I am just delighted to be featuring A Secret Sisterhood: The hidden friendships of Austen, Bronte, Eliot and Woolf by Emily Midorikawa and Emma Claire Sweeney.
I have been lucky enough to read Emma Claire Sweeney’s novel Owl Song at Dawn and you can read my review here.
Having taught each of the authors mentioned in A Secret Sisterhood: The hidden friendships of Austen, Bronte, Eliot and Woolf, and I even did my university dissertation on Bronte, I’m ashamed to say I never really considered more about them as women other than the established commentaries provided. Consequently, I’m thrilled to have a guest post from Emma and Emily today that shakes up my complacency and really makes me think.
Published today, 1st June 2017, by Aurum Press, an imprint of the Quarto Group, A Secret Sisterhood: The hidden friendships of Austen, Bronte, Eliot and Woolf is available for purchase in e-book, audio and hardback here.
A Secret Sisterhood
A Secret Sisterhood uncovers the hidden literary friendships of the world’s most respected female authors.
Drawing on letters and diaries, some of which have never been published before, this book will reveal Jane Austen’s bond with a family servant, the amateur playwright Anne Sharp; how Charlotte Brontë was inspired by the daring feminist Mary Taylor; the transatlantic relationship between George Eliot and the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe; and the underlying erotic charge that lit the friendship of Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield – a pair too often dismissed as bitter foes.
In their first book together, Midorikawa and Sweeney resurrect these literary collaborations, which were sometimes illicit, scandalous and volatile; sometimes supportive, radical or inspiring; but always, until now, tantalisingly consigned to the shadows.
Sisterhood in Modern Times
A Guest Post by Emily Midorikawa and Emma Claire Sweeney
We met sixteen years ago, right at the beginning of our writing journeys. On the long road to publication, we have helped each other with all the uphill struggles and shared in each small moment of triumph.
It struck us as strange, therefore, that we knew all about the friendships of male authors like Byron and Shelley or Hemingway and Fitzgerald, but little of the bonds that celebrated female writers from the past might have enjoyed.
Did Jane Austen forge a friendship with another female writer? Was there another woman to whom George Eliot turned to for literary support?
When we began writing A Secret Sisterhood: The hidden friendships of Austen, Brontë, Eliot and Woolf, we set out to answer such questions.
We discovered that Jane Austen benefitted from an unlikely friendship with a family servant, the amateur playwright Anne Sharp; Charlotte Brontë was inspired by the daring feminist Mary Taylor; George Eliot shared her experience of stratospheric literary fame with Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of internationally bestselling anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin; and Virginia Woolf was spurred on to produce her best work by her rivalrous friendship with fellow modernist Katherine Mansfield.
The more we researched the friendships of these great authors of the past, the more we began to wonder why these stories of female solidarity had been written out.
Perhaps a community of creative women was threatening to patriarchal norms, and this led to female writers becoming mythologised as solitary eccentrics or isolated geniuses.
The more we looked into these issues, the more we came to appreciate the importance of literary sisterhood today.
Women may have invented the novel but, in may ways, male voices still dominate our intellectual and cultural lives. The annual VIDA count demonstrates that the most prestigious literary magazines and newspaper books pages in the UK and the US include far fewer bylines and reviews of books by women than by men. The gender pay gap penalizes female writers to an even greater extent than that suffered by women in most other areas of working life. And women are far more likely to boost their earnings by winning prestigious prizes if they write books about men.
This doesn’t just affect the literary world, it impacts on us all. When women’s experiences are not valued as highly as those of men, all our lives are diminished.
Friendships between female writers and readers, we’ve come to realise, aren’t simply pleasant aspects of our lives. They can prove fundamental to making inroads into the persistent inequalities we all face.
Together with the friends we have made during the process of writing A Secret Sisterhood, we have come up with a list of strategies to help us make the most of literary sisterhood today.
- Start with our own bookshelves. Do we read at least as many books by women as men?
- Take a look at the VIDA counts and consider subscribing to those magazines whose statistics show a commitment to gender parity. We might also want to think about cancelling subscriptions to magazines whose statistics have been consistently poor in this regard, and writing to the editor to explain why we’re turning away.
- Encourage our friends to read more diversely.
- Read stories to children that explode gender stereotypes.
- Start with our own writing. Do we explode gender stereotypes in our own work?
- Champion the excellent work of overlooked female writers. We can do this through reviewing, blogging, writing endorsements, nominating for prizes, mentioning fellow authors in talks, holding firm in prize panel negotiations etc.
- Mentor emerging writers who might struggle to get their voices heard.
- Keep submitting our stereotype-exploding work to competitions and magazines.
- Edit a collection of work by writers whose voices are traditionally suppressed.
- Find a project we admire and ask those who run it what we might do to help.
Literary Industry Professionals
- Solicit work from an equal number of men and women.
- Ask our colleagues to be equally accountable.
- Keep reviewing our statistics, and asking how we might seek to improve them.
- Think hard about what we prize in writing, and whether any of this is based on prejudice.
- Is the academic at the highest level of the hierarchy necessarily the best person to write this review? Has privilege contributed to their rise up the ranks?
- Fight for information about pay to be freely available.
- Consider whether a temporary quota might help.
- Ensure that literary events showcase the talents of an equal number of men and women.
- Be brave!
About Emily Midorikawa and Emma Claire Sweeney
Writer friends Emily Midorikawa and Emma Claire Sweeney are the authors of A Secret Sisterhood: The hidden friendships of Austen, Brontë, Eliot and Woolf. They also co-run SomethingRhymed.com, a website that celebrates female literary friendship. They have written for the likes of the Guardian, the Independent on Sunday and The Times. Emily is a winner of the Lucy Cavendish Fiction Prize, Emma is author of the award-winning novel Owl Song at Dawn, and they both teach at New York University London.