Congratulations to Emily Midorikawa and Emma Claire Sweeney, whose book A Secret Sisterhood: The hidden friendships of Austen, Brontë, Eliot and Woolf was published yesterday by Aurum Press. Emily and Emma wrote a guest post on “The Challenge of Friendship” for “Emma in the Snow,” the blog series I hosted last year for the 200th anniversary of Austen’s Emma, and it’s my pleasure today to share with you their guest post on the friendship between Jane Austen and Anne Sharpe.
On their blog, Something Rhymed, Emily and Emma write about friendships between women writers (including Nora Lefurgey and L.M. Montgomery, Emily Dickinson and Helen Hunt Jackson, and Elizabeth Bishop and Marianne Moore, to name a few), and they often feature guest interviews and blog posts by contemporary women writers. I asked if they’d write about their own friendship as part of this guest post on Austen and Sharpe, and here’s what they had to say:
The two of us met right at the beginning of our writing journeys, during a time when we were still secretive about our fledgling work. In fact, it took us a year before we admitted to each other that we were writing in our spare time. Since then we have helped each other with the many uphill struggles and shared every moment of celebration. This got us to wondering whether our favourite writers of the past had enjoyed the same kind of support. Lots of male duos came to mind: William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley, Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald. But we struggled to come up with many examples of female literary friendship because women who write are often cast as solitary eccentrics or isolated geniuses: Jane Austen cooped away in her country cottage, Charlotte Brontë roaming the moors with only her sisters for company, George Eliot too aloof to need the advice of another woman who wrote, and Virginia Woolf protecting her space at the top. Our own friendship taught us to question these portrayals, and so we set out to discover whether behind each of these great women was another great woman.
I’ve been following Something Rhymed for a long time, and I’m looking forward to reading A Secret Sisterhood.
Here’s the press release for the book:
Male literary friendships are the stuff of legend; think Byron and Shelley, Fitzgerald and Hemingway. But the world’s best-loved female authors are usually portrayed as isolated eccentrics. Emily Midorikawa and Emma Claire Sweeney seek to dispel this myth with a wealth of hidden yet startling collaborations.
A Secret Sisterhood looks at 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.
Through letters and diaries which have never been published before, this fascinating book resurrects these hitherto forgotten stories of female friendships that were sometimes illicit, scandalous and volatile; sometimes supportive, radical or inspiring; but always, until now, tantalisingly consigned to the shadows.
A Secret Sisterhood evolved from the authors’ own friendship. Their blog, Something Rhymed, charts female literary bonds and has been covered in the media and promoted by Margaret Atwood, Sheila Hancock and Kate Mosse, showing that the literary sisterhood is still alive today.
Emma Claire Sweeney has lectured at City University, New York University in London, the Open University and the University of Cambridge. Her work has won Arts Council, Royal Literary Fund and Escalator Awards, and has been shortlisted for several others, including the Asham, Wasafiri and Fish. She writes for newspapers and magazines such as the Guardian, the Independent on Sunday, The Times, and Mslexia. Her debut novel Owl Song at Dawn was published by Legend Press in July 2016. The novel has been shortlisted for the BookHugger Book of the Year Award, and Emma has been named an Amazon Rising Star and a Hive Rising Writer.
Emily Midorikawa lectures at City University and at New York University’s London campus. She has taught at the University of Cambridge and the Open University, as well as writing for the Daily Telegraph, the Independent on Sunday, The Times, Aesthetica and Mslexia. Her memoir ‘The Memory Album’ appeared in Tangled Roots, an Arts Council-sponsored collection that celebrates the stories of mixed-race families. Emily is the winner of the Lucy Cavendish Fiction Prize 2015, and was longlisted for the Mslexia Novel Competition. She was a runner-up in the SI Leeds Literary Prize, judged by Margaret Busby, and the Yeovil Literary Prize, judged by Tracy Chevalier.
And here’s Emma and Emily’s guest post on Austen and Sharpe:
The day we first met occupies an important place in both our memories. It was back in the summer of 2001 and we were among a group of British graduates at a training weekend, preparing for our new posts as English teachers in rural Japan. While Emily remembers feeling an instant connection, Emma couldn’t tell whether we’d come to dislike each other or end up the best of friends.
We feel so grateful that our younger selves took the path that led to friendship, even though we didn’t fully understand what drew us close. Back then, we scarcely admitted our dreams of authorship even to ourselves, but we now look back on this first meeting as the point of departure on a journey that would take us, sixteen years on, to the publication of our first co-written book.
In A Secret Sisterhood we explore the literary friendships of celebrated female writers – relationships that have been consigned to the shadows while the bonds between male writers have hogged the limelight.
