A Secret Sisterhood
Emily Midorikawa and Emma Claire Sweeney
Writing tends to be a solitary activity. When you think of literary greats such as Jane Austen and George Eliot, it’s often a mental image of them writing industriously in splendid isolation.
However, a new book A Secret Sisterhood by Emily Midorikawa and Emma Claire Sweeney has uncovered the hidden literary friendships of the world's most respected female authors. Inspired by their own friendship and encouragement for each other, Sweeney and Midorkikawa embarked on research into previously unpublished letters and diaries, proving that everyone needs support and someone to bounce ideas around with.
The pair talked to a full Hungerford Bookshop on Thursday evening about their new book and why these female friendships are not as well-known as male ones such as Byron and Shelley or Fitzgerald and Hemingway.
The talk revealed Jane Austen's bond with a family servant, the amateur playwright Anne Sharp and why the Austen family were keen to keep this quiet. Sharp was the governess of Jane Austen’s niece but does not appear in any biographies even though she was one of a select list of first people to receive presentation copies of her novels.
The pair also explored the friendships of Charlotte Bronte, who was a friend of feminist writer Mary Taylor despite their first meeting when Taylor announced that she found Bronte “very ugly” at boarding school. However, they were brought together by the love of a good political argument and their differing views helped each other see the world from opposing standpoints. They encouraged each other to make a living from their writing and Mary’s feedback on Jane Eyre was that it was not radical enough and gave such frank advice that her next novel Shirley was more openly political.
Midorikawa and Sweeney also spoke on the transatlantic relationship between George Eliot and the author of Uncle Tom's Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe, who never actually met in real life. Their correspondence had never been published to date and Sweeney and Midorikawa found a number of letters that showed a unique insight between the two who were the most famous writers of their time on either side of the Atlantic.
Lastly, they discussed the relationship between Katherine Mansfield and Virginia Woolf, a fantastically complex relationship which Sweeney and Midorikawa nearly dismissed believing them to be enemies. Woolf accused Mansfield of ‘stinking like a civet cat that has taken to street walking’ which doesn’t sound like the language of close friends but belied a ‘robust’ friendship that was so strong that Woolf struggled to continue writing when Mansfield died at the age of 33.
With these literary heroines’ achievements and relationships downplayed in the past, it’s reassuring to know that women have always sought strength and support from others throughout history. Sweeney summed up saying: “The truth is that intelligent, creative women have always collaborated and we feel that this is surely the moment to pass that on to our daughters.”
The book is on sale at the Hungerford Bookshop and other outlets, with a preface by Margaret Atwood.
(First appeared in the Newbury Weekly News)