Thursday, 1 March 2018

A Secret Sisterhood – Emily Midorikawa & Emma Claire Sweeney

Despite doing an English Literature degree, the lack of writing on female literary friendships is not something I had given much thought. Of course, the dominance of the male voice in the literary canon was blindingly obvious, but finding books and criticism on their female counterparts was never a struggle.

But not once while studying the works of Jane Austen had I come across her epistolary relationship with a family servant and amateur playwright Anne Sharpe. Neither was I made aware of Virginia Woolf’s friendship with Katherine Mansfield while learning about Mrs Dalloway, though Mansfield had such an impact on Woolf’s literary career. 

Yet even the briefest studies on Byron entail Shelley, as Hemingway with Fitzgerald. Not only were the lives and relations of these male figures well documented, but there was always space and demand for more than one male author to succeed.

In A Secret Sisterhood, Emily Midorikawa and Emma Claire Sweeney explore four unknown but crucial friendships that shaped the works, and in some cases lives, of female authors we know and love. Beginning with Jane Austen’s frowned-upon correspondence with family governess Anne Sharp, also a budding playwright, the book takes us through Charlotte Brontë’s friendship with author Mary Taylor, George Eliot’s transatlantic correspondence with American writer Harriet Beecher Stowe, and finishes with Virginia Woolf’s turbulent relationship with fellow modernist author Katherine Mansfield.

Though Eliot and Woolf’s relations have been more widely covered, Midorikawa and Sweeney highlight the misconceptions that have pitted these pairs against one another as enemies, as they were forced to compete for the token female author spot in such unreceptive markets. 

With a succinct but brilliant foreword by Margaret Atwood, A Secret Sisterhood delves into the correspondences of these literary figures, portraying them in a way that challenges their historical perception: these individuals were not anomalous recluses, but real women with real bonds that needed reassurance from those with the same predicament of being a female writer in a time when it was not a done thing.

The book is well written and presented, and the product of extensive research, if not relying on guesswork occasionally. It’s worth noting that the written style does read a little like an essay, so it’s by no means a light read.

A Secret Sisterhood is not only an insight into four literary friendships, but it reveals parts of these infamous women’s lives that were otherwise omitted from history. Midorikawa and Sweeney also emphasise the instability of these friendships, outlining how challenging it was both to write and be taken seriously as a female writer in the 19th and early 20th century.

For anyone with an interest in Austen, Brontë, Eliot and Woolf or their novels, it’s a valuable and intriguing read, containing information not readily available for public consumption.

A Secret Sisterhood is now available in paperback.

*I was gifted this book in exchange for a review, but all words and opinions are my own.
*This post contains affiliate links. 

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