A Secret Sisterhood

Emily Midorikawa and Emma Claire Sweeney

The Hidden Friendships of Austen, Bronte, Eliot and Woolf

Published by Aurum Press 1 June 2017

320pp, hardback, £20

Reviewed by Jessica Mann

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Just when one wonders if there can be anything more to say about Jane Austen or Charlotte Bronte, along comes this splendidly original book which  proves that the variety of new perceptions  about  these and other great writers is indeed infinite.  Emily Midorikawa  and  Emma Claire Sweeney, both writers and lecturers at the London campus of New York University, are themselves best friends, and in researching and writing about the friendships of great women writers have not so much made discoveries about their subjects as reinterpreted the known facts.

They believe that ‘over the years a conspiracy of silence has obscured the friendships of female authors, past and present.’ So in this book they describe and discuss the relationships between Jane Austen and her nieces’ governess, Anne Sharp; Charlotte Bronte and Mary Taylor, who – long before other women dared to say so – insisted that women should reject the expectations of society and fight instead for their own happiness; George Eliot and Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a woman so celebrated that Queen Victoria, a fan of the book, was determined to meet her.  The Queen had been advised against being seen in public with such a controversial figure. So she had her staff arrange a supposedly chance rendezvous with the author on a restricted platform at King’s Cross railway station.

The friendship between Beecher Stowe and Eliot was intermittent (it could take more than a year for a letter to be answered) but, according to George Eliot’s son, it was one of the most delightful experiences of his mother’s life – though admittedly he wrote those words in an admiring biography many years later. And finally, Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield, though the relationship between these two women, as described here, does not seem so much that of friends as of ‘frenemies’.

The authors chose these examples from a long list of author friends, such as Winifred Holtby and Vera Brittain, Dorothy L. Sayers and Agatha Christie, Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison.  These examples of ‘hidden friendships’ are interesting and well described – and they all have an undercurrent of subversion or naughtiness about them. As Margaret Atwood says in her foreword, ‘It was a received opinion throughout the last two millennia, up to and including much of the twentieth century, that… to write seriously was immodest for a woman.’ Similarly, relationships between women were not seen as important.  As Austen’s heroine is told in Northanger Abbey, ‘The men think us incapable of real friendship, you know.’

Right up until the 1970s, plans to meet a female friend might be cancelled if there was a chance of a date with a man; and were constrained by the fact that in many restaurants and bars, women without men were not served or even admitted.  Remembering that, we should feel not disapproving but encouraged by today’s raucous gatherings, the ‘girls’ night out’. There could well be an author among them, for ‘women writers are too often the subject of misleading myths of isolation.’

A writer myself, I know that my life has been enriched and my work improved by my women friends.  I applaud Emily Midorikawa and Emma Claire Sweeney for their original ideas and revelatory research. And I agree with their conclusion: ‘It is time to break the silence and celebrate this literary sisterhood.’

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