EMILY MIDORIKAWA and EMMA CLAIRE SWEENEY A Secret Sisterhood: The Hidden Friendships of Austen, Bronte, Eliot and Woolf. Reviewed by Justine Ettler
From Charlotte Brontë and Elizabeth Gaskell to Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield, Midorikawa and Sweeney celebrate the friendships between women writers.
I’ve heard people say that what ensures a writer’s continued productivity are things like having a trust fund, good childcare and lots of solitude. I must say while all these things certainly help, I don’t believe they are enough in themselves. What’s most important to keep a novelist going through thick and thin is to have someone close to you who believes in you and what you’re trying to do. Not exactly a mentor, although they can be useful too, but more a mirror, someone going through similar things who can share the struggles and celebrate the successes with you because they understand. A creative best friend.
Midorikawa and Sweeney’s delectably jacketed A Secret Sisterhood maps out a history of canonical literary friendships between women, drawing parallels with their own friendship and professional partnership. When the ‘sisters’ are the likes of Austen, Charlotte Brontë, Eliot, Gaskell, Stowe, Woolf and Mansfield it makes for intriguing—and refreshing—reading, given the preponderance of biographies that focus on the frequently mythologised friendships between male writers from Boswell and Johnson to Hemingway and Fitzgerald.
Reading the book, I discovered I knew nothing about Jane Austen’s friendship with Anne Sharp, her rich sister’s governess, who secretly wanted to be a playwright. It’s a friendship painstakingly pieced together despite scant hard evidence—Austen makes just one surviving reference to this friendship in what remain of her diaries and letters, most of which were destroyed by family members and destroyed Sharp’s letters. Reading between the lines of Austen’s niece’s diary, it appears that Austen and Sharp not only supported each other as writers but actually went away to write together. This makes for fascinating reading, though I couldn’t help feeling frustrated that so much of Austen’s correspondence—and our knowledge of her life—has been destroyed.
While my knowledge of Austen’s biography had been scanty prior to reading this book, my own research as a novelist has made me familiar with Charlotte Brontë’s life. I’ve read Gaskell’s The Life of Charlotte Brontë and Juliet Barker’s challenging tome—I prefer Gaskell, though my favourite account of the Brontës is Sally Wainwright’s excellent biopic, To Walk Invisible. The account here of Brontë’s and Gaskell’s friendship is a welcome addition to these as it brings to light a side of the once notorious Brontë that I hadn’t previously encountered.
With so many women literary geniuses in one volume, A Secret Sisterhood is also about an idea, the wonderful idea of women writers banding together and helping each other, but not all the stories have happy endings. The Woolf/Mansfield chapter complicates the idea of sisterhood by adding a sexual dimension as well as depicting the way inequalities of class, culture, family support and mental stability impacted both women, not to mention good old-fashioned competitiveness. A similar discord plays out between Eliot and Stowe (though to a lesser degree) and together, these two chapters rightly prevent the sisterhood idea from becoming a mere female version of male mythological literary duos.
Two questions I would like to ask the authors are how patriarchy impacted these friendships and how it played out in some of their writing. All the women are clearly spirited and ahead of their times, but I wondered how they were limited in their lives and work. The million million-dollar question:, why Austen wrote her trademark happy endings while she herself remained single, remains a mystery.
As a corrective measure to the common assumption of the crazy woman artist syndrome—all too painfully illustrated in the recent biopic A Quiet Passion, which made Emily Dickinson so crazy I couldn’t help but laugh—this volume, with its stirring introduction by Margaret Atwood, is long overdue. It is no Becoming Jane, eschewing that film’s gluggy-eyed emphasis on Austen’s love life, and while it is flawed (I found the authors’ technique of occasionally writing in the first-person plural irritating), I share their outrage at the inequality applied to women writers, in this case, to their friendships, which have not been recorded or celebrated sufficiently. Hear, hear.
Emily Midorikawa and Emma Claire Sweeney A Secret Sisterhood Aurum Press 2017 HB 320pp $39.99
Justine Ettler has a PhD in American fiction and is the author of three novels, including the controversial bestseller The River Ophelia (a new edition was released in 2017) and Bohemia Beach (published by Transit Lounge in 2018). She has worked as an academic and a freelance journalist, and her work is available at bookshops, online and from her website.
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