I am a frustrated writer, but Twitter is a great place for literary friendships to flourish- the amount of support is amazing. However, the world of literature was not always such a welcoming place, especially for women. This book looks at the relationships forged by some of our most important female authors and the friends (or frenemies) that encouraged and spurred them on: Jane Austen and her friend, the governess Ann Sharpe; Charlotte Bronte and her formidable school friend, Mary Taylor; George Eliot and the American author Harriet Beecher Stowe; and Virginia Woolf and her friendship/famous rivalry with Katherine Mansfield.
The book is a brilliant idea, and one that stems from its two authors’ own friendships and frustrations. I came away wanting to read the novels and stories of its subjects (my grandma, a Woolf and Mansfield devotee, was delighted and sent me a copy of Mansfield’s short stories as a result) and admiring the grit of the women involved. Even if you know about some of the subjects, there will be stuff here that surprises you- the research has been incredibly thorough, with some surprising discoveries. As a Bronte fan, I was especially taken with Charlotte’s feisty and progressive friend Mary, who was ahead of her time in a lot of ways- a complete contrast to Charlotte herself (to be honest, Charlotte needed someone to curb her occasional pomposity and maddening prissiness at times. Mary was apparently the one to do it.)
There were also frustrations. I wanted to tear my hair out every time poor Ann Sharp was referred to as a frustrated or amateur playwright, for example. It may be a personal thing, but it drives me absolutely mad when phrases are repeated close together in a book (I blame it on the hypersensitivity that comes with being an English teacher for so long!) It’s a fairly minor thing, but one that did have an effect on me.
However, overall, it’s an interesting and worthwhile book to read that, I imagine, could be the launchpad to discovering more about these interesting women and their work.