We discovered that Charlotte Brontë met her writer friend, the straight-talking Mary Taylor, at a Yorkshire boarding school; George Eliot first encountered Harriet Beecher Stowe by reading the American author’s bestselling works; and Virginia Woolf was introduced to fellow modernist Katherine Mansfield in the Oxfordshire home of a well-known literary hostess. But we struggled to work out when Jane Austen first met the woman who would become her staunch literary ally.
The received wisdom is that Jane met Anne Sharpe, the governess who penned plays in between teaching lessons, during the summer of 1805. They forged their unlikely friendship, so the story goes, inside the walls of Godmersham Park, the abode of Jane’s wealthy brother and Anne’s employer.
But a governess friend named ‘Miss Sharpe’ first crops up in Jane’s correspondence in the spring of that year (21–3 April 1805). Surprisingly, an annotation tucked away at the back of the authoritative edition of Jane Austen’s letters insists that this Miss Sharpe could not possibly be the same woman who taught Jane’s niece – a Miss Sharpe who would feature in Jane’s next surviving letter (24 August 1805), and whose name would litter the rest of Jane’s missives.
The first governess friend of the name “Miss Sharpe” cannot be Anne Sharpe, apparently, because she and Jane could not yet have met. There’s no evidence that Jane had paid a visit to her Kentish relatives during the fifteen months of Anne’s employment. And Anne must have been holed away in Godmersham throughout that time.
But this, in fact, was not the case. The metal-clasped diaries and wax-sealed letters of Jane’s niece Fanny reveal that, during the spring of 1805, her teacher was away from home. These unpublished manuscripts show that Anne’s month-long absence coincides with a time when Jane was moving house.
This was a period ridden with trepidation for the Austen women. The death of Reverend Austen had not only robbed them of an affectionate husband and father, they’d also lost a major source of income. Unable to continue to afford their tenancy of Green Park Buildings, Mrs. Austen and her two daughters removed themselves to poky rented rooms in a busy part of town.
Since Fanny waved off her governess during the week commencing 18 March and Anne didn’t return for almost a month, it seems possible that Edward sent her to assist the Austen women with their move, and that Jane and Anne grew fond of each other far from the watchful eyes of the owners of Godmersham.
If so, this would not have been the first time that Anne had been told to cancel lessons and fit herself around the family’s other plans. She was regularly instructed to work outside the schoolroom: sent to drop off the boys at their boarding schools at the beginning of term and pick them up at its close, and called on at times to chaperone her employer’s guests on their journeys too.
To have been a fly on the wall when Jane and Anne first met, to watch as their relationship transformed from that of employer and employee to a deep bond between two women who wrote.
Both were enduring difficult times during the spring of 1805. Anne suffered persistent headaches and eye problems that must have hampered her attempts at devising plays, and Jane – still unpublished at this stage – had not been able to concentrate on her new novel during the months since her father died.
It’s tempting to imagine that the pair’s shared love of literature sustained them through such difficult times and that their first flicker of friendship brightened each other’s lives.
In the years to come, these women would find all sorts of ways to support each other’s endeavours – Anne offered Jane astute critiques of her novels and Jane acted in one of Anne’s household plays – but, on this occasion, the pair could no sooner have become acquainted than they would have been forced to part ways. Anne had to return to her post at Godmersham and Jane had to endure her shrunken circumstances in Bath.
Jane did see some opportunities in her newfound impoverishment. It offered the perfect excuse to invite her childhood friend Martha Lloyd to join the new household – a plan Jane and her sister had plotted behind the backs of their relatives. Martha’s meagre finances could supplement the Austen women’s funds and her skills as an amateur cook and apothecary would come as welcome indeed. But, more than anything, it was her friendship they held dear.
Friendship was also at the heart of another of Jane’s schemes. That first mention in the surviving letters of a governess called “Miss Sharpe” gives the impression that Jane had been looking for teaching work in Bath on the woman’s behalf. If this governess friend was indeed the Anne Sharpe who taught Jane’s niece, such an endeavour would surely have involved Jane going behind her brother’s back.
This version of events exposes the myth of Jane as a conservative maiden aunt, devoted above all else to kith and kin. Here was a much more rebellious woman, someone prepared to flout social conventions by treating a family servant as an equal; someone ready to show disloyalty to her brother by prioritising the needs of a female friend.
Quotations are from the Oxford edition of Jane Austen’s Letters, edited by Deirdre Le Faye (4th edition, 2011) and details included in this post are drawn from the unpublished letters and diaries of Fanny Knight housed at the Kent History and Library Centre.