looks, good writing and a personal approach, Slightly Foxed introduces its readers to books that are no longer new and fashionable but have lasting appeal. Good-humoured, unpretentious and a bit eccentric, it’s more like a well-read friend than a literary magazine. Single issues from £10; annual subscriptions from £40. For more information please visit www.foxedquarterly.com

 

 

 

 

A Secret Sisterhood: the friendship of women writers

My review of A Secret Sisterhood: The Hidden Friendships of Austen, Brontë, Eliot and Woolf (Aurum 2018) by Emily Midorikawa and Emma Claire Sweeney

‘Here’s the truth: friendships between women are often the deepest and most profound love stories, but they are often discussed as if they are ancillary, “bonus” relationships to the truly important ones’ writes Emily Rapp. ‘Women’s friendships outlast jobs, parents, husbands, boyfriends, lovers, and sometimes children.’

What is it about women’s friendships that makes them inherently suspect? ‘The men think us incapable of real friendship, you know,’ says the flighty Isabella Thorpe to Catherine Morland in Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey. As it happens, the men are proved right in Isabella’s case. However, Catherine forms a lasting connection with Eleanor Tilney, and her gradual realization of this friendship’s importance brings its own problems when it comes to writing a letter to her friend. ‘The strength of these feelings, however, was far from assisting her pen,’ the narrator notes, ‘never had it been harder for her to write than in addressing Eleanor Tilney.’

Secret Sisterhood image.jpg

Letters between friends feature largely in A Secret Sisterhood: The Hidden Friendships of Austen, Brontë, Eliot and Woolf (Aurum 2018) a sparkling first book by Emily Midorikawa and Emma Claire Sweeney, who are friends and writers as well as teachers at New York University’s London campus. The value that both place on their own long-standing friendship made them curious about why, as they put it, ‘misleading myths of isolation’ have grown up around women writers of the past. Why do we celebrate the riotous friendships of male writers and poets, but see women as solitary and secluded figures? In four separate, page-turning stories, Midorikawa and Sweeney energetically sweep away the dusty myths and throw light on real-life literary collaborations: Jane Austen and her niece’s governess Anne Sharp, an amateur playwright; Charlotte Brontë and her childhood friend, the radical novelist Mary Taylor; George Eliot and the American author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe; Virginia Woolf and the short-story writer Katherine Mansfield.

Considering the fame of Austen, Brontë, Eliot and Woolf, it is surprising, to say the least, that these literary collaborations have not been examined in any depth until now. Paradoxically, the writers’ success may be partly responsible. As Margaret Atwood comments in her illuminating preface, after people become famous, ‘their images tend to congeal. They become engravings of themselves’. Nowhere is this more evident than in the case of Jane Austen, whose descendants were keen to preserve a carefully curated image of her as a ‘genteel’ spinster who was indifferent to the literary success which came her way. Midorikawa and Sweeney show her actively cultivating a friendship with Anne Sharp, her niece’s governess, whose critical judgment was so valued by Austen that she sent her a presentation copy of Emma, rather than give it to her brother. However, because of the class differences involved, this friendship was ‘actively whitewashed’ by Austen’s family in the official version of her life, and most of their correspondence was destroyed.

By contrast, Elizabeth Gaskell sought out the recollections of the independent-minded Mary Taylor, Charlotte Brontë’s lifelong friend, to use in her biography of the writer. Taylor was an adventurous traveller who had continued to correspond with Brontë after moving to New Zealand, and in her letters encouraged her to make her novels more political. After Brontë’s early death in 1855, Taylor wanted to ignite public outrage at how her friend’s genius was stifled by society’s expectations, but in her The Life of Charlotte Brontë (1857) Gaskell stage-managed her subject’s image to present her as a saintly, patient figure, ‘a lesson in duty and self reliance’ as George Henry Lewes approvingly put it. This did not reflect the politicised and fiercely ambitious woman that Mary Taylor knew, and she ended up pouring her feelings into a novel, Miss Miles (1890). It was a passionate, feminist protest against the life Charlotte Brontë and other dutiful daughters were expected to live.

George Eliot and Harriet Beecher Stowe never met, but the two most celebrated living female authors established a warm friendship through an eleven-year long correspondence. They had, at times, striking differences of opinion – such as Beecher Stowe’s enthusiastic conviction that she was able to talk to Charlotte Brontë beyond the grave – but the more sceptical George Eliot nevertheless appreciated the American’s honest critique of her work. It was ‘a hand stretched forth’ across the Atlantic by one woman writer to another.

Virginia Woolf was, the New Zealand author Katherine Mansfield wrote, ‘the only woman with whom I long to talk work. There will never be another.’ The friendship which sprang up between them in 1917 was subject to occasional rivalries and misunderstandings as the two ambitious women competed to be the leading fiction writer of their time. ‘Damn Katherine!,’ wrote Woolf after E.M. Forster had praised them both, ‘why can’t I be the only woman who knows how to write?’ However, Midorikawa and Sweeney argue that theirs was a healthy, good-natured rivalry, and Woolf’s envy of Mansfield’s skill as a writer pushed her to find experimental new forms for her own novels.

