Books of the year 2022, part 1

My round-up of six of the books I most enjoyed reading and writing about in 2022; six more to follow soon.

In Jane Austen, Early and Late (Princeton University Press, 2021) Freya Johnston argues that by limiting our perspective to Austen’s final six completed novels, published in the last six years of her life, we aren’t getting a complete picture of three substantial decades of her full writing career. Austen’s biographer Claire Tomalin describes the young Jane as ‘a tough and unsentimental child, drawn to rude, anarchic imaginings and black jokes’. This can be seen in Austen’s mischievous response to the Irish writer Oliver Goldsmith’s claim to impartiality in his The History of England. ‘Oh! Dr. Goldsmith Thou art as partial an Historian as myself!,’ she wrote as a rebellious teenager in the margin of the family’s edition. My essay on Johnston’s book was published in the Dublin Review of Books in January 2022: follow the link here.

‘The transformation of Ireland over the last 60 years has sometimes felt as if a new world had landed from outer space on top of an old one,” Fintan O’Toole writes in We Don’t Know Ourselves: A Personal History of Modern Ireland (Head of Zeus, 2021). This is an illuminating history, charting the huge changes across different aspects of Irish society since O’Toole’s parents married and settled in a modern housing estate on the outskirts of Dublin in the mid 1950s. The newlywed O’Tooles were unusual in deciding to stay, as most of their siblings had left or were preparing to leave Ireland; the overall population had shrunk from 6.5 million in 1841 to 2.8 million in 1961. Three out of five children born in the 1950s were destined to leave, mostly to England, and up to 45% of all those born in Ireland between 1931 and 1941 left at some stage in their lives. ‘The idea of disappearance hung over the place’, O’Toole writes, and to stay at home meant ‘a lingering disillusion’. But things did change, in ways no one could have predicted. Thinking about Ireland’s past, and the centenary of James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922) this year led me to hunt out the unabridged version of this great novel on Naxos Audio (27hr 16min), read by the Irish actors Jim Norton and Marcella Riordan. First released in 1994, it’s free to download if you have an Audible subscription, and highly recommended.

I also enjoyed reading Lennie Goodings’ entertaining and insightful memoir A Bite of the Apple: A Life with Books, Writers and Virago (OUP paperback, 2022), as part of background research into my forthcoming English Review article about the feminist press Virago, who will be marking fifty years of publishing next year. It is sad that its founder Carmen Callil, who died this year, will not be part of the celebrations in 2023. ‘I started Virago to break a silence, to make women’s voices heard, to tell women’s stories, my story and theirs’ she said in this 2008 Guardian interview. Callil chose the name ‘Virago’ in 1973 to reclaim the word’s heroic old meaning of a strong, courageous female warrior – which she herself certainly was.

Another iconic female figure – the Queen – was celebrated in the UK this summer with a series of Platinum Jubilee events. Barbara Pym’s Excellent Women was first published in 1952, the same year that Elizabeth II acceded to the throne, and it is still fresh and sardonic, one of this underrated English novelist’s best. Virago has recently reissued it, along with eight of Pym’s other novels (see above) and to mark the occasion I wrote about ‘The Ascent of Barbara Pym’ for The Critic magazine online here.

My other ‘holiday reading’ was the reissue of Elizabeth von Arnim’s The Enchanted April by Oxford World’s Classics, first published in 1922. In her excellent new introduction to this much-loved classic, the Cambridge academic Isobel Maddison describes it as ‘an appealing mix of fairy-tale, feminist work, travel and nature writing. It is also, crucially, a post-war novel: a nostalgic, funny book portraying escape to a carefully described pastoral enclave away from the city and encroaching modernity, in an era when the Great War had left many emotionally and physically starved.’ I was lucky enough to read The Enchanted April in the Italian countryside in the summer of 2022, while staying in a medieval castle, and I can thoroughly recommend the experience.

Next time: Six more books, and a selection of new books to look forward to in 2023.

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.’

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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