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The Famous Women Writers Whose Friendships We’ve Forgotten

5 minute read

People often tell us they find our friendship strange. We do all the usual things: treat each other to birthday meals, trade secrets over glasses of wine, take vacations together. But as fellow writers, we also read countless drafts of each other’s work, bat emails back and forth every day, teach at the same small university campus and shut ourselves away for days — sometimes weeks — on end to establish mini-creative retreats. We run a joint blog, and recently co-authored a book on the friendships between famed female authors.

But we’ve been repeatedly told that our relationship seems a bit intense.

It used to strike us as odd that our closeness could cause such bemusement. After all, writers have always turned to each other for creative and moral support. The alliance between Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth is enshrined in literary lore. A mention of Lord Byron immediately brings to mind Percy Bysshe Shelley. And biographies of F. Scott Fitzgerald are incomplete without reference to Ernest Hemingway.

But where are the women in this roster of legendary friendships? Jane Austen is mythologized as a shy and sheltered spinster; the Brontё sisters, lonely wanderers of windswept moors; George Eliot, an aloof intellectual; and Virginia Woolf, a melancholic genius.

Skeptical of such images of isolation, we set out to investigate. We soon discovered that behind each of these celebrated authors was a close alliance with another female writer. But, to this day, these literary bonds have been systematically forgotten, distorted or downright suppressed.

History still tends to shine a light on a female author’s relationships with men, overshadowing her ties with fellow women. And so, George Eliot is remembered for holding her own in the male-dominated intellectual circles of Victorian London, but her transatlantic alliance with Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of the era-defining antislavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, is written out of literary lore. The conspiracy of silence that endures around the friendship between two female authors of such stature suggests that intellectual ties between women still have a subversive quality.

And yet certain kinds of female relationships tend to get a better hearing. The domestic bonds of our most lauded literary women are still treated more favorably than the friendships they sought outside the home. Ever since Austen’s death in 1817, for instance, biographers have celebrated the close connection she shared with her sister, who facilitated Jane’s writing by taking on more of the household chores. But the creative support Jane sought from Anne Sharp — an amateur playwright and Austen family governess — is hardly known at all. Similarly, the early 19th century upbringing of the Brontё sisters causes endless fascination, yet biographers pay scant attention to the literary influence of Charlotte’s friend, the feminist writer Mary Taylor.

Perhaps, deep down, society has a tendency to see intellectual bonds between women as a threat to the conventional role of woman as daughter, wife and mother. We are not comfortable with the idea that women seek out relationships with other women for intellectual and professional gain.

This might explain the shift we have observed in attitudes towards our own friendship. Our closeness as 20-somethings was considered all well and good, but that perception changed after one of us set up home with a partner. Initially, we were surprised that anyone might believe a close female friendship would break apart simply because one of us committed to a man. But the questions we’ve so often encountered in conversations with journalists, readers and fellow writers indicate that this belief persists.

Now that we’re both in long-term relationships, we continue to encounter concern for the men in our lives. People fear that our work together somehow harms our unions. It’s hard to imagine male writer friends fielding similar queries about the impact of their working relationships on their wives. The iconic stories of literary camaraderie all feature married men: Coleridge and Wordsworth’s treks through the Lakeland hills, the Italian escapades of Byron and Shelley, Fitzgerald and Hemingway’s riotous Parisian drinking sprees. Yet public discourse rarely turns to the effect of those relationships on the women who loved them.

Moreover, male writers appear to be exempt from the widespread assumption that ambitious women must be attempting to undermine their female peers. The relationship between Modernists Katherine Mansfield and Virginia Woolf is a case in point. They deeply valued their competitive friendship, which brought both writers success by challenging each to up their game. But they’re primarily remembered as bitter foes. Legendary male writing duos have suffered no such fate. Fitzgerald and Hemingway, Byron and Shelley, Coleridge and Wordsworth all had their bust-ups, but these men are remembered as rambunctious pals.

Even in the 21st century, popular conceptions of female friendship struggle to accommodate dispute. We teach our daughters and sons that robust debate remains the preserve of men. We suggest women aren’t capable of conflict without cattiness. In reality, female friendships are as fruitful and layered as the male relationships we’ve long revered.

In a climate in which women’s contributions in so many areas often feel chronically undervalued, it’s now more urgent than ever that we abolish harmful images of talented women as solitary eccentrics, aloof geniuses or ambitious b-tches. These stereotypes perpetuate the damaging myth that great women are one-offs, lacking both predecessors and successors. But, in truth, each new generation builds on the achievements of its mothers and will only pioneer change by working together — just as women have always done.

Emily Midorikawa and Emma Claire Sweeney are the co-authors of A Secret Sisterhood: The Literary Friendships of Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, George Eliot, and Virginia Woolf (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017).

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