Through their own considerable skill as writers, Midorikawa and Sweeney immerse us in the very different worlds these women inhabit: it as if we had stepped into an elegant drawing room at Godmersham Park, climbed a windy hill in New Zealand or squeezed ourselves into a cramped bedsit in bohemian Chelsea. The four separate stories illustrate how difficult it was for women to make their voices heard, from the precarious existence of the single governess to the ever-present domestic responsibilities of the married woman. Each had to deal with society’s expectations of what a woman should be. For Austen, Brontë, Eliot and Woolf, it was their friendship with another women who wrote (in some cases the only other woman writer they knew) that sustained them through difficult times and inspired them to fresh creativity. This warm and engaging book shows how important these friendships were in their development as writers.

© Ann Kennedy Smith, 3 March 2018

Ida, Lily and Eddie

On Ida Darwin’s friendship as a young woman with the governess Lily Whichelo and an aspiring architect, Edward Forster.

Ida Darwin was born Emma Cecilia Farrer in London in 1854: she was always known as Ida. Her father Thomas (later Lord) Farrer was a wealthy and influential civil servant whose interest in plant breeding led to his friendship with the great scientist Charles Darwin. Her mother Frances (née Erskine) was a gifted singer who died when Ida was fifteen. Four years later, in 1874, Lily Whichelo came to work for the Farrer family as a ‘nursery governess’, teaching Ida’s younger brother Noel. Lily, 19, came from a large, lower-middle-class family in London. After her drawing master father died, she had been taken under the wing of a wealthy, unmarried woman called Marianne Thornton who attended the same church, Holy Trinity on Clapham Common, as her family. Thanks to Marianne, Lily had spent a year at an expensive finishing school in Brighton, where she gained social assurance and the chance to be a governess in well-connected circles.

Lily was a charming and intelligent young woman, and she was welcomed into the Farrers’ social circles. She and Ida became close friends, sharing a lively interest in books, music (Lily played the piano; Ida sang, like her mother) and the current debates about feminism and women’s access to higher education. They were the same age, although because Ida was three months older, Lily jokingly called her ‘Grandmother’ and asked her for advice. The Farrers divided their time between their mansion overlooking Hyde Park and their country house at Abinger in Surrey, and Lily went with them, apart from occasional visits home to her mother’s boarding house in West Kensington. Marianne’s nephew Edward Forster was a family friend and a frequent visitor to Abinger Hall. Eddie was a bright, ambitious young trainee architect who worked for Arthur Blomfield in London and had a biting, sardonic wit. He, Ida and Lily spent much time together: walking over the hills on the Abinger estate, sitting by the fire after dinner, talking and making each other laugh.

In June 1876 Lily left her position at the Farrers. Noel would be going away to Eton soon, and she had decided to become a daily governess in London and live, not at home with her mother and younger siblings, but independently in lodgings in Clapham. Ida knew that Lily took the profession of being a governess seriously, and valued her independence, something that Ida herself may well have envied. Her higher social position meant that she was expected to live at home until she married, and could not pursue a career or attend one of the new women’s colleges in Oxford and Cambridge as she longed to do.

In September Lily started teaching for two London families, the Rollers and the Knowles, travelling back to her mother’s house each day for lunch. She asked Ida for advice about how she should teach girls of different ages together, help them with their appalling French and which textbooks she should buy to correct their lack of knowledge. Lily did not get on well with her first landlady, so was persuaded by her friend Maimie Synnot, the widow of Marianne Thornton’s nephew Inglis, to come and live with her in her spacious terraced house on the new Lillieshall Road in Clapham. Maimie was kind, gentle and devoutly religious and Lily was very fond of her. They spent their evenings together playing the piano, sewing bonnets for ‘paupers’ and discussing Temperance matters, Lily told Ida. A life of good works, governessing, and sisterly sainthood seemed assured.

Their evenings were more lively when Eddie Forster came to call. He had recently qualified as an architect and was drawing up plans for his first commission, a cottage for his sister Laura on the Farrer estate at Abinger. He had been close to his cousin Inglis, and he presented Maimie with a house-warming gift: an ornately carved, tall oak mantelpiece that combined the then fashionable Victorian ‘Gothic revival’ style with ideas Eddie had borrowed from the churches he had visited and sketched on his frequent visits to Italy. In November Eddie and Lily called on Ida at the Farrers’ house overlooking Hyde Park to tell her that they had become engaged. Lily was incandescent with happiness and Ida was delighted at the prospect of seeing her friend more often now that she would be the wife of someone from a higher social class. Lily and Eddie married in London in January 1877, before setting off on what would turn out to be a rather unhappy honeymoon on a bitterly cold and windswept Isle of Wight.

On their wedding certificate under ‘rank or profession’, where Eddie has put ‘architect’ Lily has left hers blank. No longer being a governess was an indication of Lily’s enhanced social status as a married woman, but it also marked the end of something: her precious and long-held independence.

By Ann Kennedy Smith (all rights reserved)

There is a photograph of the mantelpiece in my article ‘Room with a view’ about the mantelpiece and E.M. Forster in the Times Literary Supplement, 28 July 2017. For more about Lily, see the King’s College, Cambridge archive:

http://www.kings.cam.ac.uk/archive-centre/exhibition/alice-clara-lily-forster.