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.

 

An invasion of croquet

A new version of one of my first blogposts – about the father of Virginia Woolf, Leslie Stephen’s years as a fellow at Cambridge. He objected to fellows getting married, but later changed his mind.

Ladies' Dining Society 1890-1914

Long before he became famous as the co-founder of the Dictionary of National Biography in 1885 (and as the father of Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell), Leslie Stephen (1832-1904) was a teaching fellow at Trinity Hall, Cambridge from 1854 until 1864. During his ten years there, he wrote a series of affectionate and sardonic essays about university life, published anonymously in 1865 in a little book called Sketches From Cambridgeby A. Don.

In the first chapter, Stephen describes Trinity Hall as ‘the ideal of a college’, with its ancient cloisters and courts surrounded by tall trees, organ music drifting through the air and the sounds of high-spirited young men making their way to lectures, as they had done for centuries. Now this scholarly idyll was under threat: women were encroaching on its hallowed ground.

We have a lawn of velvet turf, hitherto devoted to the orthodox game of bowls…

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A testament to friendship

The Cambridge Ladies’ Dining Society was “ a testament to friendship and intellectual debate at a time when women’s voices went largely unheard” (Ann Kennedy Smith)

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Kathleen Lyttelton; photograph reproduced with the kind permission of Andrew Wallis

This month Wikipedia included a detailed article about the Ladies’ Dining Society. It’s based on, among other sources, an entry that I wrote last year for the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, and written by one of Wiki’s experienced editors. In the future, other editors and readers may add to the article, and it would be nice if, in time, more information emerges about the group, including what they discussed during their dinners.

Given that the twelve women met regularly from 1890 until 1914 it’s not difficult to make some guesses. Women’s higher education, suffrage, the ‘New Woman’ in fiction and reality – they were all hot topics at the time. But probably the most debated issue in 1890, when the group formed, was ‘the marriage question’. In August 1888 the novelist Mona Caird published an essay called ‘Marriage’ in the Westminster Review, stating that marriage as it existed in Victorian Britain was ‘a vexatious failure’ and calling for equality of marriage partners. The Daily Telegraph took up the issue, and began a series called ‘Is Marriage A Failure?’ Over the following three months the newspaper received an astonishing 27,000 letters on the subject, an avalanche of opinions that filled its columns week after week. ‘The marriage question’, as it became known, continued to be debated in Britain throughout the 1890s, and I think it is very likely that these friends would have discussed it. (I imagined an early meeting of theirs in a previous post.)

Marriage was what brought most of them to Cambridge, or made them choose to stay on there after their studies. One of the attractions of marrying a man from Oxford or Cambridge was the chance to access the educational opportunities that were denied to the majority of women at the time. Many lectures were open to married women, and in the 1870s Caroline Jebb attended lectures in zoology, moral philosophy, law, and German literature. She did not want to appear a bluestocking, though, and claimed that she enjoyed Alfred Marshall’s lectures in political economy because they supplied ‘such good after-dinner conversation’.

Ida Darwin’s husband Horace worked on designing measuring instruments for the university’s new scientific laboratories. After she married him and moved to Cambridge in 1880 they both became involved in supporting the new women’s college at Newnham. Together they helped to galvanize votes for the successful Senate statute in 1881 that allowed female students the right to sit for the university’s final year exams. Horace’s father Charles Darwin called it ‘the triumph of the Ladies at Cambridge’ describing proudly how ‘Horace was sent to the Ladies’ College to communicate the success and was received with enthusiasm.’

Ida was also close to Anne Jemima Clough, Newnham’s first principal, and student (later vice-principal) Helen Gladstone. Several other lecturers from Newnham College were members of the Ladies’ Dining Society, including Margaret Verrall, Mary Paley Marshall and Ellen Crofts Darwin, who had married Ida’s brother-in-law Frank Darwin. Newnham’s second principal was Eleanor Sidgwick, whose marriage to the college’s co-founder Henry Sidgwick helped to establish women’s education at Cambridge.

So, as far as Cambridge was concerned, marriage (which was only permitted for most college fellows after 1882) was a good thing. It brought a wave of women who were passionately committed to improving life for the less privileged people of the town, and for giving equal rights to women workers of all classes across Britain. Louise Creighton was a co-founder of he National Union of Women Workers in 1885, while Kathleen Lyttelton began The Cambridge Association For Women’s Suffrage alongside Millicent Fawcett. The American Maud Darwin campaigned for the introduction of women police officers in Cambridge, and Fanny Prothero and Eliza von Hügel were active in finding homes for Belgian refugees in the town during the First World War.

