Voyaging Out (2)

The second of my occasional blogposts focusing on book news, reviews and literary events.

The Tavistock Clinic’s original location, in Bloomsbury’s Tavistock Square
  1. Mental health This September marks 100 years since the Tavistock Clinic first opened its doors in London (now part of the Tavistock and Portman NHS Trust). It was founded by Dr Hugh Crichton-Miller, who wanted ordinary civilians to have access to the pioneering ‘talking therapies’ that had been used so successfully to treat shell-shocked soldiers during World War One. In Cambridge a similar clinic was already treating voluntary outpatients at the old Addenbrooke’s Hospital. It was founded by ‘Ladies Dining Society’ member Ida Darwin, with the support of C.S. Myers and W.H.R. Rivers. Dr Helen Boyle had been providing free counselling to women and children in Brighton since 1905. You can read more about these mental health pioneers in my article ‘The Lessons of Shell Shock’ which appears in the new issue of History Today.

2. Book news: This week, on 3 September, over 600 books will be published on a single day, the first of several waves of new books appearing in October and November. The Covid-19 crisis has meant that many of the larger publishers delayed publication of their ‘big name’ authors until the autumn. Smaller publishers are worried that their authors will be overlooked, because they don’t have the money to fund publicity campaigns and host book launches. The former Booker judge Alex Clark has written about this autumn’s ‘bookalanche’. One of the books I am looking forward to reading is Richard Ovenden’s Burning The Books (John Murray Press). It’s about the deliberate obliteration of libraries and archives over three millennia, and is already getting lots of great reviews. Ovenden is Bodley’s Librarian at Oxford, and his aim is not just to write about the destruction of precious archives,  ‘but also to acknowledge and celebrate the ways librarians and archivists have fought back’, he writes.

3. Pen names Some much-loved books were also in the news this month when the ‘Reclaim Her Name’ venture  was launched to mark 25 years of the Women’s Prize for Fiction. The Prize’s sponsor Bailey’s has re-released 25 books that were written by women but originally published under male pseudonyms. The collection is free to download in e-book form, and physical box sets will be donated to selected UK libraries. The idea is to introduce readers to more international female authors, and allow women to reclaim their rightful place in literary history: ‘it’s as if women didn’t write any of these books, that the past is an unbroken line of beards and every now and again, you get one woman’ the Prize’s co-founder and honorary director Kate Mosse said.

While it’s good that women writers’ contributions are being recognized, some questions remain unanswered.  The collection includes Middlemarch by Mary Ann Evans (aka George Eliot) and Amantine by Aurore Dupin (better known as the best-selling French writer George Sand). Along with Charlotte Brontë, Eliot and Sand are described by Virginia Woolf in her book-length essay A Room of One’s Own as “all victims of inner strife as their writings prove, sought ineffectively to veil themselves by using the name of a man.”  However, as many commentators have pointed out, George Eliot and George Sand liked their professional pseudonyms and continued to use them long after everyone knew they were women. The Bailey’s venture has been criticized for a well-meaning but clumsy attempt to impose birth names – or, indeed, married names- on professional writers who in some cases were happy to leave them behind.  It might be more useful to highlight the novels of many women writers whose work has been forgotten, some of their books gathering dust in libraries.

4. Library news It’s very good news that the UK’s museums and libraries gradually began to reopen this month.  As I wrote in my previous blog, over the past months Cambridge University Library staff have been working hard to make many more collections available digitally. From today, 31 August 2020, many more people around the world will be able to access the Library’s treasures via the ‘Google Arts and Culture’ platform, which uses high-resolution image technology to allow users to explore the collections of many different galleries and museums (more information here). More objects will be added in the coming months, and it’s expected that the Fitzwilliam Museum will join the platform along with other University of Cambridge institutions. You can follow the link here to virtually tour the Library’s objects and treasures on the platform. Don’t forget to click on the ‘heart’ sign to give valuable feedback on the collection.

5. Reading recommendations (fiction) As a former dictionary writer myself (see my Slightly Foxed essay here) I have enjoyed reading Eley Williams’s The Liars’ Dictionary this summer. It’s a funny and original novel that follows the intertwining stories of two lexicographers connected to the fictional ‘Swansby’s New Encyclopaedic Dictionary’ 100 years apart: Peter Winceworth, who in 1899 begins to smuggle his own made-up words into the dictionary, and Mallory, the young woman employed to create a digitised version of the dictionary who tries to track down the false entries and solve the mystery. Despite their ability with words, each of the two characters struggles with speaking their mind, and the book is a playful investigation of the limits of language and the importance of love.

(nonfiction) If you are missing libraries as I am, you will enjoy photographer Sara Rawlinson’s newly published book Illuminating Cambridge Libraries. I previously mentioned her following in the footsteps of the photographer Lettice Ramsey who climbed King’s College Chapel’s scaffolding when she was in her 70s to photograph the ceiling. Rawlinson did the same from the precarious platform of a cherry-picker, and now her fascinating book captures the look and feel of different Cambridge libraries.

In ‘North-west London blues’ her 2012 essay for the New York Review of Books, the writer Zadie Smith described how after she moved to New York to teach creative writing, the library became an important place for her to work. ‘Each morning I struggle to find a seat in the packed university library,’ she writes, ‘despite the fact that every single student in here could be at home in front of their Macbook browsing Google Books.’ It’s unlikely that libraries will be packed for a while, but it’s very good that they are opening their doors again as the autumn begins.

© Ann Kennedy Smith 31 August 2020 (all rights reserved)

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