Emily Midorikawa and Emma Claire Sweeney’s A Secret Sisterhood: The Hidden Friendships of Austen, Bronte, Eliot and Woolf focuses on the friendships between our favourite female novelists. Lonely spinsters with nothing else to do and no one else to love, socially inept, and thus focusing on solely on their words. The myth of the artist’s temperament and gender stereotyping mean that we think we know why and how they wrote.
Midorikawa and Sweeney challenge this. They were not reclusive, isolated or incapable of forming relationships, and female friendships should not be dismissed as frivolous, domestic, or fanciful. A Secret Sisterhood sets out to show the importance of the support, rivalry, and inspiration that characterises famous male literary friendships to these authors, in friendships that have been often overlooked by biographers and critics: ‘hidden alliances….until now, tantalisingly consigned to the shadows.’
In four sections, each three chapters long, we read of the unlikely friendship between Jane Austen and one of the family servants Anne Sharp, who was also a playwright. We ponder on how the lively voice of Charlotte Bronte may have been influenced by her relationship with the daring feminist author Mary Taylor. We see that across the Atlantic George Eliot and Harriet Beecher Stowe supported one another, and Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield’s multifaceted, highly charged and competitive friendship may well have been more complex than we first thought.
Their sources are previously unpublished letters and diaries. Letters shipped across oceans, jokes shared behind closed doors, and jibes delivered through male publishers. Whatever the reason for the friendship and the form that it took – helpful, inspiring, radical, scandalous or unpredictable – it’s clear that there was a depth of connection. They’ve done their research – thirty-five pages of notes and references mean that whilst aimed at the general reader, this book is sufficiently academic.
Cassandra destroyed many of Jane’s letters – why is still open to speculation – and so diaries by Anne Sharpe and Fanny have been used, offering an alternative angle to the usual one that we get. Austen focused a huge amount on class and the absurdities of convention – something that her friendship with a governess may have influenced. Education and literacy was a social leveller.
Woolf and Mansfield are usually considered enemies, not friends fuelled by cigarettes, tea and coffee. Woolf once compared Mansfield to ‘a civet cat that had taken to street-walking’ but underneath the salacious rivalry was a deep bond and connection. Woolf was hugely distress when she stumbled upon Mansfield’s negative review of Night and Day in the Athenaeum magazine, publicly criticising the second novel for failing to acknowledge the effects of the Great War. This review would eventually spur her on to produce some of her best work.
Similarly, not only did Mary Taylor call Charlotte Bronte ugly when they met in 1831 at Roe Head School, she was highly critical of Jane Eyre. Yet later on, the spirited advice of Taylor proved a fruitful mine for Bronte’s more political novels.
Many of the difficulties that these women faced centred around being recognised for what they produced on the page, not what they did off of it. It is therefore paradoxical that their talent for writing has caused us to be so fascinated with their lives. The book focuses on the effect of the friendships upon the writing, reinforcing the notion that art does not happen in a vacuum.
As well as the impact, these friendships had on their contemporaries, there’s a kind of historical friendship thread running vertically through the ages. For example, Woolf said of Austen that she had ‘less genius’ than Brontë but ‘got infinitely more said’ and Katherine Mansfield described Woolf’s Night and Day as ‘Miss Austen up to date’.
Although Sweeney and Midorikawa have written a fascinating account of the women’s lives, their argument that without this book the friendships would be lost to history seems a little stretched. In fact, it appears to be a conceit to bring in their own friendship, rather than anything else. Yet what they have done through the research is widen the ‘web of threads that linked these writers across generations, and vast expanses of land, sea and time’ and in doing so opened up a whole new world of literary wonder.