Virginia Woolf once called Cambridge “that detestable place” because of the university’s long history of preventing female students’ rights to education. Marriage – like women’s education – was an unfair institution in 1890 and for many years afterwards, but the work of the university wives helped to make Cambridge a much better place.

Ann Kennedy Smith, 31 January 2019 (All rights reserved

Great Lives

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A study of Strachey reading, by Dora Carrington

Just over a hundred years ago, in 1918, Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians was published and biography changed forever. To celebrate the centenary of this groundbreaking book, I decided last year to compile a list of 100 of my favourite biographies and memoirs that have been published since then, and post each one on Twitter as my ‘Life of the Day’, with the hashtag #lifeoftheday. My list is not in any particular order or organized by theme, but as I have now reached the halfway mark, here’s a selection of a few of them.

The first biography I chose was Virginia Woolf’s Flush: A Biography (Hogarth Press, 1933), an imaginative account of the life of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s mischievous little cocker spaniel. All her life Woolf experimented with different forms of biographical writing, but even before Flush was published she regretted it, believing it would prevent her from being taken seriously as a writer. Yet after her friend Sibyl Colefax praised it, Woolf said: “I’m so glad that you liked Flush. I think it shows great discrimination in you because it was all a matter of hints and shades, and practically no one has seen what I was after.”

One of the first biographies that made me want to write about ‘forgotten’ women was Ann Thwaite’s Emily Tennyson: The Poet’s Wife (Faber 1996). In her preface Thwaite wrote: “I have always been interested in the lives of nineteenth-century women who managed, in spite of the restrictions they suffered, to live full and fulfilling lives.” She showed that Emily Tennyson was musically gifted and independent-minded, something that biographers of her more famous husband had failed to notice.

Claire Tomalin’s The Invisible Woman: The Story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens (Penguin, 2012) ‘is the story of someone who – almost – wasn’t there; who vanished into thin air,’ Tomalin writes. I included Frances Wilson’s The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth (Faber 2008) for its vivid opening pages (“I half dread that concentration of all tender feelings, past, present and future which will come upon me on the wedding morning”) that instantly reveal the passionate inner life of William Wordsworth’s sister.

download.jpgNot all overlooked lives are female: I love The Fortunes of Francis Barber by Michael Bundock (Yale, 2015) for its fascinating story of the “intimacy, possessiveness, exasperation and love” of the close friendship between a former child slave and Dr Samuel Johnson. My own blog celebrates friendship, so it’s not surprising that several of the biographies I chose also take this as their subject.

Secret Sisterhood imageA Secret Sisterhood: The hidden friendships of Austen, Brontë, Eliot and Woolf (Aurum, 2018) by Emily Midorikawa and Emma Claire Sweeney showed how these writers’ friendships with other women underpinned their lives and writing, sustaining and challenging them to greater creativity. I wrote a review of it here. Michelle Dean’s Sharp: the women who made an art of having an opinion (Fleet, 2018) is another engaging group portrait, in this case of the connections between ten 20th-century female thinkers and writers.  Alethea Hayter’s A Sultry Month (Faber, 1965) is a pioneering biography that brilliantly evokes a summer of fierce heat and personal crises for a close-knit group of writers and artists in 1846 London. It’s a book that still has a huge impact.

The book that got me interested in writing about marriage is Parallel Lives: Five Victorian Marriages (Penguin, 1983) by Phyllis Rose. It’s an insightful, thought-provoking evocation of the troubled marriages of Dickens, Carlyle and Ruskin that’s a pleasure to read and Rose asks ‘if we managed to suppress marriage, what would we have left to tell?’ More recently, Daisy Hay wrote ‘a portrait of a marriage unobscured by mythology’ in her Mr and Mrs Disraeli (Chatto & Windus, 2015), which shows her biographer’s skills of ‘watching for alternative narratives, listening to things not said.’ I love Michael Holroyd’s explanation of how he ended up writing about the famous theatrical partnership of Ellen Terry and Henry Irving in A Strange Eventful History (2008): “it was impossible to write about Ellen without Irving elbowing his way in and trying to upstage her – and once that happened the rest of the families crowded in and I was in for the long haul.” (The Guardian, 2008).

