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A Secret Sisterhood
The Hidden Friendships of Austen, Bronte, Eliot and Woolf
`In digging up the forgotten friendships chronicled in A Secret Sisterhood, Emily Midorikawa and Emma Claire Sweeney have done much service to literary history.' Margaret Atwood `A Secret Sisterhood will help make women's literary friendships of the past relevant to the present.' Michele Roberts `A Secret Sisterhood offers a clever new perspective on established literary figures.' Tracy Chevalier In their first book together, Midorikawa and Sweeney resurrect four literary collaborations, which were sometimes illicit, scandalous and volatile; sometimes supportive, radical or inspiring; but always, until now, tantalisingly consigned to the shadows. Drawing on letters and diaries, some of which have never been published before, and new documents uncovered during the authors' research, the creative connections explored here reveal: Jane Austen's bond with a family servant, the amateur playwright Anne Sharp; how Charlotte Bronte 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. A Secret Sisterhood uncovers the hidden literary friendships of the world's most respected female authors.
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Women Beware Women is a Jacobean tragedy by Thomas Middleton which has, over the years, seemed to me to reflect societal expectation in how women are expected to treat one another. In a world where the glass ceiling is still very real, women are expected to scrabble over the bodies of their peers in order to achieve career advancement, and tabloid social media wields a steady pressure to take a moral view on other women’s decisions. In real life though, there exists abounding and heartwarming support from a sisterhood that exists in every walk of life. Be it at the school gates, within groups on social media or in the toilets of a town centre pub, women more often than not show their propensity for care and support. Mums, friends, colleagues - other women who smile and say ‘yes - you’re not alone’.
Clearly this was all going on throughout the nineteenth century too, and A Secret Sisterhood is littered with examples of this wholehearted private support amongst women. The difference that concerns the authors in all this is that such deep friendships and support across barriers of class, distance and nationality, was at that time so reluctantly recorded and reported, and even eradicated by the womens’ contemporaries.
What makes the specific bonds that are discussed in this book significant is that they are based on literary support. A field that was not accepted as traditionally ‘feminine’ in the nineteenth century. After all, this is why three of our four authors published their work, at least initially, without revealing their gender.
So it was far more socially acceptable to posthumously destroy much of Jane Austen’s correspondence with her governess friend; to portray Charlotte Bronte as an isolated eccentric who had little to do with the world outside her moorland existence. We find that Harriet Beecher Stowe chose not to publish her correspondence with George Eliot out of sensitivity to the latter’s controversially unmarried relationship with George Henry Lewes. By the time we get to Virginia Woolf in the early twentieth century, times have changed. The world was one in which Virginia was free not only to publish in her own name but to publish her own work on her own printing press. Still, though, history has rewritten her relationship with Katherine Mansfield to be one of bitter rivalry, whereas the evidence and analysis in this book suggests quite the opposite.
Although A Secret Sisterhood is clearly not intellectually light, it is biography that works for the podcast generation. In the same way as a collection of short stories allows a reader to enter a given fantasy world for a limited time, we have here snippets of four lives with which to engage for a brief time. Emily Midorikawa and Emma Claire Sweeney don’t concern us too much with the early years of our four authors, nor do they take pains to squeeze in any unrelated parts of the womens’ history, and the book is stronger because of this. The structure is focused, in three chapters per woman, on one specific relationship that existed for each of them and how this informs, delivers and changes their literary lives.
This focus does assume a certain background knowledge of each author, and having this certainly helps with picking up the threads of where events sit in a wider narrative. However, it is not vital in order to enjoy the book. The concise structure makes A Secret Sisterhood accessible and readable, no matter how well you already know the women involved. More importantly, it works as an allegory of supportive female relationships, be they great or small. Of contradictory feelings of sympathy and jealousy. Of how human connections have the power to enrich not just the literati, but every one of us.
'This is such an uplifting book and one that I enjoyed immensely. If you love to read novels by these four literary heroines, and are interested in literary history, then this book will really appeal to you. In fact, for anyone interested in literature, or for those who just fancy an absorbing non-fiction read, then you really will enjoy this wonderful treat of a book.' * Brew and Books Review * 'A Secret Sisterhood allowed me to walk alongside these famous writers, imagining their thoughts and feelings, sensing the pressure of the cobbles beneath their feet. A Secret Sisterhood is an earnest manifesto for female literary friendship, using the past to remind us that women writers are still fighting to be taken as seriously as their male counterparts and one way to win that fight is to work together.' * Byte the Book * The book is well-written and curated, turning historical documents into something between recreation and critique...A Secret Sisterhood is an engaging look at the little written about female friendships of significant women writers. It's a delight to see women as the focus of this type of work; here's hoping there's a sequel!' * The Writes of Woman * 'The amount of research which has gone into this book is more than impressive, with the authors not only drawing on diaries and letters of the day, but also uncovering new documents never before seen. The reader is invited to share the secrets of their lives and we certainly don't expect what is revealed. The result is a warm and surprising depiction of close and, in some cases, unlikely friendships between these extraordinary women. This book is a joy to read' * Breakaway Reviewers *