Happy New Year! It’s very rare for me to read non-fiction, and I ended the old year AND started the new with a Must Love book for English majors: A Secret Sisterhood: The Literary Friendships of Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, George Eliot, and Virginia Woolf, by Emily Midorikawa and Emma Claire Sweeney, who are themselves a pair of literary friends.
It turns out that, while most biographers have been anxious to establish Austen and Bronte as thoroughly enmeshed in family life, to focus on the scandalous non-marriage of Eliot, and to dismiss Woolf’s relationship with her contemporary Katherine Mansfield as catty rivalry, there is more to each writer’s story. Midorikawa and Sweeney, the creators of a blog that focuses on female literary friendship, cast a new and refreshing light on each writer’s friendship with a fellow woman writer and discuss the ways each writer’s work is influenced by the other.
You have to be quite a Janeite to have heard of Anne Sharp, who worked as a governess for the family of Austen’s wealthy brother, who never published her work, and who ran a successful school for girls. And I imagine I am not alone in having this book introduce me to Mary Taylor, Charlotte Bronte’s school friend, who did publish a novel called Miss Miles and spent most of her life traveling the world.
The other two literary friendships celebrate writers whose names are familiar. George Eliot and Harriet Beecher Stowe were friends by letter through much of their lives. Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield were living and publishing in England at the same time, writing diary entries when they were together and letters when they were not.
I thought this book was terrific: well-researched, well-written, engaging, and accessible. Nothing pleases me more than a book which causes me to understand favorite literary figures and their lives in a new way. So yes, I am very pleased to have read A Secret Sisterhood. Please note that I have not yet used the word “feminist” in this blog entry, but this excellent book satisfies my feelings there as well. A splendid way to span the old year and the new!
If this book whets your appetite for more, please try:
Jane Austen: A Companion by Josephine Ross
Charlotte Bronte: A Fiery Heart by Claire Harman
George Eliot by Jennifer S. Uglow
Virginia Woolf: A Portrait by Viviane Forrester