Some of the best biographies remind us of the pitfalls of life writing. In Virginia Woolf (Vintage, 1997) Hermione Lee shook up biography traditions by reminding us in the opening chapter that “there is no such thing as an objective biography, particularly not in this case.” In his equally influential book, Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer (Harper Perennial, 1985) Richard Holmes showed the pleasures of ‘footstepping’ your subject, visiting the places they went to and seeing what they saw. “If you are not in love with them you will not follow them – not very far, anyway,” he warns. Yet the besotted biographer is not necessarily a good thing, as far as his or her subject is concerned. ‘The biographer at work,’ wrote Janet Malcolm provocatively in The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath & Ted Hughes (Granta, 1993) ‘is like the professional burglar, breaking into a house, rifling through certain drawers that he has good reason to think contain the jewelry and money, and triumphantly bearing his loot away.’

In her prize-winning Aristocrats (Chatto, 2004) Stella Tillyard offers a more positive view of why life-writing matters: ‘biography (especially biography that deals, as this one does, with romance and royalty) often gives intimacy without context, and history without biography offers context without the warmth of individual lives.’ Craig Brown also deals with romance and royalty in his witty and irreverent Ma’am Darling: 99 Glimpses of Princess Margaret (4th Estate, 2017). It was awarded the James Tait Black Memorial prize for Biography in 2018, and like Virginia Woolf’s Flush it’s a reminder to all biographers not to take themselves – or their subjects – too seriously.

A public space: Kathleen Lyttelton’s campaigning journalism

In my recent guest post for Something Rhymed, Emily Midorikawa’s and Emma Claire Sweeney’s inspiring blog on women’s literary friendships, I described how Kathleen Lyttelton was the first editor to publish Virginia Woolf’s writing, beginning a warm professional relationship. Here I take a closer look at Kathleen’s work as a journalist.  

In June 1903, when she was 47, Kathleen Lyttelton became the editor of a new supplement of a long-established Anglican weekly newspaper called The Guardian. It seems that it was her idea to start a special section of women’s pages in a publication that otherwise was aimed squarely at clergymen, with articles such as ‘The Church at Home and Abroad’ and advertisements for prayer-books and suitcases for cassocks. Arthur Lyttelton, Kathleen’s husband was the Bishop of Southampton, and she had been reviewing books anonymously for The Guardian for years (she was a published short-story writer). After his death in early 1903 she moved to Bloomsbury with her daughter Margaret, and began to earn her own living as a journalist.

 

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Mary Kathleen Lyttelton (née Clive) by Eveleen Myers (née Tennant), platinum print, 1890s: NPG Ax68772 © National Portrait Gallery, London

Editorship of the new Guardian section allowed Kathleen to cover issues that had a direct impact on women’s lives, and to bring them directly into the homes of respectable clergymen and their families. From the beginning, her focus was on the new opportunities opening up for women of different social classes to study and work, as it had been since co-founding Cambridge’s first women’s suffrage association. There were articles on women as school managers and, in the field of public health, much-needed sanitary inspectors. Or what about a career as a nurse, an elementary school teacher or in the printing trade? The ‘well-educated gentlewoman’ who read The Guardian was encouraged to consider what were previously seen as lowly occupations. And to cater for genteel working women’s needs, there was a feature on ‘A restaurant for busy women’ that had recently opened in Manchester Square, London.

By 1904 Kathleen was writing editorial leader columns every week. She was outspoken about the need for women to earn money on the same terms as men, including in her own profession of writing. She was aware that, as she put it, ‘in spite of Fanny Burney, Maria Edgeworth, and Jane Austen’ women writers were still seen as overstepping a boundary if they were paid on equal terms to men. ‘Even when Charlotte Yonge achieved her first success, it was not considered the right thing for her to receive a pecuniary reward for her labours’, she noted with asperity, ‘and the difficulty was overcome by handing the proceeds to a charitable society.’ Things had not changed much.

In specially commissioned articles, Kathleen also directed her readers’ attention to financial and legal issues affecting women in other countries. One article called ‘What women are doing in Germany’ described the growing call for women to have equal access to professions: ‘In Germany the woman question – as it is in England- is no mere matter of abstract right; considerations of daily bread come into the account… There are in the Empire a million more women than men’. Her friend Millicent Garrett Fawcett (writing as Mrs Henry Fawcett) contributed an article on ‘Women’s Suffrage in the Australian Commonwealth’, and in March 1904 Kathleen published ‘Indian Women’ by Cornelia Sorabji, who had studied at Somerville College in Oxford, then taken law qualifications in London and Bombay. Sorabji described how she wanted to use her training to ensure the legal rights of purdanashins, women prohibited from communicating with men, but she was not permitted to represent them in court. Three months later, however, Kathleen was happy to report that Sorabji had been appointed as a government legal adviser on the issue; later she would go on to win the right for purdanashins to train as nurses.

Injustices closer to home were also highlighted in the Guardian. In July 1904 Kathleen reported on Mrs Higgs who, as a precursor of George Orwell, had written about her experience of spending five days as a woman tramp, sleeping in workhouses and common lodgings. After the tramp ward men and women no longer fear prison,’ Mrs Higgs wrote, and as a result of her article, local governments in Lancashire and Yorkshire took action. Elsewhere, Kathleen reported on the ‘crying need of an ambulance service in London’ rather than using cabs to take injured people to hospital, and she passionately supported the cause of Dr Ethel Vernon, a competent and well-liked doctor who was sacked from Westminster Hospital simply because one male consultant did not want to work with a woman. In another leader column, she argued for a greater knowledge of the laws that existed to protect working women and girls, instead of the fund-raising philanthropic approach favoured by her well-meaning, wealthy friends.

Kathleen’s work as a campaigning journalist threw light on issues affecting women of all classes, and Millicent Fawcett described her close friend’s sudden death in 1907, at the age of 51, as ‘a grave loss… to every cause which concerns the welfare and the progress of women… it is hard to lose such a companion and fellow-worker.’

Selwyn

In autumn 2018 Selwyn College in Cambridge will rename a room in the tower as the ‘Kathleen Lyttelton Room’, marking both the centenary of the extension of the women’s franchise in 1918 and Kathleen’s twenty-five years of campaigning for political equality. Her work began when she moved to Cambridge in 1882 as the wife of the college’s first Master, Arthur Lyttelton: she was one of the founders of the Cambridge Association for Women’s Suffrage in 1884, and became President of the National Union of Women Workers in 1899. Her book Women and Their Work was published in 1901, and her portrait, above, is included in the portraits of 74 influential ‘Suffragettes and Suffragists’ at the National Portrait Gallery, London. So it is all the more appropriate that there will soon be a room at Selwyn named in her honour, where discussions between men and women can take place on equal terms.

© Ann Kennedy Smith 20 July 2018

With thanks to Selwyn College and to Andrew Wallis, Jean Chothia and Carolyn Ferguson for additional research. 

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

Kathleen and Virginia

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‘I don’t in the least want Mrs L.’s candid criticism; I want her cheque!’

So wrote the 22-year old Virginia Stephen in November 1904 about an essay she had just sent to the Guardian, a weekly clerical journal for governesses, maiden ladies and high-church parsons. It was not the ideal vehicle for Virginia’s strong views, but she badly wanted to be published and to be paid for her writing. ‘Mrs L.’ was Kathleen Lyttelton, pictured left, the 47-year old editor of the Guardian‘s women’s pages. Although her name is little known today, we should pay tribute to her as the woman who set Virginia Woolf on her published writing career.

Kathleen, formally known as Mrs Arthur Lyttelton, was a social reformer, writer, suffrage campaigner and one of the founder members of the Cambridge Ladies Dining Society. She was a practical person with a mission to help the female sex. In 1884 she co-founded the Cambridge Women’s Suffrage Association (C.W.S.A.) and served on its executive from 1885–1890. In 1888, encouraged by her friend Millicent Fawcett, she joined the executive committee of the Central Society for Women’s Suffrage to work for suffrage at a national level.  A committed Anglican with high ideals, she felt compelled to engage in the struggle for women’s franchise and to help the poor, women in trouble and women workers, and to use her writing as a means of educating them. In 1901 she published her views in her book Women and their Work, intended as a manual for women at a time when society was changing. In February 1903, her husband Arthur, then Bishop of Southampton, died prematurely, and Kathleen was forced to move, but she was determined to continue with her writing career. She joined The Guardian as editor in June 1904 after the paper amalgamated with The Churchwoman, a journal she is likely to have written for beforehand.

1904 had been a traumatic year for Virginia. Her father, Sir Leslie Stephen, died from cancer in February, and she had her second serious nervous breakdown followed by a slow and painful recovery between April and October. In the autumn she and her siblings, Vanessa, Thoby, and Adrian moved to 46 Gordon Square, Bloomsbury. Bills needed to be paid, and Virginia’s close older friend and mentor Violet Dickinson encouraged her to try to publish her work as a way of making money and, more importantly, establishing herself as a writer.

It was Violet who suggested that Virginia send an essay to Kathleen Lyttelton. Violet knew the Lyttelton family well through her clerical connections, and had already introduced Virginia to Margaret, Kathleen’s daughter. Virginia had not warmed to Margaret, and was doubtful that her mother would like her writing. ‘I dont in the least expect Mrs Lyttelton to take that article’, she told Violet on 11 November 1904. She was right in one sense. Her essay on Manorbier was never published and has since been lost, but Kathleen offered something better: she invited  Virginia to contribute 1,500 words on any subject she liked, a remarkably generous offer to such a young and unknown writer. ‘Mrs Lyttelton must be a very sensible woman’ Virginia wrote gratefully to Violet on 14 November, ‘she is very generous to allow me any subject… D’you think Mrs Lyttelton will let me write fairly often?’ She did. In December 1904 The Guardian published Virginia’s review of W.D. Howell’s novel The Son of Royal Langbrith, and an essay ‘Haworth, November 1904’, written after her visit to the Brontë parsonage in November that year, in which she wrote: ‘Haworth expresses the Brontës; the Brontës express Haworth…They fit like a snail to its shell.’

In January 1905 Virginia told Violet how well she was getting on with ‘My Editress’. ‘Mrs Lyttelton has just been – she is a delightful big sensible woman. I wish she would pet me! I think she has possibilities that way!’ Her friendship with Kathleen’s daughter Margaret, even though they were the same age, was much less cordial, as Virginia wrote a month later: ‘We had Margaret L. yesterday, who did her best to talk, but she is a rather stiff and starched young woman.’ (Curiously, the editors of Virginia Woolf’s Letters and Essays, along with subsequent Woolf biographers, have merged the Lyttelton mother and daughter’s identities, wrongly referring to Margaret as the editor of the Guardian‘s women’s supplement.)

Although Virginia liked and respected Kathleen, she was understandably frustrated when she wielded her editor’s red pen too heavily. ‘I could wish that she had a finer literary taste sometimes’ Virginia complained to Violet in December 1905, ‘she sticks her broad thumb into the middle of my sentences and improves the moral tone. If I could get enough work elsewhere I dont think I should bother about the Guardian.’ There was worse to come. Kathleen insisted on reducing the word count of her review of Henry James’ The Golden Bowl so much that she made it ‘worthless’ in Virginia’s eyes.

Unlike the Brontës and Haworth, Virginia and the Guardian never did fit like a snail to its shell, and she would find a more natural home for her essays at the Times Literary Supplement. But she continued to write regularly for the Guardian for two years, earning an estimated £17, 10 s.0d, a respectable sum. Whatever might be said about her over-zealous editorial cuts, Mrs L.’s cheque – and her acceptance of the young Virginia Woolf as a writer – reveals Kathleen Lyttelton to have been an editor of some distinction.

Carolyn Ferguson and Ann Kennedy Smith (Please reference as follows: Carolyn Ferguson and Ann Kennedy Smith, ‘Kathleen and Virginia’ (November 25, 2016) https://akennedysmith.wordpress.com/(Accessed: day/month/year)

Sources: All quotations from letters are from The Letters of Virginia Woolf eds. Nigel Nicolson & Joanne Trautmann, Volume 1 (The Hogarth Press, London, 1975). The essay ‘Haworth, November 1904’ is included in The Essays of Virginia Woolf, ed. Andrew Mc Neillie Volume 1, 1904-1912 (The Hogarth Press, London), and his estimate of her earnings is on p. xviii. See also James King, Virginia Woolf (Hamish Hamilton Ltd., 1994); Hermione Lee Virginia Woolf (Vintage, 1997); Frances Spalding Virginia Woolf: Art, Life and Vision (National Portrait Gallery, 2014). With thanks to Andrew Wallis for his generous assistance, and his permission to reproduce the photograph of Kathleen Lyttelton.